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one fleshChapter 4 in The Young Man’s Guide to Building a House

“And the two shall become one flesh.” You don’t hear that much anymore, and when you do it is written off as poetry. With the low regard for poetry these days that pretty much relegates it to something fit for a greeting card.

When I first outlined my thoughts on the subject I had no intension of defending poetry. I wanted to write about marriage. But since marriage is a kind of poem, I realized that I need to say something about poetry because modern people just don’t believe a poem can tell the truth; biology—sure, even sociology on a good day, but a poem? Hardly.

Once upon a time when people looked at the world they believed they could see invisible things. When they gazed intently at what they could see they thought they could discern the outlines of things they could not see—like when you see the outlines of a body beneath a sheet. And while the world we can see is constantly changing they thought this invisible world just couldn’t change. To their way of thinking the whole visible world is like a poem written with visible words. Every tree is a metaphor. And even you and I are fantastically metaphorical; we are the images of God.

A certain type of intellectual has been trying to stamp this out for quite some time. He’s largely flattened academia, politics and law too, even popular culture. Religion, that great interpreter of the cosmic poem is holding out, sort of. But we are told that it is just superstitious nonsense. That must be the case since our minds are nothing but our brains and our brains are, as one intellectual poetically put it, just “machines made of meat”. Inspirational, no? I suppose there is just no getting away from poetry.

The Interpretation of Marriage

Marriage these days is whatever you want it to be. Not only are men marrying men, women are marrying trees (I wish I could say I made that one up). It is like one of those sports children play where no one can lose because no one keeps score. But children born to people who did not think you can get it wrong often know by bitter experience that you can get it wrong.[1] Sadly many of these children have given up on marriage. Maybe worse, those who do give it a shot miss the target even more wildly than their parents did.

People need help—but to find it they must learn to see invisible things. And for that they need something to will help them raise their heads a bit. A ladder would do it. Fortunately we have one, it lies buried under a pile of lost causes in the tool shed of western culture. It is a metaphorical ladder, of course. But that’s what you should expect in a land of metaphors.

So how do we use the ladder with this “one flesh” business? We start with the bottom rung, the one closest to the ground.[2] From the standpoint of the first rung it is relatively easy to see that the phrase “one flesh” refers to a conjugal union between a man and a woman.

This is a joining of parts; anyone who still works with real nuts and bolts knows the difference between male and female parts. (Fortunately speech codes have not harmed the independent tradesman and probably cannot so long as he remains independent.) But even joined parts can come apart. The fullest embodiment of the metaphor is the body of a child. A child is physically and undeniably a union of a man’s flesh and a woman’s flesh at the level of a cell. So the metaphor refers to sex, that and to children, but is that all it means?

No, not all. But it cannot mean anything else without first meaning that. Don’t you forget that.

You step on the second rung of the ladder when you ask the question: “What am I going to do about it?” That’s putting it nicely, if you like your coffee stronger you could put it this way, “What’s the moral here?”

This is one way our ladder is different from the flatland we call the modern way of thinking. Modern people don’t think you can get from facts to morals. Usually a fellow named David Hume is blamed for that, but that’s harsh. People have refused to climb our ladder from the start; most folks need a little encouragement, a few need a lot.

If you look hard enough you’ll see that the biological facts connect to a moral fact. A conjugal union that issues in a child is accompanied by these facts: first, a man impregnates a woman; second, a pregnant woman is burdened and vulnerable; and third, babies die without protection and care. Based on these facts the mother and the child have moral claims on the agent responsible for subjecting them to these facts. And that’s a fact, no wiggling out of it.

But our metaphor puts it better. In the Bible it comes with a moral, no tedious “fact-checking” required. It is possible to find the same metaphor in a different place though and with a very different moral. What I have in mind is the myth of the androgyny as it is told in Plato’s Symposium. This is the reason the fact-checkers hate metaphors, they’re adaptable. They like things that stay the same, like dead beetles on a card. But that does not mean that one use is as good as any other. We can still judge use. Let’s try it here.

