We are approaching the start of another Hallmark Holiday, the one in which we honor Fathers, usually by giving them a silly card and a garish tie. It is part of the modern commercial genius to turn an ancient institution into a saleable commodity. But despite the silly cards and garish gifts, it is nonetheless a time to treat Fatherhood with all Due Seriousness, especially on such an intellectually refined blog as Ethika Politika, where it is the occasion for a symposium. Hmm. Talk about your garish gifts!
But seriousness always runs the danger of failing to get the joke. And the thing about Fatherhood is that it is the great cosmic joke. A joke is always a violation of the nature of a thing that sheds light on the thing. The pun, that lowest form of humor, is a misuse of language that teaches us a deeper use of language; slipping on a banana peel tells us what walking is not. But here’s the joke about human fatherhood: nature doesn’t give us guys a clue; we have to make it up as we go along. And while we may get things relatively right, we are certainly absolutely wrong. We are speaking a language we don’t understand while walking a road paved with banana peels.
As Patrick Deneen has pointed out, nature teaches all the animals their roles, all save one. The lion knows how to lead the pride, and the bear knows how to be a Papa Bear. But nature is silent when she speaks to man, except perhaps to whisper to him, “Good luck with that.” The problem is that man, as man, doesn’t really have a nature. Of course, as an animal, man has an animal nature, but even this is incomplete, or at least not complete enough to tell him how to be a father. No, man doesn’t have a nature, he has a super-nature.
The difference between a nature and a super-nature is that a nature is given but a super-nature is self-created. Now, only God has a pure super-nature because only God creates himself. But man, in the image and likeness of God, has a relatively god-like power: he creates, or co-creates, his own personality. Qua animal, man has a nature he shares with the animal kingdom; qua human, he has a “nature” in certain gifts of powers he has received from the Father and a certain destiny he shares with all other humans; but as a particular person, as Fred or John or Mary, he or she creates an identity which is unique and unrepeatable. Like each angel, each man is a species unto himself.
But here is the great paradox, the grand joke, if you will: This supernatural power is accompanied by a natural cluelessness. The void left by nature must be filled by super-nature, but where to begin? It should clearly understood that this problem, while it affects both men and women, affects men more than women, especially in regard to children and the family.
Women are more closely bound to nature, even as they transcend nature in love. As Hans Urs von Balthasar points out, all of human civilization depends on love at first sight, namely, that women, when presented with their newborn babies for the first time, will fall in love with them. Why they do this is difficult to understand. After all, this is not a good time for Meeting New People and Making New Friends. Of course, I have no personal experience of the process, but I have witnessed it a number of times, and it seems to me that women are not at their best at these moments. In fact, they seem to be downright cranky.
Nevertheless, without this love at first sight, it would be unlikely that one would subject oneself to the task of caring for children. Oh yes, we all like to “oh” and “ah” over babies, but let's face it: their conversation is not deep and their activities are limited. In fact, these activities seem to consist entirely of sucking, shitting, and crying, especially crying. Babies are the most demanding of creatures, giving no thought to the time of night and totally immune to any reasonable argument. With halfway decent parenting, most babies will learn to moderate their demands; the rest will grow up to be bankers, hedge-fund managers and politicians. Yet as difficult as this task is, enough women are willing to undertake it so that the race of men can continue for another season.
But women cannot continue the task alone; she requires her man. But now we are back to our basic joke, our cosmic cluelessness. Men are natural Lockeans, making and breaking contracts where they will, and following their pleasure where it leads. Further, men do not have the same natural relationship with their children that women do. At the time of birth, a mother has been intimate with her child for nine months, but fathers have to be introduced to their children. And they are always in the position of Falstaff, who (playing the role of Prince Hal's father) says to the Prince, “That thou art my son I have partly thy mother's word, partly my own opinion, but chiefly a villainous trick of thine eye and a foolish hanging of thy nether lip that doth warrant me.” Shakespeare here is a realist, recognizing that men do trust faith and opinion, but mostly they search their children’s faces for familiar features. Many learned reasons are advanced for this male anxiety over bastardry, explanations involving clan, race, authority, sexual prowess and the like, but I think the explanation might be simpler: they just don’t want to be the butt of a bad joke, they don’t want to wear the horns of a cuckold. A child with the wrong features would make the father a perpetual punch line.
