TO build a theory that will contain and explain the variable imponderables of the marriage relationship seems at the outset a rather shocking enterprise as well as a formidable one. Such a theory must deal with the intimate activities of two personalities in the home, a secret, sheltered region, hedged about with barriers to the outer world and cherished as the last refuge of privacy. The scholars of the Victorian age were naturally reluctant to enter its mysterious precincts. John Stuart Mill would have been aghast at the idea of placing in a scholarly context those essentials of family existence which a man and his wife discuss together after they have gone to bed. Malthus was conspicuously indifferent as to “whether or not we shall find what we are seeking,” and inclined, with his brutal theory of moral restraint, to the notion that we would not find it at all. We do not even possess a word that will cover in a general way the problems of family life as economics, for instance, covers the problems of business life.

The Greeks had such a word. It was none other than the word oikonomia. It was applied by them to the study of all matters relating to the household, from the family budget to the affection of one member for another. Xenophon’s treatise on oikonomia is an essay on domestic [p.21] theory and art. It touches very little upon the subject matter of modern economics, but begins with the question: “whether the management of the household is an art, like the art of the physician . . . ,” and then presents an exposition of the art in the form of a conversation between a new-wedded husband and his bride:

. . . When we were well enough acquainted, and were so familiar that we began to converse freely with one another, I asked her for what reason she thought I had taken her to be my wife, that it was not purely to make her a partner to my bed, for that she knew I had women enough already at my command; but the reason why her father and mother had consented she should be mine, was because we concluded her to be a proper person to be a partner in my house and children: for this end I informed her, it was, that I chose her before all other women; and with the same regard her father and mother chose me for a husband; and if we should be so much favored by the gods that she should bring me children, it would be our joint business to consult about their education and how to bring them up in the virtues becoming mankind; for then we may expect them to be profitable to us, to defend us and comfort us in our old age.

We need not follow the substance of Xenophon’s argument; it is sufficient that we appreciate the fresh and natural point of view of the newly married who are supremely interested in their own personal destinies and not at all in the destinies of the race. The bride is to be a “proper partner in my house and children”; the children are to be brought up in virtue in order that “we may expect them to be profitable to us, to defend us and comfort us in our old age.” Such homely and appealing purposes as these would be recognized as sound by all who marry, from Sganarelle to our own younger generation. [p.22] For the problems of the race and of society are apprehended in marriage as personal problems. It is our misfortune that the scholars have lost this point of view in exploring the nature of the family.

Xenophon was not the only Greek who wrote upon oikonomia. To Aristotle we owe a profound discussion of the same subject. An important part of the first book of Aristotle’s Politics is devoted to an analysis of oikonomia and especially of the distinction between oikonomia, the household art, and chrematistics, the art of money-making. For oikonomia, according to Aristotle, is the art of acquiring what is needful, while chrematistics is the art of acquiring without limit. This profound distinction has been lost to modern thought. It is a distinction which, had we retained it, would have preserved us from the blind absurdities of classical economics.

There is no modern system of thought – unless indeed it be in the field of ethical speculation – which presumes to treat of the art of acquiring what is needful. Modern economics is a doctrine not of the household art, but of the art of money-making. In Xenophon’s book, Socrates proves that he is really wealthier than his host, for though the host has many estates and slaves he has even more expenses and responsibilities. “Wealth,” according to the principles of oikonomia, is not a mere quantity of goods, but a ratio of goods to needs. And this is the kind of thinking that family life requires. But modern economics, even it it disguises itself under a new name such as “welfare economics,” is not a theory of acquiring what is needful, but rather of acquiring without limit. It corresponds to the Greek chrematistics rather than to oikonomia. The doctrine which once treated of the house[p.23]hold in terms of human needs has disappeared, its very name being usurped by a rival.

