“Patriarchy” is a word that has almost ceased to communicate a definable meaning in contemporary discourse. Feminist theory deploys the term so loosely that it may be applied to any institution or instance in which men dominate women or are perceived to do so. “Most feminist criticism,” Heather Jones avers, “tends to represent the family as the main legacy of this male advantage and therefore as patriarchy’s primary model and institution. Consequently patriarchy has been defined in this context as a general organizing structure apparent in most social, cultural, and economic practices world-wide, a structure that is considered to promote and perpetuate, in all facets of human existence, the empowerment of men and the disempowerment of women.” Patriarchy, according to this familiar view, is thus “the rule of the Law-of-the-Father(s),” which brings about the existence of the family, which is in turn the model for every oppressive masculine structure in all facets of human existence. Nevertheless, although patriarchy arises in “pre-history” and pervades every niche of society throughout the world, “Much Anglo-American feminist criticism… attempts to make patriarchal strategies visible, to reveal that they are neither natural nor necessary, and thus to enable women and other ‘feminized’ groups to empower themselves.”[1] “Patriarchy” thus becomes, like “fascism,” merely a term of abuse, applied to almost anything that certain fashionable intellectuals and academics find reprehensible according to the goals of their political agenda. This loss of meaning is regrettable, because an accurate understanding of patriarchy as a specific cultural institution provides genuine insight into the history of the interaction of family and society and the crisis now confronting Western civilization.

In an essay first published in 1933, “The Patriarchal Family in History,” Christopher Dawson provides an accurate historical sketch of patriarchy, showing both its crucial role in the development of higher civilizations and the threat it faces when those civilizations become excessively sophisticated and decadent. Most remarkable perhaps is Dawson’s explanation of the way in which the rise of Christianity transformed the patriarchal family into something more egalitarian and more spiritual in both its social and sexual dimensions without losing the cultural order and energy that patriarchy had provided. Finally, Dawson considers the implications of the decline in Europe and North America not only of patriarchy but also of its spiritually enhanced form in Christian marriage. Writing more than seven decades ago, he manifests remarkable prescience in foreseeing the disastrous effect of the wholesale rejection of traditional norms of marriage and family life that had swept across what had once been Christendom by the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Dawson begins by arguing that the regulation of sexual activity and child-bearing is intrinsic to human social organization: “it is a universal rule of every known society that a woman before she bears a child must be married to an individual male partner.”[2] The socialist and, latterly, feminist fantasy that there was a time of unfettered sexual promiscuity when women reared their children without the intervention or even interest of absent, anonymous fathers is, Dawson maintains, untenable, as well as the correlative notion that the family is a device for the subjection of women and children that arose with private property and “patriarchy.” Attempts to explain—or explain away—the family as a sinister imposition on “complete freedom from restraint” provoked by economic developments are “a romantic myth”:

It is impossible to go back behind the family and find a state of society in which the sexual relations are in a pre-social stage, for the regulation of sexual relations is an essential prerequisite of any kind of culture. The family is not a product of culture; it is, as Malinowski shows, “the starting point of all human organization” and “the cradle of nascent culture.”[3]

Dawson’s point is that to be human is to live in a society and to be subject to cultural norms. The instinct for sexual reproduction is a merely biological trait shared with the beasts. Marriage and family organization are an integral part of our distinctive humanity, which necessarily clashes with what is only animal in us:

The institution of the family inevitably creates a vital tension which is creative as well as painful. For human culture is not instinctive. It has to be conquered by a continuous moral effort, which involves the repression of natural instinct and the subordination and sacrifice of the individual impulse to social purpose.[4]

