Union: the law of families and states

This is the third in a series of twenty 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 this work that is reproduced here 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.

The first part of this series, entitled “How states are formed”, appeared in the Digest in April 2022.

“Multiply” said the Lord to the first family, “fill the earth and subdue it”.1 Men, in multiplying, have only been able to subdue the earth — that is to say the ground, the forces of nature, plants, animals — in their empire by conserving union between themselves. Man on his own can do nothing. Association has made everything that we see: it is association which has produced all the riches that civilisation possesses at present. Everything has come from the work of men, associated in space and time.

Without union, there is no association, or if one tries to form an association, it wastes no time in dissolving. It is union which makes an ensemble form a whole. The moment that it is broken, society falls in ruin. We see only too well the anarchy in which our poor France is struggling. Divine wisdom warned us of what is happening to us: “Every kingdom divided against itself shall be made desolate: and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.”2

And union proceeds from love. Love is therefore the first law of the moral world; as its correlative — attraction — is the first law of the physical world. One and other give unity to the infinite variety of things. “As the stars gravitate in their orbits because they are force and weight,” said M. Funck-Brentano, in conclusion to his studies on civilisation and its law, “man lives in society because he is understanding and love.”

Love begins by uniting husband and wife, parents and children. But soon it enlarges the circle of its action. By marriages contracted by the children, relations extend and create affinity, which is no longer content to unite persons but must unite whole families. “The sacred flame of amity,” said Jean Bodin, “shows its first ardour between the husband and wife, then from fathers to children and brothers among themselves, and from them to near relations, and from near relations to allies.”

Continuing to radiate far from the hearth, the same flame creates those superior unities that we have seen take the name of Phratria, Gens, Mesnie, Patrie, all names which recall that these social entities have their principle in the family. The supreme social entity, the nation, is only really alive and vigorous so long as it conserves and maintains the sacred fire in its breast, as was the case in old France.

The Revolution extinguished it by taking away the hearth: that is the royal family. In lieu of love (of union), there is now only antagonism. There succeeded to close-knit France — magnificent in the cohesion between her provinces, in the unity of the patriotic sentiments of her children — such a disintegration of men and of things that we are, in the eyes of other nations, but the dust that the winds of wars and revolts can disperse in an instant.

How can this ruin be stopped? We will not respond to this question for ourselves. We will draw on foreign words; the words of a man who is not of the French race, though united to it by naturalisation and by the conversion from Judaism to Catholicism; a man whose word seems less prone to prejudice.3

“How can [France] return,” he asks, faced with the spectacle of our divisions, “how can it return to the necessary unity? There are no two ways about it: it must return to the principle which, in the fifth century, made France.

“The blood, the life, the patriotism, the momentum can only be given back to a people thrown off course, snatched from its traditions and dying, by taking it and attaching it once more to its principle.

“To the generative principle of the French nation, which was the Christian monarchy, another principle has been substituted all of a sudden. M. Thiers,4 the man who is unquestionably the most capable of making this new principle triumph, while he still held the executive powers, proposed an attempt under an image which did not lack grandeur or appeal. He compared the Republic, of which the name alone was a spectre for many, to the dreadful Cape of Storms off the coast of South Africa, famous for so many shipwrecks, and which vessels, for a long time, no longer dared approach. But a hardier and more confident navigator was found. Imposing on the terrible cape a more auspicious name — that of ‘Good Hope’ — he dared attempt the passage: the attempt was crowned with success and the Cape of Storms has remained the Cape of Good Hope. And [Thiers], as spiritual as he was deft, concluded: ‘We dare attempt, gentlemen, a new and loyal attempt at the Republic; that which was yesterday the Cape of Storms will nonetheless tomorrow be the Cape of Good Hope.’ It is now twelve years (today, thirty-three)5 into the attempt. Those who were interested in surveying the working, in directing the process of it, are found not only masters but absolute masters of France. None of the things that can make one succeed — power, riches, the sword, the word, audacity, acclamation, devotion, the self-sacrifice of a great number — has been lacking. Now, after twelve years (thirty-three years)6 of uninterrupted attempt, faced with a France which is fractured everywhere; in its divisions, more like to a ship whose boards are coming unstuck7 than to a people of brothers; while contemplating with stupefaction ‘religion expelled from schools, the cross snatched from cemeteries, the spiritual help denied to soldiers and to the sick, religious driven out and dispersed, finances wasted, the army thrown into disorder, public office reduced to servility, industry insufficiently protected, agriculture impoverished and without support, anarchic propaganda tolerated, Christian civil servants deposed and disgraced — to sum up: France tyrannised by the spirit of fragmentation on the inside; and powerless and degraded on the outside.’8 In the presence of such a spectacle, can one say in good conscience that the Cape of Storms has become the Cape of Good Hope?

