JUST as the examination of convention revealed an antithesis between family and society, so also an analysis of authority clarifies the distinction between family and State.

Occidental families find that the problem of authority in the home is already posed for them in the words of the marriage service which require that one spouse promise to obey the other. The wedding customs of other peoples may be less specific in referring to domination of one partner over the other, but usually there is some standard pattern of authority and subordination to which families are expected to conform. But families do not conform to these patterns. A strong-willed American girl who has commanded her fiancé in every crisis and prevailed in every decision may promise as a matter of form to obey him, but no one is misled by the promise, least of all the husband and wife. Among primitive peoples who consecrate the authority of the male with all the machinery of rigorous custom at their command, the women with their teasing and giggling and singing of pointed songs are far from being completely dominated.

Can there be a definite allocation of authority in a family organization? Folklore and table are full of the discussion of this moot point. The situation in which [p.79] one spouse dominates while seeming to submit is an unfailing theme of humorous narrative.

There is for instance the anecdote of the philosopher who set out to prove that throughout the whole country no man was lord of his own household. He took with him two horses, a gray and a bay, and gave out word that to any man who was sole ruler at his home he would freely give one of the horses as a reward. He went from one farmstead to another, repeating his inquiry and offer. Since these were simple, honest folk, the husbands all told him truly that they were often checked and governed by their wives and in this their wives confirmed them. Finally he encountered a canny farmer who asserted that he alone was ruler in his house. His wife, a sharp-faced woman, bore out his statement and owned that it was the truth. Whereupon the philosopher told him to choose a horse, either the gray or the bay.

The farmer looked the horses over carefully. “I think I’ll take the bay.”

The philosopher began to untie the bay, and while he was thus engaged the farmer talked in low tones to his wife. Then, having spoken with her no more than a moment, he called out to the philosopher, “Hold, sir, I think I will take the gray.” But the philosopher, laughing, drove away with both horses, and returned gladly to his home, having proved that which he had set out to demonstrate.

Recently John Macy reported the results of a similar amateur investigation. He had inquired of his married friends whether in a crisis the husband or the wife prevailed. His friends were inclined to regard the question [p.80] as inconclusive if not actually foolish. His report bore the stinging title, “The Two-Headed Monster, the Family.” From the point of view of one who seeks to know definitely where authority resides, the family is monstrous indeed.

But why should we wish to know where authority in the family is centered? The question is one which implies that the family is a miniature State. It carries over to the discussion of domestic affairs that doctrinaire difficulty which attends the so-called juridical theory of the State, namely, the search for sovereignty, for a supreme will-determining organ of the political group.

Kinship organizations are often political in character. The community sometimes holds the head of a household responsible for the conduct and debts of its members; the laws of republican Rome gave to the paterfamilias complete authority over the lives and property of his descendants and their wives. It is noteworthy that the kinship groups which have so strongly marked a political character are usually larger than the natural family. In any case, this aspect of the organization of the family is only one of the many conventional characteristics which society imposes on the family by means of pressure from without, or introduces from within by inculcating ideals of conduct. It is only as an institution, not as a fact in nature, that the family has any standardized organization of authority. It is formally impossible for the State to exist without sovereignty, but the family can lead a vigorous life without making use of any will-determining organ whatsoever.

Much of the life of the family goes on without the making of corporate decisions. The husband may do [p.81] something of which the wife does not approve; the wife may do something contrary to the husband’s wishes. Neither of them is expressing the collective will of the family in his act. And yet his act is part of a complex of action which fills domestic life.

Certainly there are some questions which the family must definitely decide, one way or the other. It is not difficult to envisage the making of these decisions as if it were a kind of political process. Here the father initiates a move and the mother has veto power; there the supreme authority is a council in which the two eldest children have a voice but no vote. F.P.A. printed in his column in the New York World a political analysis of a family campaign to buy a Buick sedan. Says the father:

“At a caucus of my faction held last night at dinner the situation was fraught with suspense. My wife, heroine of many similar campaigns, indorsed the Huick, but my favorite son Joe aligned himself with the irreconcilables. In his keynote speech he demanded a Darmon.”

“Which way did your daughter Betty swing?”