The history of European institutions shows clearly enough the reasons for this submerging of the doctrine of the household art. In the Middle Ages, social thinking went hand in hand with theology; not till the fifteenth century, when keen Italian thinkers were reformulating the Greek and Roman ideas which they had rediscovered, did social theorizing achieve an independent intellectual status. At that time it seemed that the Greek doctrine of the family would be revived and the Greek point of view would find new expression. Even before Machiavelli wrote The Prince, Alberti had written the most distinctive book on the family since Xenophon – a manuscript entitled Della Famiglia. His point of view was the simple and natural one that had been Xenophon’s. He was concerned with the welfare of the family for its own sake, and not for the sake of God or morality or society or the nation. He dealt with ultimate values in the domestic situation – he discussed, in short, “what is needful.” Unfortunately, Alberti had no successors.

The family of Alberti’s day was both a business enterprise and a family. The Medici bankers in the Middle Ages kept their business and household accounts in the same book. It did not occur to them that business could be a separate compartment of existence. The commercial revolution of the sixteenth century changed this attitude. “Italian bookkeeping” which rigorously separated business from family affairs became customary in all commercial operations. Business enterprise and family life took leave of each other. The attention of students fol[p.24]lowed business, ignoring the family. Scholars wrote on the principles of chrematistics, and called their product economics.

The titles of works on the family have multiplied in modern times, until they now choke fat bibliographies. We have treatments of the family as a social institution, as an educational institution, as an economic, even as a spiritual institution – but only very recently of the family as a domestic fact, existing for itself and having its own system of values, and being itself the test of “what is needful.” As one side or another of family life has projected itself into affairs, discussions and analyses of the family have resulted. LePlay made an interesting classification of families, patriarchal, rooted, and unstable, as he considered their contribution to the stability of the nation. He made the family the starting point of a system of sociology. Luther set down in stark terms the abject position of the wife, as he discussed the relation of the home to God’s plan. When the industrial revolution began breaking down the old family solidarity, a flood of dissertations on the sanctity of the home, women’s sacred sphere, and the holy duties of parenthood poured forth. But there has been no passionless survey of the home from the theoretical side, as there has been, for example, of the State.

This lack of an independent domestic theory is due largely to the absence of a real need for such a theory in the past. The theories of economics, political science, and sociology were evolved in response to genuine problems of conduct and belief; they did not arise out of the idle play of intelligence; they were forged to be the tools of kings and the weapons of parties and parliaments. [p.25] The family presented no issue of conduct to the European mind; men took it for granted.

Our own generation has seen a problem of the family arise in an insistent and thought-compelling form, and has seen the collapse of the sex-discussion taboo which once vitiated all analyses of domestic matters. Thus we are prepared for a revival of the ancient study of the art of the household.

This revival is coming about largely in response to pressure from below. Newspaper subscribers expect daily counsel on family and marriage problems as a part of their newspaper purchase. The Lynds, in the survey of “Middletown,” found that 68 out of 109 wives of working men and 26 out of 29 wives of business men read regularly or occasionally the Dorothy Dix syndicated column of advice. Masses of sophisticated women who graduate yearly from universities and masses of taxpayers who support the public schools are demanding education for married life. Sganarelle now sits on the school board, or even on the board of trustees of the university, where he can make Pancrace do his bidding. And he is insisting that something be done about this tangle of misconceptions and uncertainties which we encounter in marriage. High schools have established courses in home economics – Xenophon’s old word lent back to the household whence it came. Universities have offered courses, and organized departments to study some of the related problems. In the Vassar Institute of Euthenics, oikonomia comes once more into its own. The outline of the summer session announces lectures on “Social Problems of the Home,” “Child Guidance,” “Household Technology,” and “The Manipulation of [p.26] Batters and Doughs.” Aristotle’s broad conception of the rightful place of the family in the subject matter of social thought, and his keen intuition that in the family one has to do with a balancing of the necessities of human nature, are still sound.

But the family has changed indeed since Greek times; especially has it changed within the memory of the present generation. The trend has been ever in the direction of freedom. The element of consent has become increasingly important. The arrangement of marriages by parents is looked upon as an anachronism. The dissolution of marriage has become easier. Marriage begins with the engaging of two free personalities, and continues as long as there is mutual consent to its continuance. No mystery in marriage is greater than this: that just as the coming together of two bodies can create new life, so the interplay of two free personalities engenders new personal values and realizes new and higher levels of conduct. This is the fact toward which the schoolgirl gropes with her crude belief in “the right man” and the consummate personal relationship of love.