One might sum this up aphoristically by saying that human nature is naturally estranged in some measure from nature; that is, we are self-conscious creatures capable of free choices, which perforce are a source of anxiety, frustration, and uncertainty. In Dawson’s view, the emergence of patriarchy marks an elevation of what is distinctively human and rational in culture and makes possible a more complex and sophisticated form of civilization. If women are held to “chastity and self-sacrifice” and children to “obedience and discipline,” men are likewise required to assume the burden of responsibility for the welfare of the entire family and its tradition. It is precisely because patriarchy places higher demands on each member of the family that it “is a much more efficient organ of cultural life. It is no longer limited to its primary sexual and reproductive functions. It becomes the dynamic principle of society and the source of social continuity.”[5] Dawson maintains that the additional severity that patriarchy imposed upon the looser matrilinear family structures of prehistory bore fruit not only in greater human productivity and hence comfort, but also in the enhanced sense of human excellence:

This religious exaltation of the family profoundly affects men’s attitude to marriage and the sexual aspect of life in general. It is not limited, as is often supposed, to the idealization of the possessive male as father and head of the household; it equally transforms the conception of womanhood. It was the patriarchal family which created those spiritual ideals of motherhood and virginity which have had so deep an influence on the moral development of culture.[6]

It is hardly a sign of the superiority of contemporary culture that the “spiritual ideals of motherhood and virginity” are an object of derision in most contemporary academic circles and among the intellectual elite generally. The cherishing of both motherhood and virginity by the same society is a tribute to the integrity of women as women and provides a counterweight to the advantage men enjoy in sheer brute strength and in being exempt from pregnancy and lactation. It is the idealization of these specifically feminine virtues that distinguishes human beings from mere mammals. As Dawson further observes, the insistence upon these distinctive feminine qualities made possible the social stability necessary for real civilization, and their abandonment is ominous: “It is the fundamental error of the modern hedonist to believe that man can abandon moral effort and throw off every repression and spiritual discipline and yet preserve all the achievements of culture.”[7]

The patriarchal family is not, however, the last word in the social ordering of Western civilization. Indeed, patriarchy lost its grip at a crucial moment in the history of ancient Greece and Rome and “failed to adopt itself to the urban conditions of Hellenistic civilization”:

Conditions of life both in the Greek city-state and in the Roman Empire favoured the man without a family who could devote his whole energies to the duties and pleasures of public life. Late marriages and small families became the rule, and men satisfied their sexual instincts by homosexuality or by relations with slaves and prostitutes. This aversion to marriage and the deliberate restriction of the family by the practice of infanticide and abortion was undoubtedly the main cause of the decline of ancient Greece, as Polybius pointed out in the second century B.C.[8]

Polybius recounts (among other things) how a decadent Greece succumbed to a vigorous and confident Rome, but within a century or so of the events that he narrates Rome itself is beginning to succumb to the same degenerate tendencies.

The decadence, as it developed in Rome, may be illustrated by poetry. Catullus (84-54 B.C.?) is best known for a series of brilliant poems describing a torrid yet tawdry affair with a woman he calls Lesbia, who scorns his desire for tenderness and fidelity. Most revealing, however, is the epithalamion, or wedding hymn, he wrote, possibly for the Manlius Torquatus who would become Consul in 49 B.C. Allowing for an element of bawdy joking at the groom’s expense, these lines are still rather shocking to modern sensibilities, at least until very recently:

It is said, anointed bridegroom, that you
Can hardly keep away from your hairless slave boys,
But keep away.
We are aware that what is known to you Are only permitted pleasures, but these
same things
Are not permitted to husbands.[9]

The joke would have no point were the conduct not at least imaginable. This is Dawson’s point: marriage and family come to be regarded as an onerous duty and expense. The groom must be exhorted to pay sufficient attention to his bride in order to sire children, because “it is unfitting for so old a name to be without children” (ll. 205-07: “non decet / tam uetus sine liberis / nomen esse”). A warning is given that suggests how easily distracted a Roman husband might be:

Bride, you also must beware of denying What your husband demands lest he Go to someone else for what he seeks.[10]

While the sentiment has not been unknown in more recent times (it turns up in The Waste Land, for instance), it is difficult to imagine such advice being given as part of a celebration of Christian marriage.

Propertius and Ovid also furnish evidence of a social decadence in which marriage and the responsibilities of children are held up to ridicule. Propertius, rejoicing over the repeal of a law that would have separated him from his mistress, pours forth his defiance of any government policy that would restrict his erotic license for the sake of social norms and interests:

“Yet mighty is Caesar.” Yes but Caesar is mighty in arms:

Conquered nations avail nothing in love.
Now I would sooner let my head to be severed from this neck
Than I could quench this torch at the humor of a bride
Or, as a husband, pass by your closed door,
Glancing back with streaming eyes at what I had betrayed.
Ah, my flute would sing such slumbers for you then,
A flute sadder than a funeral trumpet! How would I furnish children for national triumphs?
There will be no soldier from my blood.[11]

A mistress is better than a wife who has rights unconnected with passionate infatuation. Most revealing is the scorn of patriotism—of the social regulation of sexual activity in the interests of the common good of the nation. For his part Ovid openly ridicules the idea of patriotic activity in numerous poems and undermines military virtue by equating sexual pursuit with the hardships of army life. Horace had extolled “the youth hardened in military service” and proclaimed it “sweet and fitting to die for one’s homeland.”[12] Ovid observes that while “the soldier’s duty is a long road, send his girlfriend ahead, and the vigorous lover will follow without ceasing.”[13]

These themes are not mere poetic fiction. The Emperor Augustus banished Ovid to the shores of the Black Sea and attempted to reform Roman morals and restore the sanctity of marriage and the honor of begetting and rearing children, but to no avail. “Augustus revived some laws and certain things he dealt with anew,” writes Suetonius, “such as extravagance and adultery, chastity, bribery, and the regulation of marriage. The last law, since he had reframed it somewhat more severely than the others, he was unable to carry out in the face of a throng of dissidents, except by the removal or mitigation at last of some of the penalties [for not marrying], a three-year interval for marrying again, and increased rewards [for marrying and having children].”[14] Likewise Tacitus observes that Augustus sought to relax the Papia Poppaea, which forbade marriages between classes, “to increase the penalties on celibacy and augment the treasury, but marriage and the rearing of children was not increased thereby, so attractive was childlessness.”[15] Of course, Augustus could not even control his own family: both his daughter Julia, and grand-daughter, also Julia, were notoriously promiscuous, and he eventually banished them both.[16]

Not at all an exaggeration, then, Dawson’s portrayal of the dire state of Roman society at the dawn of the Christian era is fully warranted by the historical record. His account of the effect of Christianity on this world is likewise compelling. His distinctive perception is that Christianity succeeded in revitalizing the society of the Western world not by following the lead of the Emperor Augustus, who simply attempted, as Tacitus and Suetonius note, to impose once again the mos maiorum—the stern customs of their Republican ancestors—on decadent, pleasure-loving Romans. Christianity did not, in contrast, simply revive the patriarchal culture of the ancient Hebrews. Christian marriage is a refinement of the patriarchal family, first in social terms:

The reconstitution of Western civilization was due to the coming of Christianity and the reestablishment of the family on a new basis. Though the Christian ideal owes much to the patriarchal tradition which finds such a complete expression in the Old Testament, it was in several respects a new creation that differed essentially from anything that had previously existed. While the patriarchal family in its original form was an aristocratic institution which was the privilege of a ruling race or a patrician class, the Christian family was common to every class, even to the slaves.[17]

A form of marriage that offers both the dynamism and the stability of the patriarchal family and yet permeates all classes is obviously a more powerful engine for transforming and reviving society. It is the genius of the Church to be catholic; that is, universal. Christian marriage is thus a more “democratic” or “egalitarian” institution than patriarchy insofar as it puts everyone on the same footing in terms of sexual relations and child-bearing. Hence it enhances the morale of the entire community.

