I would like to make what is perhaps a radical suggestion: we need to rethink, reimagine, and reinstate a different model of family life. At the center of this model is a husband and father whose very success in life is fundamentally, though not solely, seen and judged in terms of what he does in the home. Indeed, a central measure of his manhood is the quality of his presence in the home.
A New Look at an Old Understanding of Household
Let us go back to Aristotle. Setting aside some notable shortcomings in his understanding of the household, the man that Thomas Aquinas calls “the Philosopher” nonetheless expresses its fundamental principles with remarkable clarity. In life itself, as well as in the more particular areas of human action, the good man must put first what is truly first, that is, the end. In other words, his intention of the true end should be the driving and guiding energy behind what he does.
Oikonomia is the Greek word for the art of ruling or ordering the household (the oikos), and, at least traditionally, a father’s duty as head of the household was to excel in this art. The central question that Aristotle and Aquinas would have us ask about one who exercises the art of oikonomia is, what should he intend? What is the end the willing of which gives meaning and concrete direction to what the husband and father does in the household? In commenting on Aristotle’s Politics, Aquinas writes: “Aristotle infers that the chief intention of the householder concerns these two relations of persons in the household,” namely, the relation of husband and wife, and the relation of parents to children.1
It sounds so simple; but the power of this truth can shatter false conceptions of family and household. What is the principal concern of the husband and father of a family? His relationship with his spouse and their relationship with their children. Through his providence, his work, and his presence, he is the first principle of real human flourishing in its most foundational instance, namely, the flourishing relationships that are the core of a household. Aristotle’s profound assertion is rooted in the simple truth that a wife or child or husband who stands in such healthy relationships is verily an icon of human happiness.
We can be so bold as to ask, if a married man is not succeeding in these relationships, how can he be said to be succeeding as a man?
Our second point from Aristotle is his conception of the household community as, in the words of Aquinas, “a community constituted by nature for everyday life, that is, activities that have to be performed daily.”2 What at first seems a rather pedestrian point begins, on further examination, to shine like a diamond. Humans are made to live in relationships and in community. There is one community which, by its very nature, reaches into almost every corner of life. It knits together our days by being the place, the context for living together every day. The very notion is thrilling, even though the word “quotidian”—literally, “daily”—has the connotation of the pedestrian and mundane. We get to live with certain people, every day! When a young man and a young woman fall in love, what better can they imagine than being able (being allowed!) to be together every day—literally, to make a life together.
There are indeed human activities that require a broader community, such as the village or the state, but by and large, those activities are not daily ones. Eating and working, and the resting and playing that punctuate the working—these are done every day. And they are done together with those with whom we share a home. This is where life happens every day.
What is the principal concern of the husband and father of a family? His relationship with his spouse and their relationship with their children.
An Historic Transformation
If we are to grasp and address the situation of the family today, it is crucial that we note certain significant changes in family and home life that have been anything but random. There are certain readily discernible patterns in this transformation. And Aristotle and Aquinas can give us an excellent vantage from which to consider them.
Christopher Lasch was a noted historian and social critic who gave much attention to the plight of the traditional family. To many, his findings might be somewhat surprising. Lasch writes: “The history of modern society, from one point of view, is the assertion of social control over activities once left to individuals or their families.”3
Lasch sees what he calls the “socialization of production” as a fundamental, even if oft-missed, cause of the demise of the traditional structure and practices of the household. In essence, this “socialization” refers to how, on the whole, the day-to-day work that produces the material things needed for human existence left its native soil—the household. One can recall here how Aristotle and Aquinas conceived of the household as a place where precisely such work was done. A hallmark of this “socialization” was the migration from farm and workshop, themselves often attached to households, to employment in the factories of the industrial revolution. While in recent generations factory work has been largely replaced by other industries, the fundamental reality remains, as men—and also now most women—are engaged in work that is neither in the context of the household nor has any real connection, other than through the money it produces, to life therein.
It is the stock-in-trade of defenders of the traditional household to decry the general movement of women out of the household and into the “workforce.” Most, however, are mute on the issue of the parallel and prior male exodus. And yet the very notion of the “workforce” as something fundamentally outside of the household (significantly, women are said to “leave” the home to “join” it) exemplifies a fundamental shift from both the theory and practice of household life once standard in our civilization.
This change—the demise of the household as a center of production—is one that many defenders of the traditional family either dismiss with a shrug, or even approve with a nod in the direction of “economic progress.” Yet I think it is clear that, regardless of an admixture of genuine advantages, this shift was a blow to the very essence of the household community as, in Aristotle’s words, “constituted by nature for everyday life.”
Why? Work, especially in the sense of the production of things necessary for human life, is the very stuff of daily human life. Though not the most noble or important activity done in the household, it is naturally the skeleton around which other activities spring—be they meals, prayer, study, leisure, or play.
