'Little Platoons'

God's Design for Our Relationships

A shorter version of this article first appeared in the March 2003 issue of BreakPoint WorldView magazine.

The creational design for human social life is the law for community organization that is written in human nature. In some measure this law is plain to everyone, but unfortunately, the tendency of fallen man is to make it obscure, to wreath it in veils of confusion.

Consider, for example, the hot new fad called "evolutionary ethics." The evolutionary ethicist says that from his study of how we evolved, he gleans insights into human nature, and from his insights into human nature, he can tell us the best way to live. Neo-Darwinism is so influential that if you so much as use the expression human nature, many people will assume that you mean the same thing.

But evolutionary ethics is nonsense; it contradicts itself. If we really did evolve by natural selection, then by the testimony of evolutionists themselves, human nature is the result of "a meaningless and purposeless process that did not have us in mind."1 Our genes came about without planning, design, or direction, and we are blindly driven to preserve them. Things like intellect, conscience, and the love of God and neighbor are just so many dials and buttons and levers by which our DNA makes us do what it wants. As zoologist Richard Dawkins puts it, "We are survival machines, robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes."2 If this really is the truth, then it might be argued that a wise man will bend his energies to finding a way to set aside human nature, turn off the remote control. Dawkins thinks so too: "Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to," he writes, "because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to."3

The upshot is that if human nature does matter, then it matters not because it evolved, but because it didn't. If human nature does provide insight into how to live, it can do so for one reason and one reason only: Because it was designed, crafted by a wise and good Maker who fashioned it according to His purposes. For present purposes, it doesn't much matter whether He made us from mud or from monkeys, or whether He took an instant, a week, or an aeon. What matters is that He made us. Human nature matters, because human nature was created.

Let's sketch out what the creational design for human social life looks like. Design is obvious across the whole range of human moral powers. The function of fear is to warn; of minds, to deliberate and know; of anger, to prepare for the protection of endangered goods. Everything in us has a purpose; everything is for something. A moral power is well-used when it is used for that purpose and according to that design.

However, some of the most important features of our moral design show up not at the level of the individual but at the level of the community. The four most striking of these features can be called (1) interdependency, (2) complementarity, (3) spontaneous order, and (4) subsidiarity. Let's consider them in order.

The first great feature of the creational design for human social life is interdependency. We certainly aren't hive creatures like bees or ants, but we aren't self-sufficient either. In fact, we depend on each other in a thousand ways. To mention just a few: We depend on each other physically, for we aren't automatically provided with food, warmth, and the means of escape or protection as the other animals are; no one can provide all these things to himself, nor can anyone do much to help himself when he is gravely injured or ill. We depend on each other intellectually, for it is by reasoning together that we find out what we need and how to obtain it, not to mention what we should live for and how. We depend on each other developmentally, for we take much longer than other creatures to reach maturity, and on the way we require discipline and instruction by others in the use of our powers. We depend on each other procreatively, for we neither divide like amoebas, bud like yeast, nor conceive without mates like certain species of mosquitos; nor is mating the end of it, for parents cooperate both in nurturing their offspring and in helping them establish their own families. We depend on each other for identity, for even though we are distinct from each other, each of us understands who he is in part by understanding how others see him and in relation to the community. We depend on each other morally, for each person is accountable to the others, and the development of virtue is a partnership in goodness rather than a solitary pursuit. We depend on each other politically, for although some requirements of the common good are best supplied privately, others require coordination by authority. Chief among these is public justice, for no man can judge rightly in his own case. Finally, we depend on each other spiritually. As Paul said, "For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another."4

Of course, spiritual interdependency transcends the order of creation; as theologians would say, it belongs to the order of redemption. However, our nonbelieving neighbors are well able to recognize the other seven ways we depend on each other. We need to draw these ways to their attention, because the pattern of modern life denies them; our communities are hardly communities at all.

The second great feature of the creational design for human social life is complementarity. Not only do we depend on each other, but we depend on each other in a particular way. One illustration is found in the natural diversity of our bents and abilities, which is the basis for the division of labor. People of different crafts and vocations, like merchant and producer, inventor and entrepreneur, teacher and practitioner, depend on each other not in the way that one finger lends strength to another, but in the way that the fingers complement the thumb—opposing each other so as to grasp. They are able to work each together precisely because of their differences.

An even stronger illustration is found in the natural difference between the sexes, which is the basis for the division of roles in the family. Short of a divine provision for people called to celibacy, there is something missing in the man which must be provided by the woman, and something missing in the woman which must be provided by the man. As Robert George has explained,5 this is most obvious in the physical dimension. In the case of all other biological functions, only one body is required to do the job. A person can digest food by himself, using no other gullet but his own; he can see by himself, using no other eyes but his own; he can walk by himself, using no other legs but his own; and so with each of the other functions and their corresponding organs. Each of us can perform every vital function by himself, except one. The single exception is procreation. What this demonstrates is that among human beings the male and female sexual powers are radically incomplete, and designed for each other. If we were speaking of respiration, it would be as though the man had the diaphragm, the woman the lungs, and they had to come together to take a single breath. If we were speaking of circulation, it would be as though the man had the right heart chambers, the woman the left, and they had to come together to make a single beat. Now it isn't really like that with the respiratory or circulatory powers, but that is exactly how it is with the generative powers. The union of opposites is the only possible realization of their procreative potential; unless they come together as a single organism, as one flesh, procreation doesn't occur.

