Could Parenting Be More Important Than Politics?

Since my blog started  two months ago, I have had two commentators cite the following quote by C. S. Lewis:

‘I think I can understand that feeling about a housewife’s work being like that of Sisyphus (who was the stone rolling gentleman).  But it is surely in reality the most important work in the world.  What do ships, railways, miners, cars, government etc. exist for except that people may be fed, warmed, and safe in their own homes?  As Dr. Johnson said, “To be happy at home is the end of all human endeavor” … We wage war in order to have peace, we work in order to have leisure, we produce food in order to eat it.  So your job is the one for which all others exist.’

I love this quote.  I live my life by this quote.  But I think it needs some discussion.

‘The Job For Which All Others Exist’:  Was C. S. Lewis Right?

I did my undergraduate work at Wellesley College, which is a highly competitive all-women’s school.  For some reason, when I reflect on Lewis’s quote, I often think of Wellesley.

Wellesley was full of very ambitious women – who were, I hasten to add, also very lovely (the following is not meant as a criticism of any of them, just an observation).  Most of them had plans to become lawyers, judges, politicians, high powered business women, doctors, journalists, etc.  Yet, I don’t think they saw their future careers as somehow existing for the sake of happy homes in the wider world.  Were they undertaking all that education just to be part of a support network that ultimately focused on enabling families to function well and be happy?

That certainly didn’t seem to be the dominant thinking among our professors and college administrators, either.    Our studies were not for the purpose of generating happy homes in society, were they?  And if they were, then what about the happiness in our own future homes?  It was not a secret that the careers we were going into were grueling and would require everything we had to succeed.  Wellesley was there to prepare us for that success, not so much for success in the home.  And perhaps it was an open secret that if we wanted to be successful professionally, there would be some unavoidable conflicts with success in the home.  (I say it was an open secret, because this conflict always seemed to me to be swept under the carpet).

When successful Wellesley alums came to speak to us, they were always invited to campus because of their success in their profession, not because of their success in the home.  Bankers, lawyers, politicians, academics, activists were all invited to speak.  I never heard them speak of their home lives.

So, my point is that if Lewis is right, then why was my experience at Wellesley the way it was?  If the job we have in our homes, with our families, is the job for which all other jobs exist, then why do we spend nearly all our time preparing for, working at, analyzing, applauding, and rewarding all those other jobs?

I don’t have a neat answer to these questions, but at the same time I don’t want to abandon Lewis’s insight.  Instead, I want to look at it from a different perspective, by considering it in light of some thoughts from Aristotle.

‘The Job For Which All Others Exist’:  Is it Politics?

Aristotle, too, considered the concept of a ‘job for which all other jobs exist’.   He discussed this concept, though, by using terms like ‘master art’ and ‘highest science’.  The highest science was defined as the science for which all other arts and sciences existed.  Aristotle thought this highest science was politics.

Now, that sounds a little more plausible than Lewis’s view.  Power over millions of people, global fame, the opportunity to practice state craft, change the course of history, influence world events – you know, that sort of thing – surely Aristotle was not far off the mark when he argued that politics was the highest of all the sciences.

Yet, let us consider his reason why politics is the highest science.  In an earlier entry, I explained that Aristotle thinks that everything we do in life aims at some ‘end’, or ‘good’, and that there is a ‘chief good’ in life – the highest end for which all of our other actions are done – which is happiness.  Now, not only is Aristotle interested in what the highest end is for a human life, but he also wants to show which of the disciplines have this highest end as their object.  Surely, whatever discipline studies how to achieve this chief good would be the most authoritative of all the arts and sciences – it would be the ‘master art. ’

Aristotle argues that politics is the discipline which has this good as it’s object.  Politics is the master art because it’s purpose is to achieve the ‘good for man’ – the highest good which all other disciplines are used to achieve.  It is politics that legislates what we should do and what we should not do; in this way, it has a certain conception of what a human life should look like.  Aristotle thinks that the function of the law is to guide us toward our highest ‘end’ of happiness.   Remember that for Aristotle, the happy man is the virtuous man, and the virtuous man is the one who is fulfilling his potential as a human being to be a moral agent.  So, the law is there to help us develop good, virtuous habits, which will make all the difference to the kind of person that we become.

