The PatriarchyThe word “patriarchy” is,

The Patriarchy

The word “patriarchy” is, to the contemporary mind, a sort of slur. This goes for its cognate “patriarchal” too. In my experience, this opinion of the word is common to everyone, regardless of how conservative, liberal, feminist or sexist that they are. I can imagine a contemporary speaker using a word like “monarchy” in a way that didn’t necessarily connote the depravity of that system of rule, or even a word like “aristocracy”, but I can’t imagine anyone using the word “patriarchy” in a way that didn’t connote some kind of abuse.

It goes without saying that this was not always the case. To a Roman, “the patriarchy”, that is, the rule of fathers, was unquestionably good. No Roman, male or female, would ask a question like “Why should a father be a primary ruler?” any more than we would ask “Why should we have elections?” There are other striking manifestations of this difference, for example, our opinions about abortion. Both we and the Romans declare that we have a right to it, but the Romans- if they were pressed to describe it as a right- would have called it “A Father’s Right to Choose”. The decision to accept a child or to expose it was made immediately by the father after birth, and the father could kill any of his offspring at any time subsequent to this, and for any reason. We must be careful not to form an impossible caricature of this image- like some Roman father standing stone faced at the end of a birthing table and coldly saying “I accept it” or “Let it be exposed”. Many Roman fathers no doubt agonized over this decision, or were persuaded one way or another by their wives, etc. Many others were no doubt simply selfish jerks who didn’t want a baby, or at least they didn’t want this baby. Whatever the case, the rule of the father was unquestioned. The patriarchy was, to their mind, the best way to do things.

In our time, of course, the situation is the exact contrary. Even the most die hard pro-lifer/ anti- abortion rights advocate sees the issue of abortion as revolving around a woman’s right to choose it. The logic of this position has not yet wholly worked itself out: while fathers have been stripped of any authority to determine whether their child will live or die in utero, they can still be held responsible for the child by being forced to support it. One of these beliefs must sooner or later destroy the other- and the people who celebrated one will eventually celebrate the other. The decision to end child support (the most likely looking outcome) will offend sensibilities for a while, as it does now, but common sensibilities will eventually declare that denying child support is empowering, and that expecting a father to support children is sexist. It will be viewed as yet another rejection of “the patriarchy”.

But there’s more to come in the destruction of the patriarchy. The very way we use the word now suggests that we don’t want to reform the rule of fathers, we want to destroy it. The very word father will be eventually neutered of any cultural significance. Just think of how quaint it already sounds to talk about a child having “a mother and a father” (No no no! say a parent). Also, notice that condoms, for example, have never been touted as “a way to have responsible fatherhood.” Clearly, if men were thinking very powerfully about fatherhood, the marketing guys at Trojan Inc. would have addressed their concerns. Come to think of it, is their anything that is marketed to fathers, not to men, but to fathers? We may find good reasons for why there is not, but this won’t change the reality that advertising is in some way both responsive to, and formative of the popular consciousness, and there is nothing in advertising that speaks of fathers as such. We are destroying, and seeking to destroy, not only the fact of a patriarchy, but the very possibility of it. There will no doubt be fathers in the future, just as there will be those who come “from noble bloodlines and high birth”, but the fact of something is no assurance of the popular consciousness of the fact. It is this popular consciousness, or in Plato’s words, this common opinion that determines political life and culture, and this opinion has seen fit to wash itself of the significance of fatherhood, and celebrate it as the death of the hated patriarchy.

The killing of the patriarchy, however, must eventually meet one last opponent on the field: Christianity*. I don’t mean by this the Christianity of everyone who calls themselves Christian, but that inveterate Christianity that insists on retaining a certain kind of dogma, sc. The dogma of God the Father. For these Christians, the idea of God the Father is simply unreformable- it is the name both of the first person of the Trinity, and of the divine nature as such (as in the prayer “the our father”). In fact, the first person is called father, the third person conceived a child with a woman, and the second person set up a system for making fathers. Fatherhood is intractably a part of these christens’ liturgies, devotions, catechism, and priests. Traditional Christianity cannot get away from its glorification of patriarchy, for it places the rule of a father as absolute, as both its opponents and partisans have to admit. We can rightly qualify this, or on the other hand choose to explain it away, but at the end of the day, these inveterate Christians still end up putting the fathers in charge, and they will insist that this is so also in the highest part of heaven. Not just a patriarchy here on earth, but a transcendent patriarchy! It is with this patriarchy that the opponent of patriarchy will meet their last opponent- or perhaps the opponent that they have been fighting all along.

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* I don’t write this last paragraph as polemical, but simply descriptive. My goal is to say nothing that would be denied by either by those who fight against traditional Christianity, or those who believe in it. And yes, though I use the phrase “traditional Christianity” I do have in mind primarily the Catholics, although this is also true of other sects, and was once common to almost all of them.

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