Contemporary academia has replaced this theological framing of the father-and-son relationship with Hegelian master-and-slave dialectics, which have been more recently recast in the neo-Marxist jargon of majority-versus-minority.
Pop culture diminution
Pop culture poured out lavish mockery over the father-figure, which got to be blamed for countless imperfections and innumerable faults. By the early 1970s, the movie industry in Hollywood started to treat the shortcomings of the bourgeois lifestyle as clear indicators of a moral hypocrisy endorsed by religious piety. Instead of exploring the tension between the ideal of moral perfection and the inescapable workings of sin, as any great piece of literature has done in the past, Western cinematography went down another route. Egalitarianism between men and women corroded courtesy and chivalry. Film directors lost their interest in the image of the robust father or of the charming lover, who displayed a good mixture of self-control and polite assertiveness (such as Rick in Casablanca). Actors such as John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, or Sylvester Stallone would come across as the perfect contrast to the new line of characters depicted in films, TV series, and sitcoms.
Marianne Power described this new range of social attitudes as distinctive marks of the Peter Pan generation. It became acceptable for adults, and not just teenagers, to postpone life-changing decisions about one’s marriage, profession, and even preferred sexual identity. American Beauty, which was awarded five Oscars in 2000, portrays Lester Burnham as that unhappy father who goes through a mid-life crisis without any hope of redemption. Under numerous circumstances, he shows an impaired moral judgment. His life lacks clarity of purpose and has no personal achievements to be celebrated. Hollywood decided to tell us that we should stop searching for the “inner hero.”
This outlook eroded the traditional Western attributes of having the courage to take risks (necessary for every big or small entrepreneur) and the power to exercise self-control in the face of powerful temptation (as shown by Salvador Dali’s image of Anthony the Great facing his demons in the vast Egyptian desert). In the world of mammals studied by Darwin, all animals want to survive. True men “want to survive, but with honor.” (Harvey Mansfield, Manliness, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006, p. 49.)
The all-pervasive Nanny-State
It is not just university professors and pop culture artists who have contributed to our loss of confidence in the redeeming virtues of fatherhood. In the past decades, Western governments have promoted policies that have aided the collapse of traditional family institution.
High taxation has diminished the value of family inheritance and the organic solidarity between generations. Economic intervention has created high unemployment among the younger population of Europe (which affects as many as 45 percent of Greek and Spanish men), leading to their postponing marriage and family formation. Deprived of the ability to generate a regular income the European man, like his America counterpart, has slipped into negative patterns of behavior (soft drugs, alcoholism, and multiple online addictions). By making legal divorce very easy, Western governments threatened the well-being of children. Left to raise their children by themselves, millions of mothers carry the burden of child-rearing in the absence of any family structure. This creates a vicious cycle of anger and resignation.
This situation is depressing but not necessarily irreversible. There are positive signs in the contemporary culture: appreciation of economic start-ups, of young leaders and of brilliant entrepreneurs. The global competition between the West and the rest has brought to light thousands of stories featuring individuals ready for hard work, adventure, and success. In their pursuit of economic freedom, the new capitalists came to discover the importance of those moral virtues praised by the classical tradition, such as Stoic perseverance and harshness towards oneself, and the Christian virtue of showing empathy to the needy. Alternative TV series such as the Band of Brothers (shown on HBO) or Homeland, emphasize the institutional value of risk-takers (and the threat posed by quitters). Such glimmers of hope make us plead for a spiritual and moral awaking of the West.
It will be critically important for countries belonging to the North Atlantic hemisphere to maintain their traditional embrace of a free society and an open market, in which different ideas, products, and forces compete. That process will allow the West to rediscover that economic activity is one avenue of incarnating the Divine spark lit within every human being.
(Photo credit: Negative Space. Public domain.)