The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Patriarchal System

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PATRIARCHAL SYSTEM (Greek, patēr, father, archē, rule). The extreme paternal form of the family in which the authority of the husband and father in the family has become so supreme that he is practically owner of all persons and property of the family group, the wife and children being reduced if not to the position of property at least to the position of subject persons. A second charateristic of the Patriarchal System is that the family organization usually included not only all persons related by descent through common male ancestors but also all persons received into the family by the ceremony of adoption and even all slaves and dependents. The patriarchal family, therefore, frequently consisted of hundreds of individuals, and was a little political unit, the head of which was the eldest living male.

Classical pictures of the patriarchal system may be found in the description of the lives of the Hebrew patriarchs in the Old Testament. Practically all European and Asiatic peoples were in this stage of social development when they first appear in history. For this reason, Sir Henry Maine thought that the patriarchal family was the original type of family in the human species. (See Family, History of). This view is contradicted, however, by the fact that thr maternal family and the maternal system of relationnhip are much more widely prevalent among all uncivilized peoples. Anthropologists and sociologists now universally agree that the patriarchal system is a relatively late development in the history of the family. It reached the acme of its development in early historic times among the Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, Hindus and Chinese.

The causes of the development of the patriarchal system were complex. Wife capture and wife purchase, together with the growth of the idea of property and persons, in the period of barbarism were doubtless contributing causes. But the decisive factor in creating the patriarchal family was pastoral industry. The keeping of flocks and herds of domesticated animals necessitated the separation of families through their wandering over long stretches to secure pasturage, and at the same time the employment of a large amount of male labor. Under such conditions the husband gained great power over his wife, as she was separated from her kindred, and as the owner of the flocks and herds which constituted almost the sole property of the group, his authority gradually became supreme in all matters.

But the fully developed patriarchal system received its stamp from that primitive religion which we know as ancestor worship. This religion, deifying the departed male ancestors, tended to reinforce the authority of the house father, because he was the oldest living ancestor, and the representative, so to speak, of the gods upon earth. Thus arose the patria potestas of the Roman father, that is, the power of life and death over all members of the family group. This power, however, could not well be exercised arbitrarily, as the house father was necessarily controlled by religious scruples and traditions. Disobedience to the house father was, however, disobedience to the divine ancestors, and heuce was usually severely punished.

Among the Hebrews and some other peoples we find the patriarchal system without ancestor worship; but in such cases the evidence seems to show that ancestor worship once existed, but had been largely obliterated through the adoption of a higher religion.

The patriarchal system is now chiefly of interest because of its effects upon later history. Inasmuch as all the chief historical peoples of Europe and Asia have passed through a patriarchal stage of development, the history of these peoples can scarcely be understood without a knowledge of the patriarchal system. Not only have our historical ideas regarding the family, but also those regarding property, government and religion, been influenced by the patriarchal system. Patriarchal ideas, it has often been pointed out, have been impediments to progress along these several lines; but at the same time it must be acknowledged that no high degree of social organiiation, as Spencer insisted, would have been possible if there had not been a patriarchal stage of development.

Bibliography. — Coulanges, Fustel de, ‘The Ancient City’ (Boston 1882); Howard, G. E., ‘History of Matrimonial Institutions’ (3 vols., Chicago 1904); McLennan, J. F., ‘The Patriarchal Theory’ (London 1885); Maine, H. S., ‘Ancient Law’ (London 1885).

Charles A. Ellwood,
Professor of Sociology, University of Missouri.