Chesterton on motherhood, the family, and the State

Earlier today, I posted the following quote(s) from G. K. Chesterton’s 1920 book,  The Superstition of Divorce (1920), which provides a good example of how Chesterton continues to be necessary and timely reading, even nearly a century later:

The child is an explanation of the father and mother and the fact that it is a human child is the explanation of the ancient human ties connecting the father and mother.  The more human, that is the less bestial, is the child, the more lawful and lasting are the ties. So far from any progress in culture or the sciences tending to loosen the bond, any such progress must logically tend to tighten it. …

When we offer any other system as a “career for women,” we are really proposing that an infinite number of them should become servants, of a plutocratic or bureaucratic sort.  Ultimately, we are arguing that a woman should not be a mother to her own baby, but a nursemaid to somebody else’s baby.  But it will not work, even on paper. We cannot all live by taking in each other’s washing, especially in the form of pinafores.  In the last resort, the only people who either can or will give individual care, to each of the individual children, are their individual parents. The expression as applied to those dealing with changing crowds of children is a graceful and legitimate flourish of speech.

This triangle of truisms, of father, mother and child, cannot be destroyed; it can only destroy those civilisations which disregard it. Most modern reformers are merely bottomless sceptics, and have no basis on which to rebuild; and it is well that such reformers should realise that there is something they cannot reform.  You can put down the mighty from their seat; you can turn the world upside down, and there is much to be said for the view that it may then be the right way up. But you cannot create a world in which the baby carries the mother. You cannot create a world in which the mother has no authority over the baby. …

This nucleus of natural authority has always existed in the midst of more artificial authorities.  It has always been regarded as something in the literal sense individual; that is, as an absolute that could not really be divided.  A baby was not even a baby apart from its mother…

And here is another quote, from a bit later in the book, about the family and its place in society in relation to the state:

The ideal for which [the family] stands in the state is liberty. It stands for liberty for the very simple reason with which this rough analysis started.  It is the only one of these institutions that is at once necessary and voluntary.  It is the only check on the state that is bound to renew itself as eternally as the state, and more naturally than the state.  Every sane man recognises that unlimited liberty is, anarchy, or rather is nonentity. The civic idea of liberty is to give the citizen a province of liberty; a limitation within which a citizen is a king. This is the only way in which truth can ever find refuge from public persecution, and the good man survive the bad government. But the good man by himself is no match for the city. There must be balanced against it another ideal institution, and in that sense an immortal institution.  So long as the state is the only ideal institution the state will call on the citizen to sacrifice himself, and therefore will not have the smallest scruple in sacrificing the citizen.  The state consists of coercion; and must always be justified from its own point of view in extending the bounds of coercion; as, for instance, in the case of conscription. The only thing that can be set up to check or challenge this authority is a voluntary law and a voluntary loyalty.  That loyalty is the protection of liberty, in the only sphere where liberty can fully dwell. It is a principle of the constitution that the King never dies. It is the whole principle of the family that the citizen never dies. There must be a heraldry and heredity of freedom; a tradition of resistance to tyranny.  A man must be not only free, but free-born.

Put positively, the good state is ordered to the good of the family; put negatively, the tyrannical state will, in a myriad of possible ways, undermine and wound and even directly attack the family. One of the more insidious and popular ways of doing the latter in recent years is by seeking to refine the nature and meaning of “family”. This has built upon many other falsehoods, including the supposed necessity or even goodness of divorce (a topic Chesterton obviously addresses at length), the severing of procreation from sexual intercourse, the severing of the marital embrace from marriage, and so forth. Chesterton saw or expected all of this, and his analysis is recommended just as heartily today as at any other time in the past ninety years.

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About Carl E. Olson 1197 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.