In any case, the behavior of men is not instinctive, but intentional, social, learned; their natural Lockean natures must be converted to a Thomistic super-nature. Indeed, the proper socialization of men is one of the great tasks of any civilization, since men must be “feminized” to the extent that they see their sexual identity within the confines of marriage and the family. Since order in the human family is not instinctive but intentional, it must be created anew in each family and re-created every day.
Different civilizations have adopted different strategies to accomplish this goal, but all have one thing in common: men are granted a certain sovereignty over the family in exchange for a remaining within the family. The details vary from place to place to place, and time to time, but the outlines are clear always and everywhere. But the outlines are only just that, outlines, and they are fuzzy to boot. Each family—and each father—must make it up as they go along. They take some cues from their tradition and their surroundings, but there really is no guidebook. And even if there were a guidebook—and many claim to have written one—about families in general, there can be no guidebook about how these particular adults ought to raise these particular children, all of them unique and unrepeatable occurrences in human history.
Small children tend to think their fathers are all-wise and all-knowing, but as they grow up they discover the old man’s cluelessness. A certain feeling of superiority begins to creep in, a feeling that they could do this better, a feeling which lasts until they become fathers themselves. It is only then that they can “get the joke,” and only by getting the joke, by admitting their basic cluelessness, can they be admitted to the great cosmic comedy.
Today of course we are trying to bring the joke to an end, to put the family on a more scientific and less humorous basis. This means a more natural and less super-natural basis, more Locke and less Aquinas. The sovereignty of the father we view as a relic of a patriarchal past, a monarchial mistake. But rather than end the joke, they just make it funnier. For the naturalistic revolt is not so much against the super-natural (they have their own perplexing creeds) but against nature itself! The biggest obstacle to this new and enlightened age is not the mind of the male, but the body of the female. This body must be completely re-engineered by mechanical or chemical means; women, that grand product of nature, must be rendered as natural as a Buick, as organic as Monsanto soybeans. Women are now the ultimate GMO.
The poet Pavel Chichikov once said to me, “The whole history of mankind can be given in two sentences: ‘Let’s make this little change; what harm could it do?’ followed by ‘Oops! Who knew?’” So today, we are in the midst of a grand experiment, and we have been within it long enough to see some results. And I think we have most definitely reached the “oops” stage, if only we are witty enough to get the joke.
It is without doubt that the family is declining, both in numbers and in things that cannot be measured by numbers. Men no longer have their function, beyond giving some seed. This they have given—and given rather generously—and moved on to other things. After all, if Heather can have two mommies, she needs no daddy, and her daddy is doing something that need not concern her or her mommies. And if having a baby is a woman’s choice, then it must be her responsibility. In the bad old days, a cad would force a woman to abort a baby to avoid his obligations. Today, lacking any obligations, the cad says, “Do what you will, but don’t call me.” (The modern gentleman, on the other hand, will pay for the abortion, or at least for the deductible.)
Mind you, this is not to say that within this milieu there are no loving couples who are also diligent parents. Quite the contrary. There is even a heroic effort to be both full-time members of a capitalist state AND be (quasi) full-time parents; monumental efforts to contribute both to the bottom line and the next generation. But there are not enough of them to make much of a difference, and the effort is exhausting, confined to a few, and to a few births even for those couples who attempt it. Birth rates, especially among the “moderns,” are far below replacement rates; this generation, unable to reproduce itself, will reach old age in a state of social loneliness and economic isolation, for there simply won’t be enough children to support them. Meanwhile those whom they despised will grow and grow. The future belongs to the fertile; that’s demographics. A belief in God is optional, but a belief in demographics is obligatory; one might claim to escape morals, but nobody can escape mathematics.
We boldly proclaim that “Children are the future” and then refuse to have any children. And that may be the grandest “oops” of all, the greatest cosmic joke. One might have expected the modern to at least have read Darwin, to know that their survival depends on their fitness to reproduce. Perhaps they can read him in retirement, presuming their few children are willing to support their retirement. And then, at last, they will finally get the joke.