THE SERPENT'S TOOTH

Chapter Five

Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. Exod. 20. 12.

ONCE UPON A TIME there was a little old man. His eyes blinked and his hands trembled; when he ate he clattered the silverware distressingly, missed his mouth with the spoon as often as not, and dribbled a bit of his food on the tablecloth. Now he lived with his married son, having nowhere else to live, and his son's wife was a modern young woman who knew that in-laws should not be tolerated in a woman's home.

"I can't have this," she said. "It interferes with a woman's right to happiness."

So she and her husband took the little old man gently but firmly by the arm and led him to the corner of the kitchen. There they set him on a stool and gave him his food, what there was of it, in an earthenware bowl. From then on he always ate in the corner, blinking at the table with wistful eyes.

One day his hands trembled rather more than usual, and the earthenware bowl fell and broke.

"If you are a pig," said the daughter-in-law, "you must eat out of a trough." So they made him a little wooden trough, and he got his meals in that.

These people had a four-year-old son of whom they were, very fond. One suppertime the young man noticed his boy playing intently with some bits of wood and asked what he was doing.

"I'm making a trough," he said, smiling up for approval, "to feed you and Mamma out of when I get big."

The man and his wife looked at each other for a while and didn't say anything. Then they cried a little. Then they went to the corner and took the little old man by the arm and led him back to the table. They sat him in a comfortable chair and gave him his food on a plate, and from then on nobody ever scolded when he clattered or spilled or broke things.

One of Grimm's fairy tales, this anecdote has the crudity of the old simple days : the modern serpent's tooth method would be to lead Grandpa gently but firmly to the local asylum, there to tuck him out of sight as a case of senile dementia. But perhaps crudity is what we need to illustrate the naked and crude point of the Fifth Commandment : honour your parents lest your children dishonour you. Or, in other words, a society that destroys the family destroys itself.

Does this seem too selfish an interpretation of the law? Nowadays we sometimes like to get rid of the Commandments by broadening them into lofty mural sentiments too vague to apply in daily life. Thus "Honour your father and mother" is often broadened into something like, "We have a collective responsibility for the aged," which, though perfectly true, can in practice be used to evade our individual responsibility for our old folks-to justify treating our parents with the same cold benevolence we feel toward indigent strangers in a home for the aged. We pride ourselves on having eliminated selfishness and narrowness from the Decalogue by lifting it above the sphere of personal human contacts; but we have only eliminated reality, for all principles of conduct must come down in the end to the actual relations of flesh-and-blood people. And we have forgotten that the Commandments are not a set of divine ethical abstractions, but a set of quite practical rules for getting along in a very rough world. One reason for being nice to Father is clearly stated in terms of naked self-interest : "That thy days may be long."

Fathers had remarkable power when the Fifth Commandment was first written. They were not only heads of families but heads of govermnents-military leaders, judges, priests; the Bedouin sheikh is perhaps the nearest contemporary equivalent. They could kill with the sword, kill with the law, or kill with a curse, and their rights over their children were mystical and absolute. Thus, though much is said about Abraham's suffering over sacrificing Isaac and Jephthah's over sacrificing his daughter, the Old Testament never questions their right to do it. And thus, when criminals are condemned, the Pentateuch usually takes it for granted that their children and grandchildren shall perish with them, as being in some mystical way parts of their bodies.

All this may seem sheer barbarity to us, unless we make some effort to understand how tribesmen think. They don't think in modern terms about the importance of the individual; indeed, to some modern students it seems as if the tribesman had no consciousness of his individual self at all, as if he were aware of himself only in his relation to the clan, like a bee in a beehive. This is surely an exaggeration, for all men since the beginning have had self-consciousness-in fact, self-consciousness is a pre-requisite of original sin. Nevertheless it is true that the tribesman thinks his identity as clan member as the important thing : what he is in himself is secondary. And his view is perfectly sensible, for he can survive only as a clan member. Once outcast from the tribe, thrown back on his own poor personality, he finds every man's hand against him and he must perish, unless the Almighty give him a mark like Cain's for protection. So too the clan itself, if disunited and fatherless, goes down to destruction. In such a world men must honour their fathers or their days will be "poor, nasty, brutish, and short"!

