The Name of the Father

Honour they father and mother … but why honour both? One can make a rational case for the honour due to a mother. A mother holds a baby for 9 months, goes through all the pains of bearing and childbirth, and then breast-feeds her children. Such an incredible sacrifice can justifiably warrant permanent fealty from her offspring.

Fathering a child is far easier, on the other hand. In fact, it is a piece of cake (and every man would tell you it was their pleasure, presuming they could remember!). Aside from the obvious, men have little direct contact with the entire childbirth and rearing process and certainly not to the extent of life and death, pain and suffering, which characterizes a woman’s lot. Of course, there are many fathers who mind their families and are good to their wives and children. But there is a rational foundation for their protecting wing; in return for security, they enjoy privileges. Intercourse with their spouse is an obvious privilege. But here there is no rationally based justification for men garnering honour from their children like a mother does. It would be difficult to make a rational case for children giving their father anywhere near the level of obedience and honour due their mothers, presuming we are arguing purely from reason alone.

Hence, patriarchy is essentially religious in nature. Without religion, the father is no more worthy of honour than the team of doctors and nurses who steer women through rearing and childbirth. We must come to the conclusion that the authority of the father must have Divine sanction and that in the absence of religious belief (as we have seen) fathers struggle to justify their existence, not to mind their children’s fealty.

Now, anyone reading this is going to say: “let’s get rid of religion” (or at least those religions which identity fathers with patriarchal authority and that would certainly take us beyond so-called ‘Abrahamic’ faiths). If we got rid of religion, such people may say, women will have their ‘rightful’ status. Men would be merely ‘fertilisers’ at the beck and call of women and children, if the woman in question so desires. And, to be honest, many men wouldn’t mind such a situation. They would be ok with merely being called upon to render services of either impregnation or companionship, without any command for their offspring to honour them in any special way.

We shouldn’t jump to rash conclusions, however, even though we must recognise that without Divine sanction, it is unlikely that we would accord fathers anywhere near the same position in their children’s lives as mothers. The problem with the rationalist approach I have outlined is that it portrays the sacrifice of women as being the only logical basis for their children granting fealty. For starters, it is true that men might not ‘do much’ in siring progeny but we often honour those in life who do not do all that much but yet figure prominently on our horizon. An obvious example of this is government. No one believes that everyone in the government does all the jobs that the hoi polloi do. At the same time, there must be some deference to government, or at least to public authorities. Otherwise, it would be difficult for a society to function. It is also the case that people require some sort of authority figure in their lives and that is true even of highly egalitarian societies.

The reality is that fathers do have an important symbolic function that is uniquely theirs, even though they may require religion to buttress their position. A house without a father is one where the children are likely to have psychological problems and one where the children are more likely to spend time in jail or be unemployed. A father copper-fastens a child’s identity (last names are typically those of the father). The need for a father-figure is just as pressing for girls as it is for boys, although the cost to society is likely to be more pronounced if the latter grows up father-less.

It is hard to avoid the analogy that fathers have a sort of king-like status. A child without a father misses something fundamental, an innate need for something that represents them on a higher level, that is somehow distant but which makes them feel secure in themselves. Mothers simply can’t play this role. We know this from experience.

Yes, fathers seem a bit redundant but the fact is that they play a pivotal role in the social order, a position that only becomes evident once their presence is removed. A father is not just a ‘carer’ with different genitalia to the ‘carer-bearer,’ the mother. A father-figure is irreplaceable. So, the Divine fiat is right, even if our limited reason might only allow us to justify the role of one party.

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