While in the Bible the story begins with a human being, in the Symposium we start with a monster—a two-headed, eight-limbed absurdity. According to that tale, the thing is so self-absorbed and proud Zeus must slice it in two. Now each half longs for the other, desiring to return to that sufficiency that offended the god in the first place.[3] You may be able to sympathize with Zeus if you have ever found yourself standing next to lovers that just can’t keep from pawing each other.

By contrast, in Genesis we begin with a lonely man. After a woman is formed from the donation of a rib[4] we are told that this is the reason a man must leave his father and mother and be joined to a wife.

The moral of each story seems to be the same: sex is reunion. But in the Symposium it is nostalgia—a hankering for the original whole—while in Genesis it is progressive, an advance to something new. In Plato sex is antisocial—a turning away from society, in the Bible it is the genesis of society. In Plato eros is a cul-de-sac, in the Bible it is springtime. In the Symposium the cut wounds, in Genesis it blesses.

Politics Comes Home

The Apostle Paul artfully mixes metaphors in one of his letters.[5] The first metaphor is the phrase, “one flesh”, the other metaphor is taken straight from political philosophy. It is the image of a body, as in a political body.[6]

Getting back to Plato, in a book entitled The Republic, he compares a political community to a body. He tells us that a political community is a single thing, like a body, yet it is made up of parts, again like a body. Then he dissects this body and he isolates three parts: a head, a chest, and a stomach. He reminds us that each of these parts has a function in a human body: the head governs, the chest loves (and hates!), and the stomach consumes. Then he insists that these parts all have the same functions in political bodies.

When Paul picks up this metaphor he does the same sort of thing. But instead of dissecting the body politic he holds up a magnifying glass to it and he identifies smaller bodies within the larger one. These small bodies are households, and like the larger body, these come with heads. This would not have surprised Plato, he knew all about them. But he feared households. He felt that they threatened the health of his larger body. Households are fine for stomach-dwellers he said, but anyone who aspires to leadership in the larger community really should renounce his household. A leader should love and serve the political community as a whole and nothing less.

When Plato is good, he is very good; but when he is bad, he is just terrible. Here he is bad: he lends aid and comfort to totalitarians and statists. And oddly Plato and his statist heirs think citizens can be made to love the State with filial loyalty without real families to teach them the meaning of family love.[7]

Paul is quite different, he sees harmony and symmetry where Plato only sees a conflict of interest. That’s because Paul believed in fractals. In mathematics and in nature fractals are all around us; we see fractals in a tree, for instance. The structure of the whole tree is mirrored in its branches, and again in the twigs along each branch, and yet again in the structure of each leaf. A household is no more a threat to the state than a leaf is a threat to a tree. We don’t have trees without leaves and we don’t have leaves without trees. If a tree were to reject its leaves, you would have a sick tree, and before long a dead one. A household is a political body; it is mirrored by the political body it finds itself in, and it also mirrors that body. Hopefully you get what I’m getting at.

If the body politic must have a head[8], the household polities that make it up must also come with heads. If not, there is no authority resident in the household to come between its members and the state. I think it goes to show how sick our body politic has become that the traditional head of the household, the paterfamilias, is now persona non grata.

Patriarchy Briefly Recommended

Yes, you read that correctly; I commend patriarchy to you. Today a patriarch is not even welcome in his own home. It was inevitable really, when envy becomes a virtue anything that dares to rise above the mire is a target for desecration. For authority to be endured at all it must disguise itself in the mechanisms of government, or in the angular-spider-body of a flow-chart, or in the manila-folder of a corporate lawyer.

But frankly you cannot build a house without it. Now, authority serves; when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples he taught us a lesson. But when he got up he commanded his disciples to follow his example. Let me be clear: he exercised authority to make his point.

