For a long time I thought of myself, or rather the individual, as the basis of society. Like pixels on a screen make an image individuals en masse make a society. I didn’t really think the church had a great deal to say on this matter, to my mind it was something so basic that it went unchallenged. God made the Man alone in the beginning and we all ultimately live and die alone before God. Yet whilst God did make the Man alone, this wasn’t good, it only became so when out of his side God made Woman.
It is in the dynamics that emerge between husband and wife that I am now beginning to believe form the basis of society. It is the first point in which the interior world of the individual moves beyond itself and engages with the interior world of another at its most comprehensive degree. The world of ideas becomes incarnated in the physical interactions of a husband and wife, more so, it is the most basic unit that is self-perpetuating. The presence of children ensures this society continues and the means by which they are raised communicate what is collectively held of value and importance. In fact the catechism of the Catholic church describes the family as.
The family is the original cell of social life. It is the natural society in which husband and wife are called to give themselves in love and in the gift of life. Authority, stability, and a life of relationships within the family constitute the foundations for freedom, security, and fraternity within society. The family is the community in which, from childhood, one can learn moral values, begin to honour God, and make good use of freedom. Family life is an initiation into life in society.
Catechism of the Catholic Church #2207
An individual in their interactions with others may form something approximating society yet it is not self-sustaining. Nor does it hold the special intimacy found between husband and wife, parent and child. If we boiled everything back and some tragedy struck England it is the family through which everything begins again. What the parents pass on to their children defines the shape of the subsequent society.
Looking at the issue from another perspective, we have the individual and we have contemporary society-at-large, a family of families. The individual alone, something only possible more recently, is subject to the values and expectations of the society they find themselves in. The family is the most basic institution where the individual might flourish and work out there own vision of the world, to create their own culture. As a result the family can be the foundation of resistance, it stands between the individual and overbearing external authorities. It creates space for new culture to emerge. Just as it is the most basic unit of society, a healthy family enriches even the largest society. To lose the family is a loss of the bedrock of individual liberty. Other institutions; formal societies, guilds, religious institutions, unions, orders, organisations and corporations do this too but none in quite such a foundational way as the family. The extent to which these groups facilitate the family or oppose it collectively determines the ultimate flourishing of the individual in any given society. Likewise these things can lead to the flourishing of the family and help unite separate families together to form the bonds that make increasingly large scale societies successful. This is why the assault on these institutions, ultimately all rooted in the family, is the hallmark of authoritarians who seek to impose their own will upon a mass of individuals.
When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world we have not made. In other words, when we step into the family we step into a fairy-tale
G.K Chesterton, Heretics
On the subject of the individual, Charles Taylor in his work A Secular Age highlights the shift in where we find meaning as integral to the rise of the individual as a form of ‘buffered self’. Prior to secularisation we found meaning inherent in the world around us but the secular mind places it as something generated within the mind. With the shift in posture from an communal self to a individualist self it follows that our association with any institution or external influence is progressively questioned and negotiated. Does this now mean that society is found in the mind of the individual? So if the family was once the basis of society, has it now become the individual? Can the basis shift?
Yet for the buffered self, if meaning is generated within the mind, can one mind reach out and genuinely touch another? Or is it simply giving itself the impression that such a thing is occurring? For the buffered self its a subject always open to debate, a lingering doubt. Could such a private mind be driven to create a sustainable society? Its more reasonable that the buffered self can inherit a society, rather than found one. Yet even then its inherent doubt will over time contribute to the renegotiation of public institutions to the point in which they cease to exist in any ‘meaningful’ sense. Even the language used in such a setting becomes increasingly contentious as people can no longer agree over the very meaning of words. During such times a society either eventually becomes possessed by more robust visions of society or it becomes increasingly authoritarian in an effort to maintain current social arrangements. Something I think we are seeing in the West.
Considerations of the individual aside it does nothing to address the inherent creative nature of the family. The individual will expire, family will not but instead changes over time, children becoming parents who give rise to their own children. The individuals can transmit beliefs but if they have no vision for the family it cannot be considered sustainable.
The individual is often put forward for the basis of society as opposed to that of the family. However I would contend that the individual is most enabled when emerging from the context of the family. As a result the healthy society is only guaranteed by, among other things, the promotion of the family as its most basic constituent unit. From this individuals are taught a vision of the world and find, in the words of the catechism above ‘initiation into life in society’. That life might take the form of meaningful work and participation in organisations that reach across families as necessary and form nations. Yet we should never forget it all started with the union of a husband and wife.