Editor’s note: The following essay appears in the Spring 2022 issue of Eikon.
Aristotle identified the fundamental political unit differently than would most people today. While we tend to look to the individual as the source of our politics, Aristotle began with the procreative pair, the man and the woman. Without the man and the woman together, a political community has no ability to project itself into the future. In his Politics, Aristotle (referred to by Aquinas simply as “the philosopher”) draws out the way the family develops into an extended family, then a village, a city, and so on. One might consider that the word “king” contains “kin” within it. The king is the chief of the kin. The state, composed of several villages, represents a kind of final community. (Considering society as a kind of grand structure built on a foundation of families might lead one to experience a bit of unease when we consider the weak ties that characterize many families today.)
Edmund Burke, the intellectual grandfather of philosophical conservatism (as opposed to a kind of retail political conservatism), likewise attached great importance to the small associations in society of which the family is the most organic. The quotation that is perhaps most often pulled from his logorrheic Reflections on the Revolution in France and which went through a period of frequent usage by American politicians was his invocation of the “little platoon”:
To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.
Now, Burke was not writing primarily to emphasize the importance of the family, but to reject the radical, society-wide designs of the French Revolution. He mentioned the “little platoon” not so much to defend an institution (the family) that did not at that time need much protecting, but rather to encourage a tighter focus on small things where much of life actually happens and is enjoyed rather than on large, macro-revolutions.
Nevertheless, that much-mentioned short quote contains an important idea that extends well beyond the immediate context of criticizing and refuting the French revolutionaries. The use of the quote by American politicians during, say, the late twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first was intended to mitigate against big government. Conservative intellectuals (and fellow travelers), such as Richard Neuhaus, Peter Berger, and others, became enamored of the idea of developing public policy in such a way as to move social improvement away from government and down toward “mediating institutions.” Thus, there was much talk of the “little platoons.” The attempt to make government and public policy more accommodative of the work of religious non-profits was a prime example of this kind of thinking. Another example was the attempt to bring more attention to the need for more intact families in the underclass. That movement largely disappeared from the scene when September 11 and the War on Terror blanketed domestic policy like an avalanche.
Burke’s focus on the small and the local is increasingly counterintuitive in American society today. While it is the case that more and more Americans are interested in organic foods sourced from local producers, that same desire does not seem to characterize our view of the family. Instead, we see a renewed drumbeat for universal pre-K premised on the idea that getting more mothers into the workplace is a highly desirable outcome and a formula for economic growth and greater equality. The dual workings of a social scissors with one blade marked “the economic machine” and the other “changing cultural expectations” acts to move more and more families away from traditional arrangements. We have largely taken the stance that a traditional family structure is nothing more than a socially constructed entity that can be just as easily constituted in a variety of different ways.
Popular culture reflects the change. A laundry detergent commercial shows a slight man with curly hair, a baggy t-shirt, and a drooping cardigan using a special formula for his daughter’s sensitive skin. We don’t see a mother or know if there is one. A high prestige science fiction show features an android couple with largely reversed sex roles. The more feminine “mother” is far more physically powerful than the “father” who is more focused on his feelings. The cultural atmosphere is very much oriented toward revising a structure that has been stable for millennia.
Our version of the little platoon no longer requires a man (or a woman). It does not require married people. It could even be run by two people, neither of whom assume a clear gender identity. Whomever the persons involved are have massive incentives to be working in a commercial, non-profit, or government enterprise lest they be significantly disadvantaged in their role as consumers.
Extended Family Platoons
When Russell Kirk (the greatest of Burke’s American disciples) contemplated the idea of the little platoon, he thought of family in a rich, multi-generational, and spiritual sense. It contains husband, wife, children, uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents, grandchildren, and all the people who come into a family as informal relatives through friendships and church ties. It has a clear organic and spiritual center. While those sorts of little platoons may continue to exist with some strength in immigrant communities, they are becoming increasingly foreign to the American experience.
Today, both parents work and have far fewer children than in the past. Some may style themselves parents by virtue of pet ownership (being Mom and Dad to Fluffy or Rex as opposed to having children). No one really has time to coordinate the big gatherings of the traditional “little platoon” for Sunday dinners and weekend celebrations. I grew up in the South in the 1970’s and recall the frequent special night and weekend events that were multi-generational and cross-generational. We cooked out, played horseshoes, ran relay races, cranked out homemade ice cream, and sat and listened to memories older family members shared.
That experience is nearly gone. Family members move all over the country in search of the next better economic opportunity. There are fewer stay-at-home mothers to serve as the glue that holds the generations together. Christmas is the best chance to get everyone together, but even that is increasingly uncertain. The pandemic, of course, accelerated family atomization.
But does it matter? It could be that we look at the situation, feel some nostalgia for a time and a way of life that is past, and just move on. Pets indeed seem to be becoming the children of choice for many millennials and Gen-Zers. No matter how we embellish the idea it means a far lower level of commitment and, of course, develops no capacities for human beings. Families are not only less integrated with other generations than before, but may also struggle to unite a mother and father in the same home. Children increasingly have to live with a person who is not related to them by blood and who may really only be there for the other adult and merely tolerates their existence. Does it matter?
We can look again at Burke’s famed reference. The “little platoon” is the “germ” of “our public affections.” It is not a germ like a disease, but a germ in the sense of being a seed, a beginning. “It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.” Just as Aristotle saw the family as the basis of society because of its status as the biological building block and the natural foundation, Burke recognized that the family nurtures something critically important in human beings. By living in the nursery of the nuclear family and then the tribe of the extended family, we develop our affections. We learn to love, to trust, to cooperate, to follow, to lead, to worship, to pray, and to develop loyalties. The “little platoon” sets the stage for a rich experience of knowing and being known as a rich tapestry of social life is woven.
