NL XXIII: The Family As a Society

Index to this series

Executive summary (added September 11, 2018):

The society at the nucleus of the family is temporary, ending with the death of one of the two members.
The family has a life-cycle, with three phases: (1) before children; (2) after children, but before they have free will; (3) after the children have free will.
The community consisting of husband and wife is now a society. It was not a society when a marriage was arranged by the groom or the groom’s father and the father of the bride. The non-social aspect of a marriage survives in the custom of formally “giving away” the bride.
If today a bride and groom do not quite recognize themselves as forming a society, they may come to do so in time.
Contraception helps clarify that a marriage is normally for the sake of having children.
In order to grow up and leave the nursery, the child must be educated. The work of this is both the child’s and its teachers’. Parents must also allow the child to leave the nursery and join their society.
There are three possible needs, and they are distinct: (1) to have a baby, (2) to have a child, (3) to have a grown-up child.
Any of those three needs is fulfilled by an act of will; there is no parental “instinct”—not a scientific term anyway, though it is used popularly for an appetite or desire.
Born without free will, we are not born in chains either, since this would mean suppression of a will that didn’t exist.

The last chapter was called “The Family As a Mixed Community,” because the family consists of both a society and a non-social part, called the nursery. Now we are looking at “The Family As a Society.” We are not in contradiction, but are in the flux that Heraclitus observed in all existence (24. 62). The inmates of the nursery normally grow and join the society of their parents: the family as a whole is a society in this sense.

Altınova bazaar, Wednesday, September 13, 2017

If the child is to join the society of its parents, an act of will on both sides is required. This is a key idea of the chapter, one to be carried on to considerations of the state. Collingwood talks a lot about the implications of contraception for the family. He seems to find the practice distasteful; but the possibility of the practice is a boon to freedom, for making us think about things.


The nucleus of the family is the society consisting of a married couple. They may have married for companionship (23. 15), or for the purpose of jointly producing children (23. 14); but in either case, as was said at the end of Chapter XXI, the society of the married couple is a temporary society, to expire with the first partner (23. 19).

Christians who expect to be resurrected are reminded that, “when they rise they neither marry nor are given in marriage”; Collingwood may expect you to recognize this as coming from Mark 12:25. The Sadducees, who disbelieve in resurrection, have asked about a woman who married each of seven brothers in turn, according to the law (in Deuteronomy 25:5) that, when a man died without issue, his brother should marry the widow. Whose wife would she be after death? Answer: none. Also, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exodus 3:6) is the God of the living; therefore the Patriarchs must have been resurrected.

Jesus taught the impermanence of the family in order to solve a theological problem. Collingwood’s concern is life on earth. In considering the previous chapter, I said Collingwood studied the family in order to understand the state. There is an analogy between the two; but an important difference is that (in answer to the question I raised concerning Chapter XXI) the state is a permanent society (25. 38). The state has existed as long as free humans beings, despite claims of Italian Fascists and German Nazis that their states are younger and more vigorous than the senile states of France and England (25. 36). The state will exist as long as human beings, despite the millenial prediction of Marx that it will wither away (25. 33). We may consider objections when we get to Chapter XXV.


In contrast with the state then, the family has a life cycle. First there is the married couple alone, children not even conceived (23. 22); then there are children, too young to join in the work of the family (23. 23); finally, the children become able to do this work (23. 24), because they have come to have free will (23. 28).

Let us recall from Chapter XIII that determining whether we have free will is a pseudo-problem. It is nonetheless a problem that amateur and professional philosophers continue to try to solve; I then continue to wonder whether their efforts can be better directed. As Collingwood will observe at the end of the present chapter, we were not born with free will. I might ask skeptics what has happened to them since birth. What do they want to happen to their children?


In modern Europe, physically adult men and women are normally considered mentally adult enough to enter into a marriage contract (23. 32). In Rome, they were not so considered, but a marriage was a contract between the bride’s father and either the groom, if his father was dead, or else the groom’s father (23. 33).

The two understandings of human psychology just described are not necessarily in contradiction (23. 38), since they involve human beings educated in different ways (23. 37). Collingwood mentions only women in this context, in what might be a feminist spirit.

