Mar 1, 1980

Hobbes and the Politicized Family

Gilbert Meilaender

“A Little Monarchy”: Hobbes on the Family.” Thought 53(December 1978):401–415.

The family relationship as Thomas Hobbes conceives it is a political relationship, a “little monarchy.” The family’s purpose is to teach a Hobbesian sense of obligation to children, a virtue he considers to be the only means to overcome the alienation of human beings. The family gives rise to this obligation and teaches a child to obey his parents because of their protection and preservation of his life. “If the child wills its own preservation (as Hobbes thinks it surely must), and if it recognizes the family as an excellent institution by which to achieve that preservation, then it ought to obey the parent from whom it receives such protection. No other course of action would, Hobbes thinks, be reasonable.”

The other duty of the child is to honor his parents. “The child should honor the parent out of gratitude for all the parent has done for him and also because he is presumed tacitly to have agreed to pay such honor for his enfranchisement [preservation].” Both obligation and gratitude are among the basic laws of nature (Hobbesian-style), all of which are grounded in the fundamental desire of men to successfully preserve their lives.

Meilaender criticizes this hypothesis as moral justification, stating these imperatives are “self”-regarding rather than “other”-regarding, and thus are not moral, but prudential. “Such a view of morality is, of course, based on preserving human existence rather than fulfilling human nature, and it finds only a calculating role for reason to play.” The love, affection, and mutual acknowledgment—that is for many the chief purpose of the family—is ignored by Hobbes, and replaced with only the “virtues” of nourishment and preservation. “Rather, we may well contend that one of the shortcomings of Hobbes’s theory is that he characterizes the institution of the family in political terms—and thus, misunderstands the political itself.” To think of the family only in this regard is to miss the limits of politics, and misunderstand the very essence of why family life is valued and the function it serves in human life. Hobbes values only political obligation; there are no other bonds or forms of community that can supercede this obligation. “He will not allow a loyal son to bend the knee to the gods of the hearth in preference to the gods of the city.”

Meilaender concludes by stating Hobbes’s conception of the family in political terms is invalid, because the purposes of the family differ from those of the state. The family exists to help the child grow into a fully developed human being, he says, and as a community in which love, affection, sacrifice, and mutual interests find a place in human affairs. To achieve these ends it need not have a place over the life and death of a child. “There is authority within the institution of the family, but it is not the authority of the civil sovereign.”