Sisyphus Just Keeps Rolling Along: A Review of Scott Yenor’s The Recovery of Family Life

Nearly everyone says that progress is a good thing. But one of its ironies is that it makes revolutions possible. A revolution is a turning, or perhaps better, an overturning. But for a turning to be progress, it has to get you closer to your goal. Without that, things just revolve in place: it’s the same old thing, over and over again. Things seem to change, but not really. 

We’ve been going through a sexual revolution for a while now, and things have certainly changed—standards have been overturned—but is this progress? Or is this just the same old thing we’ve seen before? (History-a-plenty indicates that it is.)

Which brings me back to where I started: where are we supposed to be going anyway?

Scott Yenor is not squeamish about asking delicate questions. His latest book, The Recovery of Family Life: Exposing the Limits of Modern Ideologies raises questions about progress, among other things. 

From the title you can see that Yenor’s book is about limits. Modern ideologies are dedicated to removing these. In particular, feminism, liberalism, and sexual liberation contend that the family, traditionally understood, has harmed women and sexual minorities by imposing oppressive limits on them. Feminism has worked to liberate women from the limitations of gender; liberalism has worked to liberate people from moral norms that have the force of law behind them, and sexual liberation has worked to cast off whatever those ideologies have left unchanged that might hinder the pursuit of sexual pleasure.  

But why all the fuss about limits? Is there something intrinsically bad about them? Can we truly live without them? True, some limits find their origins in human society—we can call them “positive law”, or perhaps, “social convention”, but whatever we call them, we can change them because we made them up. But there are other limits—limits that are simply in the nature of things. And those are the limits that we can’t change. While that may seem like common sense to the likes of you or me, many modern ideologues believe that the reason we think so is merely because we’ve been raised to think so. If they could just cleanse our minds with some sort of mind-swipe all things would be possible. (No limits!)

The Rolling Revolution

If there truly are limits, then the universe is tilted against modern ideologues. This doesn’t mean that they, like Sisyphus, won’t try to keep their revolutions rolling along. 

Yenor calls this phenomenon, “The Rolling Revolution”. But unlike Sisyphus, the futility of their labors doesn’t affect them alone; they insist on making the rest of us push things along, too. Failure is never proof that their ideologies are defective or against Nature–it only means that efforts to root out resistance aren’t radical enough. (The origin of the name ‘radical” means ‘to the root’.)

Dr. Yenor’s book can be said to consist of three interrelated parts. First, he describes the ways in which feminism, liberalism, and the sexual revolution have rolled like a juggernaut over our institutions. (Although they are in many ways mutually reinforcing, nevertheless in some ways they are incompatible; for instance, sadomasochism by definition is not liberal—oppression is how sadomasochism works—sadomasochists like it that way.) Feeling-out the Natural limits of these ideologies constitutes the second part of the book (and it is the basis for the book’s subtitle). And finally, the last part of the book attempts to point a way forward, (and is the basis for the main title of the book—“The Recovery of Family Life”).       

Just What Is Ideology?

Defining your terms often helps your readers, and a definition of ‘ideology’ would have been helpful. (The subtitle is about the limits of modern ideologies, after all.) I don’t recall coming across one (and a glance at the index indicates that I didn’t miss anything). The closest thing to a definition that I did come across was this:

“Francis Bacon or Rene Descartes were not thinking about modern feminism, sexual liberationism, and transgenderism at the birth of the modern. Yet the idea of human power and the idea of nature as there to be controlled through human action, stripped of qualifying moderation, eventuated these late modern ideas. Nature, on the modern view as it comes to us, does not lend direction to human will or human action; it is the stuff out of which human beings make their future. No limits!” p.279

Just so that I am clear as to what I mean when I refer to an ideology, allow me to explain. Ideology is not a synonym for philosophy. Some philosophies are anti-ideological, but there are other philosophies that make ideologies possible, even inevitable. 

Ideologies are predicated on the conviction that Nature doesn’t speak to us. It may be that it has nothing to say because it’s just matter in motion; or it may just be that we can’t separate what we’d like it to say from what it actually says. Either way modern philosophers claim that we supply the meaning to things. Meaning moves in one direction only—from our minds to the world—never the other way, from the world to our minds. We are stuck in our heads. 