“She is in the doubtful column. Her sister Bab is also on the fence. It is my youngest, Connie, who threw the bomb-shell into the convention. She was not expected to loom very large on the horizon. But it seems now that she occupies a pivotal position and I fear she may be a deciding factor in the conflict. She is standing pat for an imported model.”

“The outlook is hardly encouraging.”

“Far from it. But I intend to marshal my forces. Betty and Bab can be won over and instructed. That will give my cohorts an overwhelming plurality. When Joe sees which way the wind is blowing he will change his stand and lie low until next year. Thus Connie will find herself the standardbearer of a lost cause and will be forced to capitulate.” [p.82] If the family existed primarily as an instrument for formulating decisions upon matters of policy, the political-theory analysis of the domestic situation would be useful and valid. If the principal problems of domestic life were problems of deciding upon a common line of action, then it would be obvious that the structure of the family was ill-adapted for the solving of its problems, and John Macy might fairly use the epithet “Two-Headed Monster” in writing of the family. It cannot be disputed that the modern Occidental family is in fact two-headed, but it is only from the specialized viewpoint of political theory that this two-headedness is monstrous.

In our political way of thinking we attribute to the State one single psychological quality – a will. We regard the State as an artificial person, endowed with volitional unity, and equipped with a specialized organ or sovereign which determines its will. The Crown in Parliament expresses the will of the British State by making laws and directing administrative policies.

But that a community of men are endowed with a common will is perhaps more a fiction and a metaphor than a description of objective truth. As Willoughby, dean of American political theorists, concedes in his discussion of the Fundamental Concepts of Public Law, this theory of the State “may start with any premise that it is deemed useful to assume . . . an attempt to examine their abstract validity would be as devoid of meaning as to question whether it is correct to use x or y to indicate the unknown quantity in an algebraic expression. . . . Analytical political philosophy does not attempt the statement of metaphysically correct propositions. The essential juristic qualities which it predicates [p.83] of the State are not supposed to correspond to substantive qualities which, ontologically speaking, inhere in the State and in law.”

There is no quarrel with the political theorists if they find it useful to attribute a metaphysical common personality to the State. But it is clear that the family can have no such unitary personality, to which a unitary will can attach. For the family is made up of a number of distinct and complete personalities which in the nature of things cannot be merged.

If we think of an individual in one capacity only (for example, his political capacity) then it is possible to imagine that relative to that particular capacity or range of activity there has been a merging of his will in some larger will. But when we think of a complete personality, then such a merging of one will in another is inconceivable and self-contradictory.

The wife who attempts to make complete submission to her husband diminishes the personal character of her marriage relationship. If it were psychologically possible for her completely to annihilate her own will, or to merge it in her husband’s, her relationship with her husband would cease to be a personal one. Such perfect self-effacement, however it be studied and pursued, can never be achieved. But even to attempt its achievement is monstrous and abnormal. The promise to obey in marriage, when seriously meant, intends not the suicide but rather the dedication of a personality and will. The tie of personality and the distinction of persons in marriage can be rendered less important (in so far as mechanical submission obtains), but it cannot be effaced.

It is in a sense paradoxical that the family, in which [p.84] the most complete intimacies of life are possible, should none the less be so constituted that we must regard its members as forever distinct in personality and will – and hence forever in a state of tension. This is the paradox which, as Keyserling has pointed out, makes of marriage a fundamentally tragic situation.

Herein we discover the most profound difference between the domestic and the political conception of the family. Whenever we are confronted with a number of individual things and it is required that we grasp them collectively, our minds reach at once for some metaphor or symbol by which we can reduce the diversity to unity, and envisage the many as one. So it is with the many citizens of at State and with the separate members of a family. The symbols which fulfill these purposes in political theory are all of a type which involves the merging of an aspect or capacity of individuals in a higher metaphysical unity. There is the symbol of the organism, which we establish by envisaging the individuals as organs having functions, and being defined by the functions they perform; there is the symbol of sovereignty which we create by deducing from the unity of a rational system of law the existence of a unitary and rational lawgiver in whose being men as legal creatures are merged, or before whom all bow down; there is also the symbol of the group mind, which we form by inferring from observed similarities in the thoughts and feelings of many individuals the existence of some super-personal mind in the processes of which the individuals participate, but with which they are not wholly identified.