The apologists for envy have tried to make self-contained worlds out of each and every one of us. And like the universe we are said to dwell in, with its aimless chunks of debris, you and I float about entombed in ourselves. In such a universe a father can only seem like some alien world, and every attempt to justify his authority just looks like one clump of stuff attempting to pull other clumps stuff into a tyrannical orbit.

I don’t mean to imply that the universe is simply a place of ordered harmonies. We live in a sphere of considerable violence. But this is why we need houses to live in. A household shelters a husband and his wife and their household economy. Now we’re back to our original metaphor; the household economy is the common flesh of a husband and wife; it is their common labor and common fruit; it is their commonwealth. Paul’s metaphor doesn’t harm their commonwealth, a household polity orders their common flesh and to make it productive. Historically the father served as head of house and it was his vocation to build a shelter for the body to dwell in.

Where Feminists Really Come From 

Feminism didn’t kill the patriarch in the vigor of his youth, as feminists would like you to believe. The old boy was nearly comatose when she finally put the pillow over his face. He had grown feeble from lack of exercise, and he was senile from an absence of mental stimulation. The reason you see was that one by one his vital functions had been given over to the welfare state and big business—institutions, with sad irony, largely built by men. Now, when it comes to finding shelter a young woman seldom looks to her husband (if she has one), she looks instead to the Department of Social Services or to Fill-the-blank Incorporated.

But once upon a time husbands and wives really worked together. Discussions at the dinner table didn’t revolve around whose turn it was to do the dishes, or who should take Junior to daycare. They talked about harvests and markets, pig iron and forges. That was when a wife was invaluable to the work of a farmer or black smith. He couldn’t manage without her. The work of keeping house was their economic livelihood.[9] But when the economy left home wives were largely left with little to do but buy things. This led some men to wonder what marriage is good for.[10] It also led some women to reject the moniker, “housewife”, the name seeming to connote a woman who really doesn’t do anything.[11] Is it any wonder that many spirited and productive women want to get out to where the action is?

These changes to the work world are real ones—ignoring them just makes you look ridiculous. You must not acquiesce to them though, not only because they dismember households (which is reason enough to resist), but because there is another change in the wind. The ways we have promoted material prosperity and mitigated risk have not only enfeebled households, they have made people dependent on systems they have little to no control over. We’ve known the spiritual costs from the beginning, but they were costs many were willing to pay for supermarkets and antibiotics. But people have grown anxious, not only because they have no power over the institutions they rely upon, but because they are coming to see how fragile those institutions have become. For the first time in a long time the old household economy is looking pretty good—even (if I may say so) sort of sexy.[12]

Here is what I’ve been driving at for a while; here it is as plain and direct as I can put it. A household is a political body, but it is more than that; it is also an economy, but it is more than that too. It is more than those things without being less than those things. It is only when the household economy is revitalized that we will have a material basis for household independence.

But my son, beware—giants yet roam the earth. They still pluck young maidens from their homes and carry them off. When a woman is promised a safe, secure job with benefits, and a prospect for advancement, why should she cast her lot with you? The good news is there are reasons, good ones. Helping you deliver your maiden from the giants is what this book is for.

The Final Step, for Now

There is a fear—not unfounded—that renewing household economics will lead to what sociologists call “amoral familialism”—the sort of thing we see in the Godfather films, loyalty to family and cannoli and not much else. If we seal our houses too tightly, demanding too much loyalty, too much devotion, the air will get stale; it will stink of clannishness, nepotism, and even violence.

In the spirit of G. K. Chesterton I proclaim a paradox—not as artfully perhaps, but still a paradox: raising a house must not be the purpose of your life; if it is you will not build a shelter, you will raise a house of horrors. But if you can accept the horrid truth that your house will someday go the way of all flesh, then you have a chance of building something worthwhile, something you could live in forever and ever if that were possible.

But it is not possible. Even the best-built house is nothing but a shadow in the great scheme of things. Its common life, even its children, all of it, is a shadow cast by something else. There is another Household, and those born into it participate in another Economy and are members of another Body.