23. 35. The days of Roman respect for women, the days of the honoured and virtuous Roman matron, were days when a woman at marriage passed from one man’s hand to another, her own consent being no more necessary to the transaction than a cow’s consent is necessary to the transaction whereby one man sells her to another.

We should consider also the man who is not a paterfamilias (23. 33). In writing of Book IV of the Iliad (in the second of the current spate of articles written at the beach), I had reason to quote from the tweet of Matt Walsh at 7:43 AM, 28 Aug 2017; the full text is,

Woman cradles and protects child. Man carries and protects both. This is how it ought to be, despite what your gender studies professor says

When does boy become man? Can he become a real man as long as his father is alive? How many young conservatives have the full support of their parents, or at least their fathers, in what they do, and how many think this support is a necessary condition on their work? Walsh’s Twitter profile says, “Columnist for TheBlaze, writer, speaker, father of three, alpaca grooming expert, author of The Unholy Trinity.” No mention of a spouse or parents. The author bio page for his book says only, “Matt Walsh is a writer, speaker, and one of the religious Right’s most influential young voices. His columns on TheBlaze are read by millions of people.”

The Roman view of marriage survives in the formalism of “giving away” the bride at a wedding (23. 39). Collingwood calls this a “survival,” in quotation marks. The term seems to be due to Edward Tylor, whom Collingwood goes on to mention. The Wikipedia article just linked to suggests that Tylor had no good explanation for survivals. Collingwood has, though his style suggests irony.

If a ritual practised by certain persons expresses a certain belief, it is evidence that the belief is alive. A second belief inconsistent with it may be alive too; why not? Many people hold beliefs which are inconsistent; and in Tylor’s day (Primitive Culture was published in 1871) it was not known that repressed beliefs found an outlet in ritual acts; but everyone knows it now.


Collingwood develops the thought.

23. 4. Modern Europeans, with the top of their minds, conceive a marriage as a contract between a man and a woman; but at the bottom of their minds they are not so sure; they are haunted by an idea which in their saner moments they know to be savage, the idea that it is the transference of a chattel from one owner to another.

This is not alarming (23. 41), since, as was said in Chapter XXI, “every particular society has about it a trace of the non-social community out of which it has emerged” (23. 42). Collingwood presents this as a quotation from 21. 5, though the text there now reads, “no actual society can ever lose all trace…” This was the explanation for why no actual society could be the universal society. It was more like a dogmatic assertion; but I did try to sketch reasons for it.

23. 46. Freedom is always a matter of degree (21. 8). A man can only progress in freedom by gradual stages; converting into objects of choice things he began by accepting at the hands of force majeure.

This sounds as if it could be worked into a response to those persons, calling themselves Libertarians, who say taxation is theft. It may start out that way, in the immature mind, as a marriage may start out as if imposed by shotgun.

23. 47. Because a marriage was partly due to the force which marks the traces of a non-social community, it does not follow that these traces cannot be progressively eliminated by the growth of freedom. A marriage that is at first something less than a contract becomes more and more of a contract as the husband and wife, leaving behind them the partly childish frame of mind in which they originally embarked upon it, face its responsibilities in a spirit of progressive freedom. That is what we call making a success of the marriage.


The aim of my marriage in Ankara, seventeen years ago, was convenience in extending my visa, since I did not yet have the work permit that is now my legal basis for living in Turkey. By Collingwood’s account, the normal aim of a modern European marriage is the propagation of children (23. 5). As I suggested in considering the last chapter,

23. 56. This is the result of widespread knowledge concerning contraception. It has produced in my lifetime, within social strata well known to myself, a virtual abolition of what in my youth was the standard or ordinary attitude towards marriage and a substitution of the opposite attitude.

The previous attitude was “that the normal aim of marriage was the gratification of sexual desire, and that the procreation of children was normally an accidental by-product of this” (23. 51). Now, with contraception, people have to decide why they are getting married (23. 55). I don’t know how much people think about it though. I don’t suppose they would admit to getting married for the sake of getting presents, money, and attention; and yet I infer from reading advice columns that this is a common marital aim.

Contraception is an advance in freedom. Conservatives may object that freedom is different from license. Collingwood recognizes the distinction.

