How states are formed

by Mgr Henri Delassus

The apostolate of Mgr Henri Delassus (1836–1921) in the diocese of Lille is typical of the faithful service of the multitude of the clergy who are commemorated only on the Feast of All Saints. The reach and grasp of his insight extended far beyond his ecclesiastical jurisdiction, to very heart of the spiritual and political malaise of Europe and the world, whose evil fruits we continue to reap over a century later. A perfect journalist, his highly focused works grappled with the most pressing matters of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, especially those urged with such paternal concern by Blessed Pius IX, Leo XIII and St Pius Xmeriting the special attention and congratulations of the latter, who raised him to the dignity of a domestic prelate in 1904. Admonished repeatedly by his immediate superiors for his staunch fidelity to these holy Pontiffs in all matters touching upon faith and morals, Mgr Henri Delassus continued to instruct and edify the clergy and the laity alike well into the twentieth century.

Voice of the Family is pleased to present a series of twelve articles, taken from Mgr Delassus’s two-volume work, The Problem of the Present Time: Antagonism of two civilisations (1904), in which he examines the conditions of the restoration of Christian society and the return to social truth. This section considers the role of the family as the origin and model of all society and the disastrous effects of human tampering with this institution so manifestly wanted by God and nature.


To guide society back to true civilisation, it is not sufficient to reestablish order in minds and in the world of work. It is also necessary to reestablish it in society itself, thereby restoring social truth at the same time as economic and religious truth.

Social truth is opposed to the democratic utopia. The democratic utopia is equality. Democracy dreams up a social state which has regard only for individuals — and individuals who are socially equal. This is not what God wanted. To convince ourselves of this, we have only to consider what He has made.

God could have created each man directly, as He created Adam — as He also did for the angels — however, He did not want equality even there! He made each angel to be a species distinct in itself, responding to a particular idea, and these ideas, realised, are graduated in their being, as they were in the divine thought.

The human race forms a single species; if we all had received existence directly from the hands of the Creator then equality might have reigned among us. But He had other plans. He wanted us to receive life from one another and, thereby, to be constituted not in social liberty and equality but in dependence on our parents and in the hierarchy which would be born of this dependence.

God created Adam; then, from the body of Adam, He took the flesh that He would use to make the body of Eve. Then He blessed man and woman and said, “Increase and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it”. Thus God created the family; He made it a society, and He constituted it on a completely different plane to that of social equality: woman submitted to man and children submitted to their parents. We find therefore, at the very origins of the human race the three great social laws, authority, hierarchy and union: the authority which belongs to the authors of life; the hierarchy which makes man superior to woman and parents superior to their children; and the union which will conserve among them one blood vivified. From this first society arose states.

“The family,” said Cicero, “is the principle of the city and in a way the seed of the commonwealth. The family is divided, all the while remaining united; brothers, children and children’s children, no longer able to be contained in the paternal house, leave it in order to go and found new houses, like so many colonies. They form alliances, whence affinities and the increase of the family. Little by little, the houses multiply, everything grows, everything develops and the commonwealth is born.”

In the sixteenth century, Bodin consecrated chapter VII of the third of his Six Books of the Commonwealth to show “how the origin of bodies and communities was in the family”. And M. Savigny, in his Treatise on Roman Law, also says, “Families form the seed of the state”.

Such indeed are the origins of the people of God. At its beginning, Abraham founded a new family; from this family came twelve tribes which composed one people. It was the same for the gentiles. M. Fustel de Coulanges, in his famous book, The Ancient City demonstrated how, in ancient Greece, as well as in Roman Italy, the state was born from the domestic household. The Greek phratria (society of brothers), like the Latin gens (society of families) was only a more extended family, reunited under a single chief who, in Rome, carried the name of pater (father), in Athens the name of eupatrides (“good father”).

