Hearth, home, and family legends

Authored by Winston Brady

The first assignment I ask of students each year is to present on their family lineage. In teaching American history, I wanted students to speak to parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends, and well-wishers to tap into fountains of family lore. Students need only find the most noble story in their family history to present to the class. Such an exercise promotes student happiness. The truth is that the more they knew about their own family, the more confidence they may have when they grow up and take responsibility for the family legend they inherited. In this essay, I’ll explain why such knowledge of hearth and home is crucial for human happiness, how we have lost it, and ways we may bring it back for ourselves and our posterity.

Indeed, that love for one’s forebears—at least, the forbears beyond one’s grandparents—is one more treasure we’ve lost from the historical past. If ignorance of the historical past makes one a child, as Cicero contends, then ignorance of the past that made us a child (how else would we exist without those forbears?) is something more akin to a puppy. Such animals know nothing of their noble lineage and the freedom they enjoyed before domestication—and thus, they have no reference point to scold themselves when they drink out of the toilet, travel inside of an expensive purse, or exchange the thrill of the hunt for the comfort and security of being a house pet.

Many young people face that same choice: do I live for the pleasures of the moment or make my family proud? Often, the pursuit of happiness is directed towards those goods Aristotle described as being lower-order, physical pleasures and the like that offer immediate satisfaction but no long-term benefits. Alcoholism and drugs fall into this category, the kinds of vices no parent, conservative, progressive, or otherwise, wants for their kids. Some goods, no more higher than drugs, require radical lifestyle choices that promise happiness, and may deliver it for a while, but yield consequences so long-lasting that for children and teenagers to embrace seems dangerous and foolish. To exchange one’s posterity to stave off unhappiness for the time being seems a bargain not even Faust would have made.

In contrast, the knowledge of our family backward through the centuries provides new ways of finding happiness. Rarely is a “coming-to-America” tale not filled with danger, hardship, and sorrow, yet such tales always end in hope since they ultimately end in us. We are here to tell the tale and to know those stories gives us something to live for, a yoke surprisingly easy to bear as long as we do our best not to let our forbears down. Having kids may be enough to make our ancestors proud. Winston Churchill’s knowledge of his family history from the Duke of Marlborough downwards gave him such courage to stand up to the Nazis. Our family histories need not be as action-packed as the Battle of Blenheim or the Blitz—the fact that these stories are ours is enough. We may do likewise if we know the names of villages in the home countries or see the graves of the first member of the family to come to America.

Vintage engraving features a late nineteenth century depiction of an ocean steamer of European immigrants passing the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor after crossing the Atlantic.

So why don’t we know those stories now? At some point, we stopped caring. Maybe it was in the Progressive Era, whose adherents cared only for the glorious future they were creating through government coercion. Or the hippies of the 1960s, the first generation en masse, on television, and across the country to focus on those immediate pleasures, exchanging the life of a rock star for whatever lives their parents had. The percentage of Americans making similar bargains—the pleasures of the moment in exchange for whatever future your past may have made for you—has only increased. Now, it is as ubiquitous as water to a fish. It’s hard to think highly of your hometown or your family lineage when the media and government drag our attention to bigger and brighter things than small-town Americana. 

Consider the backstory of most superheroes and Disney princesses. Rarely do they have families. Bruce Wayne’s parents were tragically murdered, and Peter Parker’s parents are so absent from the Spider-Man franchise he may as well have been created in a lab along with the spider that bit him. Likewise Disney princesses, the vast majority of whom lack a mother to model traditional womanhood and femininity. Instead, they have overbearing fathers whose advice is suspect (The Little Mermaid’s Ariel), or inept dads who must be rescued (Beauty and the Beast’s Belle). In these instances, it’s part of a subtle but profound observation about the family: parents are a problem. No other institution shapes personality or transmits moral, spiritual, and intellectual values like the family; and no one else bars the way to radical self-fulfillment and self-identity like a mom and a dad. Batman and Spider-Man could not have remained heroes for very long had they operated under the expectations of their parents. No wonder many kids grow up believing that their parents are the chief impediment to their happiness, no wonder tales told by grandparents pale in comparison to the stories many people my age (myself included) grew up loving instead.

As with media, so also the federal government. One can make a strong case that, through the welfare state, the government takes the place of a mother or a father through monthly welfare payments. The unintended consequences of the welfare state aside, the federal government can never really take the place of a parent. The state cannot tell children bedtime stories or take them out for ice cream with grandparents. But the federal government can distract our attention with new programs and agencies doing the things the family was intended to do—i.e.., raising and caring for children—or alleviating the misery caused by the breakdown of the family, a breakdown in part caused by disordered incentives from on high. The odds for success and human flourishing radically increase for anyone born into a two-parent household, not least because of the stability and positive character formation a family provides. I think the likelihood of such success increases the more one knows about the family that came just before your own.

So where might we go from here? Oddly enough, nowhere. The family is already that “little platoon of virtue,” to use Edmund Burke’s language, so crucial to the right affections and right loves we would want to cultivate. If you are blessed to have such a platoon, find out as much as you can be about that family lineage. Seek out grandparents and uncles and ask them questions about the ancestral villages, the treks westward, or the faces in faded photographs. 

And for those whose family histories are fractured and broken, lacking the heroes that make for family lore, take heart. Virtue is a habit, not a genetic trait, and regardless of your circumstances, you can choose something better for your children. Some of the better men throughout history grew up in such circumstances—Rockefeller and Lincoln had fathers who were absent and, at times, abusive, but these men chose to forge a new path for their children. They did not allow themselves to be defined by their circumstances. Instead, they overcame them by having families of their own. They protected and provided for those under their care inside the home and aspired to live lives worthy of imitation outside the home. By so doing, they imparted to their children stories worth telling. Let us go and do the same. 

Winston Brady is the Director of Curriculum and Thales Press at Thales Academy, a network of private, classical schools with campuses in North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and South Carolina. He lives in North Carolina with his wife Rachel and their three children. His book The Inferno, a novel set in Hell to reinvigorate a love for God, family, and the United States of America,  is available in book retailers everywhere and at faithfultext.com.

Authored by:Winston Brady


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