If you deny this then the house you build will become an idol, demanding sacrifice, taking life instead of giving it.

This is not a reason for despair; it is a reason for hope. There is one more rung on the ladder. Paul mentions it briefly in the letter I spoke of. He calls it a mystery. Mystery has been downgraded in our time, too much Sherlock Holmes, I suppose. We think of mysteries as puzzles, unanswered questions waiting to be solved. Collect your facts, formulate a theory, and if you’re right, no more mystery. A genuine mystery of the type Paul is referring to is not a puzzle to solve. It is a truth that remains hidden from view yet irradiates everything we see. It is an answer, not a question.

We have things precisely backwards. We believe the first rung of the ladder is the real one and the further up you climb the further you get from what is solid and real. The bottom rung is indeed where we must begin, but it is the least stable of the rungs. This is the shadow land, where things shift and flit and disappear entirely. Permanent things are only seen in outline here. Whatever goodness or beauty your house comes to embody will be lent to it by another House, an eternal one in the heavens.

Of all the openings in your house then, it is the one in the roof that is the most important. Yes, yes, doors and windows are important, they let people in, and let them out again, and they let in fresh air. But those must be shut at times. But the hole in the roof must never be shut. It is light from above that makes a house livable.

And this is the reason marriage is a poem. It refers to something else, something more wonderful than anything in the world.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.


  1. In a way the test for truth must be pragmatic. The problem with most Pragmatists is their samples are too small. History is our laboratory.
  2. Modern understandings of language isolate it, making it arbitrary and expressing little more than social convention.
  3. The myth is used to explain the nature of eros. For this reason it is used to explain every form of sexual passion, including homoerotic. But this is very much to the point of the myth—eros serves no higher good, it turns lovers away from the world.
  4. This is an image I have long suspected of being a euphemism for the male member from which every women issues. Later we see Eve’s astonishment at giving birth to a man-child. So women issue from men and men issue from women, and for each sex is a return to origin.
  5. Ephesians 5:22-33
  6. You may be wondering how morality could possibly lead to politics. Many people feel the two are like oil and water, they just don’t mix. Sure, politicians can be immoral, just like business owners can be guilty of losing money—we call the first a corrupt politician and the second a failure. You may have heard someone say, “You can’t legislate morality!” When asked, “Why not?” these folks often say something along this line, “People should be free to chose what they believe in!” When you point out that this is a moral judgment these people are confounded. If they speak at all they simply rephrase the absurdity, just louder. This all plays into the agenda of the intellectual with the big boots. He wants to flatten politics by stamping out permanent things and turn it into a form of engineering.
  7. We see something similar today, homosexuals that seek to recreate child-centered family life are not only dependent upon a biological structure that they cannot participate in without a third party, they seek to mimic filial bonds directly dependent upon that biological structure. No one really has two mothers; no one really has two fathers. You are granted only one of each. Stepparents have always been one step removed—hence the prefix. And when we say, he has no father, because his father has failed him, we concede that the biological fact and the moral role are so bound as to make the declaration a condemnation. Isolating the meaningful role from the biological basis must remain derivative. Somewhere there must be an ideal that holds these things together and we all know it intuitively. Otherwise the notion of surrogate parenting makes no sense.
  8. In the United States “the chief executive”—i.e. the President.
  9. The word “economy” tells the tale of a lost world. It is a compound of two Greek words, “oikos” meaning house, and “nomos” meaning “law” or “order” or “management”.
  10. Sex had been the answer as long as the old morality held out. With the sexual revolution those days are gone.
  11. The name “husband” is just as much an anachronism as housewife. Formerly the name denoted a man who husbanded a household. The word is Germanic is origin, “hus” for house, and “bund” for bound—a husband is a man who is bound to his house. Now the term is little more than a verbal placeholder for the guy who occupies the recliner during football season.
  12. Localism, small business, freelancing, and even homesteading are all very popular right now (2013).
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