To clan society, therefore, a man is not so much himself as the son of his father. He is Abdul ibn Yusuf ibn Mahmud, Joseph ben Jacob ben Isaac, Ivan Ivanovitch, O'Brien or MacGregor or Gaius of the Caesar family of the clan Julia descended from Venus; he is one of the children of Abraham or the sons of Atreus; he is true Anglo-Saxon or "echt Deutsch" or even (for clan thinking dies hard) l00 per cent. American. When, at the climax of his history, he is Jesus who calls himself the Son of Man, he is making a statement which is at once clear to the clansmen, though for the modem individualist it perhaps needs the translation that we are all members one of another.

The absolutism of the clan father was often cruel, but it had a limiting factor; to the clan, children were an inestimable asset. Nowadays we take it for granted that our young are a financial burden, but in Old Testament days they were a form of wealth and power. Job's large family is listed with his flocks and herds among the signs of his prosperity. In that world a man was not fully a man till he begot a son, a sterile woman was considered accursed, and children were the very meaning of life. How little Job would have understood the view of some "enlightened moderns" that children are an interference with one's own life !

Thus even a selfish father could be trusted to look after his young fairly well-according to his lights-for his own sake, as a modern woman tends her washing-machine or a modem man his car. And if people were to survive at all, either as individuals or as families, they must be taught to honour their parents with unquestioning loyalty and obedience.

Contrast this patriarchal world with the civilization of imperial Rome ! By the time of Saint Paul, the Mediterranean basin was overpopulated : desperate methods of preventing childbearing had come into fashion : family life was rapidly breaking down. The satires of Juvenal show us a society whose vices are horribly familiar. It was no longer possible to take it for granted that parents meant well. When Paul, in the Epistle to the Ephesians, restated the Fifth Commandment, he thought it advisable to add, "And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath" !

If we are to make sense of the Commandment today, we must begin with Paul's addition. For there is no denying that our society often sins against the children. Everybody todayFascists and Communists and all of us in-between-will agree that family life is indispensable to human health and happiness. Yet we find ourselves accepting conditions that make war on the family. The lands behind the Iron Curtain deliberately weaken family ties in their schools, lest loyalty to parents should conflict with devotion to the sacred State. A century ago, houses were twelve-room affairs designed to hold grandparents and maiden aunts and uncles, as well as parents and children; today they are usually cramped little flats and cottages, and we feel lucky to get those. We can hardly do much about honouring Father and Mother if there's no room for them in the inn.

No doubt the breakdown of family ties which so alarms the modern world is largely the result of industrialism. For in an industrial world the family ceases to be economically efficient; it is no longer a way of making money. In place of the home workshop we have factory and supermarket and office. Once there were a hundred kinds of shared creation that bound parents and children together; spinning, weaving, clothing the household and making its furniture, brewing beer, and curing meatall these in addition to the particular trade in which the family specialized. The old taught and governed the young; the young honoured the old for their knowledge and at the same time learned to respect themselves as responsible and useful members of a household. But all this creative work has now been taken away and parcelled out among the men who serve the Machine. Housework today has been reduced to a dull and crude sort of labour, tiring but unrewarding, which bores the average housewife so much that she has to listen to the radio to take her mind off it. What sort of rich human experience can a child get on such terms?

Only on our farms are children still really valuable workers, and perhaps that is why the old-fashioned, closely knit family survives on our farms more than elsewhere. As for the city crowd-well, the family may still be necessary to happiness, but it's only a nuisance to the purse, and people easily come to believe, in a satirist's phrase: "What good is happiness? You can't buy money with it ! "

People easily come to believe things that destroy them: as, for instance, "Whatever is profitable must be right." There is no real need for defeatism about the family. We might very well, if we would, manage to reconcile the happy family with the industrial system: we could disperse our industries, spread out our homes in garden towns, say no to everything that denies a child freedom of motion and the companionship of his parents. Clear heads among us do this for themselves-there are plenty of "child-centred homes" even today. What stops the rest of us? An airy nothing, a climate of opinion, a complacent belief that things are all right as they are, that civilization and progress consist in having the State do as much as possible and the home as little as possible-in short, that the less family life we have, the better.

