The Family

It can be argued that the family stands at the center of all the current controversies in politics and morality or what some are calling the Culture Wars. The institution of the family has come under a ferocious attack from a number of quarters and is being stoutly defended by equally vigorous individuals and groups. But the interesting thing about all this is Chesterton’s defense of the family.

Chesterton’s entirely original approach to the question of the family was based on the seemingly paradoxical notion that the great thing about family life is that it requires us to give up control over our lives, which is to say give up our freedom. Yes, Chesterton says that too much freedom (too much control ) is boring.

A great part of life should be settled for us without our permission. This may be a nuisance if we want life to be a system. But it is essential if we want life to be a drama.

Here Chesterton is attacking the modernist notion that connects happiness with something called “liberty” and unhappiness with something called “limitation.” But the idea of perfect freedom and escape from all limitations is a delusion. Liberty, Chesterton argued, is merely the right to choose between one set of limitations and another. It is limitations, he wrote, that create “all the poetry and variety of life.”

The family ideal Chesterton was defending cannot be equated with the industrialized consumer family, where the family members leave the home each morning by the clock and on a strict schedule to pursue careers, education, recreation, and so on. Chesterton’s ideal was the productive home with its creative kitchen, its busy workshop, its fruitful garden, and its central role in entertainment, education, and livelihood. Unlike the industrial home, life in a productive household is not amenable to scheduling and anything but predictable.

And for further reading in Chesterton’s works, see “On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family” in Heretics, “The Drift from Domesticity” in The Thing and “The Story of the Family” in The Superstition of Divorce.