23. 52. Nowadays, owing to the knowledge of contraceptives, there is a large body of persons who only have children when they do so by their own free will; and anyone acquainted with such persons distinguishes among them couples who regard marriage as an occasion for the procreation of children from couples who regard it as a licence for sexual gratification.

Collingwood continues presently with similar language.

23. 55. When contraceptives were unknown, married people did not have to make up their minds whether they thought of marriage as an opportunity for sexual indulgence, with children as a possible by-product, or as primarily a partnership in the procreation of children. About the beginning of the present century, when my elders began discussing this question with me, it was plain that in general they had not made up their minds between the two views, but were inclined towards the first. Now people have to make up their minds.

There may be two (or more) possible views of marriage:

  1. It is for sex.
  2. It is for children.

What Collingwood’s elders had probably not made up their minds on was which of two doctrines to emphasize:

  1. If you want sex, you must get married.
  2. The real purpose of marriage is to have children.

The doctrines would seem not to be incompatible.


Children do not automatically grow up and leave the nursery; they must be educated (23. 62). The work of education belongs both to the children themselves and to their teachers (who may be the parents). The child’s work is blind, but efficacious, “as all self-education is efficacious”; the teachers’ work, not blind, but less efficacious (23. 63). I have tried to articulate this view, or some part of this view, or a view compatible with this, in such articles as “All You Need Is Love” (written no doubt under the influence of previous readings of Collingwood). It is too simple, or even contradictory, to say with Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that one should go to school only when one has learned for oneself the value of school. Perhaps one does need a school where one can trust the teachers to have something worth learning.

In order to graduate from the so-called nursery, education is necessary, but not sufficient. Parents must welcome their children into the family society proper (23. 64). They may be reluctant to do this (23. 66). They have already cherished their children as such. That this is possible is seen in families that have what Collingwood calls idiot children (23. 67). Such children are loved as much as any child. I see such children on the beach here: physically adult, they are mentally not, and their parents coax them into the water to play with them.

Altınova 2017.09.05

Families also acquire and love their pets, while knowing that they will never grow up (23. 66). We shall have more to say about idiots and pets in the next section.


Contraception makes us distinguish sex from reproduction. There may be an “instinct” for sex (stay tuned); is there one for reproduction (23. 7)?

An instinct for reproduction would be an instinct to produce persons like oneself (23. 71). Three distinct “needs” are confused:

  1. To conceive, beget, or bear children (23. 72);
  2. to care for children (23. 73);
  3. to raise them to adulthood (23. 75).

Each of these can be pursued separately. Collingwood is not clear on how the first can be independently pursued; I would suggest an example that I recall from Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique. American housewives who already had children, but still felt something missing from their lives, could imagine filling the void by having another child. They may well have been wrong, but still they recognized that having a baby was different from caring for a child and might be desirable in itself.

Some men would seem to delight in begetting children, without having any interest in caring for them or raising them. This delight would seem to be common enough that it could be atttributed to two different Seinfeld characters, in two different episodes: “The Fix-Up” and “The Chinese Woman.”

We have already seen that children can valued independently of any possibility of raising them to adulthood.

23. 73. …A man or woman wants to have something which occupies the position of his [sic] child; something to look after and care for, something whose development he not only watches with interest but actively promotes; something (I will add) to bully and browbeat without a chance of its hitting back, something absolutely dependent upon him, looking up to him with adoration as its only benefactor and trembling before him as its all-powerful despot.

If Collingwood seems contemptuous of the person who wants only a child as such, he amplifies that seeming with the irony of the next paragraph. There may be a sentimental reader who

23. 74.…does not want to bully and browbeat and tyrannize over his children or the dogs which take their place. I congratulate him.

If we just want to complete the job of creating adults, we can be university teachers like Collingwood, “stealing for [ourselves] what their parents ought by rights to have” (23. 77). Collingwood has a curious prejudice.

23. 78. There is something distasteful about that, sweet though the stolen waters are; just as there is something distasteful about lavishing one’s ‘parental instincts’ upon a dog or an idiot child or even an adopted child; and for that matter something distasteful about gratifying one’s sexual desire for a woman without becoming the father of her children. Sex and the three forms of paternity are all linked together in a man’s consciousness in such a way that to separate anyone from the rest offends him.