Every age has its professional apologists, and ours are working hard to convince us that our worst sins are virtues. A mother forced to take a job needs a crèche for her baby, admitted-but that does not justify the false comforters who tell us a crèche is better than a mother. An overcrowded school must pick up its pupils in large handfuls all of an age, and pass them along without paying attention to their individual abilities-yet this hardly warrants the current theory that children ought to be herded in age groups, as if we gave birth to them in litters 1 The cooped up small families of cities are likely to develop unhealthy tensions, as we all know need we, therefore, swallow the fashionable psychological doctrine that it's natural for all sons to hate their fathers? Were it really true that sons and fathers are natural enemies, how could mankind ever have dreamed of such a thing as the Fatherhood of God?

Through such apologies, and our own mental laziness, we are in danger of accepting without question some very queer distortions of human life. Already our generations are being walled off from each other: teen-agers flock together deaf to all language but their own, young couples automatically drop their unmarried friends, whole magazines address themselves to age groups such as the seventeens or the young matrons or the "older executive type." Vast number of people think it "natural" to hate your in-laws, "immature" to ask your parents for advice after your marriage, "abnormal" to value the companionship of anyone much older or younger than yourself. And a thousand stories and articles testify to one of the greatest problems of modern life : father and son, mother and daughter, cannot talk to one another with understanding.

Of course the modern way, the collectivism into which we are all being forced willy-nilly, does have certain advantages. When community and State take over responsibility, children and the aged are no longer wholly dependent on the sometimes doubtful devotion of their blood kin. When education and social services are a State rather than a private concern, we escape the narrowness and hatred of clan life, in which "stranger" means "enemy"-we get that much nearer to realizing the brotherhood of man. A couple of centuries back there was a family of distinguished surgeons that invented the obstetrical forceps and jealously guarded it as a trade secret : that sort of family loyalty we are much better off without.

Still we are paying too high a price for our gains, paying in terms of juvenile delinquency and adult unhappiness, for those who have never known warmth and love when they were small are seldom capable of much love when they grow big. We pay in restlessness, in desperate pleasure-seeking, in the lack of moral standards-our teeth are set on edge by the sour grapes of our fathers' eating. No gain in social efficiency can save a community that offends against the little ones. And let us be honest about it : our modern cities have created a society in which children are in the way.

They are physically in the way, and therefore we find them in the way emotionally too. There are many who do not want them at all, like the girl who recently told this writer that a civilized woman can "realize her creative impulses through self-expression" without needing anything so dirty as a baby ! Even those who do want them are sometimes rather shamefaced about it; pregnancy, once something in which a woman gloried, is now treated as a disfigurement to be concealed as long as possible; and giving suck, the greatest joy and greatest need of both mother and child, is quite out of fashion among us. "I'm not a cow !" some women will remark scornfully, as if it were preferable to be a fish.

Worse yet, perhaps, is the taming process we are forced to put our children through in order to keep them alive at all in city streets and city flats. In their infancy we must curb their play, and force adult cautions and restraints on them too soon; in their adolescence, on the other hand, we must bend all our efforts to keep them children at an age when our ancestors would have recognized them as grown men and women ready to found families. Our objection to child labour is admirable when it prevents the exploitation of babies in sweatshops, but not when it keeps vigorous young men and women frittering away their energies on meaningless school courses and still more meaningless amusements. Many an eighteen-yearold has declared bitterly that the only time society recognizes him as a man is when it needs him to go out and fight.

For all this we may offer the excuse of economic compulsion. We have created machines; machines have replaced human labour; a new pair of hands, therefore, is not an asset but a liability.

