Traditional families (1)
By Mgr Henri Delassus | 24 May 2023
This is the fourteenth in a series of twenty-one articles, drawn from Mgr Delassus’s two-volume work, The Problem of the Present Time: Antagonism of two civilisations (1905), in which he examines the conditions for the restoration of Christian society and the return to social truth. The section of his work translated for this series considers the role of the family as the origin and model of all society and the disastrous effects of human tampering with an institution which is indispensable to the natural and spiritual order. This series began in April 2022 with “How states are formed”.
Giving back to fathers of families the freedom to rebuild an inheritance that can be transmitted from generation to generation is only half the task to be accomplished in order to recover the seedbed of family, in the true sense of the world, in France. The second task is to make tradition be reborn there. The first is only indirectly in our power, through the legislator; the second can and must be the work of everyone — each in his own house. One can only hope for a great movement of abolitionary opinion against revolutionary laws, but what each one can do is revive the spirit of family at home. In this way, one does the greatest good that one can for one’s own people, and at the same time, prepares the renovation of society. Because we need tradition to back up law in order for it to have the strength which the assent of hearts gives it, we also need family education to back up tradition in order to sustain and maintain it and make it the principle of morals, without which good laws are nothing, and against which bad laws can do nothing.
30 years ago or so, on 15 November 1871, Émile Montégut wrote in the Revue des Deux Mondes:
“Insofar as the remnants of tradition have united the new France with the old, the consequences of the Revolution have not seen the light of day. But once the wheel of time turns far enough that no remnants subsists of that which made it, the penny drops, and contemporary generations, raised in a society in which only the Revolution stands erect, listen without astonishment to the words which, 30 years earlier, would have filled them with fear and trembling.”
Since 1871, the wheel of time has turned 30 times more, during which the revolutionary spirit has succeeded in crushing the last remnants of the traditions of old France. And if, 30 years ago, they had managed to hear without astonishment the words which previously would have filled them with fear and trembling, today, we witness dispassionate acts which, in pagan antiquity, would have revolted the most barbaric peoples. Over the whole extent of France, schools in which children were once taught to know, love and adore God are closed by this motive loudly proclaimed by governments, that they want a society made up only of atheists.
Whence comes this dispassion? From the fact that there are no more fixed ideas in minds, no more principles firmly anchored in souls, but only vague and floating ideas incapable of putting energy into hearts. And why, in our days, do ideas float in this way? Because the mother ideas — the principles — have not been imprinted in the souls of children by parents, themselves already moulded by the teaching of their forebears, already imbued with these truths by their ancestors. In a word, because there is no more family tradition.
There was once, everywhere, an almost religious idea attached to this expression, “family tradition”, understood in this lofty sense, as much as to designate the heritage of truths and virtues, at the heart of which were formed the characters which made the endurance and grandeur of the family.
Today, this expression no longer means anything to the new generations who come to life. They appear one day to disappear the next, without having received and without leaving after them this spring of memories and affections, of principles and of customs, which once went from father to son, bringing families which were faithful to them above those which despised them. Every family which has traditions, generally speaking, owes them to one of its ancestors in whom the sentiment of the good was more powerful than in the common run of men and to whom wisdom was given and the will to inculcate their own into it.
“The truth is a good, and a family in which virtuous men succeed one another is a family of men who are of the good. This succession of virtues takes place when the family goes back to a good and honest origin, because the role of a principle is to produce many things which are similar to it; it is in a way its function to form its like. When it exists therefore, it is because there exists in that family a man so attached to the good that his goodness is communicated to his descendants through several generations; it necessarily follows that it is a virtuous family.”1
Every man who wants to found a “virtuous family” must first be persuaded that his duty is not limited, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau would have it, to providing for the physical needs of his child only as long as the latter is powerless to maintain his bodily life by himself. He owes him an intellectual, moral and religious education. Animals have the strength to provide for the physical needs of their young, and this is enough for them. Children, moral beings, have other needs, and this is why, other than strength, God has given to the father of the family the authority to train the will of his children, to make them enter into the path of the good, to maintain them and make them progress there. God wants this authority to be permanent, because moral progression is the work of a lifetime. And as, according to the intentions of providence, progress must be developed and grow from age to age, it is necessary that the human family is not extinguished with each generation: the familial bond must subsist between the dead and the living, knitting all the strands of a single descent, one to the next — and this, for strong families, down the centuries.
Man’s thought concerning the good must not end at his own children, they must carry beyond, over the generations which follow, making virtue into a tradition among them.
The commonplace book can contribute to this enormously. To begin this work, to appoint the eldest child to continue it and to make the same injunction to his own son, is the easiest and surest means of introducing tradition into families — on one condition, however, which is that they have for inviolable rule only to make alliances with families which the virtues that they want to transmit to their own children reign.
“To ally oneself with a family is to ally oneself with its benedictions and its maledictions, and the true dowry is not that which the public official sees on paper. The true dowry God alone knows, but to a certain degree, one can also know it by the memory of men. Ask yourself whether the blood which is going to mix with yours contains human and divine traditions and whether it has long been purified by the sacrifices of duty. Ask yourself if the souls are rich with God. Go back as far as possible in its hereditary history, so that in all the branches being explored like a mine going into the past, you know the weight before God of each generation which was a stranger to you and which is going to be joined to yours and become one in your posterity.”
Charles de Ribbe used the better part of his life to put commonplace books back in pride of place. After publishing the manuscripts of several old families, he published diverse works to bring to light the teachings which were found in them, and finally he wrote, using the models which he had in front of him, the Livre de famille, to serve as an exemplar and so to help fathers who wanted to put what was practised by our ancestors into practice at home. We cannot recommend the acquisition, reading and mediation on this book highly enough; there is little which can contribute so much to imprinting on our degenerate society a new impulsion towards the good.
- Fragment discussed by Stobaeus.
- Pensées de Joubert, XVI.
This series will continue next month with “Traditional Families (2)”, on the subject of commonplace books.