BOOK REVIEW - Carle C. Zimmerman, Family and Civilization
Society (2009) 46:page 380–382

Stephen Baskerville, 05-06-09

A society grappling with a declining birthrate, proliferation of single-parent homes, and government policies that undermine parents and families will find it sobering to learn that some were sounding the alarm decades ago, even in the apparently family-friendly post-war years, and that the trends were developing long before that. Even more disturbing is that the same ills plagued ancient civilizations—shortly before they collapsed.

A publishing event of major importance is the re-issue of Family and Civilization by Harvard sociologist Carle Clark Zimmerman (1897–1983). Originally published in 1947, the book is a classic of family scholarship, though as Allan Carlson explains in the introduction, it has largely been ignored by the academic elite.

Zimmerman demonstrates how the fragmentation of the family in Greece and Rome preceded the disintegration of those civilizations and how similar trends now threaten our own. Writing as the post-war baby boom (a temporary aberration, it turns out) was just beginning and the family appeared to be on a major upsurge, Zimmerman identified long-term trends that are only now reaching general awareness.

Polybius noticed “a low birth-rate and a general decrease of the population” in Greece during the second century BC. In modern Europe birth rates have been falling since the late nineteenth century and were below replacement level by 1930. This falloff reflected a larger renunciation of the family as a social and personal institution, what Zimmerman calls “familism.” “The extinction of faith in the familistic system in Europe in the last two generations is identical with the movements in Greece during the century following the Peloponnesian Wars and in Rome from about 150 AD to 250 AD,” he wrote: “In each case the change in the faith and belief in family systems was associated with rapid adoption of negative reproductive rates, increased acceptance of perverted forms of sex behavior, and with enormous crises in the very civilizations themselves.”

One can come away from Zimmerman’s book very pessimistic—from the realization that today’s trends have been developing not for decades but for centuries, from knowing that our Greek and Roman predecessors were unable to prevent similar crises, and because the demographic and cultural trends seem beyond the reach of public policy. Readers witnessing continuing family deterioration six decades later may conclude that the prognosis for Western civilization is bleak indeed.

And yet while demography and culture are major themes, they are not wholly determining. While he does not state it explicitly, a striking feature of Zimmerman’s analysis, and one that offers some hope, is that the decline of the family—really, the attack on the family—is not a matter simply of impersonal forces but the direct and conscious work of the state. Over and over, Zimmerman points out how the state views the family as a threat, how the state eviscerates the family, the state sponsors antifamily intellectuals, the state seeks supremacy over the family and society in general.

Zimmerman writes of the “relation between the type of family and strong central governments,” arguing that historically it was in their absence that the family developed most extensively. Later, “Strongly developed central governments made the internal cohesion of family groups less and less necessary.” Whenever the family shows signs of dysfunction, “the state helps to break it up.” The state constantly aspires to reduce the family to its instrument. “The state wishes to have only enough family power left as is needed to achieve the functions of government.”

In Greece and Rome, as in “many modern states...since the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,” the state claimed “almost the exclusive authority to govern the family.” “Any other authority—such as that of churches, either Catholic or Protestant, which formerly dominated the families—is permitted only to the extent that it does not interfere with the absolute power of the state.” Particularly in the USA, “law piled on law, and government agency upon government agency” until by 1900 “the state had become master of the family.” The result (recall this is 1947) is that “the family is now truly the agent, the slave, the handmaiden of the state.”

By contrast, family advocates today tend to emphasize the role of not the state but culture. Zimmerman’s own evidence supports the truth that long-term trends like demography and culture are more fundamental than shortterm politics. Even in 1947, culture, society, and even the economy are being engineered around family decline: “The advertisements, the radio, the movies, housing construction, leasing of apartments, jobs—everything is individualized.”

Moreover, the process of state aggrandizement contains a powerful cultural component. Zimmerman highlights the “alliance of state and philosopher”: “the state philosopher emerges as the eventual regulator of the family.” Among those singled out are Erasmus, Bacon, Rousseau, Comte, and Marx. Eighteenth-century philosophers in particular “secularized the conception of marriage and...separated the state as a family power from the church and joined forces with the state for the regulation of the family.” What he calls “deification of the state” was promoted by “Hamiltonianism, Hegelianism, Marxism, and socialreformism.”

Modern political thought is especially corrosive of family integrity. With contract theory, “the family, like the state, became a contract and was considered breakable.” For the USA Zimmerman seems to see this as seminal, suggesting that our pursuit of “a more perfect union” in the state encouraged a similar quest in the family. “Just as John Locke, J.J. Rousseau, Thomas Paine, and a number of the Founding Fathers of our own nation could hold that the social compact—government—if it became unsatisfactory to the body of the people could be abolished for a new form, so the developing school of family negationists could hold that unsatisfactory family types had been, are being, and will continue to be abolished.”

At the same time, a cultural or demographic determinism can be self-defeating if it closes off solutions. One might conclude from Zimmerman’s book that, as John Q. Wilson writes with respect to out-of-wedlock births, “If you believe, as I do, in the power of culture, you will realize that there is very little one can do.” Or, as editor James Kurth concludes, the answer to the question of “what is to be done about reviving the Western family and Western civilization is that God only knows.”

Kurth’s answer is not defeatist, for as Zimmerman demonstrates, since the fall of the Roman Empire familism has been inseparable from Christian faith. From its inception Christianity “has maintained a constant position regarding the importance of the family.” The thought of St. Augustine in particular “was a complete crystallization of the church’s primary concern with the family.” The formula was proles, fides, and sacramentum, or as Kurth describes the connection, “faith in one’s God, faithfulness in one’s marriage, and faith in the future of one’s next generations.” The inseparable trilogy means that, as Kurth insists, “a successful revival of family and civilization must also entail a return to fidelity.”

