He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune, for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.
Councilor to Queen Elizabeth, lord chancellor to King James I, believed to be the wisest man in Shakespeare’s England, Sir Francis overlooked the risk on the other side of the exchange. His advice is sound, but the chances of acting on it unavailable to the impediments—to wife and children held hostage to the fortune of having been born or married to a villain, a bankrupt, or a fool. The uneven distribution of the sentiment favored the interest of the state, a policy that Lord Bacon fondly embraced. He was an attentive courtier skilled at the seeking of grace and privilege from the perfumed hand of majesty, deft at the removals of unpleasing truth, and with a handsome turn of phrase he circumvented the awkward fact that family is a game of chance.
A throw of the dice, sometimes lucky, as often not, the question of nurture as opposed to nature as well and truly answered by an astrological sign or a poisoned fig as by a storm at sea, a DNA sequence, or a marriage to the king of France. Families grow as do the flowers and the weeds, of their own accord and as they will. Sometimes they lay waste to empires; sometimes they achieve the dignity of a dress label, but always they furnish a society with its living tissue and its intimations of immortality, impart to the individual a sense of self if not a criminal record or a noble name.
Which is as near to a moral as is likely to be drawn from the text and illustration gathered in this issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. The topic is better addressed with memoir and biography than with a manifesto or a sermon. But during the forthcoming election year, we can expect repeated reference to “family values” in the campaign speeches offering safe return to the real America down home in a painting by Norman Rockwell, and so it’s worth at least the hazard of a guess as to what the words mean. Which families, and what values? The Kennedys playing football in McLean, Virginia? The Corleones contemplating a murder on Long Island? Joan Crawford reading to her children from A Day in Fairy Land?
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