Until only yesterday, Father was a figure of authority to every young boy. To be sure, authority may have been shared with Mother, but Father was the imposing figure. His superior size and strength promised safety; his voice of authority laid down the rules and established reliable order; his patient instruction encouraged growth. At the same time – and on the other hand – Father’s power often inspired fear and awe; his moral authority, shame and guilt; and his superior competence, a sense of inadequacy that could sometimes lead to envy. And then there was his pride of place with Mother, and all that that entailed – the so-called Oedipal problem, made notorious by Freud.
The highly complex aggregate of mixed feelings and attitudes made son-to-father relationships very unusual. They certainly made difficult, if not impossible, any easygoing friendship, which usually requires and fosters equality; one cannot simply be friends with someone one holds in awe. Yet these sentiments – even the uncomfortable ones like awe, fear, and shame – were (and are) perfectly suited, on the one side, to the parental task of rearing and, on the other side, to the possibility of inheriting not just life but a decent way of life from those responsible for our proper cultivation and moral development. Precisely because he is capable of inspiring awe as well as security, shame as well as orderliness, distance as well as nearness, emulation as well as confidence, and fear as well as hope, the father is able to do the fatherly work of preparing boys for moral manhood, including, eventually, their own father hood.
To be sure, the power can be abused: fathers can be bullies and tyrants, they can abuse both their authority and their sons. And even where paternal intentions are purely benevolent, it is often difficult to achieve a finely tuned mixture of encouragement and restraint. More important, errant paternal conduct can easily betray the very teaching paternal authority aims to impart; a philandering father, once exposed, has trouble teaching fidelity. Trust betrayed is hard to recover, and hypocrisy is often unforgiven, especially by one’s children. Still, that – and how – Father exercises paternal authority, and equally, how boys come to terms with Father, may make all the difference for the future life of sons – and the grandsons, great-grandsons, and so on and on.
Leon Kass – The Beginning of Wisdom p.199