Here, history can be helpful. From time immemorial, the basic structure of the household included a man and woman working together on a daily, even hourly, basis. A significant amount of this work would have been done in close proximity to, and often with participation by, children. Such work in the household likewise afforded both parents the time and context for personal mentoring of children—formation in perhaps its most foundational sense: by presence and example. Are we to conclude that the chief intention of the man of the household—the flourishing of relationships, especially spousal and parental—is essentially tied to work in the home? This is a central issue about which we should be concerned. The work of Lasch and others points, in any case, to a key lesson from the last 200 years. History seems to establish a connection between the daily absence of the father and the general weakening of familial relationships. It behooves us to consider how we might take a practical approach to this conundrum, turning again to ancient wisdom for assistance.
Toward a Solution
Economic necessity today usually requires that at least one spouse work outside of the household. Allow me to be clear: I am not suggesting that men abandon their jobs outside the home. For the vast majority of us, that will not be possible, and for some, in any case, it would not even be desirable. We must find a way to live according to ancient wisdom in our current environment.
I suggest that we take as a starting point that the father whose main “work” is outside the household should realize that he has a handicap he must overcome, namely, the absence of substantial, daily work in the home. He does not have this obvious and natural context for contact and presence with his spouse and children. And it should be noted that “working from home” does not necessarily address this situation. Many who work from home are engaged in a labor that remains utterly distinct from and foreign to the household in every way other than bodily presence in a home office.
A central way a man loves and is present to his children is by loving and being present to his wife.
How then might fathers who work remotely seek to address this situation?
Investing in Home. The first and most significant action—one within the power of any father—is to take possession of his household by investing it with his intention and attention. The old saying should perhaps be taken as prescriptive, not descriptive: “Home is where your heart should be.” The words of Wendell Berry come to mind: "I do not believe that there is anything better to do than to make one’s marriage and household, whether one is a man or a woman."4
To be precise, this statement needs qualification, for there are some things a person can do that are better than making one’s household. Nonetheless, these striking words point to a wisdom that we need to recover in an age in which so many men, following the lead of society itself, measure themselves by their success in business or other such areas of life.
Loving His Wife. A critical feature of a man’s presence in the home is that it begins with his presence to his wife. When Aristotle notes that the spousal relationship is the source of the parental relationship, he is not simply referring to the fact of bodily generation. Rather, the character of the spousal relationship is especially determinative of the character of the parental relationship. A central way a man loves and is present to his children is by loving and being present to his wife. That is the natural order of the fabric of family life.
Since most of their work today is removed from the household, fathers will need to be creative in finding the time and the avenues of presence. Here are a couple more concrete suggestions.
- Home “Work.” A first avenue to consider is some kind of manual labor, preferably one requiring an art that can be learned and shared by family members. This includes specifically “home arts,” such as gardening, cooking, animal husbandry, etc., as well as more general arts, such as carpentry, carving, engine mechanics, plumbing, landscaping, etc. As children grow older, higher arts can be added and studied together, such as reading, writing, and the liberal arts. It is worth noting that while some of these latter arts are at times beyond the capabilities of households, some manual arts are within the competence of all.
- Real Leisure. As Josef Pieper has pointed out, good leisure and good work are closely tied through nourishing one another, so they should be addressed together. Here is an area where any father can take the lead, even when his work often removes him from the home, by putting a priority on shared, rich activities in the household. It will be arduous. Regular meals together, which should be a mainstay of presence and communion, too often fall by the wayside. Common custom now replaces real leisure with mass-produced amusement, and communication technology intrudes into all spaces, making simple together-time difficult to achieve. We are losing a sense of how to be together in deeper activities, and more and more we turn to some device any time we have a free moment. But real freedom is in having habits of being together in richer ways—reading, singing, hiking, praying. A father’s leadership here may well make all the difference.
I have suggested that we need to do more to rethink and re-form our family life. A deeply anti-household cultural environment should prod us to rediscover household life in its fullness. Households can still be a vibrant organ, even if the body politic is wasting with disease. To understand the ideal of true fatherhood—and the contemporary challenges to living that ideal—is already to be halfway to success. Issues concerning the role and presence of husband and wife in the household need to be considered with nuance, recognizing that particular conditions can warrant modifications and adaptations. Nevertheless, exceptions do not invalidate general principles; indeed, often they corroborate them. At the heart of a renewal will be husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, united in the intensity of their intention to focus on relationships in the household and to embody that intention in daily life.
John Cuddeback, PhD is chairman and professor of Philosophy at Christendom College. His writing and lectures focus on ethics, friendship, and household. His blog, Bacon From Acorns, is dedicated to the philosophy of household.
Editor’s Note: This essay is an abbreviated version of a longer essay originally published in the journal, Principles. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.
1. Commentary on Aristotle’s Politics, I, 10.4
2. Ibid. I, 1.12
3. Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged (Basic Books, 1979), p. xx
4. “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine” in What are People For? (Counterpoint, 2010), p. 182