But Christian marriage is also more “democratic” on an intimate, personal level:

Still more important was the fact that the Church insisted for the first time on the mutual and bilateral character of sexual obligations. The husband belonged to the wife as exclusively as the wife to the husband. This rendered marriage a more personal and individual relation than it had been under the patriarchal system. The family was no longer a subsidiary member of a larger unity—the kindred or “gens.” It was an autonomous self-contained unit which owed nothing to any power outside itself.[18]

We do not often enough reflect upon the significance of the social revolution that Dawson here adumbrates. Contemporary feminists, for example, who complain of the unequal relation between husbands and wives in Christian marriage ought to answer the question, “Compared to what other form of marriage before the twentieth century?” St. Paul, the great villain of modern feminism indeed says, “Let women be subject to their husbands,” but he also says, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ also loved the church and delivered himself up for it”; and he calls marriage “a great sacrament” that figures the relationship between Christ and the Church.[19] The husband is called upon not only to be responsible for his wife as a good patriarch, not only to love her, but to deliver himself up for her as Christ sacrificed himself for the Church.

St. Paul wrote this letter to his Ephesian converts a few decades after the Augustan “reform,” designed to strengthen marriage in the Roman Empire, gave both a husband and his father-in-law the right to kill an adulterer caught in the act with his wife (or daughter) in his own home. Adultery was considered especially heinous if a well-born Roman matron were involved with a lover of lower class—a gladiator, actor, freedman, slave, or any man of lower status.[20] It goes without saying that Roman wives (and mothers-in-law!) enjoyed no reciprocal “right” to do away with her husband’s mistresses, and it was generally taken for granted that even married men were free to trifle with slaves, prostitutes, and other lower class women—or boys. If Christian marriage, as expounded by St. Paul and practiced by the   early Church was hierarchical rather than egalitarian in the modern sense, nevertheless, wives were regarded as equally human partners in an institution that was spiritual and sacramental, and a husband’s obligations to his wife went beyond the fulfillment of the material provisions of a contract. He owed himself to his wife as completely as she owed herself to him.

An additional element of Christian marriage that transcended Old Testament patriarchy, as well as the deteriorating situation in ancient Greece and Rome, was the element of choice. When St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century quotes St. John Chrysostum of the fourth, “Sexual intercourse does not make marriage, but the will,” he is declaring what is by then the teaching of the Church.[21] The further implication of the necessity of consent is that “slaves must not be constrained to obey their masters, nor children their parents, in the contracting of matrimony or the keeping of virginity or anything else of this kind.”[22] Dawson points out that the alternative of virginity further qualifies the sway of the patriarchal family under the Christian dispensation:

For in a Catholic civilization the patriarchal ideal is counterbalanced by the ideal of virginity. The family for all its importance does not control the whole existence of its members. The spiritual side of life belongs to a spiritual society in which all authority is reserved to a celibate class. Thus in one of the most important aspects of life the sexual relation is transcended, and husband and wife stand on an equal footing.[23]

Dawson thus sees patriarchy in relation to the Christian family in a way analogous to the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. The former is fulfilled and spiritually transfigured in the latter.

Modern critics of Christian sexual morality—Dawson mentions Bertrand Russell—fail to acknowledge that “there can be no doubt that the resultant type of monogamous and indissoluble marriage has been the foundation of European society and has conditioned the whole development of our civilization.”[24] Already in 1933 Dawson perceives threats to the European tradition of Christian marriage and wonders if Western civilization can survive the rejection of its fundamental social and religious institution. In the physical sciences, the predictive power of a theory is a powerful measure of its validity. Judged in these terms, Dawson’s analysis of the rôle of patriarchy in the development of European civilization, especially as it has been enhanced by the Christian exaltation of marriage, is a powerful theory indeed. The last two or three pages of his essay amount to a survey of many of the family pathologies in embryonic form that conservative commentators have remarked in contemporary European and American society, and that are increasingly confirmed by sociological research.

First, Dawson notes that while families still live in households of traditional appearance, their real purpose has been drained away:

The home is no longer a centre of social activity; it has become merely a sleeping place for a number of independent wage-earners. The functions which were formerly fulfilled by the head of the family are now being taken over by the state, which educates the children and takes the responsibility for their maintenance and health. Consequently, the father no longer holds a vital position in the family.[25]

This is a fairly accurate prediction of the welfare state, the “family” that never shares a meal, and “latch-key” children. Moreover, Dawson anticipated the way that “alternative” forms of household life would exert intolerable pressure on the exclusive claims of marriage, once it had lost its integrity and social function: “But if we accept the principles of the new morality, this last safeguard will be destroyed and the forces of dissolution will be allowed to operate unchecked.”[26] After decades of rampant divorce, cohabitation, and illegitimacy, the looming prospect of “gay marriage” throughout Europe and North America seems to bear out Dawson’s worst fears.