Perhaps it is best that the scholars of the past neglected domestic theory, for their labors might have served only to confuse and obscure the problems which confront us today. A theory based on the notion of status and duty would now be a useless encumbrance, for it is the personal element in the modern family that calls for an explanatory doctrine. It is this personal aspect of family life which the three great systems of the social sciences leave out of account. Political theory is primarily interested in human conduct as related to the will of the State, economics in the situation where each individual seeks [p.27] his own advantage, sociology in the complex total of influences which people exert on each other by living in groups. They do not concern themselves with the personal relationship.

The situation suggests that we draw up a theory of marriage, which will explore conduct that springs out of that relationship; which will examine attitudes like jealousy or friendship as they occur between specific persons; which will describe the interplay of activity when an individual finds himself in the presence of no such generalized entity as a “state,” a “market,” or a “society,” but simply in the presence of another individual like himself. Can we not undertake to study the family as the State has been studied ever since Bodin and Hobbes laid down the foundations of modern political theory, and as the business world has been examined since Quesnay and Adam Smith propounded their theories?

Here we make the basic assumption of domestic theory. Let it be, if you will, a fictional assumption; it may none the less be an enlightening one. We assume that the relationship of husband to wife is one of personalities. We will make the experiment of deducing the consequences of this assumption, of following out its corollaries, and explaining its meanings. This experiment will involve, at least tentatively, the setting apart of an independent field of social study, which will be related to the other main fields of the social sciences somewhat as is indicated in the chart on the following page.

In exploring the nature of the family from these postulates we will have to take into account political, economic, and social facts, just as political theory, economics, and sociology have each something to say about [p.29] the family. We will recognize frankly the limitations of all theorizing: that theory cannot take the place of wisdom. And yet we feel the driving need for a rigid and self-consistent analysis of the domestic problem. Moreover, we are confident that theories relating to human affairs, however logic-bound they may be, do not remain mere neutral intellectual exercises, but develop a profound usefulness. As soon as they gain general credence they serve not only to describe conduct, but also to justify and determine it. If we say that an act is illegal or uneconomic, a complete theory of jurisprudence or of economics lends its wealth of meaning to our judgment. Similarly, in our theory of the family, we will hope to give meaning to the idea that certain kinds of conduct are domestic, whereas others are nondomestic. Such is our ultimate goal. Our starting point is the personal character of the relationship of man to wife.


Domestic Theory and the Social Sciences


Science or Discipline Relationship Subject Matter View of Human Nature
Social Sciences: deal with man in relationship to other men
Sociology Social influence The Group Man responds to influence of group.
Political theory Political domination The State Man subject to the will of other persons under authority.
Economic theory Economic interest The Economic System Man acts in his own interests.
Domestic theory Personal The Family Man acts in the interests of another person.

[p.29] In writing an Outline of Domestic Theory one would endeavor first to define this personal relationship on which marriage is based, just as the political scientist puzzles the freshman by a definition of sovereignty on the first page of his textbook. What does the lover mean who says, “I love you for yourself alone?” Can this love be transferred to another person? Will it remain constantly the same? Must it include all the activities of the loved one? These questions must all be taken into account.

What is a family? How are its members bound together? Should they be subject to the authority of a dominant member, or is the family self-governing? What is one to expect of his partner in marriage, and what may be required in turn? Why marry at all? And perhaps most difficult of all: Whom shall I marry?

[p.30] Let the professor of domestic theory ponder these questions, and study the answers systematically. He may perhaps create a “domestic man” as the economists have created in the “economic man” a fictitious being who figures as a norm of behavior. He will discover laws of domestic behavior that will correspond to such coinage as “the law of diminishing returns” in the sister sciences. He will provide a terminology for precise discussion of domestic problems. His cool, impersonal theorizing will furnish a refuge from the bitterness of personal disagreement in family life, and be helpfully at hand in lovers’ conversations.