At the origin of the Assyrian, Egyptian and other civilisations also, one finds that a family — or several families — developed first, then other families came and grouped around them to form a tribe, then the tribes agglomerated to form a nation. The phratria of the Greeks, the gens of the Romans were not an association of families, as the words are sometimes understood; they were families themselves, which united in one body all the families sprung out of their stock, having attained, across successive generations, by the power of traditions, a development which already made of them a numerous social group. This did not prevent a certain number of foreign families from coming, in succession, to place themselves under the protection of the phratria or gens. “One sees from this,” says M. Fustel de Coulanges, “that the family of the most ancient times, with its oldest branches and with its youngest, with its servants and its hangers-on, could at length form a far-extending society. It was maintained in unity, in the oldest branch, by the authority of the hereditary chief.”

In the early years of the hellenic civilisation, a few important families shared the country and governed it. Their chiefs bore the name of kings, and these kings were agricultors. Ulysses, King of Ithaca, prides himself on his skill at scything grass and at ploughing furrows; their daughters went to do the laundry on the shores of the Ionian Sea; the closest of bonds linked these chiefs with those who surrounded them.

We see social groupings constituted in the same way at the origins of our modern world: families extending to form clans, just as they had formed the phratria among the Greeks and the gens among the Romans. “The family,” says M. Flach, “gathering around its chief, formed the kernel of an extended association: the clan. The texts of the Middle Ages — chronicles and chansons de geste — show that the clan, extended in its employers and clientele, corresponds almost exactly to the gens of the Romans.” M. Flach goes on to show how the clan, developing in its turn, brought about the fief, a more extended family, of which the sovereign was again the father, to the extent that, in the texts of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (the period which saw the full development of the feudal regime), one often meets the word familia used to refer to the ensemble of persons united under the sovereignty of a feudal chief. “The baron,” says M. Flach, “is before anything else the head of a family.” And the historian cites text in which the term “father” is assimilated to barons and “son” to vassals.

“The high baron is distinguished by a greater extensiveness.” From the little fief came the great fief. The agglomeration of great fiefs formed kingdoms. Thus was France made. Language, as well as history, gives testimony to this. The ensemble of persons placed under the authority of the father of a family is called the familia. The ensemble of persons united under the authority of a lord (chief of a clan), from the tenth century on, is also the familia. The ensemble of persons united under a baron (chief of a feudal fief) — familia. And, as we will see, the ensemble of the families in France was itself governed like a family. The territory on which these diverse authorities were exercised, whether by the head of a family, the head of a clan or a feudal baron or king, uniformly called itself patria: the domain of the father.

“A seigneury,” writes M. Seignobes, “is a State in miniature; with its own army and customs; with its own bugle call and tribunal, which are the ordonnance of the lord. France, more than any other country, was divided into sovereignties of this kind, above all in the tenth century. A full account of them all has not been made but it certainly exceeded ten thousand.”

In 989, one of these feudal barons, who personified the character which marked each one of them in the most powerful and complete manner, was carried to the summit of the social group, under the same impulsion as the movement which drove France to organise its fierce powers. Hugh Capet became king. Royalty came from the authority exercised by the father of a family, by the intermediary of the feudal baron.

So, civilisation began everywhere with the family. Here and there men were born in whom paternal love and the desire to live on in their descendants developed and acted more powerfully. They set to work with greater ardour, imposing stricter and more solid restraints on their appetites, governing their families with greater authority, inspiring them to severer morals, imprinted in the habits which they contracted. These habits were transmitted by education; they became traditions which sustained the next generations in the way begun by their ancestors. Continuing in this way led the family to a higher and higher position; at the same time, the union which all the branches of the primitive stock conserved among themselves gave them a power which grew from day to day with their multiplication and the accumulation of riches from the work of all.

In this eminent position, one family became the centre of attention for those which surrounded it. They requested shelter under its strength in order to protect themselves and promised their assistance in return. Among them, there were some who, ambitious to govern and instruct, felt driven by the prosperity that they witnessed and endeavoured to practice the virtues of which they saw the example and results.

Such is the historical origin of all tribes, and the origin of nations is entirely similar: tribes agglomerated just as families did, and always under the influence of a princely family. The social contract which, one fine day, made strangers gather together and bind themselves by a conventional pact, only ever existed in the imagination of Jean-Jacques Rousseau; and if somewhere his disciples have tried to constitute themselves as a state, their artificial society lost no time in breaking apart. Nothing subsists but that which is made by nature and according to its laws. We have seen these laws acting at the origins of the Greek and Roman civilisation, as at the origins of modern civilisation. Missionaries and explorers see them among savages. Here, no less than elsewhere, there is always one tribe which is the principle of organisation, and this organisation holds from the preeminence of the family to which the others are subordinated. This is the hierarchy in its first formation and the aristocracy in its first stage.