“No! Hope lies elsewhere. It lies in a necessary return of the nation to the old principle which, having made France, can alone remake it.

“Yes, it is there that hope takes refuge! Because where the generative principle of unity is found, there also is found the renewal of the French homeland!

“In effect, nothing is strong in the history of a people like the generative principle which has been the source of it; nothing is blessed by God like the fidelity to maintain oneself according to it. The Jewish nation has presented a memorable example of this. Everyone knows that, in the illustrious succession of its kings, there is found one degenerate son of David who seems to have had at heart the purpose of earning the title of shame and torturer of his people — so much did he show himself impious and cruel. This was Manasses, the Nero of the Hebrew people. And it came about that God, taking pity on the groans of the victims, intervened with blows of justice which resonate throughout history. He delivered up the wicked king to Ashurbanipal and to his Assyrians who, having double-bound him in chains, took him to Babylon. Was not the captivity of the wicked king an opportunity to modify the hebraic government, or even to change dynasties, or at least to replace the impious king, now captive, with his son? None of the above was done. Faithful to the generative principle of the nation, the Hebrew people did not presume the right to modify its essence: it limited itself to establishing a provisory government; and when Manasses — after the long months of a hard captivity spent in tears and repentance, delivered by the same divine hand which had clapped him in irons — reappeared in Jerusalem, his throne awaited him intact. The fidelity of his people had not altered!

“On this occasion, God — He Who does not change either — was pleased to magnificently reward such admirable fidelity. He did so by two particularly providential events. The first was the apparition of Judith, one of the Jewish heroines. Already masters of the king, the Assyrians fancied themselves forthwith masters of the kingdom. It was then that God raised up Judith to bar their passage. The second fact, no less providential, was the coming of Josias to the throne of David. Grandson and second successor of Manasses, Josias was without question one of the best kings of Judah; one of its purest glories; him of whom Scripture makes this beautiful elegy: ‘The memory of Josias is like the composition of a sweet smell made by the art of a perfumer’.9

“This is what fidelity to the generative principle of a people’s existence can do for the unity and for the happiness of a people!

“Perseverance in prayer. Embracing penance. Return to unity. These are, according to the Bible and in the domain of the moral order, the three conditions indicated by God for the healing of nations.

“In fulfilling them, the healing of the French nation is morally certain. And if this healing is brought about, one will see reappear — with the return to religious belief, to the respect of all rights — the flowering of honour, the practice of true liberty, the noble ambition of glory, the protection of the weak, the security of commerce, the height of prosperity, the search for our alliance; in a word, everything which contributed, during the centuries which are envied at this time, to making France ‘the most beautiful kingdom after that of Heaven’.”10

For cohesion to exist, and for it to give life and prosperity to the social body, it is not enough for love to attach the sovereign to the subjects and the subjects to the sovereign. It must also unite the subjects among themselves by the devotion of the higher classes to the lower and the service of the lower to the higher.

Antiquity did not completely misunderstand this duty, or at the very least lent itself to this necessity. Cicero said that Romulus gave the senators the name of “fathers” to mark the paternal affection which they had for the people.

One knows the place occupied by the clients of Rome in its organisation. This institution established constant and determined relations between a certain number of the people and a patrician family (gens). The head of this family, in its relations with the clients, carried the name of “patron”, made to mark the sentiments of paternity in their regard. And for its part, the qualification of “client” marked in him who carried it a habitual disposition to be of service (cluere, meaning “to keep one’s ear open”). The reciprocal obligations corresponded to these words. The patron had the duty (the obligation) to aid his clients with his counsels and with his credit, to defend them before tribunals, to support them by his influence in trials and litigations, and even by strength of arms. Clients, for their part, owed their patron respect (obsequium), and personal devotion: giving him their suffrage in elections, arming themselves and fighting for him, contributing to pay his ransom, to provide a dowry for his daughter, etc. There was, in a word, a settled and continual exchange of services. Whether or not affection was always there, from the social point of view, the result was the same.

