Family and Civilization

By Carle Zimmerman, 1947

Zimmerman, an American sociologist, examines the evolution of the family during the course of Greek, Roman, and Western history.  His focus is on the relationship of the family to the larger society as measured by the former’s authority and independence.  He identifies three family types:

1)      The trustee family.  When the state is weak, the extended family or clan is the primary social power, and the state itself is seen as a union of families rather than individuals.  Rights and property belong primarily to the family itself, and its current living members see themselves as mere trustees, charged with passing along what they have received.  The family is the primary instrument of justice:  the family itself is held accountable for the misdeeds of its members, and each member has a duty to avenge wrongs against his kinsman.  Trustee society is naturally polytheistic, with each clan having its private gods.  Greece, Rome, and the Germanic barbarians all began with the trustee family system.

2)      The domestic family.  As the state gains power, it takes over the role of enforcing justice and tries to stamp out the private justice of the trustee family.  Universal religions extend moral duties to non-kinsmen.  With the spread of trade, it becomes useful for a family to be able to sell the property which it had been holding in trust.  Out of these pressures arises the domestic family, the type which Zimmerman believes constitutes the best balance of family and society.  The domestic family consists of the living members of the nuclear family unit:  father, mother, and children.  Family property belongs to the paterfamilias; the living no longer hold it in trust.  Rearing children is the family’s primary function.  Religion provides strong social sanctions against divorce, childlessness, and sexual immorality.

3)      The atomistic family.  As individualism and impiety spread, the ideological foundations of the domestic family are undermined, leading to the atomistic family.  In an atomistic society, marriage is seen as a temporary and socially unimportant contract between independent individuals.  As atomism spreads, divorce becomes common, adultery loses its stigma, sexual perversions of all sorts come to be accepted and even celebrated, children rebel against their parents, childbearing comes to be seen as a burden, and the population implodes.  A society cannot survive without the will to produce a next generation, and so the decedent society is eventually replaced by a new civilization embracing a more virile (trustee) family type, and the cycle begins again.  Greece after the Peloponnesian War, Rome during the late empire, and the contemporary West have the atomic family as their dominant type.

Zimmerman sees Western civilization headed for destruction if it cannot revive the domestic family.  One of the heroes of his story is the Emperor Augustus, whose anti-adultery and anti-celibacy laws can be seen as a rational attempt to protect the Roman family and hold Rome’s destructively atomistic tendencies at bay.  This history’s most important hero, however, is the Roman Catholic Church, which was forced to fight a war for the domestic family on two fronts, against both Roman atomism and barbarian trustee-ism.  By the High Middle Ages, the Church had established her own sacramental version of the domestic family as the primary type in Christendom.  This work was undone by the smart-aleck partisans of divorce and immorality of the Renaissance and Enlightenment.

The family is a key to history too seldom considered, so I strongly recommend this book.

10 Responses

  1. […] tells us that we must not judge other peoples by our own system of legitimacy.  According to Carle Zimmerman, the family has passed through three phases:  trustee, domestic, and atomistic.  In trustee […]

  2. Where can I find a copy of his 1947 print? All I seem to find is the ‘abridged’ copy. Thanks for your help.

    S. Dagendesh

  3. I read the 1947 edition from a library, but I myself have only been able to find the abridged version to buy.

  4. The “Recent Comments” section really is very helpful! It got me to check out this post which I had somehow missed before.
    My comments:

    1) I can’t find they 1947 edition either, only the recent republished 2008 version…which, as reported here, is abridged, though the commenter didn’t specify how abridged it was….
    600 pages!! When they said “abridged”, they really were not kidding! From 800 to 200 pages, said a well informed reviewer.
    Bonald, given how much was lost…do you think the 2008 reprint is even worth it?

    2) Searching for this brought me to another book, semi-related to the one presently discussed:
    “Libido Dominandi: Sexual Liberation & Political Control” by E. Michael Jones.
    I had hear about it before, but had forgotten until now. It looks interesting and I was thinking about buying it. But first I wanted to ask if you have ever read it Bonald. Or if you’ve heard good or bad things about it. I know people like to curse E. Michael Jones to hell and back, but I’m not really sure what to make of the guy.

    3) Less related to the post at hand, more to your “Books” section in general:
    Have you ever read “Liberty: The God that failed” by Christopher Ferrara, yet? It really is quite good. Very long (800+ pages) but it reads quick, and it’s well worth your time. Fellow Orthosphere(ist) Ita Scripta Est began digging into it not long ago, and he had good things to say about it as well.

  5. The abridged version does give you the main argument, but most of the historical detail and analysis of primary sources was thrown out. For example, a lot of my slavery post from a few months ago was inspired by a discussion in the unabridged version about how slavery was reconceived as family types altered. A post in my head on Le Morte d’Arthur owes something to Zimmermann’s point about trustee family structures being the unstated rationale for some characters’ unexplained actions in Malory’s story. The abridged version is better than nothing, but a lot was lost. One senses that ISI just wanted a short “family values” polemic, so they cut and cut Zimmermann’s book until they had it.

    Coincidentally, I just finished Ferrara’s book today! I plan to write a post about it here and at the Orthosphere and then sit back and watch Lydia go berserk.

    I have read Libido Dominandi. Like everything else I’ve read by Jones, it’s poorly written and edited, but interesting nonetheless. I don’t recommend buying it, but if you can get it from a library, it is worth browsing.

  6. During a Catholic conference in Dulles, Virginia, I met Dr. E. Michael Jones after hid excellent lecture about Richard Wagner the opera composer. I’ve enjoyed his book called “Degenerate Moderns” and some article he wrote in “Culture Wars,” the magazine he edits.

  7. Bonald, it seems to me that a family holding property in trust is the most natural way to think of feudal lords’ ownership of their fiefs (and serfs’ ownership of their lands). Their fiefs were their family lands, passed down through the generations, with current generations supposed to act as custodians of this patrimony, and to pass it on to the next generation. Yet at the same time it is likely that among the burghers and freemen in the cities, who were outside the feudal system, their families are domestic, in Zimmerman’s categorisation. Thus it seems quite odd to me that the Church would actively be trying to promote the domestic family, when the feudal system under which it thrived depended on the trustee family. What do you make of this?

  8. The problem with the trustee family is that it prevents the creation of a central state authority. Now for this reason, among the general population, it was right that the domestic family become the preferred way. Although among the nobility, the opposite was the case, the trustee family system supported the state.

  9. […] of the Bonald-Le Play–Zimmerman school of the importance of family structure will be interested in this review of Emmanuel […]

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