The Ten Commandments in the modern world (2): Number Five

The Fifth Commandment is to honour one’s parents (notably both parents.)

“Honour” is not the same thing as either “love” or “obey.”

Paul perhaps is extrapolating, when he says (Ephesians 6: 1-3) “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honour your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise) that it may be well with you… Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”

I have noted before that the double meaning of the word “child” can sometimes confuse. He seems here to be talking about non-adults.

I think however that there can be no doubt that this commandment is intended to last into adulthood. Unless the relationship was definitely abusive, adult children have a moral obligation of some sort to their parents.

In the modern world, I think we assume that a parent’s primary duty is to keep the child safe. But what is the second? Is it to love them and let them know it – or is it to train them in virtue?

(Obviously these aims are connected.)

As most of you know, I am an avid reader of Victorian novelist Charlotte M Yonge (1823 – 1901). Recently I’ve reread one of her lesser-known and later works, “Chantry House”, published in 1886 but set in the 1830s. It is a deliberate study of changing patterns in child-rearing.

On page 4, the male narrator considers his childhood: “I am afraid that any true picture of our parents, especially of my mother, will not do them justice in the eyes of the young people of the present day, who are accustomed to a far more indulgent government, and yet seem to me to know little of the loyal veneration and submission with which we have, through life, regarded our father and mother…. There was [from the parents] strong love and self-sacrificing devotion; but not manifested in softness or cultivation of sympathy. Nothing was more dreaded than spoiling…” – and on page 375, in summing up his mother, “she was an old-fashioned mother, who held it her duty to keep up her authority, and counted over-familiarity and indulgence as sins. To her ‘the holy spirit of discipline was the beginning of wisdom,’ and to make her children godly, truthful and honourable was a much greater object than to win their love.”

Did Yonge approve? She seems to. And yet the story of “Chantry House” quite plainly shows a man whose personality and happiness were blighted (although not irremediably) throughout his life because his parents could not get forgive understandable youthful offences. Even for her own time Yonge was unusually firm on the child’s duty of obedience to sometimes very unreasonable parents, and in this book I seem to see her doubting her own precepts.

Nor would it have been only Yonge, and only the 19th century. CS Lewis, talking of God’s sometimes severe love in “The Problem of Pain” (1940) says interestingly: “Even in our own days, though a man might say, he could mean nothing by saying, ‘I love my son, but don’t care how much of a blackguard he is provided he has a good time.’” (Emphasis added.)

I think all of us would disapprove of such a father, but would we go so far as to say such a sentence was meaningless?

However, there can be no doubt that the commandment has been horrendously abused over time. Children have all too often been unable to express an opinion, taught that love was conditional on good behaviour, kept in line with beatings and half-starvings. In adulthood they have been forced into oppressive marriages, apprenticed to uncongenial professions to succeed their fathers, or expected not to marry because one daughter had to look after her parents forever. Such things of course still go on. There is a spectrum. Our society has not by any means worked out how to look after its ageing population, and what if any of the obligation falls on the children.

All of the above is a bit of a digression from what I originally meant to write, which was : how can we extrapolate from “honour your father and your mother”? Is it of relevance at all outside the original parent/child situation?

Briefly I suggest three possible ways. “Honour your father and your mother” implies to me:

  • Respect the existence and worth of the family as an institution, and family ties in general;
  • Respect authority. This one again has been and is horrendously abused, so that many people believe and say that a certain level of rebelliousness is healthy in a child. And so it is; but I believe that respect for and obedience to lawful authority is, within limits, a virtue; and a plainly essential one for society;
  • Respect the elderly. This also is becoming more difficult. The Elderly are no longer “the wise people who teach us all how to live.” As time passes, they are ceasing to be “the heroic generation who saved us from Nazi tyranny”. One senses that they/we are becoming “the privileged generation who had it all and squandered the earth’s resources,” while at the same time having no valuable skills because technology moves too fast. This must be very depressing.

Elderly people who do not email are annoying to me. How annoying must my technical incompetence be to the youngsters around!

Love from the PPI Blogger

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