“Therefore, this daily association constituted by nature is the household, whose members Charondas calls table companions, and Epimenides of Crete calls companions of the manger.” Politics I.2
In Aristotle’s analysis of the different communities to which humans belong he distinguishes between activities that are performed every day and those that are performed less often. The household is the community in which people share in activities performed every day, while village activities are in general not daily ones. This might seem like a strange division, but it bears closer examination.
There are certain people with whom we really live our lives. We are with them not just occasionally, but rather daily. With these people we do, among other things, especially those things that must be done every single day. The best example of such an activity is of course eating. Would it not be true to say that the easiest way to judge with whom we ‘live’ is to ask with whom we regularly eat? You can almost picture a census questionnaire saying: mark down as belonging to this household only those who regularly eat there. Otherwise it would seem that you could scarcely say that the person belongs to the household.
Of course eating always entails a certain amount of work. Prior to eating there is obtaining the food—whether by producing or shopping for it, storing it, and preparing it for serving. After eating there is a certain amount of cleaning up, often of both the preparation and dining areas. This work, which over the course of the day can easily amount to several hours, is itself an activity that can be shared by the various members of the household. Other basic forms of work in the household, most of which relate to maintaining a clean, pleasing and healthy living environment, can account for a large part of the day.
There are more daily activities that Aristotle has in mind than just work. Religious activities have a central place in household life. While worship and prayer have a broader context than the household—in other words they also have a public side, they have a central place in the daily regimen of the household. Further, recreation of some kind is also a daily activity, even if not one that consumes a great length of time. Eating can and should have a recreational element. Dining together provides a context wherein even the most economically challenged household can have a kind of free space for being-together in joy and peace. Experience shows that no great material wealth is required in order for dining to be a profoundly human, and even festive occasion. It is perhaps most of all in a rich dining experience—one rich especially in love and communion—that the true ‘wealth’ of a household is most apparent. Indeed it seems that a person, be it youth or adult, that has a place at a table, a place where he knows that he really belongs—and would be sorely missed—is a person that has a very stable anchor in life.
While daily recreation is perhaps most of all an activity of the dining room, there are other ways that a household community can recreate together, such as in walks, singing, reading, or games. It is a somewhat alarming trend that there seems to be less and less time in households for such communal recreation, even while it is also the case that less time is spent in shared work in the home. The net effect is that there is a lack of real living-together in the place where humans naturally should find mutual presence and shared life. It is perhaps no wonder that a great scourge of our age is isolation and loneliness.
In most cultures the household was, and in many it is still is, a multi-generational community, extending beyond the nuclear family. There are advantages in such a situation. The household, as the natural context for daily activities of work, prayer, and recreation, benefits from having a certain plenitude of persons. The point is not simply the more the merrier; indeed there is a limit to the number of persons that can belong to one household. But in general the addition of persons outside the nuclear family—though often related by blood—makes for a greater fullness of life. Grandparents, with their broad life-experience and love, are the most obvious instance of such persons whose presence is so precious. They who provide so much help in the home through their work and wise counsel continue to be a source of blessing as the object of care in their declining years.