Last time I reviewed the limited sense of external purpose and family typically experienced by the child, adolescent, and young adult. At some point but at varying ages, the majority of adults will seek to couple with another. The fortunate experience this as the permanent solidification of authentic love in matrimony. For others marriage is arranged, a matter of convenience or necessity, or simply the best alternative to continued singlehood. Whatever the circumstances, marital union is highly purposeful: establishing an obligation to help the spouse have a good life, to permit their flourishing and self-perfection, and to contribute to their happiness and meaning.
But of course there is an additional and unique contingent purpose – the procreation (or adoption) of children – the tipping point where a couple becomes a family. Parenting is part role and part ultimate purpose – an undeniable opportunity to feel one’s life makes a difference. The parent is “spared the slightest doubt as to our significance or our role on Earth.”1 John Locke tells us “the end of conjunction between male and female [is] not barely creation, but the continuation of the species.”3 Add to this the dependency of the infant and the small child, and we see that an enduring relationship between spouses is a directive of Nature.
Will Durant goes even further, “marriage is not a relation between a man and a woman designed to legalize desire; it is a relationship between parents and children, designed to preserve and strengthen the race.”4. In this sense marriage originated in the necessity of human survival at a time when human lifespans were remarkably brief. It is only when modernity increased the human lifespan that the concept of marriage began to emphasize personal gratification.
Parenthood we see then is the convergence of biologic purpose, the expression of selflessness in regard to the child, and the identification and facilitation of the good life and happiness of one’s offspring. Our carefully cultivated internal virtue and purpose extends first to a mate and from there to the most tangible meaning life is likely to offer – children. Of course family is more than spouse and children; we will take up other familial relationships next time.
2The Meaning of Life, from The School of Life, 2019. ISBN 978-0-9957535-4-9, page 36.
3Adler, Mortimer J, et. al., The Great Ideas – A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World, Volume II, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1952 page 486.
4Durant, Will, The Pleasures of Philosophy. Simon and Schuster, New York, N.Y., 1981. ISBN 0-671-58110-4, page 143.