For us, among the ruins accumulated by the invasions of the barbarians, there was no more order because there was no more authority. By the action of saints, families arose, animated by the sentiments that Christianity had begun to spread throughout the world: sentiments of devotion for the small and the weak, sentiments of gratitude and of faithfulness among the protected, sentiments of concord and love among all. The hagiography of the era brings us into the presence of families which rose above others in this way by the strength of their virtues. In the tenth century, there rose above all others the family of Hugh Capet, which made France by the patience of its genius, by the perseverance of its devotion and by the constancy of its service. And, it must be added: “by the will and grace of God”. When the comte de Maistre explained this expression of scripture: “It is I who make kings”, he made sure to add: “This is not a metaphor but a law of the politics. God literally makes kings. He prepares royal races; He matures them amid a cloud which hides their origin. In this way do they appear crowned with glory and honour.”

And M. Blanc de Saint-Bonnet wrote: “When He who sounds hearts and loins chooses one family among all the others, His choice is real and divine. While leaving them free either to gather or dissipate His gifts, He soon proves the most noble families by furnishing them with more legislators, warriors and saints, although on this point they already carry off the prodigious portion of the prize.” The work accomplished by them shows that the hand which chose them also sustains and guides them.

“Starting from nothing,” said M. Taine, “the kings of France made a sturdy state which, at the moment when the Revolution exploded, contained twenty-six million inhabitants and was the most powerful in Europe. In all the intervening time, the king was the head of the public defence and the country’s liberator from foreigners.

“Interiorly, since the twelfth century, helmeted and always on the road, they were the great judicators, they demolished the towers of feudal brigands, rebuked the excess of the strong, protected the oppressed, abolished private wars, established order and peace: an immense work which continued without interruption, from Louis-le-Gros to Saint Louis; from Philippe-le-Bel to Charles VII and Louis XI; from Henri IV to Louis XIII and XIV.

“However, all the useful things executed by their order, or developed under their patronage; roads, ports, canals, universities, academies; establishments of refuge, education, science, industry and commerce all carry their mark and proclaim them public benefactors.”

M. Mignet, in his History of the Revolution, despite the singular indulgence that he shows for those who overthrew the monarchy, offered this remark for his part:

“France was the work of the Capetian dynasty who, for seven centuries, worked on the establishment of this precious unity of territory, of spirit, of language, of government. It is from the centre of the country that the Capetian dynasty appeared for its unitive conquest. Paris on the Seine and Orleans on the Loire were its points of departure; the ocean, the Pyrenees, the Mediterranean, the Alps, the Rhine its points of arrival… But, all the while working towards its goal — the unity of territory and of power — the dynasty shows a shrewd moderation. It incorporated provinces without destroying them, leaving them the civil customs on which rested their existence and a part of the political privileges which they enjoyed.”

When one casts one’s mind back to the period of the dismemberment of the empire of Charlemagne, one sees come out of the Treaty of Verdun three states of roughly equal importance, each formed of contrasting elements, which with time have become France, Germany and Italy. Of these three states, France alone came rapidly to unity. At the beginning of the thirteenth century, under Philippe-Auguste, France is in possession of its national unity; it exists as a single and homogenous national body. It was necessary for Germany and Italy to wait until the nineteenth century to realise the same unity (and what a unity!) as France under the empire of Charlemagne; for which one and the other never ceased to strive over the course of their energised history.

Where does this difference come from? From the fact that, in France, the law of nature had been better followed; from the Capetian family, the fixity of the royal dynasty, founded on the Salic law, which formed and maintained national unity. It is thanks to this principle of heredity that nowhere were the conditions of strength and duration — necessary to the accomplishment of the great national work — practiced with more coherence and regularity than the French monarchy was able to acquire over the centuries.

This series will continue next month, on the subject: “States must conserve the familial type”.