Tennyson’s great poem Ulysses imagines an aged Odysseus, home from Troy at last, reflecting on mortality and glory. At one point the hero pays tribute to his heir Telemachus, expressing his confidence that his son will “pay meet adoration to my household gods/When I am gone”. That is to say, the young man will continue in the tradition of his fathers. The hope is not that Telemachus will simply imitate his father in every respect — “He works his work, I mine” notes Odysseus — but that he will value the same things, honour the same virtues, love the same place.
What father of a son would disagree? And it’s not just fathers and sons. Most people want their children to develop the same sort of loyalties, beliefs and attachments that they themselves consider important. Of course, life doesn’t always turn out that way. One thing I have realised as I get older, and have ever more experience of a wider range of people, is that my contented, relaxed upbringing in a cheerful home overseen by happily-married parents was quite a bit rarer than I had once imagined. I have always felt that I owe my parents a great debt of gratitude.
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What exactly do we owe our families? It’s a thorny question, not least at this time of year when many people are visiting family, and girding their loins for a big row about Brexit, or Boris, or Extinction Rebellion. Recent years have seen the emergence of a genre of article that encourages people to pick fights with their families at the dinner table (in the US, at Thanksgiving as well as Christmas).
One widely circulated tweet this year contained a picture of a T-shirt that a woman was planning to wear to Thanksgiving dinner, declaring her support for abortion rights, transgender rights, gay marriage and the rest of the progressive sacraments. Presumably the plan was to throw these beliefs in the faces of her backward, bigoted relatives, and storm away from the table basking in the warm glow of self-righteous satisfaction. Another was from an academic who quite openly scorned and mocked the idea that he should feel any kind of affinity or attachment to his relations just because they shared some DNA.
I have no idea whether this social media fad means anything in the real world. Are thousands of angry students and young people really heading home for the holidays determined to harangue their families for their insufficiently progressive political views? It’s anyone’s guess. Anecdotally, it seems fairly common for young people who are well-educated, or who have at least been through university-level education (not quite the same thing these days), to have a kind of performative disdain for their parents’ views, especially if those parents are from the dreaded suburbia.
It’s hard to deny that the dominant stories in our culture encourage dissatisfaction with, and suspicion of, home and community. From sex education to pop music to children’s TV and cinema, the message is clear: to find happiness and contentment, you must break away from the world into which you were born, and from the people who raised you, and seek your “real self”.
The foundation to this way of thinking is a form of hard liberalism, wherein the only attachments and obligations by which we are truly bound are those which we freely, and continually, choose for ourselves. If we don’t see eye to eye with our parents, if they’re not providing us with the requisite affirmation of all our choices or the appropriate number of hedonic units, then we should shut them out of our lives in favour of people whose company and politics we find more congenial.
If your interest in your wife has waned now that you have a bright and bubbly young secretary, don’t you have a right — a responsibility, even! — to pursue your own happiness, regardless of all those boring old vows you made twenty years ago? This hard liberalism is also increasingly applied to the concept of the nation-state: patriotism both as source of pride and as source of obligation is simply unintelligible where all moral and political choices are assessed through the prism of the individual and his currently existing desires and preferences.
There is, of course, another extreme, an over-emphasis on family loyalty to the exclusion of all else. Some years ago I read a fascinating short book arguing that one reason why the creation of stable modern states in the Arab world has been so difficult is that the traditional culture in that part of the world retains a strong focus on the clan or tribe, rather than any broader grouping. You cannot build a liberal democracy with the rule of law if people do not feel a strong primary loyalty to the nation, and feel able to trust outsiders. A world with an absolute and unqualified duty of loyalty and deference to your family would be unbearable.
Nevertheless, it is worth resisting the assumptions embedded in the view that it is generally praiseworthy or admirable to adopt a stance of disdain and superiority towards one’s family and community.
For one thing, the family should be a shelter from the political. The non-political way of life includes associations and interactions that are maintained not from above but by voluntary co-operation. It’s about maintaining customs, traditions and institutions — such as the family — whose normal operation is in a fundamental way beyond the reach of organised compulsion by the state. It’s about organisations that are ends in themselves rather than vehicles for some other goal, i.e. the point of a chess club is for people who like chess to get together to play chess, not to promote equality or capitalism or membership of the European Union.
The non-ideological view of life is an essentially humanist one, because it sees people and their situations as standing alone to be considered on their own terms, rather than being slotted into a neat pre-existing box. It is the basis of authentic pluralism, because it enables us to carve out room for minorities and dissenters. In some ways the family is the archetypal non-political institution, and to only value your family insofar as they are politically congenial to you is to miss the point.
To cultivate a positive stance towards your family also helps to develop two of the great virtues: humility and gratitude. A key part of humility is entertaining the possibility that you have something to learn — perhaps a great deal — from most people you meet, even perhaps your dreadful conservative dad. Gratitude is about taking seriously the things which other people have done for you; the sacrifices they have made, the security they have created, the help they have given. Both humility and gratitude are ways of breaking free of resentment, which is one of the most corrosive poisons in human affairs, whether at the level of individuals or in politics.
I don’t want to idealise family. I wouldn’t deny for one moment that many people are quite justified in their anger at, or suspicion of, theirs. Families are, after all, made of human beings, those strange, fallible, infuriating creatures.
But I suspect that many more people have poor relationships with their families because they have disordered priorities, or a mistaken idea of the relative importance of politics. Many seem to have swallowed whole our culture’s obsession with self-actualisation and its hostility to what you might call bourgeois normality; that is to say, the widespread view — often expressed indirectly — that there is something pitiable and inadequate about living quietly and honestly in a small-scale way and attending to the particular and the local.
This is, of course, quite false and damaging. But I fear that many people only realise its falsehood when the opportunity to repair the damage is long past. Cherish your family over this Christmas period; sometimes you don’t appreciate good things until they’ve gone, and it’s too late.