Europe and America, he predicted, will come to look increasingly like ancient Greece and Rome in their decadence: “Marriage will lose all attractions for the young and the pleasure-loving and the poor and the ambitious. The energy of youth will be devoted to contraceptive love and only when men and women have become prosperous and middle-aged will they think seriously of settling down to rear a strictly limited family.”[27] Dawson also recognized 75 years ago the demographic effects of the dissolution of the family, which, then as now, were willfully ignored by the intellectual and social elites who dominated all the organs of respectable, liberal opinion: “The advocates of birth-control can hardly fail to realize the consequences of a progressive decline of the population in a society in which it is already almost stationary, but all their propaganda is entirely directed towards a further diminution of the birth rate.”[28] Dawson’s essay closes with a prediction that makes Mark Steyn,[29] the self-proclaimed “demography bore,” look like an easy-going optimist: “The peoples who allow the natural bases of society to be destroyed by the artificial conditions of the new urban civilization will gradually disappear and their place will be taken by those populations which live under simpler conditions and preserve the traditional forms of the family.”[30]

Christopher Dawson knew the limitations of patriarchy in its traditional forms, but he also knew that it was an essential element in the rise of civilization—not just a particular civilization, but any civilization at all. Finally, and most important, he recognized that the only alternative to patriarchy that could support a progressive, generous civilization was the transformation of patriarchy in the form of the Christian family—the social institution that has provided the basis for the most magnanimous and abundant society the world has ever known. Dawson recognized early in the twentieth century that our civilization could not long survive the abandonment of its Christian roots by peoples wishing to enjoy the benefits without assuming responsibility for its maintenance. His prophetic vision anticipated the grotesque irony of radical feminists, beneficiaries of Christian culture, denigrating it as an oppressive patriarchy and thus rendering it more vulnerable to radical Islam—which really is a patriarchy in its ugliest and most oppressive form.

Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Fall 2007). 

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


1. Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory: Approaches, Scholars, Terms, ed. Irena R. Makaryk (Toronto, Buffalo, London, 1993), s.v. “Patriarchy.”

2. “The Patriarchal Family in History,” ed. John J. Mulloy (LaSalle, IL, 1978), 157.

3. Ibid., 157-58.

4. Ibid., 158-59. Dawson does not mention it, but there is an obvious resemblance to Freud’s thesis in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930).

5. Ibid., 159.

6. Ibid., 159-60.

7. Ibid., 159.

8. Ibid., 161. Dawson cites Polybius, Histories XXXVI.17, XX.6.

9. Catullus, The Poems, ed. Kenneth Quinn, 2nd ed. (Houndmills and London, 1973), Carmen LXI.134- 36, 139-41: “diceris male te a tuis / unguentate glabris marite / abstinere, sed abstine. …scimus haec tibi quae licent / sola cognita, sed marito / ista non eadem licent.” For information on the supposed historical model for Lesbia, Clodia Metelli, sister of P. Clodius Pulcher and wife of Q. Caecilius Metellus Celer, see Quinn’s “Introduction,” xv-xix and Cicero’s Pro Caelio.

10. Ibid., ll. 144-46: “nupta, tu quoque quae tuus / uir petet caue ne neges, / ni petitum aliunde eat.”

11. The Latin text is from Propertius, ed. and trans. H.E. Butler (Cambridge, MA, 1976), II.vii.5-14: “‘At magnus Caesar’. sed magnus Caesar in armis: / devictae gentes nil in amore valent. / nam citius paterer caput hoc discedere collo / quam possem nuptae perdere more faces, / aut ego transirem tua limina clausa maritus, / respiciens udis prodita luminibus. / a mea tum quales caneret tibi tibia somnos, / tibia, funesta tristior illa tuba! / unde mihi patriis natos praebere triumphis? / nullus de nostro sanguine miles erit.”

