Illusory First and Last Words

A colleague has written a nice review of The Tragedy of Fatherhood: King Laius and the Politics of Paternity in the West. The images-3book pursues the thesis that the role of fatherhood is a central trope in Western Political Philosophy.

The author of The Tragedy of Fatherhood, Silke-Maria Weineck, traces that theme through all the greats: Biblical fathers and prophets, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Lessing, Kleist, Freud.

Yet the reviewer of this book on fatherhood ends on a quizzical note. He writes that there is

a question that Weineck does not answer (mainly because it has no philosophical answer): What does it mean to be a father?

Of course there’s nothing the matter with raising the question “What is a father?” even if there is no single philosophical answer. Questions can exceed answers.

I can ask myself if you are a friend, which would require me to think philosophically about “What is a friend?” — even though there are images-4numerous definitions of “friend,” and so no single answer.

I might also review the tenor and pace of my relationship to see if it “seemed” like you are a friend. I might fail to find a convincing answer.

What bothers me is my reviewer-friend’s assumption that there is no philosophical answer to the question “What is a father?”

One answer is to point to the Abraham birthing multitudes in this marvelous image to your right. (By the way, the four women are four rivers, and the Latin inscription under his feet reads “The just will be in the bosom of Abraham, father of all believers.“)

Another answer to the question “What is a father?” is given in the first image up above. There we have father Abraham sacrificing the single source of the multitudes that he’d been promised.  Well, is father Abraham plentifully with child or is he on the edge of child disposal?  He’s both, of course, however different the images turn out to be. And no doubt still more accounts of his “fatherhood” could be produced.

Must all philosophical questions have direct, simple, single answers?  What about the joys and lessons of pursuits that turn up empty-handed? And why isn’t an historical survey of different answers to the question “What is a father?” the most useful way to answer the question? (We want reality to be simple and single and unchanging.)

There is no rigorous definition of rigor

It’s quite natural, when asking about friendship, love, fatherhood, motherhood, nationhood, poets, priests, and so forth to trace an historical trajectory that provides several overlapping and perhaps contending answers.

Only a person who divorces truth Jacopo_Amigoni_002Jaelfrom history and cultural context, who seeks a kind of purity, a timeless essence, would believe that a multiplicity of answers over time means there’s no answer.

Set aside gathering answers over time. Sometimes we don’t want an answer to a conceptual question (What is a father?)  but an answer to the question, “What am I confronting here-and-now?” Do we have a single answer to what good and evil is enacted simultaneously in this shocking portrait by Jacopo Amigoni? Contending answers are still answers.

I see a connection between this question, “What is fatherhood?”, and the question Walter Cummins asks a few days ago, “What is creation?” (Zeteo, 10.29.2015, Bible / Translation / Kushner / Genesis).

The opening of Genesis in the King James translation, declares that “In the beginning God created . . .” The picture seems to include a pervasive timelessness; a divine interruption of that timelessness as an episode of creation begins; and an outcome in the appearance of discrete created items.

to know creation is to know its history, epoch to epoch, year to year

Now if we take Robert Alter’s translation from the Hebrew, we have “When God began to create . . .” This is a very different picture. God is in time doing things, or lolling. His activity and rest open backward through a receding past. Then, for whatever reason, God turns from previous activity or inactivity to begin creating earth and sky and endless other things.

images-5If creation is ongoing through time, then to know creation is to know its history, epoch to epoch, year to year. It is to know a temporal unfolding rather than a snapshot that freezes time.

Perhaps not only heaven and earth, but, our written accounts of this process, are continually being created and recreated, even today and tomorrow, through multiple readings and misreadings.

Cummins ends his instructive discussion of the perils and rewards of biblical translation by observing that

Like heaven and earth the Hebrew Bible should not be considered “created” but rather a document once and forever being created.

images-2We are creatures inescapably caught up in questions about fatherhood, friendship, and even cruelty (to give a very short list). Compare “fatherhood” in the image to your right to the fatherhood instanced by either of the two Abrahams we’ve met.

These themes or concepts aren’t shaped once for all, but rather threads, themes, configurations, constellations, once and forever “being created,” forever unfolding.

This means that they are constituted by their history, and that answers (and there are plenty) are historical – which is no defect at all.

Jacob Kline writes in his classic account of mathematics, “There is no rigorous definition of rigor.”  And that’s OK.  There’s no rigorous definition of “father” or “friend” or “creation,” either. That’s OK.

