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Family as a model for the state

The family as a model for the organization of the state is a theory in political philosophy. It either explains the structure of certain kinds of state in terms of the structure of the family (as a model or as a claim about the historical growth of the state), or it attempts to justify certain types of state by appeal to the structure of the family. The first writer to use it (certainly in any clear and developed way) was Aristotle, who argued that tthe natural progression of human beings was from the family via small communities to the polis.

Many writers from ancient times to the present have seen parallels between the family and the forms of the state. In particular, monarchists have argued that the state mirrors the patriarchal family, with the people obeying the king as children obey their father.


Ancient thought

The family–state model was first expressed in ancient times, often as a form of justification for aristocratic rule.

Plutarch records a laconic saying of the Dorians attributed to Lycurgus. Asked why he didn't establish a democracy in the Lacedæmon, Lycurgus responded: “Begin, friend, and set it up in your family”. The Dorians of Crete and Sparta seemed to mirror the family institution and organization in their form of government. (see Plutarch's The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans — Lycurgus, p.65)

Aristotle often describes personal and domestic relationships in terms of different forms of government. He gives examples such as men and their domestic animals, wives, slaves, and children. He says, for example: “the government of a household is a monarchy, since every house is governed by a single ruler”.(2) Later in the same text he says that husbands exercise a republican government over their wives and monarchical government over their children, and that they exhibit political office over slaves and royal office over the family in general. (Politics Bk I, §v, 1–2; 1259a 35–1259b 1)

However, while he is prepared to use political terms as metaphors for domestic relationships, he is equally clear that such metaphors are limited:

“Some thinkers, however, suppose that statesman, king, estate manager, and master of a family have a common chracter. This is a mistake; they think that the distinction between them is not a difference in kind, but a simple, numerical difference.” (Politics Bk I, §i)

After discussing the various domestic relationships, he concludes: “mastership and statesmanship are not identical, nor are all forms of power the same, as some thinkers suppose.” (Politics Bk I, §vi)

Aristotle's main notion is that the ancient Greek polis or city-state is the natural end of human beings; they start in family groups, progress naturally to forming villages, and finally come together in cities. Thus the family forms the root of human relationships, but the city is the flower.

Arius Didymus in Stobaeus, 1st century CE, writes: “A primary kind of association (politeia) is the legal union of a man and woman for begetting children and for sharing life.” From the collection of households a village is formed and from villages a city, “[s]o just as the household yields for the city the seeds of its formation, thus it yields the constitution (politeia)”. Further, he claims: “Connected with the house is a pattern of monarchy, of aristocracy and of democracy. The relationship of parents to children is monarchic, of husbands to wives aristocratic, of children to one another democratic.” (Hellenistic Commentary to the New Testament, edd Boring, Berger, & Colpe)

Of course, the structure of the family in ancient times was generally far more hierarchical – and patriarchal – than today.

Modern thought

Louis de Bonald wrote as if the family were a miniature state. In his analysis of the family relationships of father, mother and child, De Bonald related these to the functions of a state: the father is the power, the mother is the minister and the child as subject. As the father is “active and strong” and the child is “passive or weak”, the mother is the “median term between the two extremes of this continuous proportion”. De Bonald justified his analysis by quoting and interpreting passages from the Bible:

“[It] calls man the reason, the head, the power of woman: Vir caput est mulieris {man is head of woman} says St Paul. It calls woman the helper or minister of man: ‘Let us make man,’ says Genesis, ‘a helper similar to him.’ It calls the child a subject, since it tells it, in a thousand places, to obey its parents”. (On Divorce pp 44–46)

De Bonald also sees divorce as the first stage of disorder in the state (the principle of macrocosm/microcosm). He insists that the deconstitution of the family brings about the deconstitution of state, with “The Kyklos” not far behind. (On Divorce, pp 88–89; 149.)

Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn draws a connection between the family and monarchy:

“Due to its inherent patriarchalism, monarchy fits organically into the ecclesiastic and familistic pattern of a Christian society. (Compare the teaching of Pope Leo XIII: 'Likewise the powers of fathers of families preseves expressly a certain image and form of the authority which is in God, from which all paternity in heaven and earth receives its name — Eph 3.15') The relationship between the King as 'father of the fatherland' and the people is one of mutual love”. (Liberty or Equality, p.155)

Politics and the family

In her book, Delacroix, Art and Patrimony in Post-Revolutionary France, Elisabeth Fraser analyses Eugène Delacroix's famous “Massacres of Chios” (1824), which helped galvanise philo-Hellenism in France. Delacroix's symbol for the oppressed Greek nation is a family employed as conceptual and visual structuring device. A reviewer encapsulated Fraser's argument:

“Equating patriarchal family metaphor with government paternalism and imperialist protectionism, the chapter argues that such familial intimations, heightened by acute emotionalism and hints of a Western culture soiled by Eastern penetration, corresponded to and reflected a paternalistic government urge to protect the victimized Greeks, a thinly veiled justification for French colonial intervention in the Mediterranean.” Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmyer

More recently, George Lakoff has claimed that the left/right distinction in politics comes from a difference between ideals of the family in the mind of the person in question; for right-wing people, the ideal is a patriarchial and moralistic family; for left-wing people, the ideal is an unconditionally loving family. As a result, Lakoff argues, both sides find each other's views not only immoral, but incomprehensible, since they appear to violate each side's deeply held beliefs about personal morality in the sphere of the family.[1].

Such a model is not a recent addition to modern discourse; J. Vernon Jenson discussed “British Voices on the Eve of the American Revolution: Trapped by the Family Metaphor” in the Quarterly Journal of Speech 63 (1977), pp 43–50.

The idea of the commonwealth as a family is close to cliché; it permeates political discourse at every level:

“There is an historic American National Family metaphor .. That American National Family frame is like any real extended family-fractious but in the end functional. There are people in it who aren't just like you, but they are still family and we still have to try to solve our problems together, despite our differences.” — Susan C. Strong, Our 'One Big Family' Frame

See also:


  • Aristotle Politics (Loeb Classical Library)
  • Louis de Bonald On Divorce trans. Nicholas Davidson (1993, New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers)
  • M. Eugene Boring, Klaus Berger, & Carsten Colpe [edd] Hellenistic Commentary to the New Testament (1995, Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press)
  • Elisabeth Fraser Delacroix, Art and Patrimony in Post-Revolutionary France (2004, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
  • von Kuehnelt-Leddihn Liberty or Equality
  • George Lakoff What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don't ISBN 0226467961
  • Plutarch The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans trans. John Dryden and revised by Arthur Hugh Clough (The Modern Library: div. of Random House)
Last updated: 05-29-2005 20:06:49
Last updated: 10-29-2005 02:13:46