Last Sunday and Monday, the Tikvah foundation hosted their annual Jewish Leadership Conference, exploring the big ideas, great texts, and major issues crucial to Jewish—indeed human—excellence and flourishing in the modern age. Among the conference’s many exemplary events was one of the leadoff discussions between Jonathan Silver, editor of the Tikvah publication Mosaic, and Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony, author of The Virtue of Nationalism, The Philosophy of the Hebrew Scripture and much else. The pair discussed the nature and importance of the family, and why it matters to the life of the nation.
Hazony reflected on how within the Hebraic tradition—that’s to say both Judaism and Christianity—the family, among much else, is an educational and formative institution: the next generation is educated in the ways of the previous generation. The structure that allows this transmission to happen is not up for grabs. The family is of necessity constitutive of a man and a woman who marry for life and who raise children who honor their mother and their father. Just these two principles alone generate a far thicker conception of the family than is found in the much-vaunted nuclear family. In the Hebraic conception, the family is linked along multiple generations. Children honor their parents for life. Parents provide the conditions for their children to flourish. Presuming normal life spans, this up-and-down mutual commitment—for life—means the educational and transmissional function of a family, at any given point, potentially goes down to the third and fourth generation. This is very different from a family model conditioned by liberalism’s commitment to consent, which ultimately grounds even familial relationships in equality. As children mature, they are made free to reassess their family commitments based on self-interest. Every link in the generational chain is conditional.
These differences, Silver and Hazony assert, matter to the life of the nation. The nation is the outgrowth of the virtues cultivated in the seedbed of the family. Families gather into clans which gather into tribes which form nations. At every level, the same issues of honor and dishonor, loyalty and disloyalty, and the values and limits of the freedom of the individual set against social responsibility play vital roles in keeping conflict from tearing relationships apart. The national union of working together for the good of the nation requires the kinds of customs in which each knows that he or she must do at least a minimum to help hold things together. The same things that destroy a family or kill a nuptial union kill and destroy a national one as well.
Children raised in a home in which the importance of God and scripture, man and woman, love and duty, and a sense of the sacred is revered animate the civic assets essential to entering the public square with souls and characters intact. Children formed in the right ways are capable of actually being democratic citizens in a healthy nation. It’s increasingly a question whether any others are.
Rod Dreher touches on some of this in an older essay at The American Conservative. In “At Home in Helm’s Deep”, Dreher makes the evergreen assertion that the essential thing for Christian parents is to pass on the faith to their children. Following in the Silver and Hazony vein, he points to research—common sense really—that argues that a social order begins to die when its older members cannot transmit its values to the young. He illustrates this with a remarkable anecdote:
The Duke of Wellington is reputed to have said that the Battle of Waterloo was won upon the playing fields of Eton. The meaning is that the moral and intellectual formation of the British Army officer corps that took place in Britain’s elite schools provided the skills that proved decisive in the victory over Napoleon.
Dreher notes with approval a review of his book Live Not By Lies that was printed in The Classical Difference, a magazine of the classical school movement. At one point in the review, the writers take note of the kinds of resistance exercised by families trapped under the iron fist of the Soviet Union. They tell Dreher’s story about the Bendas children, kids raised in a Catholic family in communist Prague whose moral imaginations were fueled by stories of the good, true, and beautiful.
They often read fairy tales, myths, and adventure stories, but their absolute favorite was J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. When Dreher asked them, “Why Tolkien?” the Bendas responded, “Because we knew Mordor was real. We felt that their story—that of the hobbits and others resisting the evil Sauron—was our story too. Tolkien’s dragons are more realistic than a lot of things we have in this world”
Such stories served as Kevlar—or mithril—for their souls, and so shielded they were able to withstand the assaults of an atheistic regime. The smoke of Mordor is rising—and you can bet they’re not roasting marshmallows—and so such stories continue to be essential. Happily, there remain resources to aid families in their work of transmitting the good, the true, and the beautiful to their children. As the parent of kids in a classical Christian school, I strongly second Dreher’s depiction of these institutions as “citadels of cultural memory.” They are essential not just to the future of the faith in these dark times, but of the nation as well.
Keeping to the theme, there’s a wonderful anecdote told in the conclusion of When Character Was King, Peggy Noonan’s biography of Ronald Reagan. She tells of the time when one of the staffers was bringing his three-year-old son through the halls of the White House. The boy had brought with him a plastic sword. A security agent stopped the young man and, playfully, inquired about the sword. “What’s the sword for?” Without missing a beat, the boy said “I want to fight bad men.” Noonan reflects, “The little bodies of children are the repositories of the greatness of a future age. And they must be encouraged, must eat from the tales of those who’ve gone before, and brandished their swords, and slayed their dragons.”
Which brings us back, and lastly, to Middle Earth. At the end of “The Grey Havens”, the concluding chapter of The Return of the King, we find Samwise Gamgee finally turn away with Merry and Pippen from the sighs and murmurs of the waves on the shores of Middle-earth and ride with his sad companions back to the Shire, each taking comfort in the presence of his friends despite the sorrow in their hearts. Eventually, Merry and Pippen having turned toward Buckland, Sam proceeds alone to the Hill. Tolkien describes the homecoming:
There was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap. He drew a deep breath,. “Well, I’m back,” he said.
I pause here to reflect on an old political cartoon I once saw. It was divided into four panels. The first three depicted a CEO sitting in a chair at the head of a business meeting, a president sitting behind the desk in the Oval Office, and a general sitting in a chair surrounded by other officers, respectively. The fourth panel depicted a father, with a child in his lap, sitting in a rocking chair before a hearth. The caption beneath the fourth picture read, “The real seat of power.”
Tolkien’s depiction of the homecoming of Samwise conveys, I think, a similar testimony. While the titular character of The Return of the King is, presumably, Aragorn, we ought not to miss the coronation imagery present at the book’s end: Samwise enters his home. He is expected. He is led to a chair and set within it—he is, in fact, enthroned. His child is set upon his lap, an accoutrement of his high place. “I’m back,” Sam proclaims—for he has returned indeed.
The family has always been, in both its classical and Hebraic depictions, a little kingdom—a microcosm of the greater political sphere in which it is set. As such, the family has always been the enemy of totalitarian regimes. Break the family, and the nation is yours without a fight.
The smoke over Mordor is rising. It has always been. The first and last line of defense—and the point of departure—is the family.