You can probably tell where this leads. According to the ideologues, the hierarchies of value we use to govern our lives are “socially constructed”. And who designs these social constructs? The folks with the power to decide—that’s who. So in the end it is all about power—who has it and who doesn’t. Standards of excellence, questions of truth, even basic engineering and computational matters—they’re all “inside baseball,” because there’s no outside world to tell us the difference between right and wrong. It’s who’s in charge that decides the rules—even when it comes to math (as those who are attempting to “de-colonize” math would have it). 

And this is why ideologues are idiots in the ancient sense of the word (from ιδιοs—“alone”). They close themselves off from being corrected by the actual world outside of their heads. In fact, attempts to correct ideologies only reinforce them because recalcitrance is already accounted for. You’ve probably heard something like this: “The only reason you think that way is because you’re a straight, white man.”

‘Pre-political’

One unfortunate consequence of all of this is expressed in the maxim ‘the personal is (now) political’. The distinction between pre-political things (i.e. things that are valuable in themselves, like motherhood) and political things, no longer exists. (The pre-political does not disappear in fact—we just refuse to see it.) And with the loss of the pre-political, a measure of suspicion, and even hostility, has been introduced to our most intimate and natural relationships—many times even setting women and men against each other in their own households. 

But is politics everything? Let’s hope not, because if it is, then there’s no limit to ideologues meddling in our personal affairs. By the way, this is how ideologies beg the question. If there is no limit to politics, there is no limit to ideology.

Natural Grooves and Social Mores

Nature isn’t silly putty. We are not self-creating beings, nor do we determine the value and significance of our own lives. Deep down even ideologues know this. But if we are ever going to get back to a pre-political order, we will need to rediscover the given nature of things, the very order that God has built into the world. 

On the one hand, nature merely inclines, or prompts. But on the other hand, she does have limits. Nature is more than impulses; it is also structure.

The metaphor Yenor employs to promote a realistic, yet sufficiently flexible understanding of nature, is “natural grooves”. The grooves are real, but they are sufficiently wide to leave a range of choices open for most people. An example of a natural grove is dimorphism in mammals. Mammals only come in two sexes—male and female. This is real and cannot be changed. But what we do in those grooves is what may be called “gender.” To a degree gender is socially constructed, but only to a degree.

Once our limitations are known and accepted, it is possible to move within our given limits toward ends that are both realistic, and deliberated over. 

This is where politics returns. But one ruthless ideology displacing another isn’t what we should be after. Instead, Yenor advises us to work indirectly when it comes to family policy. Families need political support and governments need families (as Aristotle taught us). But good government is limited in its power to intrude into pre-political life, as Yenor notes here,

“Civil governments depend on marriage, procreation, and responsible parenthood, yet government cannot direct these matters overmuch; its power is limited. Civil government neither can nor should require people to marry, to have children, or to stop having children. …This tension between the great interests of civil government and its circumscribed power makes family policy a most difficult field to understand. The public depends on the private to produce the next public, but the public has limited power over the private to achieve the public’s goals.” P.163

Ideologues always overreach–because they ignore the limits of what politics can accomplish. But since good governments take for granted the grooves of nature, the indirect approach is the only one available to them. Laying out how such an indirect approach could work constitutes a good portion of the last chapters of the book. 

I’ve only outlined the basic structure of Yenor’s book, and I’ve not done it justice. He has done us a favor by publishing it—not the least being the many hours he has given to plowing through the noxious weeds of modern ideology in order to expose their feeble roots to the light of scrutiny. Whether you’re interested in a good analysis of modern ideologies and their natural limits, or helpful suggestions for what can be practically done about them, pick up a copy of Yenor’s book. It is worth your time. 

*The featured image is “Sisyphus” by Tiziano Vecellio (1488/90-1576) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

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C.R. Wiley

C.R. Wiley C. R. Wiley is a Presbyterian pastor living in the Pacific Northwest. He has written for Touchstone Magazine, Modern Reformation, Sacred Architecture, The Imaginative Conservative, Front Porch Republic, Scenes Media, and National Review Online. His short fiction has appeared in The Mythic Circle (published by the Mythopoeic Society) and elsewhere, and he has published young adult fiction. He has been a commercial real estate investor, a building contractor, and a college professor. He is a member of the Academy of Philosophy and Letters and he is the author of Man of the House and The Household and the War for the Cosmos.