Now, there is a problem here.  To modern ears, the idea that politics is there to direct man toward his ‘highest good’ sounds foreign, even dangerous.  Nowadays, we regard the function of politics to be that of protecting and defending our freedoms, not directing our actions toward some ‘end’.  We value our freedom to direct ourselves – and our families – toward what we understand to be our ‘good’.

This modern conception of politics, indeed, was (and continues to be) the project of the philosophy of liberalism.  As I have mentioned before, liberalism espouses the importance of individual rights and individual liberty, and is considered by most people to be the philosophy upon which our western, democratic society is built.  Although liberalism has a rich heritage incorporating many thinkers, one definitive version of it can be found in the work of the philosopher John Rawls, who wrote A Theory of Justice in 1971.

One basic premise of Rawlsian liberalism is that the freedoms, or rights, that we have in our society should not be based upon any particular conception of the ‘good life’ for human beings.  In other words, governments should remain neutral as much as possible on questions concerning what is a ‘good’ human life or a ‘bad’ human life.  After all, people often disagree on what it means for a human being to be good or bad, or even on the nature of happiness (remember that for Aristotle these are the same thing – a good life is a happy life).  If a government were to have its own conception of what human happiness or goodness was, and then were to police its citizens to live according to that conception, it would deny a certain portion of society the freedom to live their own conceptions.  The state, then, must remain silent on the moral content of what we as citizens try to achieve in our lives, and limit itself to protecting our rights to live as we choose, as long as it is in a peaceful way.

Parenting as the Master Art

Now, maybe you agree with this aim of liberalism, or maybe you don’t.  Whatever your view, I think it is fair to say that something like this version of liberalism has had a very great influence upon our Western democracies.  And if that is the case, then politics can no longer be considered the ‘master art’ under Aristotle’s criteria.  Indeed, if questions of the good life are no longer the concern of politics, but instead have been recognized as an issue of private concern, then surely it is parenting that becomes a prime candidate to replace politics as the master art.

It is in parenting that the question of what it means to be human is at its most urgent.  It is parents who give their children a conception of what a ‘good’ life and a ‘bad’ life for humans might be.  It is parents who develop their children’s moral reasoning, directing them toward a ‘good’ life.  And the strong emotional bond that exists between parent and child means that moral values are transmitted from one generation to the next powerfully, not only by words, but also by feelings.   That is why politics, though clearly important – and here is where Aristotle and I part company – simply cannot achieve for human beings what good parenting can achieve for them.  Parenting is a practice that passes on humanity like no other, and in that sense, it has to be the master art.

I hope C. S. Lewis would agree.

9 comments on “Could Parenting Be More Important Than Politics?

  1. Norine says:

    I suggest that the education of Wellesley College’s ambitious daughters might have had something to do with the ambitions of their ambivalent mothers in what WAS – and some would say still IS – a largely male dominated society. Society in the 50’s offered hope for many women who couldn’t take advantage of the education they determined WOULD be available to their daughters. There were no ‘supports’ like education grants, family friendly subsidies or child care etc; YOU were to save the world, the workforce and the political economy by providing the leaven to humanize the worst of its testosterone fueled excesses, hopefully without robbing you of the femininity that your ‘softness’ (in the best sense of that word) was expected to bring. Daughters were ‘other’ orientated, net-workers and facilitators more than ego orientated ‘project’ managers. Remember John Nash – the subject of the film ‘A Beautiful Mind’? He came up with a formula associated with everyday occurrences that won him the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on game theory. He was utterly brilliant but exceptionally odd and couldn’t work with or understand people YET bizarrely came up with a mathematical formula for doing just that! The formula was his visionary rationale for achieving the best outcome in the concept of governing dynamics. Get the film. It’s good. There’s an unlikely scene where maths and relationships come together .. but I digress. You were to bring that indefinable something, kindness, to the ‘marketplace’. I fully agree with you re: Aristotle’s view that politics is the ‘master art’ – but it very much IS unless you think of politics solely as something ‘out there’. At the expense of sounding overly simplistic, how I interact in my family and within my closest relationships IS politics. I make promises, keep promises, negotiate terms and procedures, make alliances, work toward outcomes – I’m sure Lewis would agree – parenting is, perhaps, the best kind of politics.The master art.

