So I’m turning this into a three-part piece, starting today, specifically on how devaluing marriage and family shows up as civilization decay. Part I will be on evidence from world history. Part II will be evidence from around the world. Part III will be evidence from closer to home.
Expect to see all three pieces within a week, although not necessarily consecutive days. Monday is the 4th of July, so that already has another purpose.
Part I—Vico and Unwin
Giambattista Vico was an Italian scholar/philosopher/scientist born in the mid-17th Century. His writings are receiving something of a renaissance in our day. Although he was respected, and often considered ahead of his time, he was never highly renowned in his day, possibly because he spent some effort critiquing Descartes, and that wasn’t very welcome.
His most famous work was Principles of New Science of Giambattista Vico concerning the Common Nature of Nations (often referred to in brief as The New Science), first published in 1725, and then updated with new editions in 1930 and again in 1944 shortly before his death at age 76. These weren’t translated from Italian into English until around the end of WWII, so there have only been a few decades for his ideas to become more widespread here.
In The New Science, Vico concluded that there are “divine institutions” from which spring all “human institutions.” He wrote that the first of these is marriage, because “marriage, as all statesmen agree, is the seed-plot of the family, as the family is the seed-plot of the commonwealth” (NS paragraph 10-11). He went on to say, “All nations of the world have branded as false” the “opinion that the sexual unions which…take place between free men and free women without solemn matrimony are free of natural wickedness.” In other words, it was obvious that sexual unions without matrimony were indeed wicked.
Also, according to Vico, why have all civilizations recognized, encouraged, and enforced marital vows? Because, without those vows, parents “are held together by no necessary bond of law, [and] will proceed to cast off their natural children. Since their parents may separate at any time, the children, abandoned by both, must lie exposed to be devoured by dogs. If humanity, public or private, does not bring them up, they will have to grow up with no one to teach them religion, language, or any other human custom.”
Religious people (and apparently all statesmen, or any educated thinking person in Vico’s day) recognized that sex outside of marriage was an evil against all of society. Vico is just explaining the reasoning behind it.
It may be difficult for us to believe that anyone would abandon a child, which Vico predicts as the outcome. As it says in the Old Testament book of Isaiah (49:15), “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee.” In other words, as unthinkable as it is for a mother to forget her beloved infant, that is more possible than that God will forget us—to emphasize how sure that is.
And yet the reason Vico gives is that parents, without the promise to each other and society, the marriage vow, they will not feel their obligation to their children. If that is so, we must see it in examples where people in measurable populations without marriage. We will indeed look at that in Part II.
And what happens when parents don’t keep their vows to each other and to their children? Society must bear the cost of bringing them up—either through public (government services) or private means (adoption services, charitable orphanages, foster care). Otherwise, without those children being taught “religion, language, or any other human custom,” society as a whole decays. Vico puts this rather poetically as, “they [the abandoned, unlearned children] are bound to cause this world of nations, enriched and adorned by so many fine arts of humanity, to revert to the great ancient forest through with in their nefarious feral wanderings once roamed the foul beasts of Orpheus [incest, or perversion]…for such relationships are abhorred naturally by all nations, nor were they ever practiced by any save in their last stage of corruption” (NS paragraph 336).
Vico was a long time ago, and not even that well known. What we learn from him is what thinking people in his day believed, not necessarily what is true. Is there empirical evidence? I think so.
UnwinAbout 80 years ago renowned anthropologist and progressive thinker Joseph Daniel Unwin set out to prove his theory that marriage was an irrelevant, possibly even harmful cultural institution. He went about this by setting up charts of known information on every society that he could find sufficient data for in the history of the world. The evidence did not show what he expected. In fact, he ended up concluding that only marriage—including fidelity, what he called absolute monogamy—would lead to cultural prosperity for society. Anything short of absolute monogamy (domestic partnerships, cohabitation, etc.) would cause societal decay.
Here are his words:
The evidence was such as to demand a complete revision of my personal philosophy; for the relationship between the factors seemed to be so close, that, if we know what sexual regulations a society has adopted, we can prophesy accurately the pattern of its cultural behavior….
Now it is an extraordinary fact that in the past sexual opportunity has only been reduced to a minimum by the fortuitous adoption of an institution I call absolute monogamy. This type of marriage has been adopted by different societies, in different places, and at different times. Thousands of years and thousands of miles separate the events; and there is no apparent connection between them. In human records, there is no case of an absolutely monogamous society failing to display great [cultural] energy. I do not know of a case on which great energy has been displayed by a society that has not been absolutely monogamous….
If, during or just after a period of [cultural] expansion, a society modifies its sexual regulations, and a new generation is born into a less rigorous [less monogamous] tradition, its energy decreases…. If it comes into contact with a more vigorous society, it is deprived of its sovereignty, and possibly conquered in its turn.
It seems to follow that we can make a society behave in any manner we like if we are permitted to give it such sexual regulations as will produce the behavior we desire. The results should begin to emerge in the third generation.—Joseph Daniel Unwin, Ph.D., “Sexual Regulations and Cultural Behavior,” address given to the Medical Section of the British Psychological Society. (Library of Congress No., HQ12.U52)
I’ve read Unwin’s presentation in full, along with the charts. I’m not an anthropologist, but it is understandable and clear how he concludes what he does. If he is right, then a society that devalues marriage and family will inevitably (unless it reverts to absolute monogamy) weaken and become susceptible to political and cultural takeover by stronger forces, within three generations, or roughly 75-100 years.
If there are societies within the world today that have weakened their support for marriage and family earlier than we have, we can measure whether Unwin’s predictions are accurate. That will come in Part II.