Even more remarkable is that the complementarity of wife and husband doesn't end with biology. In every dimension, physical, emotional, and intellectual, the man and woman fit like hand in glove; they match. The woman is better designed to nurture the child, to establish the family on the hearth, and to model how these things are done; the man is better designed to protect the mother and child, to establish the family in the world, and to model how those things are done. Even the virtues, though needed by both sexes, have male and female inflections. When escape from danger is possible, it isn't an act of courage for an endangered woman to stay and fight; it's an act of rashness, because she carries in herself the possibility of the next generation. But it isn't an act of prudence for the man to decline to defend her; it's an act of cowardice, because his life is only one. We may add that it isn't an act of justice but of foolish injustice to pretend that the sexes are just the same. Justice is exercised in respectfully providing for the due needs of each.

The third great feature of the creational design for human social life is spontaneous order. It may seem inconsistent to speak of spontaneous order as an aspect of species design; when we call order "spontaneous," don't we mean that it comes to pass without design? No, we mean that it comes to pass without superintendence. Design is something that takes place beforehand; superintendence is something that takes place afterward. Spontaneous order requires more design, not less. If I toss nine three-inch-square blocks into a nine-inch-square box, then jostle the box, the blocks will spontaneously arrange themselves into a symmetrical three-by-three block grid. But they will do so only because they are just the right number, shape, and size to fit, a set of features unlikely to arise by chance. Someone cut the blocks. It is the same way with us. If we humans are capable of spontaneous order, we must have been designed for it.

The spontaneous order of the human species is that left to ourselves without supervision, we quickly form a rich array of associations such as families, neighborhoods, villages, businesses, vocational groups, religious societies, and schools. Edmund Burke wrote,

To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed toward a love to our country and to mankind. The interest of that portion of social arrangement is a trust in the hands of all those who compose it; and as none but bad men would justify it in abuse, none but traitors would barter it away for their own personal advantage.6

Although the little platoons are varied and diverse, one of them is ubiquitous and fundamental: The family, based on the enduring conjugal partnership of the husband and wife. Indeed it seems to be the seed from which the others sprout. The first priests were the patriarchs of families; so were the first judges. The political community isn't a primary association like the family, but a secondary association—an association of associations, a partnership of partnerships, and chief among these partnerships is the procreative partnership called family.

This fact deserves emphasis, because in our day the family is so sore beset and little honored. No wise statesman invented the family, no one is indifferent to the family, and there was never a time in human history when the family didn't exist. Even when disordered, it persists. Family members who are divided by disaster commonly undertake heroic efforts to reunite with each other. Only violence or strong ideology can abolish the family, and only small societies have even tried to abolish it; those which do try always fail, or else retreat gradually from their aims.

For the nurture of the young, the family has no parallel. Sociologists Sara S. McLanahan and Gary Sandefur write, "If we were asked to design a system for making sure that children's basic needs were met, we would probably come up with something quite similar to the two-parent ideal." Of course—because it is designed, though not by us. And although it isn't surprising that young children thrive less in orphanages than in the average family, it certainly ought to move us to awe that this is true even when care is taken to make the orphanages homelike, and even when, to the eyes of sociologists, they are better organized than an average family in every respect—hygienically, medically, psychologically, and pedagogically.7

Another reason families are so good for us is that having relatives is better moral training than having picked companions, just because we can't pick them. G. K. Chesterton explains it this way:

In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded on what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique. The men of the clan live together because they all wear the same tartan or are all descended from the same sacred cow. . . . But the men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment, like that which exists in hell. . . . The best way that a man could test his readiness to encounter the common variety of mankind would be to climb down a chimney into any house at random, and get on as well as possible with the people inside. And that is essentially what each one of us did on the day that he was born.8

Speaking of people being born, let's not forget what the experience of having children does to us. Children transform us; they force us to become different beings. There is no way to prepare for them completely. They crash into our lives, they soil their diapers, they upset all our comfortable arrangements, and nobody knows how they will turn out. Willy-nilly, they knock us out of our complacent habits and force us to live outside ourselves; they are the necessary and natural continuation of that shock to our egotism which is initiated by marriage itself. To receive this great blessing requires courage. But any so-called intimacy which is deliberately closed to new life eventually becomes a mere collaboration in selfishness.

The fourth great feature of the creational design for human social life is subsidiarity, which is most easily explained as the outcome of two other features. Consider. Culture should develop in partnership with our design, not against it. It should function like a second nature, not fighting first nature, but filling the outline that first nature provides. This is usually called the principle of "connaturality." But now consider again. From the individual and the family at the base of the social order rise a hierarchy of other associations, ascending through neighborhoods, churches, vocational groups, and the other little platoons, right on up to those institutions for public justice which we call government. These higher rungs are as necessary to the common good as the lower ones; however, the higher up the ladder we go, the less spontaneous their order is. To put it another way, the higher the rung of social organization that we're on, the less help it gets from nature, and the more help it needs from culture. We may call this the principle of "diminishing spontaneity."

