Ancient families, economics and some one to sing the baritone

October 7, 2013

I try not to blog or post on facebook on the research that I am doing for my doctoral thesis. The point is to write the thesis, not thousands of words in blog posts. But I am cutting myself just a little bit of slack today. Besides, this bit of reading was kind of  off-broadway anyhow.

I have been reading on childhood and families in ancient societies.

I am noticing how many contemporary analyses of ancient families attribute family structure, role and identity constructions (especially in what we would call ‘extended’ households’) to economic advantage/survival alone. No doubt there were/are gains in labour sharing and productivity by this arrangement.

But I wonder if there is something about the Western scholarly mindset that is blinded by these factors, and misses something else that motivated and sustained larger multi-generational families. It seems that the 20th/21st century western scholar can’t imagine reasons for living with others unless there was direct economic gain. [Note to self: read some more diverse global voices.]

Is it not at all possible that ancient families shared life together in rich tangled textures because it is nicer like that? Because in extended families, or families that welcome strangers and travellers, there can also be plenty of love and listening and affection and solidarity to go around for the things in life that don’t boil down to $$$? That human community thrives not just on there being enough bread and water and blankets, but also on

having hope for one another,

inspiration to be daring,

the meeting of the eyes that gives comfort and understanding,

models for problem solving,

 forgiveness in failure,

healing touch,

wrestling partners,

dancing partners,

some one to sing the baritone

and people you can cry with because though your soul is submerged in the salty blindness of tears you know when you come up for air,  they will still be there.

I know, I know – I’m an incurable idealist. Still my small experiences of extending our household beyond the nuclear family, and of being a sojourning third adult in other families myself makes me suspicious of purely pragmatic economic theories for one-roofline community formation.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was for a long time thought to explain the development of civilisation historically, not just provide a rubric for understanding how individuals might prioritise an agenda for survival.

It was theorised that the ‘higher’ needs, like  friendship, family, intimacy, creativity, respect, and morality only ‘evolved’ in societies that had sorted the basic function of food, shelter, property and security.

This led to an inflated view of the importance of technology and industry as a means for securing access to the ‘higher’ needs. And it led to a subsequent blindness and prejudice in recognising the qualitative, affective, creative and spiritual dimensions embedded in ancient and so called ‘primitive’ cultures.

The hierarchy was also subtly misapplied to individual human chronological development. Assuming that until humans had nailed the functional tasks of mobility and self-feeding, and certain conceptual markers like ‘object permanence’ that there was no moral, affective, intimate or creative content to the child’s world. And perhaps you look at Maslow’s pyramid with the same wry smile as I do – as you observe the self-actualisation of the individual at the pinacle. Truly he so perfectly manifest the zeitgeist of inherent individualistic naturalism.

Closer unprejudiced attention reveals that the earliest incarnations of human life are responsive to relationship, along with other cultural factors. That real human persons of any and every age are alive and alert to corporate existence, contingent, dependent and, if they know what’s good for them, loving it.

I know, I know – I’m an incurable idealist. Still my small experiences of bearing babies in my own body, of holding a new born who settles to the familiar Mozart phrases, of knowing spoon-fed children and adults traumatised by lack of nourishing touch  make me suspicious of purely pragmatic theories of personhood that can separate functionality from meaning making.

Whatever ideas we might have about what makes a good family or a good economic system or a functional human being, or a civilised society, I hope we never lack someone to sing the baritone.

One comment

  1. I agree Beth. I always ask ‘how do they know THAT?’ about how relationships worked, or who did what function in Ancient families. It does seem that so much is simply projection from some ‘imagined something’. Have you read Michael Schluter ‘The R factor’? I haven’t yet- its sitting unread in the bookshelf but its putting forward the idea of ‘relational economies and democracies’

    Love to you

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