Randall Smith, Dostoevsky, and the “Modern” Family

I don’t think of myself as very old. I am old enough, though, that I was raised with the idea that men marry women and women marry men. Not because I was raised by homophobes—my parents were fairly liberal on social issues—but because, culturally, the question of gay marriage hadn’t really been asked during my childhood. The national conversation around gay marriage arguably started with the 1993 Hawaii Supreme Court decision in Baehr vs. Miike, which precipitated the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. Even when DOMA was being debated it was still a new conversation—basically, when I was a teenager, we went from an understanding that marriage is between a man and a woman to a question: is marriage necessarily between a man and a woman?

My answer to that question is No, not necessarily. Still, I understand when anti-equality folks, especially the older ones, say that marriage is between and a woman. Not because I think they’re right, obviously, but because I get that they’re just offering their answer to a question that is still, historically, very new.

But I’m taken aback when these same anti-equality voices expand their argument from the definition of marriage to the definition of family. When they say, for example, that families led by gay couples aren’t real families, or that “family” is determined exclusively by biology. These sentiments stop me in my tracks, because I was raised with an ironclad understanding that love makes a family. I was raised, for example, with the idea that if a man has a biological son and an adopted son, those boys are both equally his sons, and they are brothers, and the group of them are family in every real sense of the word. That this might be in question is absolutely dumbfounding to me.

Take, for example, this article by Randall Smith at The Public Discourse. In it, Smith recounts the famous trial scene in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, in which the slick defense attorney Fetyukovich attempts to get his client, Dmitri Karamazov, off the hook for the crime of parricide by arguing that Fyodor Pavlovich, Dmitri’s father, was not really a father because he never really loved the boy. “He who begets is not yet a father,” the attorney argues, “a father is he who begets and proves worthy of it.”

It’s a fascinating scene, and Fetyukovich does pull some questionable rhetorical moves in his defense of Dmitri (though I’d argue that the least questionable of those is the idea that fatherhood is a title that must be earned). But Smith ties Fetyukovich’s defense to contemporary arguments against abortion restrictions and in favor of marriage equality. He writes:

Here, Dostoyevsky allows us a foretaste of the notion of ‘family’ reckoned not ‘by nature’ but ‘by consent.’ How could he have known? Perhaps it was his ‘reason and experience’ that allowed him to see the direction modernity would inevitably lead. Then again, perhaps it was his understanding of what would happen when the traditional, religious, ‘mystical’ meanings of words such as ‘father,’ ‘son,’ ‘love,’ and ‘human’ were replaced by other definitions more suited to the demands of modern progress and contemporary will to power.

Modernity, Smith says, leads inevitably to the notion that family is determined not by nature, but by consent. According to Smith, the idea I grew up with, that love makes a family, is a demeaning or a diminishing of the traditional meaning of the word family.

The problem is, that’s not a modern concept at all—it’s literally as old as Solomon. Yes, human society has always recognized the importance of blood bonds. But it has also always had more or less formal ways of acknowledging the reality of non-biological family.

It’s one of our best traits as a species. Any damn creature can look out for its own kin. Humans? We adopt. We marry. We make vows. Even when we don’t have to.   

One of the clearest examples of family-by-consent is the story of Ruth and Naomi, from the Old Testament. In that story, Naomi loses her husband and her sons; she begs her daughters-in-law to return to their families, but one, Ruth, pledges to remain with her, to leave her own homeland and follow Naomi into hers. The words she uses are so beautiful they’re often used in Christian weddings:

16 And Ruth said, Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God:

17 Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me. (Ruth 1:16-17)

Ruth and Naomi shared no biological (or even legal) bond. But they were family, so much so that when, after re-marrying, Ruth had a child, “her neighbours gave it a name, saying, There is a son born to Naomi” (Ruth 4:17).

What made them family? Consent. Love. Nothing else.

That’s humanity.

The Bible is full of examples like this. Most notably, there’s the Holy Family: Joseph shared no biological bond with either Mary or Jesus. And that’s to say nothing of Jesus himself, who put Fetyukovich’s loose definition of family to shame when he said “For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, my sister, and mother” (Mark 3:33).

I wonder if some day in the future, when we’re looking back at the wreckage of the anti-equality movement, we’ll reckon their decision to emphasize “family” as a fatal misstep. Lord knows that all of their talk about the good of the children has backfired: judges from Justice Kennedy in Windsor to Judge Carlos Lucero on the 10th Circuit have pointed out that truly caring about children means making sure that everyone raising them has access to marriage. After all, if you insist that having married parents offers essential protection to children, then it’s morally suspect to deny that protection to children being raised by gay couples. 

But, in a larger sense, by talking about “family,” NOM & friends have pointed right at the inhumanity, the anti-Christianity, of their own arguments. It’s one thing to say “marriage is between a man and a woman” to people who have never thought otherwise. It’s something else entirely to tell people that a couple that has been together for thirty or forty years is not family, that they’re just friends, that they’re “playing house.” That kind of argument is destined to be rejected.



2 thoughts on “Randall Smith, Dostoevsky, and the “Modern” Family

  1. In addition to it being silly that Dostoevsky was someone critiquing gay marriage from a 120 years in the past, it’s also a misreading of the novel. That quote from the defense lawyer, far from being a critique, is probably what Dostoevsky actually believed.

    We remember that the actual killer of Feodor is Smerdyakov, the illegitimate son of Feodor. During Smerdyakov’s entire life, Feodor denied–at least publicly–that he was Smerdyakov’s father. While Smerdyakov didn’t kill Feodor because of this (at least, not entirely), I think it is pretty clear that Dostoevsky is suggesting that this fact contributed to the Smerdyakov’s character. This would be in keeping with one of the key themes of the novel, which is that both good and bad acts plan seeds that result in more serious good or bad outcomes later. After all, the novel starts with the quotation from John “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies….” So, Feodor was in fact not a real father to Smerdyakov (or any of his sons, really), and that seed eventually led to him being killed.

    Plus, that whole trial scene has a bunch of lines that seem to be shady lawyer tricks, but the reader knows that they are actually true statements because the reader knows Dmitri is actually innocent. So, the quote about fatherhood is intended as a shady lawyer trick, but actually true.


    The Brothers Karamazov is my favorite novel of all time, and these sorts of facile readings really grind my gears.

  2. Thanks for standing up for Dostoevsky, Michael! Dostoevsky is a favorite of mine, too. I read him in college at about the same time as I read Kierkegaard and, obviously, those two writers ruined my view of religion.

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