Due to the recommendation of a reader of this weblog I’ve been listening to the audiobook of John Keegan’s A History of Warfare. I am good at reading a text. I am not so good at patiently paying attention to the narration of someone speaking.
But with that said, one passage that stuck out at me is where Keegan talks about the tension between the Christian professional class of secular and religious priests and the military nobility of early medieval Europe. Priests and monks were the Christianized cultural descendants of the Roman elite, which engaged in war, but generally focused on literate self-cultivation so as to signal their acceptability to polite society (this was especially true after the 3rd-century emergence of an Illyrian military elite that took up the martial responsibilities of the Roman nobility). The post-Roman and early medieval ruling class, in contrast, was marginally literate at best, and with exceptions took after German warlords in their practices if not their professed beliefs.
Keegan notes that numerically the religious caste and the military caste were balanced, adding to the tension which was punctuated by events such as Humiliation at Canossa which occurred in 1077 AD. But my interest and thoughts were piqued by the realization that this balance between priestly and military castes is neatly paralleled in many societies. It occurred among ancient Indo-Europeans, and continued down into historical periods among Zoroastrian Iranians, and continues down to the present day in Indian among Hindus. In China, the situation is somewhat different, because the bureaucratic and civilian gentry had traditionally subordinated any military element. The famously civilian Song dynasty was founded by a successful general. But in Japan arguably the large Buddhist establishment coexisted with the samurai class, while in the Islamic world the ulema serves to buttress military caste.
And yet there are differences between these groups. The Western Christian priesthood and the Dharmic religious class exhibit a degree of detachment from normal society due to their celibacy. This is not the case for the religious class of Muslims, who marry and have children, just as Protestant ministers, Jewish rabbis, and most Eastern Orthodox priests, do. Though Hindu priests generally marry, an ancient tradition of celibacy exists in Indian culture and persists within Hinduism, and this was transmitted throughout the world via Buddhism.
The Buddhist tendency to produce large self-supporting and independent institutions which supported celibate monks and nuns was one of the main reasons that the Confucian elite objected to the religion: it undermined family life.
The difference between religious and intellectual elites which have a normal family life and those which don’t remind me of a close friend who is a very productive and prominent (for his age) professor at an elite university. Now that he is settled down with someone, the consideration of children has emerged. If they are able to have children, likely a single child due to age, my friend expects that his life will change in many ways. This will impact his work. In fact, when it seemed likely that he was never to have children I did tell him that in a way it was a benefit to him, as he could pursue high-risk research and allocate his time geared purely toward maximizing human knowledge.
Aristotle married and hand children. Plato does not seem to have done so. I think the difference seems entirely reflected in the character of their philosophies. Christianity and the Dharmic religions have had large numbers of religious-intellectual professionals detached from worries of family life as monks across their history. In contrast, Jewish rabbis, Muslim ulema, and Confucian scholars have all had to concern themselves with family life. I would say on the whole Christianity and the Dharmic religious have concerned themselves more with abstruse philosophical issues around metaphysics, while the latter religions have focused more on the organization of prosaic life so as to further “the good” as they understand it. Judaism, Islam, and Confucianism are fundamentally religions of orthopraxy, not orthodoxy.
When I say “family life”, I really mean children. Children change you in many ways. For parents, they are the biggest contributions you will make to the human race. Having children can cure many of abstract radicalism and hunger for philosophical speculation.
Of course, not all single people are reading thick scholarly tomes with their marginal time. Most American single people who will never have children are rather stupid, and so focus on consumption, sex, and assorted distracting leisure. They are hedonic machines. But, a minority are devoted to causes. To society. And they have a lot more time than those of us with family obligations.
Over the last generation American society has changed a great deal when it comes to children (or the frequency of):
Delaying marriage is related to delaying childbirth. The median age at first marriage has gone from 20.6 to 27.4 for women and from 23.1 to 29.6 for men since 1967. Age at first birth increased as well. Most babies are born to a married couple, so it is natural to see shifts in the percentage of adults who live with no children in particular age groups.
The largest change in the proportion of adults living without children happened among those aged 18 to 35. In 1967, the majority of 18- to 24-year-olds had children living with them (53.3 percent) but by 2016, less than a third did (31.2 percent).
The changes are even more dramatic among 25- to 34-year-olds. In 1967, 23.9 percent in that age group did not have their own children under their roof. By 2016, the share more than doubled to 61.5 percent.
What are the implications for a much larger number of American adults in their prime years living in households without children?
Societies are complex. I think the existence of a large number of celibate adults as a persistent institution probably resulted in some unique aspects of Western Catholic and Indo-Buddhist cultures. To be frank, I think a sort of strange and peculiar unmooring from reality can occur. The reflexive ridiculousness of Zen or the openness of hyper-rationalism of Thomas Aquinas are both products of this. This isn’t bad. The flourishing of science in Western Europe may have been enabled by the independent and detached institutions of Catholicism.
Today in much of the world we see a different phenomenon from religious institutionalized celibates: the existence of a large number of childless adults outside of a strong institutional framework that channels their energies and leisure. I think a consequence of this may be some peculiar enthusiasms for various radical ideologies.