The Family of Nature, The Nature of Family: The Surprising Liberal Defense of the Traditional Family in the Enlightenment

86 Pages Posted: 30 Jul 2019

Date Written: 2015


This Article shows that many Enlightenment liberals defended traditional family values and warned against the dangers of sexual libertinism and marital breakdown. While they rejected many traditional teachings in their construction of modern liberalism, Enlightenment liberals held firmly to classical and Christian teachings that exclusive and enduring monogamous marriages are the best way to ensure paternal certainty and joint parental investment in children who are born vulnerable and dependent on their parents’ mutual care. Stable marital households, furthermore, are the best way to ensure that men and women are treated with equal dignity and respect, and that husbands and wives, and parents and children, provide each other with mutual support, protection, and edification throughout their lifetimes. The positive law of the state must not only support the marital family but also outlaw polygamy, fornication, adultery, and “light divorce” that violate the other spouse’s natural rights as well as desertion, abuse, neglect, and disinheritance that violate their children’s natural rights to support, protection, and education from their parents. This argument about the natural norms and laws of sex, marriage, and family life, was adumbrated by Aristotle, elaborated by Thomas Aquinas, and then extended by scores of later theologians, philosophers, and jurists. Many of the great architects of Western liberalism embraced these traditional teachings and defended them with arguments from nature, reason, custom, fairness, prudence, utility, pragmatism, and common sense. Their arguments echoed loudly in sundry Anglo-American common law texts, statutes, and cases until the twentieth century, and they remain instructive even for our post-modern polities and families.

Keywords: Marriage, Family, Christianity, Law, Natural Law, Thomas Aquinas, Francisco Vitoria, Hugo Grotius, John Locke, Mary Wollstonecraft, Liberalism, Henry Home, Scottish Enlightenment, Enlightenment, William Paley, Utilitarianism, Common Law

Suggested Citation

Witte, John, The Family of Nature, The Nature of Family: The Surprising Liberal Defense of the Traditional Family in the Enlightenment (2015). Emory Law Journal, Vol. 64, 2015: 591-676, Available at SSRN:

John Witte (Contact Author)

Emory University School of Law ( email )

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