Our ancestors were quite as sinful as we are; if their family life worked better, on the whole, it was less by virtue than by necessity. Taken as practical counsel for survival, the Fifth Commandment is now almost a dead letter. Yet if our world were truly Christian, the change might be a reason for rejoicing. We no longer need our families-we are therefore free to love them with complete unselfishness. Now at last it is possible to honour our parents genuinely, because they no longer have the power to kill us if we don't. The old sort of honour was sometimes an ugly sham-the son who respects Father only out of fear of punishment is not much of a son, just as the Christian who worships God only out of fear of hell is precious little of a Christian. But the new sort of honour can be a beautiful and holy thing. There are many sweet and sane families bound together by love; there are plenty of experts who remind us that only love can make the modern family work at all. And one must admit that there are plenty of parents very willing to be honoured.

The catch is that not so many of them are willing to be honourable. We find our children physically and emotionally in the way, and in consequence often offend against them by denying them real parents. Once for all : if we wish our children to honour us, we must ourselves set the example of honour. Let us drop the pretence that a sane man can or should honour the dishonourable and love the unlovely. He must indeed love the sinner; but let him not forget to hate the sin, let him not teach children to think that a petty tyrant is a good father, a drunken slut a devoted mother. If we order the child to blind himself to his parents' faults, we are forcing him to acquire those faults himself. Everyone knows at least one parent who, at a breath of criticism or independence, appeals dramatically to the Fifth Commandment and mutters about the serpent's tooth and the thankless child; who demands constant gratitude for having done no more than his (or, more usually, her) biological and legal duty; who feels entitled to monopolize the lives of grown children "in return for all I went through to bring you up." In that much misunderstood play King Lear, Shakespeare deals with the parent who tries to bribe or bully his way to honour -pillories him for all time as the pitiful egoist he is. Everyone knows him; and everyone knows, too, that in actual fact he has usually been a very bad parent indeed. Serpents beget serpents after their kind; and the sharpest serpent's tooth of all belongs to the parent without love.

"Provoke not your children to wrath." Easily said; but how are we to avoid it? Strife between old and young seems inevitable. Today the world changes fast and inconceivably fast; in pastoral and agricultural times, what a man knew was of use to his son, but in the industrial age Father's knowledge is out of date before the son is half grown up. We should be more than human if the result were not bitterness and conflict. Then too there are just too many people on this teeming and screaming earth for us to welcome a new man with whole souled enthusiasm. Our God-given biologic nature, which rejoices in parenthood, and our fallen self-seeking nature, which hates it as the creator of responsibilities, are at war with each other; and if we cannot make peace with ourselves, how shall we make peace with our children?

The ideal solution, of course, would be to remake our jerrybuilt, precarious society into a sound and safe one. But, let's admit it, we don't know how; and if we knew, we have not the power; and if we had the power, as long as we are sinners we should lack the love. There is only one thing a man can really remake-himself-and that only with the aid of God's grace. Laws and organizations and schools are good things, crèches and social services and youth groups may be admirable things. Yet-a reminder obvious, trite, but necessary-none of them can replace the love and guidance of father and mother. Our problem, then, pending reconstruction of the world, is to reconstruct our own lives so that we give our children as much warmth and attention and time and teaching as the present world will allow.

At least we might give them our leisure. Let us drop the disastrous cant that persuades women, often against their own hearts, that they have a "duty" to neglect their children for civic affairs, or broadening cultural activities, or even, heaven help us, for "realizing their creative potentialities through selfexpression in a rewarding career." Let us drop too the curious theory that the care and teaching of children are entirely women's work, and that their father should have as little to do with them as possible. Most of all, let us remind the innumerable people who don't seem to know it that begetting and rearing a family are far more real and rewarding than making and spending money.

And we might, as some towns do, train our high school students in caring for children as we train them in stenography and driving cars. And we might make the home a centre of Christian worship and education. But all this will not serve unless the heart is changed. New England homes have traditionally been centres of Christian worship; nevertheless the New England poet Robert Frost could write bitterly, "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."

That is the best it can ever be, without love. Let us, then, practise and pray for love, and the honour will take care of itself.

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