Now if you put these two principles together, they act like a magnifying glass, making us aware of a danger that otherwise we might not see. On the one hand, the higher rungs ought to protect and cooperate with the more spontaneous lower rungs—but on the other hand, just because they are less spontaneous, they may not want to. Under the guise of relieving them of burdens, the higher rungs might try instead to gobble up the functions of the lower ones. We see an example in the way public schools attempt to undermine the authority of parents and take over their function of moral nurture. More and more, parents find that their children need to be "deprogrammed" when they return home from school. Not even lower grade children are spared. Somehow there isn't enough time in the school day to teach them to read, but there is always time for social indoctrination.

Subsidiarity means "don't let that happen." It comes from the Latin word subsidium, which means "help," because the idea is "help, don't take over." To be more precise, subsidiarity means that the higher rungs of the social ladder should do only those things which the lower rungs can't. I've emphasized the relation of families to public schools, but the principle applies across the whole span of civil society: Whether in the relation of union "local" to union federation, individual congregation to ecclesiastical communion, individual scholar to academic guild, private association to government agency, or lower echelon of government to higher. We are designed in such a way that it just isn't good for us when the big fellows do what the little ones can do for themselves.

Although subsidiarity is a very old idea in Christian reflection about the creational design for human social life, it receives much greater attention today than it used to—rightly so, because social conditions have changed. This was explained in a very famous letter written by the Roman Catholic Pontiff, Pius XI, in 1931:

As history abundantly proves, it is true that on account of changed conditions many things which were done by small associations in former times cannot be done now save by large associations. Still, that most weighty principle, which cannot be set aside or changed, remains fixed and unshaken in social philosophy: Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help [subsidium] to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.9

As Pius explained, what pushed the principle of subsidiarity to the forefront was the crisis in civil society brought about by the industrial revolution. For a time it seemed as though the middle rungs of the ladder might be crippled or destroyed, leaving nothing but the vaunting state at the top of the social scale and the solitary self at the bottom. Collectivists and individualists made strange alliance to cheer this holocaust of the little platoons. The principle of subsidiarity reaffirms the social design of the species, corrects both its individualist denial and its collectivist perversion, and champions the rights and dignity of all of those in-between associations which, if only allowed, will take root and flourish, filling the valley between State and Self with fruit and color. I think these are conclusions which both Protestants and Catholics can accept.

Evangelicals must begin thinking about society in a different way than we have hitherto. Holy Scripture presents the big picture of salvation history—Creation, Fall, Redemption. It doesn't provide us with every detail of how to think about every subject, and in particular, it doesn't provide us with a complete framework for our communities and their relationship with government. There is nothing in the Bible about central banks or monetary policy. There is nothing in it about multiculturalism, charitable choice, or faith-based public initiatives. There is nothing in it about private schools, public schools, or vouchers. We have to work out for ourselves how to think about such things, using the minds that God has given us.

And yet God has not left us without materials for the task. The Bible points beyond itself, to the order of God's creation—beyond the revelation of words, to the revelation in the very pattern of how we are made. Considering the emphasis that the Bible lays upon creation, you would think that we would take its inbuilt purposes and structures more seriously than we do. You would think that before building a house, we would consider more seriously the design of the foundation. You would think that we would be especially careful to do so in an age like our own, which is hostile to biblical faith. Our fellow citizens can easily avoid reading the Bible, but they cannot avoid experiencing the design of human nature. Even without speech, it speaks, and something of that silent discourse, that voiceless homily, is understood, however faintly, by everyone who lives. In this fact, God has provided us with a language that we can use to reach even the most anti-biblical of our nonbelieving neighbors. True, this language must compete with other languages; Nimrod's great tower fell long ago, and since then all speech has been confused. Yet a speechless language cannot be silenced, and such is the language of creation, appointed for our use.

J. Budziszewski teaches in the departments of government and philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. He delivered this talk at the Wilberforce Forum conference, "Living Out Your Worldview at Street Level," Minneapolis, Minn., September 28, 2002. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book What We Can't Not Know: A Guide (Dallas: Spence Publishing, 2003) and is reprinted by permission.


1. Neo-Darwinian paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson, The Meaning of Evolution, rev. ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), 344-345.

2. The Selfish Gene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), preface to the 1976 edition.

3. Dawkins, 3.

4. Romans 12:4-5 (RSV).

5. See Robert P. George, The Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2001), esp. the chapter on marriage and moral neutrality.

6. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the French Revolution, Everyman ed. (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1955), 44.

7. Paraphrasing René König, "Sociological Introduction [to the family]," International Encyclopedia of Comparative Law (1974) IV:1, 42-43.

8. G.K. Chesterton, "On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family," Heretics (1905). In Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986-), Volume 1.

9. Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno (English title "On Reconstruction of the Social Order"), May 15, 1931, Section 79.

Articles on the BreakPoint website are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Chuck Colson or PFM. Links to outside articles or websites are for informational purposes only and do not necessarily imply endorsement of their content.