Patriarchy was a positive ideal, now fading

Patriarchy is a way of thinking about things that was accepted in every major civilization, until now.

The basic idea of patriarchy is that society is, and should be, organized on the model of the extended patriarchal family, guided by a powerful and wise father.

The patriarch had a responsibility to guide and protect the family.  In return, his children and dependents were obligated to obey him.

This was the rationale for the authority of Emperors, Kings, Popes and Caliphs, who supposedly stood in relation to their peoples as loving fathers to their children.

It was the moral basis of royal dynasties, feudal lords, family businesses and humble peasant households.

Not only society, but the whole universe was supposedly organized on a patriarchal basis. 

Jews, Christians and Muslims worship a Heavenly Father, a powerful, wise and good parent who loves us and watches over us, and expects our love and obedience in return.

The senior gods of the Greco-Roman and Hindu pantheons were patriarchal fathers who headed extended families.

There were places for women in many of these religions—the Virgin Mary and various saints in Orthodox and Catholic Christianity, goddesses in the pagan pantheons, but always in a subordinate place to a father figure..

The five filial relationships of Confucianism—son to father, student to teacher, younger brother to older brother, younger friend to older friend, and subject to ruler—are patriarchal relationships. Notice they are all male-to-male relationships.

All the relationships are parallel to the father-son relationship.  The father (teacher, elder, ruler) protects and guides the son (student, youth, subject) who gives loyalty and obedience in return.

Many different societies believed in a version of the Great Chain of Being—a hierarchical ladder stretching down from God through kings and aristocrats to humble peasants, who, however, exercised patriarchal authority over their wives and children.

The patriarchal hierarchy could be a system of amoral naked power.  Thomas Piketty, in Capital and Ideology, mentioned a medieval French aristocrat who punished rebels by cutting off their hands and feet and returning them to their families.

Even when the patriarchs lived up to their moral code, the system was still oppressive in many ways.  I wouldn’t want to go back to the old ways. 

But there was something valuable there, a relationship of responsibility and loyalty, that has been lost.

Our problem today is that our institutions are still organized as patriarchal hierarchies.  But the people in charge of them no longer have confidence in patriarchal authority or exercise patriarchal responsibility—neither paternal responsibility for those in their charge nor loyalty to any authority above them.

Feminists point of that the patriarchy gave men too much power over women.  This is true.  Wife-beating, to take one example, is taken for granted in works ranging from the Confessions of St. Augustine to the short stories of O. Henry.  Recognition of equal rights for women is a great advance in civilization.

But the point of patriarchy was not so much subordination of women as the power of a father over children and an extended family.

In the patriarchal system, the matriarch was second in command to the patriarch.  Her power was derivative, but it was real.

Patriarchal businesses across many cultures had a master and a mistress at the head.  They exercised authority over a vast extended family of children, grandchildren, journeymen, apprentices and lowly servants.  It was an unequal relationship and sometimes an oppressive relationship, but it was a human relationship. 

Widows succeeded husbands to run family businesses.  Wives of slave-owners or aristocrats were in charge while the man was away fighting wars.  Women succeeded men in royal dynasties.

In many societies and periods of history, women were banned from the practice professions such as law or medicine, but they were eligible to be queens and empresses.

For the most part, though, ambitious, strong-minded and able women exercised power by manipulating their husbands and sons.  It is good that they no longer have to do that.

The modern world is shaped by an attempt to substitute the ideal of fraternity (brotherhood) for patriarchy.  More recently the ideal has become a combination of fraternity and sorority; I don’t know a gender-neutral word for the combination.

Fraternity/sorority is the ideal of what’s been called the WEIRD (westernized, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) societies.  Our relationships and obligations are not primarily to paternal figures above us and dependents below us.

Fraternity/sorority, or brotherhood/sisterhood, is a noble ideal.  The problem is that we don’t have institutions organized around that ideal.  Not above the level of the New England town meeting, the congregational church or the small-scale producer or consumer cooperative.

Most of our institutions—corporations, bureaucracies, universities, hospitals—are organized on the top-down, great-chain-of-being, patriarchal model, but the people who run them are not paternalistic. 

Across the Western world, but particularly in the USA, there has been a loss of confidence by people in charge of institutions, but also a loss of a sense of responsibility. 

This has been accompanied by a loss of authority of parents over children, and a loss of respect and concern for elders.  The USA is distinctive for the number of old people in nursing homes rather than being taken care of at home by their grown children. 

I once asked a friend of Muslim heritage what she thought of the way women are treated in Islam.  She thought a minute and replied that Western men on average are more respectful of their wives than Muslim men are, but Muslim men are more respectful of their mothers.

The fertility rate has fallen below the replacement rate in the USA and many other countries.  Raising children requires hard work and sacrifice.  Why bother with it if you don’t regard yourself as part of a continuing dynasty?

The poet, Robert Bly, wrote a book called The Sibling Society back in 1996, in which he said the USA into a society of adolescents, rebelling against paternal authority that is no longer there.

I think the appeal of Jordan Peterson, and the reason he is so disliked by many feminists, is that he gives young men a positive ideal of patriarchy—that is, of living a meaningful life by taking on responsibility.  His great popularity reflects the need and desire for such a positive ideal.

My hope is that somehow it will be possible to push forward and make the ideal of fraternity/sorority a practical reality.  My other hope is that somehow it will be possible to restore the positive ideals of patriarchy without the tyrannical experts.

I have to say I do not represent the ideal I have been writing about.  I am divorced, childless and not a leader.  I am part of the problem, not the solution.  Don’t be like me, but consider what I have written.


Semper Virilis: The Road to Manhood in the 21st Century.  Not quite what I mean by patriarchy, and not a path I claim to have followed.  But interesting, nevertheless.

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