Household 101: Personal Relationships in the Household

“Household management attends more to humans than to the acquisition of inanimate things and to human excellence more than to the excellence of property which we call wealth.” Aristotle Politics I.13

A fundamental principle of the household is that it is all about persons. This is perhaps more significant than is immediately apparent; and certainly, putting persons first is easier said than done. The first requirement is that we have an understanding of who or what a human person is, and what constitutes the flourishing of a human person. Aristotle would say this means we must know something of human nature and human happiness.

Human Happiness and Household

Human persons are set apart from other animals by our rationality and our free will. While human flourishing or happiness engages the whole range of human powers, it especially involves our rational and volitional powers. Virtue is the term used by the Greeks for an excellence of human reason or volition. The various virtues are what constitute the flourishing of a truly human life.

And it is our rational and volitional powers that enable us to live in relationships, or in communion and community with other persons. Aristotle notes that the power of speech, which allows us to share our thoughts and hearts with other persons, is a unique sign that humans naturally live in community. He further points out that a hallmark of human community is justice. Justice implies recognition of the unique dignity of other persons, and of the necessity to render what is due to them.

Justice then is a foundational virtue in human relations, but it is not the only one. Courage, temperance and prudence (or practical wisdom) round out the four cardinal virtues. There are also what are called speculative intellectual virtues, the queen of which is wisdom, the virtue of insight into the greatest realities. Wisdom is the height of human achievement and is essential to human happiness.

Putting persons first means putting their true flourishing, their true happiness first. The household is fundamentally a place for human persons to become truly happy, by growing in virtue in the context of loving, healthy relationships. There are two kinds of relationships that are fundamental in the household: spousal, and parental. Aristotle says that the proper flourishing of those relationships is the parents’ first object of intention. In other words, those who have authority in the household–the husband and wife–are first of all concerned about a) their relationship with one another, and b) their relationship with their children. And in that order, for there is a primacy of the first relationship over the second. The spousal relationship is primary both because it is a real origin of the children, and also because it remains the formative root of parent-child relationships, as well as child-child relationships. In general, as goes the relationship between spouses, so go all other relationships in the household.

Relationship of Spouses

“Now, seemingly between husband and wife there is the greatest friendship: for they are …partners in the whole intercourse of daily life.” Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra gentiles III, 123

Aristotle’s understanding of virtuous friendship is very helpful for the right consideration of the relationship of spouses. A few points about such friendship will be highlighted.

1. “Friendship seems to consist rather in loving than in being loved.” Ethics VIII.8

Aristotle remarks that while many people prefer receiving love to giving it, true friendship consists more essentially in the giving of love. He calls as witness those most amazing of lovers: mothers. While mothers certainly rejoice in the love their children give to them, they put priority on the love that they give to their children. Aristotle uses a remarkable example: mothers will even give up their children to be raised by another ,if it is what is truly best for the children. Here is a clear instance of putting love for the children above the desire to be loved in return. Besides, Aristotle proceeds to ask, for what do we most praise a true friend: that he is loved much, or that he loves much? Surely the latter. So while both loving and being loved are necessary in a friendship, there is a primacy of giving love.

Now it is one thing to see this point on a theoretical level, and it is another thing to practice it. It seems that in practice spouses are prone to reverse this hierarchy, acting as though the more fundamental approach to the spouse is that he or she is the one I can always count on to love me unselfishly. When something is not going right in the relationship we tend to think, “Where’s the love?” And for some reason we are not asking ourselves that question. Aristotle’s insight into friendship implies that a hallmark of spousal love will be the willingness—indeed the choice—to put giving love before the need or desire to receive love.

2. “Perfect friendship is the friendship of people who are good, and alike in virtue.” Ethics VIII.3

True friendship requires good moral character; it requires virtue. It is not that true friendship requires we be already perfected in virtue; but it does require a baseline of moral maturity, and a real commitment to growth in virtue. Friends can then simultaneously grow in their friendship and in virtue. Our capacity for true friendship is directly proportional to the degree of moral virtue in our character.

And so it is in the spousal relationship. The normal tasks of marriage presuppose a certain level of moral character, as well as a mutual commitment to growth in virtue. Making and overseeing a household presupposes, and gives occasion for growth in the four cardinal virtues of justice, courage, temperance and prudence. Building a life together, which normally includes the task of rearing children, may be considered an ‘ordinary’ life, but its success implies an extra-ordinary moral character.

3. “For there is nothing so characteristic of friends as living together.” Ethics VIII.5

“…and this will be realized in their living together and sharing in discussion and thought; for this is what living together would seem to mean in the case of man, and not, as in the case of cattle, feeding in the same place.” Ethics IX.9

Friends, and especially spouses, seek to live one life together, sharing in the many aspects of life. But some activities are more important than others. Certain activities are at the heart of human life, and thus are at the heart of a shared life. As noted above, human life is above all rational. For this reason Aristotle says that ‘living together’ especially consists in “sharing in discussion and thought.” For the young and inexperienced in life, it might seem that sharing in discussion and thought could never be as exciting as any number of other things. Such is youth and inexperience. The sharing of minds, and their deep aspirations, reflections, and insights, makes for a lived-unity, of which other shared activities are but a dim reflection.

At the heart of the spousal relationship are profound habits, formed through years of disciplined—and we can add unselfish—effort, of listening and speaking, of being-together in mind, even if in silence.

Relationship of Parents to Children

“For the begetter is the ruler by reason of love and age…” Politics I.12

Authority has a bad name. Today. For the ancients authority is an office of special beauty and of first importance for the good human life, and for happiness. Authority is an office that has a unique power effectively to direct those subject to it to their own flourishing. To understand authority rightly we must never lose sight of this key truth: the very reason for the existence of authority is its necessity in order for people—in this case children—to achieve their own true happiness.

Aristotle points to two key characteristics of authority when he says that the parent rules over children by reason of love and age. Let us begin with the second, age.

Age is associated with the wisdom that comes from experience. When Aristotle says that parents rule by reason of their age, his point is that parents are in a position to exercise authority because they are in a position to have a greater wisdom than children. Wisdom consists especially in an understanding of things of great importance, such as virtues and how they are cultivated. Since the office of authority is fundamentally about directing those under it to their own flourishing and happiness, those in authority need to have the understanding requisite for such an undertaking.

The other characteristic Aristotle associates with authority is love. Love always acts for the true good of the beloved. Thus love is essential to authority because authority is about acting for the good of those under it. Now just as surely as authority must be exercised with love, we can say that parental love must be exercised with authority. In other words, an essential expression of parental love is precisely the exercise of a wise and strong authority. Children in their immaturity, in their lack of age and its consequent wisdom, stand in need of the wisdom of others. But not just any others; what they specifically need is a wisdom that is exercised authoritatively in their lives, by the parents that love them. The strong and loving hand of authority moves children toward their good.

This raises a key question: how does parental authority move children toward their good? One key expression of authority is through appropriate commands or precepts. Precepts in the form of good ‘rules’ are a necessary and formative part of household life. At the same time it is crucial that authority not be reduced to simply a rule-making or command-giving power. Too often people mistake authoritarianism for authority. The wisely ruling parent can and must give much direction apart from commands and rules. Praise, encouragement, instruction, and gentle correction, not to mention leading by example, are the stock in trade of well-exercised authority. Authority needs to be strong; but strength should never be equated with severity. Often the stronger the authority, the fewer direct commands, and punishments, will be necessary.

Next: Household 101: Property or Wealth in the Household