Back in the 1970’s, Russell Kirk wrote about his concerns that other parts of the culture, such as public schools, were reducing the strength of the little platoon, the family. That basic dynamic has expanded by leaps and bounds, with many parents feeling that they have lost influence over their children’s lives and worldviews due to social media influencers, entertainment, news organizations, and eventually, an individually targeted metaverse experience through virtual reality and augmented reality.
Kirk believed the alternative to “the vigorous family” was “the universal orphanage.” He saw two primary alternatives to the family. The first was atomic individualism. But human beings do not thrive when reduced to their own social and spiritual resources. According to Kirk, atomic individualism would yield to compulsory collectivism, in which the state becomes the primary source of connection. The family, to the extent it continued to exist, would be “tolerated.” Children would be seen primarily as wards of the state. One can get a sense of something like the soft approach to this attitude by observing the now semi-infamous “Life of Julia” set forth by the Obama administration as it sought to maximize the vote of unmarried women. Each critical moment of a woman’s life presented an opportunity for the federal government to play a starring role as a kind of over-parent that is always there to lend a guiding hand. The Life of Julia is a vision for society in which the little platoon no longer exists. Needs will not be met by church and family, so the government will extend its role.
This soft authoritarian approach to governing is both a response to and perhaps cause of the deterioration of the nuclear family and its extended form. When parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins aren’t there or aren’t involved in one’s life, then one will naturally look up to a government moving the relevant economic levers. That same government will, as it increasingly does, also communicate a worldview to its citizens with increasing effect.
Little Platoons or Big Government
Two things stand out immediately, though there are surely many others we could draw forth. First, Burke sees the little platoon as the place where we form the affections that will extend into a broader love of our fellow citizens and of our country. From the little platoon, we get the beginnings of patriotism and public-spiritedness. Without the little platoon at the base, how strong will be the ties that bind us together in the broader society? Second, the atrophied little platoon with the universal orphanage that accompanies it is likely to have additional bad effects. Big government has a tendency to develop passive, weak people who rely on an ever more muscular government to care for them and lead them.
If the little platoon fails, it is essentially certain that the government will grow in scope and power. What is more, we will crave it as so many seem to do. Without a renewal of the family, a paternalistic (or maternalistic) government will present itself as a nearly automatic solution. We have to ask hard questions about that developing dynamic.
The thought of Jacques Maritain comes immediately to mind. Maritain, a French Catholic philosopher who was deeply engaged in opposing twentieth century totalitarianism of both the fascistic and communistic types, wrote about “the body politic.” He was at pains to distinguish this body politic from the state. The state is not the body politic. The body politic is all of us, together. The state is merely a thin layer of the overall body politic. It has tasks regarding law and order, but it is emphatically not everything. It is not meant to be comprehensive (thus blasphemously assuming the place of God). How, Maritain asked, do we avoid the fate of those who live in totalitarian and/or authoritarian societies? We must build up the body politic. What is the body politic? It is families, schools, sporting teams, museums, voluntary societies, churches, neighborhoods, universities, charitable organizations. Surely, the most important of those, other than the church, would be families. If we allow the little platoons to become so weak that they essentially fail, the odds grow that we will eventually live under an outsized, monster kind of government.
And then we will be left with something out of the world of dystopia. The course of history seems to suggest that for those of us in the west, that dystopia would not be the brutal, force-fed propaganda machine proposed by George Orwell in 1984, but more likely the hedonistic, consumeristic, pharmaceutical, and pornographic civilization of Huxley’s Brave New World. Even twenty years ago, Huxley’s world seemed far distant. Today, it appears increasingly plausible.
More important, though, is the fundamental point that the little platoon is the seed of our affections for one another. The Genesis account explains that Eve is given to Adam because it is not good for a man to be alone. He is not given another man — someone like himself — but a woman (a wife) who has a somewhat different nature. She is a complement. In that complementarity comes the solution to loneliness through a procreative union by which other human beings join the family and ultimately constitute the great families of nations. Over against that organic and, at its best, delightful portrait of human connection, we have something far diluted. One might think of Plato’s guardians with their wives and children held in common. Aristotle complained that a son held in common would be something less even than a real cousin. We need to regain our emphasis upon building the little platoon because it is there that we may find something durable and which relates to our natures in a God-given way.
Hunter Baker (J.D., Ph.D.) serves as the Dean of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Political Science at Union University.
 Aristotle, The Politics, Book I, Section ii.
 Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, , 39–40 There is a very useful online version of the text at: https://socialsciences.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/burke/revfrance.pdf
 For a good example of this discourse, see Peter L. Berger and Richard J. Neuhaus, To Empower People: The Role of Mediating Structures in Public Policy, (Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute, 1977).
 Russell Kirk, “The Little Platoon We Belong to in Society,” Imprimis, (November, 1977). Currently located online at: https://imprimis.hillsdale.edu/the-little-platoon-we-belong-to-in-society-november-1977/
 Russell Kirk, “The Little Platoon We Belong to in Society,” Imprimis, (November, 1977), https://imprimis.hillsdale.edu/the-little-platoon-we-belong-to-in-society-november-1977.
 The Obama campaign’s original site is no longer available on the internet, but the slides from Julia’s simulated life can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oqBjXP8RKho.
 Maritain fleshes this concept out in Man and the State, (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America, 1998), 1–27.
 Plato, Republic, Book IV, 423e.
 Aristotle, Book II, Section iii.
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