12. Q. Horati Flacci, Opera, ed. Edward C. Wickham, 2nd ed. H.W. Garrod (Oxford, 1912), Odes III.ii.1-3, 13: “Angustam amice pauperiem pati / robustus acri militia puer / condiscat [….] dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”

13. The Latin text is taken from Ovid, Amores and Heroides, ed. and trans. Grant Showerman (Cambridge, MA, 1977), Amores I.ix.9- 10: “militis officium longa est via; mitte puellam,/ strenuuus exempto fine sequetur amans.”

14. Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars, ed. Carolus Ludovicus Roth (Lipsiae, 1904), Divus Augusus 34: “Leges retractavit et quasdam ex integro sanxit, ut sumptuariam et de adulteries et de pudicitia, de ambitu, de maritandis ordinibus. Hanc cum aliquanto severius quam ceteras emendasset, prae tumultu recusantium perferre non potuit, nisi adempta demum lenitave parte poenarum et vacatione trienni data auctisque praemiis.”

15. Annales, ed. Carolus Halm (Lipsiae, 1869), III. 25: “Relatum deinde de moderanda Papia Poppaea, quam senior Augustus post Iulias rogationes incitandis caelibum poenis et augendo aerario sanxerat. nec ideo coniugia et educationes liberum frequentabantur, praevalida orbitate.”

16. Suetonius, Divus Augustus 65. For Ovid’s fortunes and the Emperor’s futile campaign of moral reform, see Sara Mack, Ovid (New Haven and London, 1988), 36-37.

17. “The Patriarchal Family in History,” 161-62.

18. Ibid., 162.

19. Ephesians 5.22, 25, 32. Sacramentum is the reading of the Vulgate, “sacrament” of the Douai-Rheims translation, which I have quoted. The Greek text reads and most Protestant bibles translate “mystery.” Since it is the term for “sacrament” in Eastern liturgies, however, the difference is less significant than it is sometimes presented.

20. “The Julian Law on Curbing Adultery,” excerpted in Roman Civilization: Sourcebook II: The Empire, ed. Naphtali Lewis and Meyer Reinhold (New York /Hagerstown / San Francisco / London, 1966), 48-49. For the sharp distinction between the norms of Christian marriage and the practices of the pagan world of the early Roman Empire, see Francis Martin, “Mar- riage in the New Testament Period,” in Christian Marriage: A Historical Study, ed. Glenn W. Olsen (New York, 2001), 84-85; and Glenn W. Olsen, “Progeny, Faithfulness, and the Sacred Bond: Marriage in the Age of Augustine,” in Christian Marriage, 106-09.

21. Summa Theologiae Suppl. 45.1: “Matrimonium non facit coitus, sed voluntas […] Ergo consensus in matrimonium est causa.” See Theresa Olsen Pierre, “Marriage, Body, and Sacrament in the Age of Hugh of St. Victor,” in Christian Marriage, 217-22.

22. Summa Theologiae 2-2.104.5: “Unde non tenentur nec servi dominis, nec filii parentibus obedire de matrimonio contrahendo vel virginatate servanda, aut aliquo alio huiusmodi.”

23. “The Patriarchal Family,” 162-63. In this context Dawson is severe on the Reformation, to which he ascribes “a new patriarchalism,” resulting from its Old Testament emphasis, that “made the family the religious as well as the social basis of society”; and which he sees, ironically, as the source of “Industrialism,” “the new economic order which now threatens to destroy the family” (163).

24. Ibid., 162.

25. Ibid., 164.

26. Ibid.

27. Ibid., 165.

28. Ibid.

29. See America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It (Washington, DC, 2006).

30. “The Patriarchal Family,” 166.

The featured image is “Choir of Patriarchs” (between 1499 and 1502), by Luca Signorelli  (1450–1523), and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email