    • Thanks Norine for these stimulating comments! One thing that struck me was your last comment that ‘parenting is the best kind of politics’. One of my interests is the relationship between the family and the political sphere. Do we see the family as an institution that is superseded by the wider and more noble practice of politics, or do we see it as the fundamental unit of society upon which the state is dependent and which the state is meant to protect? Some would argue that the family and politics are two completely different kinds of activities – political relationships are characterized by impartial laws, family relationships by love. And yet, as you seem to be suggesting here, can we see the family as a bit of a ‘microcosm’ of the state – one where we keep promises, negotiate, work toward a ‘common good’? I certainly think that healthy family relationships prepare us to be good citizens. And yet, I’m not sure that I would say that how I interact with my family IS politics. There’s too much love involved, too much of a shared understanding of ‘the good’. But of course it depends on how you define politics, what you think the purpose of politics is. Food for thought!

      • Norine says:

        I guess what I meant to say, Holly, is that family relationships largely ‘involve’ politics but contain so much more than JUST politics. 🙂

  2. mandy says:

    I love that CS Lewis quote. And parenting, as the master art, is very true. Yet…it feels small. Why is that? In my heart, I love that I’m contributing to the larger world by helping to create three good people, but in my head, I want to make a bigger splash. And I’m very aware that women were often denied the opportunity to do more, so I feel some responsibility to do more, reach further. How do you resolve the paradox of elevating and honoring parenting (I guess specifically mothering) without confining woman to a role that they couldn’t escape for so long? It reminds me of the “angel in the home” argument of denying women the right to vote. They were too “good” for the dirty business of voting and politics. Is saying that parenting is the master art telling people that if they don’t spend ‘x’ amount of time on it, they are wasting their lives? The other paradox is that it is hard to define a “very successful parent” because, of course, parenting involves children who have their own minds and their own lives. So, although we influence them and hope to teach them to “love the good”, parenting can’t get the same results as, say, creating laws. I mean, it would be good if we agreed everyone could teach their children to not steal from a store, but I think we would all still want it to be against the law.

    • Thank you Mandy, for this. I agree that parenting feels small – the paradox of knowing how important it is, and yet seeing that no matter how well you do it, it might be just a drop in the ocean …? And yet, when people don’t do it well, how soon we all feel the consequences of that. As far as your ‘angel vote’ point, certainly we don’t want to elevate parenting in a way that it makes people who do it to look like ‘saints’ and therefore unconcerned with what’s going on in the ‘lower’ world of politics. In fact, I think people who are parents – especially those who have had experience with stay-at-home parenting – need to get more involved in politics, particularly in running for office. My point is that just that we have to realize what kind of importance and power we have as parents. Human beings can’t be raised effectively by institutions, only by people, in small groups called families. Politics cannot do what parents can do. In that way, politics is dependent upon us, every bit as much as we are dependent upon it. But I take your last point – certainly we need politics.

    • Norine says:

      So true, Mandy. Parenting often does feel small and (to my mind) never smaller than when my kids encountered attitudes in the ‘world’ amongst their teachers and peers that undermined what I’d been trying to teach at home. i.e. To defend and never bully the weak. To try their best at whatever they were given to do etc; I took the ‘political’ route from time to time when it became obvious that the ‘system’ had little regard for its own ethos. To advocate for my child, I became a nuisance parent, agreed to comment in a newspaper article and embarrassed the school. Regrettable. Would rather it hadn’t happened that way but for my kids, I’d do it again. 😦

  3. robstroud says:

    Bravo. I have no doubt that C.S. Lewis would laud your reasoning and agree fully with your conclusion!

  4. […] of her earliest columns posed this question: “Could Parenting be More Important than Politics?” I highly recommend the piece, which begins with a pertinent passage from a letter C.S. Lewis […]

  5. Chel Owens says:

    Not being (admittedly) very familiar with Aristotle, I nevertheless posit that his was an observation within a different time and social construct. To be involved in one’s political sphere determined an outcome toward happiness.

    Your observations, overall, intrigue me and scratch at that indeterminable itch of unfulfilled apathy I feel as a homemaker. I would have been among those women at Wellesley (and still am, mentally), seeking any goal besides a happy home life. I believe we women feel and are taught a desire to break ceilings, blaze trails, and earn prestigious adulation. As an earlier commenter pointed out, all things home life are therefore small and insignificant; certainly not the Master Art.

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