Is there something distasteful about taking one’s bride away from her family? People do have odd ideas about adoption, as I learned for example at a family reunion in 1987, when a second or third cousin was jawing away with my mother, and she noticed I wasn’t talking. She turned to me and asked, “What’s the matter with you, you adopted or something?” She was mortified when I smiled and said, “As a matter of fact…” It might be mentioned that my mother had only married into the family; she attended the reunion for her own pleasure when her former husband didn’t.

Collingwood does grant that we cannot all have everything. “Half a loaf is better than no bread; and the loaf of parenthood is divisible into many slices” (23. 79).


Strictly speaking, instinct is not a scientific term. “It properly means anything that is implanted in a man; properly, therefore, it is a wholly unscientific omnibus-word for any element in ‘human nature’ ” (23. 81). Human nature is imaginary (23. 91). The word instinct may be used popularly for appetites or desires (23. 82). There is sexual appetite, growing with consciousness into sexual desire. If you don’t think this is different from wanting children, you will think it, “if and when those who threaten us with ectogenesis have made good their threats” (23. 83).

Parenthood is not desired, but willed (23. 85). Contraception shows this, thus enlarging the scope of human freedom, as I mentioned in considering the previous chapter. Like the condom and the diaphragm, the artificial womb might be counted as a boon to freedom; however, its use might also be required by law to bring an unwanted pregnancy to term.


Pace Rousseau (23. 9), man is born neither free nor in chains (23. 93). Rousseau said men everywhere (and not just babies) were in chains; but one would have to be free first, before being in chains. One is not born free (23. 94), but one may become free.

23. 96. A man is born a red and wrinkled lump of flesh having no will of its own at all, absolutely at the mercy of the parents by whose conspiracy he has been brought into existence.

This is the key. The infant has no will. We do. How did that happen?

The fisher makes a sale, Altınova, 2017.09.08

One Comment

  1. Posted September 21, 2017 at 8:19 am | Permalink | Reply

    From R. R. Reno, ”The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism,” as quoted by Rod Dreher:

    Retro figures such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn gain traction, not because voters believe in socialism, but because they intuit that they cannot live in a world of pure dynamism and openness. We are drowning in freedom. To a degree unprecedented in human history, super-majorities in the West experience few impediments to earning and accumulating wealth—other than those they (or their parents) impose by ill-considered uses of their freedom (which turn out to be significant, often insuperable impediments). Age-old expectations of marriage and children have become choices. We can even choose to become male or female. In this context, voting for a “socialist” does not mean signaling a return of Marxism. It reflects the fact that, thirty years after the end of communism, some voters haltingly recognize that our freedom must be directed toward enduring ends if it is to serve something higher than itself. And in our age, which has taken economics to be the key to almost everything, that intuition naturally comes into focus with calls for limits on economic freedom.

4 Trackbacks

  1. […] have already said in Chapter XXI that any society may retain non-social elements (24.22), and in Chapter XXIII we have seen the example of giving a way the bride in the European or at least English ceremony of […]

  2. By NL XXV: The Three Laws of Politics « Polytropy on September 28, 2017 at 10:48 am

    […] when, in Genesis 2:7, God forms us of the dust of the ground. As Collingwood observes at the end of Chapter XXIII, “The Family As a Society,” we are born neither free nor in chains. We have to grow up. […]

  3. By On Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad, Book IX « Polytropy on November 15, 2017 at 6:29 am

    […] hear our pleas. Nonetheless, Phoenix persists, with an obscure tale. As Collingwood reminds us in Chapter XXIII of the New Leviathan, we are born neither free nor in chains, […]

  4. By NL XXII: The Family As a Mixed Community « Polytropy on September 10, 2018 at 5:32 pm

    […] Chapter XXIII will discuss as well how the nursery is not strictly self-emptying. If children are to graduate from the nursery into the social part of the family, action by that part is needed (23. 64). This action can be performed, though it may not always be; thus the social part of the family may consist of more than the parents. They will be described as the nucleus of the family (23. 1). […]

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