We cannot use such symbols as these in envisaging the unity of the family because the personality of the [p.85] family relationship makes them inapplicable.1 Count Keyserling suggests that we conceive the unity of the family by means of a more appropriate metaphor: the elliptical field of force.

. . . the life-form of marriage must possess a special and independent significance. Love, propagation and self-preservation can only act as components. Within its domain of isolation the ego must be fundamentally secured. Such a conception of higher unity is actually realizable: it corresponds exactly with an elliptical field of force. The latter has two loci which are fixed and never can be merged in one another; its interpolar tension cannot be abolished if the field is to remain intact. The interpolar tension is at the same time an independent unit created by the field of force itself. This unit cannot be deduced from the specific character of each pole, taken separately or together, or from any other possible relation existing between the two. In the very same sense marriage represents an independent unit over and above each partner and his particular impulse.2

Keyserling’s metaphor of polarity, used to define the nature of the family, has this virtue: that it keeps clearly before us the fact that personalities cannot be merged. The writer who describes the family as a “two-headed monster” was unconsciously presenting to us not a faulty or accidental character of a debased or disorganized family but the essential and universal character of the family in all times. The separateness of the spouses is an excellence, not a blemish, in married life. In the [p.86] words which Kahlil Gibran’s Prophet addressed to husbands and wives:

. . . Let there be spaces in your togetherness
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.
Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it be rather a moving sect between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from the same cup.
Give one another your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each or you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.
Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.3

A continuous cycle of tension and accommodation characterizes the inner life of the family. In the dialectics of courtship conflicts are the rule rather than an exception. After marriage, the home furnishes an arena for the contest of wills. Those who marry are seldom blind to the probabilities of differences and disputes between themselves. The prospect of future tension between them has tremendous reality to them. They speculate upon the way that they will settle future quarrels. But the doctrinaire solution: that one is to rule and the other to obey, is really no solution at all. If indeed the bride and groom have been educated to believe that one of them must be master and the other slave, the subordinate [p.87] partner simply works out a technique of cajolery and persuasion which is more subtle but no less effective than an outright and independent willfulness.

The laws of domestic tension are not the laws of political dominion. The two differ in method and principle. In family life it is often the weakest who has his way, and this by reason of the weakness itself. The willful child or the childish adult, the bedridden invalid or the nervous housewife often becomes the tyrant before whom the stronger willed and better balanced members of the family habitually give way.

A contest of wills in domestic life is often a competition in irritability. For the family cannot, like the State, run roughshod over the personality of its members. At least the family cannot do so with impunity. The object of the State, as Machiavelli profoundly observed, is to perdure without limit of time. No one human life, be it even the life of the Prince, measures the life ambition of the State. But the natural family has its life-term meted out to it by the lives of its primary members. The State can sacrifice the individual and still attain its object; the family can offer up no such sacrifices. The family must therefore adjust itself to personal frailties which the State would disdain to take account of. Chronic resentments and repeatedly injured feelings can poison family life and continue to poison it as long as the family lasts. There is no getting rid of the poison except by making personal adjustments – or extinguishing the family. Making a “personal adjustment,” after all (however smooth and inoffensive the words may sound), is nothing more or less than doing what some one else wants you to do.

[p.88] It has been established that personal interaction is a necessary characteristic of the natural family, and that this interaction is in some degree independent of social convention. It now appears, when the structure of the family is examined from the point of view of authority, that this interaction has the character of a tension between two independent wills. The tension of domestic life is continuous, but not necessarily unpleasant. It involves conflict, but not necessarily hostility. It may take the form of competitive benevolence. The seeming paradox that there should be conflict without hostility is explained by the peculiar status of self-interest in family life. For loving and cherishing in family life are more significant than obeying.


  1. The logical difficulty of conceiving of complete persons as members of a collective unity has been explored in the theological discussion of the Trinity, which requires of us that we think of the Trinity without “confusing the persons nor confounding the substance.”

  2. Count Hermann Keyserling, The Book of Marriage (Harcourt, Brace, New York, 1926), p. 8.

  3. Reprinted from Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1923), by special permission of the publishers.