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Joseph Pearce

Joseph Pearce is Senior Editor at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review and the author of books on Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton and other Christian literary figures.


Writing for Faith & Culture

We welcome the submission of articles of between 600 and 1,500 words on topics related to Catholic faith and culture. Articles should be emailed as Word attachments to Joseph Pearce.

Defending the Triangle

Defending the Triangle

You can free things from alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature. You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes. Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump: you may be freeing him from being a camel. Do not go about as a demagogue, encouraging triangles to break out of the prison of their three sides. If a triangle breaks out of its three sides, its life comes to a lamentable end.

G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

The above is a quintessential quote from Chesterton: pleasing to the ear, colorful to the eye, laced with soft humor and sharp wit, and making a point that is inescapable. We cannot free a thing from its own nature. We can only love a thing, and defend it, for being itself and not something else. When any triangle loses one of its three sides, it stops being a triangle. There is no argument about this. The same logic applies if the triangle happens to be a family—father, mother, child. Ah, but then the arguments suddenly and ferociously begin!

It is difficult to defend the obvious. We don't even know where to begin. It is also easy to forget the obvious. Breathing only becomes an issue when we are out of breath. The family is a perfect example of something so obvious that it is difficult to defend; so obvious that it is easy to ignore. But decay begins to set in, says Chesterton, when we forget the obvious things.

When people start arguing about the triangle of the family, they dance around the definition of the thing. Yet they want to talk about nothing but exceptions, which means they are assuming the definition they do not want to discuss. In other words, the arguments about the family seem largely to ignore the family, to ignore the normal and focus on the abnormal, with earnest people making impassioned pleas about broken families, about unwanted children, about parents who are not married to each other, about non-parents who are married to each other, about the divorced and re-married, about those suffering from a same-sex attraction who simply want to be “happy” (which they claim will come from playing house), about single parents and abusive parents and absent parents. As Chesterton says, “Hardly anybody (outside a particular religious press) dares to defend the family. The world around us has accepted a social system which denies the family. It will sometimes help the child in spite of the family; the mother in spite of the family; the grandfather in spite of the family. It will not help the family.”

We are arguing about the frayed edges of an essential garment, and we have forgotten the purpose of that garment. We have forgotten the basic function of the family, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to study the anthropology of the family.

In a 1920 book called The Superstition of Divorce, Chesterton gets down to basics and tells us “The Story of the Family.” His first three points: The family is the most ancient of human institutions. It has an authority. It is universal.

It is an institution that precedes the State. It is differs from the State, and from any other institution, in that “it begins with a spontaneous attraction.” It is not coercive. “There is nothing in any other social relations in any way parallel to the mutual attraction of the sexes. By missing this simple point, the modern world has fallen into a hundred follies.”

The State regulation of marriage is one of those follies. But the political follies are only a result of cultural follies, such as Feminism, which Chesterton defines as “women trying to be men.” Such follies have led to our recent fixations on “gender confusion” and the rush to condone rather than condemn strange sexual attractions. The revolt of women against men has fueled the revolt of men against women.

Chesterton says, “These are very simple truths; that is why nobody nowadays seems to take any particular notice of them; and the truth that follows next is equally obvious. There is no dispute about the purpose of Nature in creating such an attraction. It would be more intelligent to call it the purpose of God; for Nature can have no purpose unless God is behind it. To talk of the purpose of Nature is to make a vain attempt to avoid being anthropomorphic, merely by being feminist. It is believing in a goddess because you are too skeptical to believe in a god.”

At the most basic natural level, “the child is an explanation of the father and mother.” At the more human level, the child is the explanation “of the ancient human ties connecting the father and mother.” Thus the family is “the primary position of the human group.” It survives regimes. It survives empires. It survives civilizations. “This triangle of truisms, of father, mother and child, cannot be destroyed; it can only destroy those civilizations which disregard it.”

But whenever the family falters, there is only one entity with enough heft to fill its functions: the State. The State can step in as provider, educator, entertainer, counselor, caretaker. However, whenever it has to take the role as a substitute for the family, it is only a stop-gap measure at best. It cannot ultimately replace a natural process; it can only interfere with it. Any sustained attempts will be futile. We work hard enough to raise our own children. We cannot possibly raise everyone else's children. “If people cannot mind their own business, it cannot possibly be more economical to pay them to mind each other's business; and still less to mind each other's babies. It is simply throwing away a natural force and then paying for an artificial force; as if a man were to water a plant with a hose while holding up an umbrella to protect it from the rain.”

Chesterton says that the reformers do not understand the basis of the thing they are trying to rebuild. You cannot break apart the basic unit of civilization, which is the family. You cannot replace the authority of parents. You cannot replace the bond between a husband and wife. You cannot replace the bond between a mother and child. You can only waste your time trying. And disintegration of society with the atomization of special interests, the elevation of state education, the legalization of divorce and contraception and abortion and same-sex marriage are all of them wastes of time. The family will survive them all. The family, which came into existence without the government, which has continued to exist without the support of the government, will withstand any unnatural laws made by the government. But in the meantime everyone suffers. Everyone. Because everyone is either a father or a mother or a child.

A century ago Chesterton said that the authority of the family is being undermined by an “officialism” that is based on popular science, which has a vague authority that no one can pin down and does not answer to anybody. He warns that this officialism will only become more rigid. Shortly before he died in 1936, he observed prophetically: “The frightful punishment of mere sex emancipation is not anarchy but bureaucracy.” His prophecy has, of course, been fulfilled with painful accuracy. The generation that would break free from the family has found itself in chains.

In the meantime, the family has gone from being ignored and neglected to being attacked and torn to pieces. What has been re-assembled does not look anything like the family. The practical three-sided arrangement has been discarded for experimental models that may be official, but are not practical. “The disintegration of rational society started in the drift from the hearth and the family,” says Chesterton. “The solution must be a drift back.”

The family has always had to fight to protect itself, whether against the beast in the forest, the barbarian invader in the village, the industrial machine in the city, or the mad official in the state. It seems that everything has always been against this ancient institution of the family. Everything. With one exception. At a certain turning point in history, there arose another institution that came to the defense of the family. It not only recognized its importance, it blessed it and made it sacred. It was the Catholic Church. Nothing can destroy the sacred triangle of the family, but the Church, says Chesterton, succeeded in turning the triangle upside down: “It held up a mystical mirror in which the order of the three things was reversed; and added a holy family of child, mother and father to the human family of father, mother and child.”

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