Zimmerman’s own solution—to appeal to scholars and even government commissions—is certainly the weakest and most criticized part of the book, for reasons Bryce Christensen describes in his important essay in the same volume.

But in a larger way, Zimmerman may hold out hope. For if cultural and demographic determinism can lead us to ignore how culture translates directly into public policies, awareness of those policies offers a point from which we might begin to reverse the trend.

Here we turn to the indicator that dominates his argument, though here too he does not call attention to it. For another arresting feature of Zimmerman’s warning is not how opposed it is to the values of today’s family-hostile elites, but how little it is reflected in the agenda of today’s pro-family advocates. Zimmerman does not dwell on the issues dominating today’s “family values” agenda: popular culture, pornography, homosexuality, or abortion (though he recognizes their dangers). The clearest demonstration of how family breakdown leads to civilizational decline is the one that even today poses the most direct threat to marriage and the family but is conspicuously ignored: divorce.

“From the first to the third centuries of our era, the family relationship was a free [i.e., disintegrating] one like ours,” wrote Zimmerman. His evidence? “Divorces were easy and frequent” (p. 2). He quotes David Hume that “when divorces were most frequent among the Romans, marriages were most rare” and “the exclusion of polygamy and divorces sufficiently recommends our present European practice with regard to marriage.”

Of his major trends indicating family deterioration in the nineteenth century, the first is “the rise and popularization of absolute and ‘causeless’ divorce.” “Causeless,” or what we now call “no-fault” divorce, essential repudiates any concept of justice in family law: “‘Cause’ in divorce changed from objective to subjective factors, from major to minor reasons, and from what may be called fundamental breach of marriage bonds to purely personal grounds.”

Zimmerman is accurately predicting no-fault divorce laws that no one at the time was proposing, and he is doing so based on the larger trajectory of Western thought and practice. Even at the time of their enactment more than 20 years later, those laws were never publicly debated. The prior historical context

Zimmerman provides makes these laws appear less a deliberate act of public or legislative will than, again, the almost inevitable consequences of the larger march of modern political culture against the family.

Zimmerman reveals how much of no-fault divorce was already becoming institutionalized in both culture and public policy prior to its codification. He emphasizes “omnibus divorce clauses” and the “divorce mills” or easy divorce states that were springing up even before the Civil War but which really took off in the twentieth century. “Our whole social organization is geared to a situation where causeless divorce is easy and is becoming the modal type.” Of course, it is now almost universal in the West.

After World War I, “there was a noticeable tendency to the acceptance of it as an integral part of American life.” He insists that divorce takes place “in certain specific conditions,” especially those of social and political instability: “in new countries...upset by revolutions, wars, and other factors destructive to tradition and family relationships.”

Zimmerman’s warnings have been vindicated. His observation that the dominance of “purely romantic love” created the “theory that marriage exists primarily for the partners and secondarily, if at all, for the bearing of children” has become relevant to our controversy over same-sex marriage. He quotes his fellow sociologist Pitirim Sorokin that “the family as a sacred union of husband and wife, of parents and children, will continue to disintegrate.”

Divorces and separations will increase until any profound difference between socially sanctioned marriages and illicit sex-relationship disappears. Children will be separated earlier and earlier from parents. The main sociocultural functions of the family will further decrease until the family becomes a mere incidental cohabitation of male and female while the home will become a mere overnight parking place mainly for sex relationship.

All this points to something very troubling: “These changes came about slowly, over centuries, and almost imperceptibly.” This is key, as seen even in the gap separating Zimmerman’s time from ours. The atomization of the family has developed so gradually that we do not notice it and become inured to it, perceiving as normal what would have shocked previous generations had it been enacted all out once. Zimmerman shows that nineteenthcentury family legislation had highly destructive effects that few foresaw and none debated. “Most of this hastily conceived family legislation, which few read and fewer still paid attention to, was made for and by people who do not have or do not desire to have families.” Precisely the same might be said about the subsequent enactment of nofault divorce in the 1970s.

Here again, political ideology is critical, since radical changes in the family almost always accompanied radical changes in the state. During both the French and Russian revolutions, “Divorce was established at the will of either party without the consent or even the knowledge of the other.” The same change evolved more gradually following the American Revolution and was exported to other Western democracies. We have enacted—again, without public debate or even awareness—the family legislation of the Jacobin and Bolshevik regimes.

This suggests a difference separating Greece and Rome from today. While their intellectual class adopted antifamily lifestyles, it did not have an anti-family ideology. While Zimmerman notes that “Greek and Roman mothers refused to stay home and raise children,” there was nothing so systematic as feminist ideology, now diversifying into gay rights, children’s rights, and more. This ideology is not simply corrosive of the family; it is consciously hostile to it. Further, it is almost entirely unchallenged. For the divorce machinery, unlike other aspects of the sexual agenda, provokes no organized opposition.

So perhaps in the end Zimmerman is correct that intellectuals are critical. It is they, whose Christian predecessors such as Augustine once led the revival of the family, who are not only the first to turn against it but the first to lose the knowledge of what the family is. And once they lose it, there is no one else to provide it. “When the ruling groups—those with prestige—abandon familism, there is simply no agency which can understand the situation or do anything to remedy it” (p. 188). That is why this book is of such enormous importance: It provides precisely the knowledge of the greatest crisis facing Western civilization today, of which our intellectuals have almost no clue.

Stephen Baskerville is associate professor of government at Patrick Henry College and author of Taken Into Custody: The War Against Fathers, Marriage, and the Family (Cumberland House, 2007).