Today is the feast of St Alfred the Great the first King of the English, a fitting occasion methinks to celebrate having won first prize in the lottery of life. One of the most splendid things about Mary’s Dowry is the fact that, thanks to the exploits of Simon de Montfort, England’s constitution is fashioned in the image of the constitutions of the Order of Preachers. A few weeks back Cordatus wrote a post arguing against women’s suffrage on the principle that the family and not the individual is the basic unit of society. “The family is the cell of the State; that is, it is the only natural society that exists beneath the level of the State. So it is a disorder to give some authority over the State to a private citizen while denying any authority over the State, in principle, to the family.” Giving the vote to women, he argued, atomizes society into hermaphrodite slaves of Leviathan (my expression not his). I responded that this would mean we should have household suffrage not male suffrage, because male suffrage still atomizes society into slaves of Leviathan but also implicitly dehumanizes women. Under male suffrage all male individuals vote but female individuals do not. This implies woman are inferior to men while still granting no recognition to the family per se. Of course, this was not a disagreement of principle because household suffrage was precisely what Cordatus was arguing for. I was simply rejecting the idea that male suffrage would genuinely achieve this. However, I also squirmed because the number of widows who would be exercising household suffrage would still be very few and …
…man is fallen and he abuses every form of power he enjoys. One of the most fundamental forms of power enjoyed by men in human society is that of a husband over his wife. With grim inevitability this has therefore been one of the most abused forms of power. This power has been greatly weakened in the recent past as much I think by technology (which has eliminated the vital role of brute strength in providing for a family) as by ideological shifts. Women quite reasonably do not want to expose themselves to the kind of servitude too often imposed upon them by bad or morally weak men in past eras. Any new social/political form proposed on the basis of Catholic doctrine and sound philosophy needs to take account of this or (whatever the reality of the situation) it will be perceived to be a mere disingenuous apologia for oppression.
Accordingly, I have been worrying about how to have household suffrage and yet avoid these perils. I have now arrived at a proposed solution. St Paul tells us that the authority of a man over his wife is like the power of the head over the body. Not the power of the soul over the body but the power of the head over the body. The head and the rest of the body are of the same nature it is just that the head is seat of the senses and the imagination. The rest of the body does not always blindly obey the head. In some respects it does (the hand or the foot), but in other respects (the irascible and concupicable appetites) the head must persuade the rest of the body to do its will. Sometimes it cannot and the body recoils from what the head rightly commands. Sometimes the head is wrong and the body rightly recoils from what the head commands. Unity is this regard comes through the ordering of both head and body to reason (a principle which surpasses them both). In the individual this ordering is embodied in the Cardinal Virtues of Temperance and Fortitude. In the household it is embodied in domestic prudence. Reason, revelation and living faith animate the Christian household as the soul animates the body. Giving life to the family as the soul gives life to the composite and preserves the unity of head and body. St Thomas considers the question of the soul’s government of the body in Ia, 81, 3 “Do the irascible and concupiscible powers obey reason?”. St Thomas teaches that they do. The second objection is that “what obeys a certain thing does not resist it. But the irascible and concupiscible appetites resist reason: according to the Apostle (Romans 7:23): ‘I see another law in my members fighting against the law of my mind.’ Therefore the irascible and concupiscible appetites do not obey reason.”. St Thomas answers:
As the Philosopher says (Polit. i, 2): “We observe in an animal a despotic and a politic principle: for the soul dominates the body by a despotic power; but the intellect dominates the appetite by a politic and royal power.” For a power is called despotic whereby a man rules his slaves, who have not the right to resist in any way the orders of the one that commands them, since they have nothing of their own. But that power is called politic and royal by which a man rules over free subjects, who, though subject to the government of the ruler, have nevertheless something of their own, by reason of which they can resist the orders of him who commands. And so, the soul is said to rule the body by a despotic power, because the members of the body cannot in any way resist the sway of the soul, but at the soul’s command both hand and foot, and whatever member is naturally moved by voluntary movement, are moved at once. But the intellect or reason is said to rule the irascible and concupiscible by a politic power: because the sensitive appetite has something of its own, by virtue whereof it can resist the commands of reason. For the sensitive appetite is naturally moved, not only by the estimative power in other animals, and in man by the cogitative power which the universal reason guides, but also by the imagination and sense. Whence it is that we experience that the irascible and concupiscible powers do resist reason, inasmuch as we sense or imagine something pleasant, which reason forbids, or unpleasant, which reason commands. And so from the fact that the irascible and concupiscible resist reason in something, we must not conclude that they do not obey.
The imagination and sense reside in the head (where the brain is located and all five of the senses). Reason operates through imagination because the human mind cannot operate in the composite without recourse to phantasms. Reason commands the body through the head but is not to be identified with it. Applied to marriage this means that the husband governs the household as the viceroy of eternal reason not as eternal reason. The same terms as St Thomas uses to explain his anthropological point are used by the great Thomist Lord Chief Justice of England, Sir John Fortescue (1394 – 1480) in his defence of the English Constitution as the realization of Thomistic political theory: In Praise of the Laws of England. The King of France, Fortescue explains, rules his unfortunate people with dominium tantum regale able to tax and legislate without their consent. The King of England in contrast as Rex Thomisticus rules his people with dominium politicum et regale and can neither enact statutes nor raise taxes without their consent manifested through their elected representatives in parliament. This is in accord with St Thomas’s description of the perfect polity in IaIIae, 105, 1. Given St Paul’s doctrine concerning the relations of spouses it would seem therefore that the husband should rule his wife as the just man rules his own body and as the successors of Alfred rule England. Executive power is his but no settled norm or major financial decision should be made without her consent and counsel.
It would seem therefore that the most appropriate form of household suffrage would be one in which the vote cast by the pater familias would have to be countersigned by his wife. The easiest way to ensure this would seem to be that only a ballot signed by husband would be admitted but the polling station will only accept the ballot paper when cast by the wife. This would ensure agreement and prevent coercion. Thus the principle of household suffrage would be preserved but the dignity of woman vindicated. Furthermore the subjection of both head and body to reason would be facilitated because unanimity requires discussion and discussion requires consideration and ratiocination strengthening the acquired political prudence of both husband and wife.