Clients disappeared centuries before the birth of feudality, which, as if by the effect of a natural instinct, was founded on the same principle of mutual assistance. Like a father with his children, a sovereign had to lend help and protection to his vassals, assure them of justice, maintain order and security in the fief, procure subsistence for the needy. In return, vassals and tenants owed fidelity and assistance to their sovereign in peace and in war, and also in circumstances identical to those in which clients had duties towards the patron; for example, in the case of marriage of the daughter of their sovereign.

“Man’s daily experience of the exiguity of his strength,” says Leo XIII, “engages and pushes him to adjoin himself to external cooperation. In the holy Letters, we read this maxim: ‘It is better that two be together rather than that they be alone, for then they draw advantage from their society.  If one fall he shall be supported by the other: woe to him that is alone, for when he falleth, he hath none to lift him up.’11 And another: ‘A brother that is helped by his brother, is like a strong city’.12 From this natural propensity, societies are born.”13 Before writing these maxims in the holy Books, God engraved them in the heart of man; and it is this which explains how institutions resting on the same principles, were able to be born spontaneously in pagan antiquity as well as in the heart of Christendom.

In France, from the Merovingian period, we see a certain number of small landowners, called vassi,recommend themselves to richer, more powerful men, called seniores. To his senior, who gifts him lands, the vassus promises assistance and fidelity. Towards the middle of the ninth century, the movement advances rapidly; a number of families begged the seigneurial family to take them under its protection: defend us, defend the land that we possess and that which you will concede to us, and we will render you all the services of a loyal vassal.

It was in the thirteenth century that this social organisation, founded on reciprocal devotion and services, arrived at its peak. And it was also at this period that the French nation attained its highest degree of prosperity, that it was able to exercise on all the nations of Europe a dominance which it would never regain.

Most historians have remarked that the feudal regime established itself among nearly all the nations of Europe, without any of them having borrowed it from another. And it was found so resistant that M. Le Play was able to observe it, alive and well, in the eastern plains of Russia [in the nineteenth century]. This is what he says of about it:

“The relations of the family with the lord holds, at the same time, some of the respect and some of the familiarity which reigns between children and their father. His authority gives the peasant a foothold for the conservation of his property. The lord exercises his authority, as did the sovereign of the middle ages, for the maintenance of the regime of community in the family. He protects it from usury … The lord accords help to the family in all the circumstances in which its means of existence are compromised; for example, in case of fire, of famine, or epizootic and epidemic diseases. And the lord can count on the work of peasants for the success of his own interests.”

The patronage that we see establish itself in this way, with a very limited diversity of form, and in such distant times as well as places, evidently came out of the family. It is an extension of its spirit. The prosperity of families, we have said, has its principle in union — the union originating from the community of affections and efforts. It is the sight of the happy effects produced by this union that brought about understanding beyond the limits of the family and gave birth to the clients of ancient Rome and to feudality among us. From the embryonic family, if I may speak thus, the familial spirit is understood by the development of the patriarchal family, and from there it won and enlivened the phratria, the gens, the fief and finally the nations, which also can live and prosper only in union and by the community of efforts.

The middle ages were fully convinced of this. The spirit of patronage penetrated it so perfectly that, at the same time that it applied feudality in the countryside, it created urban households in the cities, then established between them the lignages of French cities, the paraiges of Lorraine cities, the geslachten of Flemish cities; all names which are sufficient in themselves to show the principle of whence these groups came and the spirit which gave birth to them, since all these words are taken from the vocabulary of the family. Each of these groups had a common organisation of a character which was once familial and military — like the feudal group.

It is necessary to know these facts, if we want to give an exact account of the evil which gnaws on present society and of the remedy to apply.

This series will continue next month with “Whence comes the prosperity of peoples and whence their decadence”.


  1. Gen 1:28
  2. Matthew 12:25
  3. L’abbé Augustin Lémann (1836–1909), from a rich Jewish family in Lyon, who, together with his twin brother Joseph, converted to Catholicism at the age of 18 and also received ordination with him at the age of 24.
  4. Translator’s note: Adolphe Thiers (1797–1877), who became the first President of the Third Republic in 1871.
  5. Translator’s note: Parenthesis added by Mgr Delassus, writing c. 1905.
  6. See previous note.
  7. The expression is known to be from Gambetta.
  8. This tableau was written up on 20 October 1883 by M. G. de la Tour in the Univers. How many traits could be added to these today [c. 1905], and how these early traits could be blackened further!
  9. Si 49:1
  10. L’abbé Augustin Lémann, Dieu a fait la France guérissable (God made France healable)
  11. Si 4:9–10
  12. Pr 18:19
  13. Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum