Two weeks ago a bishopric counselor asked me to prepare a talk for the upcoming Father’s Day sacrament meeting. Now, I’ve made no secret of the fact that I have some problems with our current (and past) discourse on gender, sex, and gender roles. These problems are trenchant, and definitely not the mere product of self-consciously sexist attitudes on the part of current LDS leaders (indeed, sexist attitudes are much more the products how we talk about these topics and the kinds of things that our talk about them takes for granted). Still there have been some important shifts in the past generation.
Setting aside, for the time being, the question of Church administrative hierarchy and structural injustices (which are certainly problems) the language of familial patriarchy has been placed, in recent decades, alongside an emerging language of parental equality within the home. Emphasizing the equality of spouses and of parents was a central and persistent theme of President Hinckley’s ministry. The complementarity of husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, is framed in the language of equal partnership; wives are not subservient to husbands who make unilateral decisions, and fathers are not rarely-present figureheads who merely enforce the domestic regulations of mothers. Additionally, the shift in our discourse on parenting roles parallels a shift in how society more broadly models parental relationships.
For these two reasons, the shift in the way that church leaders and church members talk about the roles of mothers and fathers, as well as the simple reality that families which fit the 1950s model of father-working-mother-homemaking are increasingly rare—in short, because we are called upon, both as an ideal as well as by practical realities, to be equal partners in the home, I chose to focus my talk not on fatherhood per se but on the importance of family relationships and on the blessings that come from fixing our attention on our roles, duties, opportunities, and commitments within our families and our homes, over and against the distracting concerns of the world. I hoped to more fully tease out the meaning of the now familiar admonition that successes in the world cannot compensate for failures in the home. What are the key differences between our family lives and our lives outside, in the world? Why is what happens in our homes and families so much more important that what happens outside, our work, our civic participation, even our church service, and not just for at home parents but for all of us?
I believe the answers Mormonism provides to these questions are made clearest against the backdrop of what the world teaches, and has taught for many centuries, about human nature and the nature of our relationships and interactions. Modern political philosophies and economic theories, across the ideological spectrum, presume two things about human nature. These presumptions are taken as the foundational truths upon which our entire system of life and the philosophical traditions which sustain it, from politics and education to economics and recreation, are built:
1) Human beings are inherently greedy and depraved, avaricious and contentious, ruthless and animal-like in their pursuit of self-interest.
2) Unless the unruly human animal is somehow governed, it will reduce the world to absolute anarchy—either by a system of monarchical domination in which natural human self interest is restrained by an external power, or by a self-organizing system of free and equal powers, a republican democracy, in which the opposition of particular interests regulates and reconciles them to the common interest.
These two ideas, of a depraved human nature and of the necessity of governing if through either authoritarian hierarchy or oppositional equilibrium, debatable though they are, nevertheless run like a red thread through our philosophical heritage and not only underlie our modern political order but constitute a totalizing metaphysical order, with the same basic structure of elemental units of competing self interest found in the organization of the universe as well as the atom, our cities and markets as well as our bodies and minds.
A brief and cursory sketch of the intellectual heritage of Modern Western theories of political economy provides a sense for how powerfully influential and nearly universal these two ideas about human nature have been, and how they have acquired virtually unquestioned, taken-for-granted status in our shared imagination. Plato spoke in The Republic of “the self-advantage which every creature by nature” pursues. Aristotle described human nature in similarly lurid terms: “Appetite is by nature unlimited, and the majority of mankind live for the satisfaction of appetite.” He continues, describing Man as “a wild animal…for appetite is like a wild animal and passion warps the rule of the best men.” Hesiod believed that, in the absence of imposed justice, people would devour one another: “wretched and godless…cheat their…parents…destroy [each other's] towns…praise the bad and insolent…might will be right…harsh-voiced and sullen-faced and loving harm, envy will walk along with wretched man.” In Hesiod’s account of the universe, there is no order without supremacy and hierarchy, thus humankind had to have its nature subdued by Zeus and the gods. And Plutarch writes that Solon believed, despite the objections of his friends, that the natural rapaciousness of self-interested citizens could indeed be checked by written laws.
Thucydides described a violent civil war at Corcyra in which humanity’s depraved nature was on full display: “human nature, always rebelling against law and now its master, gladly showed itself ungoverned…above respect for justice…the enemy of all.” “The cause of all these evils,” he continued, “was the lust for power arising from greed and ambition, and from these passions proceeded the violence…” He also asserted that humanity was destined to forever repeat such tragic sufferings “so long as human nature remained the same.” Thucydides’ account is significant, not just in the detail with which it describes humanity’s natural depravity, but for its influence. The political philosopher Thomas Hobbes would be the first to translate Thucydides’ work into English and the Greek historian’s vision of human nature would directly shape Hobbes’ defense of authoritarian government as a check against it. Thucydides’ account would also influence John Adams, who would propose a decidedly different solution to the exact same problem.
Before looking at Hobbes and Adams in more detail, we should note as well a strong and influential medieval tradition in which humanity’s wildly avaricious nature was wedded to the doctrine of original sin. Here, our contemptible and ferociously self-interested nature was explained as a consequence of the Fall, of the disobedience of our first parents. As inheritors of this depraved nature, we also share culpability for it. The solution to the problem of culpability was baptism, preferably as quickly as possible after birth to remove the stain of original sin. The solution to the problem arising from the threat that human savagery would continue to rear its ugly head after baptism was, of course, monarchical power, kingly rule by divine right. Medieval thinkers from Augustine and Aquinas to Dante and St. John Chrysostom (who wrote that if you took away our rulers “we would live a life less rational than animals, biting and devouring each other”) tie our shared natural depravity with the transgression of Adam and Eve as well as to the need for authoritarian rule.
Such thinking reached its apogee in the writings of Hobbes, who in Leviathan described a human “state of nature” in which all are permanently at war with all. Hobbes’ solution was a uniquely powerful Sovereign who would hold the human race in perpetual awe and check our natural dispositions with fearful coercion. Adams accepted Hobbes’ (and by extension Thucydides’) dismal view of human nature, but proposed an alternate solution to the problem. Drawing on a philosophical tradition which drew from the experience of the early medieval republics of Italy as well as emerging traditions in the Anglo-American Enlightenment, and in particular reaching into the classical tradition, Adams argued (in an essay entitled “All men would be tyrants if they could”) that all men would be tyrants if they could:
…every Man, who has ever read a treatise upon Morality, or conversed with the World…must have often made [the observation]…that the selfish Passions are stronger than the Social, and that the former would always prevail over the latter in any Man, left to the natural Emotions of his own Mind, unrestrained and unchecked by other Power extrinsic to himself.
The solution was a government of counterbalancing powers. As opposing interests clashed and competed, their destructive dispositions would be transformed into beneficial effects. Adams advocated a republican form of polybian mixed government, reserving sovereignty to the people after the manner of Athenian democracy, but combining democracy, oligarchy, and monarchy in a single system. The power of the popularly elected lower house would be counterpoised against that of the natural aristocracy of wealth in the Senate, with both opposed by a single executive authority. Each of these powers, if left alone, would resort to tyranny, but poised against one another, the resulting opposition and rivalry would produce domestic tranquility.
A similar view of the generally beneficent effects of individual self pursuit was laid out, on the plane of economic production and commerce rather than politics, on the eve of the American revolution by Adam Smith. His was a world in which the aggregate effects of the pursuit of individual self interest on the part of all would work like a great Invisible Hand to the benefit of all as well as to the maximal production of wealth.
It is worth noting that Adams’ vision of political ideals and Smith’s outline of economic imperatives have shaped almost the entirety of subsequent debates and practices, not just in the US but in the sphere of global governance and economics. Much as we are conditioned to believe that there are enormous differences between our current political and economic ideologies (there aren’t) and much as the parties involved would like to claim Smith and Adams as their exclusive intellectual heritage, the fact is that politics and economics today are debated well within the parameters laid out by these to great thinkers. It’s also worth pointing out that the mainstream, orthodox political and economic theories of our time all presume a model of human nature that aligns with the longstanding traditions I’ve outlined here. Human beings are self-interested, avaricious, greedy beings who rationally and ruthlessly pursue their own personal increase at the expense of other actors. Such values have been normalized, rationalized, even celebrated by the dominant ideologies of our time, and find their fullest expression in the abstracted, generic figure of the Shareholder, whose interests market actors are conditioned to identify with, and in whose unbridled interests managers are legally mandated to act.
I have presented this (admittedly oversimplified) history if only to illustrate the degree to which the notion of a relentless, aggressive, self-interested and self-aggrandizing human nature has taken root in our collective imagination. Yet alternatives do exist, conceptions of the human condition undreamed of in our received philosophies of human nature. If the received wisdom revolves around self-interest, what does it then mean when the terms “self” and “interest” apply not to individuals but to transpersonal relationships?
Kinship, family relations, represent an entirely different plane of human action and interaction, in which the conventional myths of a depraved and self-interested human nature have no obvious place or purchase. Family and kindred relations are the source of our most meaningful experiences, our deepest sentiments and most lasting attachments. They govern who we are in ways that our economic and political relations could never dream to match. Our modern ideas about human nature are in fact culturally specific (though it is a spreading culture) and the products of our particular histories. Yet kinship is the one true universal of human sociality. One would think that our notions of human nature would begin at home, in our families, yet that would yield something far removed from self-interest since family is the place where charity truly obtains.
There is some acknowledgment of this in our intellectual and philosophical tradition. Both Plato and Augustine described ideal human societies as ones based on kinship. Greater yet was Aristotle’s formulation of kinship as the basis for all human social relations in Nichomachean Ethics:
Parents then love their children as being themselves (for those sprung from them are, as it were, other selves of theirs, resulting from the separation), children love parents as being what they have grown from, and brothers each other by virtue of their having grown from the same sources: for the self-sameness of their relation to those produces the same with each other… They are, then, the same entity in a way, even though in different subjects…
Kinship is a mutual relationship of being. Family members are in a very real sense members of one another. If you are a member of my family, then my relationship to you is intrinsic to my own existence. The “self” is something that exists not just within you as a discreet entity, but is diffused among those most closely related to you. A part of your self exists, not just metaphorically but in reality, in others. In a universe characterized by familial relationships, there is no such thing as “self-interest” in the modern political or economic sense of the term. Kinship and kindness have the same roots. We participate in one another’s being, we share purpose and essence.
Familial relationships also defy the basic logic of our modern politics and economics in other key ways. Whereas the latter focus so much attention on the rational pursuit of self interest and the imperatives of efficient productivity, family life is utterly different. We commit the resources and time and energy we do into our family responsibilities with no regard for rational calculation, for a measurable return on our investment, or for something like efficiency. Maybe when it comes to small tasks like changing a diaper or loading a dishwasher quickly we strive for a degree of efficiency, but when it comes to the serious work, to teaching our children what they need navigate the world, to cultivating strong loving bonds between spouses, to instilling values, to pursuing happiness together, to caring for those we love and ensuring they feel our love—when it comes to these pursuits, our successes and failures (and there are always both) are not measurable with the logic of accounting, of returns on investment, of efficiency or workplace productivity. These are the most important, most fulfilling, and most meaningful things we will do in this world, and they utterly defy the logic of rational, efficient pursuit of self-interest. They reveal in us our true nature, a nature starkly alternative to that imagined in our political culture or our debates over economic policy.
The fullness of the Gospel tells us a completely different story about who we are, our nature, and our destiny. It tells us that there is no Original Sin, that our competitive, ruthless, self-interested dispositions were not inherited from our fallen first parents but were taught to humanity by Satan, who convinced Cain that any act, even one which took innocent life, was justified if it led to an increase in property. Cain, who was not his brother’s keeper in their dog eat dog world, gloried in his victory as he took possession over Abel’s property, claimed it made him free (as we are all taught to equate the control of property with freedom, and increased property with increased freedom).
The gospel tells us that we are to understand ourself first and foremost in terms of familial relationships, as sons and daughters of Abraham, of Adam and Eve, of Heavenly Parents. Adam never refers to Him as God, but only always simply as Father. We are taught that our family ties define who we are, and define who we will become. That families not only can be together forever but must be together forever. We are taught, like Enos of old, that the love and charity which obtains within a family should extend outward in an expanding circle that encompasses not just our friends and allies but even our enemies.
We are taught that Priesthood is, at its core, the power to forge, through sealing, familial bonds stronger than those which arise from our natural genetic ties. And we are taught that kinship bonds can extend beyond our natal families, outward in space and backward and forward in time. In our effort to quietly forget the fact that Joseph Smith spent the latter years of his life multiplying his marital relationships, we have completely forgotten that the prophet-kings of bygone Mormonism routinely had men adopted to them as sons. Whatever the source of our inability to fully understand now what Joseph was doing then, he clearly felt that marital and parental bonds on earth most closely approximate the kinds of relationships which obtain among and between all beings who participate in celestial order. And he believed that part of that order could be extended into this earthly experience.
Remember, when Jesus was asked about His family, He pointed to his disciples and said, Here they are. Family relations are defined by a self that exists not just within you but inside others, and we are taught not only to love others as we love ourselves but that a perfect love will transform us such that when we encounter Christ we will see ourselves in Him, see who we really are, our image in His countenance as His is in ours. We are taught that the true nature and purpose of our existence lies not in the great and spacious high rise of the world, but in the radically different reality on the other side of the yawning gulf, where it wasn’t enough for Lehi to experience the love of God alone, without his family with whom he longed to share it.
The world can and will continue to teach us its own model of human nature, one which reduces us to our basest of impulses, debases our potential. Yet we know that we can discover and build upon our true nature and true potential by submitting, not as a vile sinner to a contemptuous authoritarian God, but as a child submits to a father. It is in our homes, in our family lives and family relationships, and in the extension of those bonds outward into the world, that we find our truest selves. It is my prayer that we will recognize the full implications of what it means to make our homes and our family lives more important than our worldly experiences, to define ourselves and our purposes as members of infinitely extensive earthly and heavenly families rather than according to terms set out in the philosophies of men.