—Ed Mooney, Zeteo Contributor

Citations: Silke-Maria Weineck. The Tragedy of Fatherhood: King Laius and the Politics of Paternity in the West. New York: Bloomsbury 2014. Reviewed by Jeremy Bernstein, Studies in Romanticism, Fall, 2015. Michael Bachem for translation of the Latin inscription under the second Abraham image, The bosom of Abraham, a 12th century medieval illustration from the Hortus deliciarum of Herrad of Landsberg. Walter Cummins, “Bible / Translation / Kushner / Genesis,” Zeteo, 10.29.2015. Robert Alter, Genesis: Translation and Commentary, W.W. Norton, 1997. The portrait of Jael nailing Sisera (Judges: 4:21) is Jacopo Amigoni’s. Thanks to William Eaton for Morris Klein’s “There is no rigorous definition of rigor,” Zeteo, 04.27.2014. The plentiful Abraham is from Google Images, as are the remaining images.


  1. Walter Cummins

    I thank Ed Mooney for referring to my recent piece on Biblical creation. His discussion of fatherhood made me think of Hugh Cunningham’s book, The Invention of Childhood, and other studies of the shifting conceptions of human roles and relationships. Regarding fatherhood, I’m reminded of a man I know who refused to carry a diaper bag because it wasn’t macho. In contrast, in countries with paternal leave, I’ve seen fathers pushing carriages and testing the warmth of bottled formula on their wrists. What will such fathers do to the Oedipus complex?


  2. Silke Weineck

    I appreciate the shoutout and the reference to JB’s review, which is very nice indeed. I respectfully disagree with his assessment on this point, though: the book answers the question “what does it mean to be a father’ many times over — because there are many answers, and they depend on the text under scrutiny. It means something to Aristotle that’s quite different from what it means to Hobbes; something to Freud that’s quite different from what it means to Kleist. Cheers, Silke


  3. Jeffrey Bernstein

    Ha! I knew I’d catch it for that sentence! It probably should have read “There’s no one single answer to it.” But I’ll stand by my words insofar as its not clear to me that the question of what it means to be a father (as opposed to, say, the question of ‘paternity’) is ultimately a philosophical question.


    • Silke Weineck

      I’m with Nietzsche –“all ideas in which an entire process is semiotically summarized elude definition. Only something which has no history is capable of being defined.”


  4. Jeffrey Bernstein

    I really think that the question of what it means to be a father is different from the question of ‘fatherhood’ (or, ‘paternity’). My daily experiences as a father would radically lose something if I tried to translate them into conceptual terms (this is, I think, clearly also the case for being a mother, son, daughter, etc.).


    • Silke Weineck

      I humbly suggest that my book is actually the first one that asks about the experience of being a father rather than looking at fatherhood from the outside. See the epilogue on the Absalom lament…


  5. Ed Mooney

    I suppose it comes down to whether philosophy is a way of writing that can illuminate experiences (some of them intimate or personal) as well as clarify concepts and conceptual issues.


  6. Ed Mooney

    Yes, we can set aside that old Socratic-Platonic warning that timeless definitions come first — he neither started nor ended with definitions in many cases. Symposium ends with experiences of unrequited love, not with a discussion of concepts involved.


    • Silke Weineck

      a lovely comment. one of my epigraphs is by Schnitzler, “die Liebe zu den Kindern ist immer eine unglueckliche,” “love of one’s children is always unrequited/unhappy.” US culture does not want to hear this.


  7. Jeffrey Bernstein

    So this might just be a matter of terminology. In fact, one of the things that drew me to Silke’s book originally was the fact that she does deal with the question of what it means to be a father–so much so that she brings all the texts with which she deals alive in ways that were fairly new to me (especially with Hobbes!). My point actually wasn’t a criticism of the book. I’m not sure that, for all that, its a matter of avoiding timeless definitions (I have a soft-spot for ‘transhistoricality’ 😉 ). I just think that what the book provoked in me (or, stirred up in me) were utterly particular things involved with being a parent that aren’t exhausted in philosophical conceptualization, but in fact, *exemplified* in the stories/narratives dispersed throughout the book. What I appreciated so much about it was the balance between close readings of philosophical, literary, and religious texts on the one hand, and the short narratives about being a parent on the other. Bravo, Silke!


  8. Ed Mooney

    The story of Sisera’s death under the hand of Jael, by hammer and nail: Judges: 17 Now Sisera fled away on foot to the tent of Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite, for there was peace between Jabin the king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite. 18 Jael went out to meet Sisera, and said to him, “Turn aside, my master, turn aside to me! Do not be afraid.” And he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. 19 He said to her, “Please give me a little water to drink, for I am thirsty.” So she opened a bottle of milk and gave him a drink; then she covered him. 20 He said to her, “Stand in the doorway of the tent, and it shall be if anyone comes and inquires of you, and says, ‘Is there anyone here?’ that you shall say, ‘No.’” 21 But Jael, Heber’s wife, took a tent peg and seized a hammer in her hand, and went secretly to him and drove the peg into his temple, and it went through into the ground; for he was sound asleep and exhausted. So he died. 22 And behold, as Barak pursued Sisera, Jael came out to meet him and said to him, “Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.” And he entered with her, and behold Sisera was lying dead with the tent peg in his temple.


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