Posted by: mattcolvin | April 26, 2013

Filial Relationship and Dirty Diapers

“Honey,” my wife called from the living room, “your son’s diaper needs changing!”

“My son? What, did he spring full-armed from my head?”


I, being a bit of a philological pedant, call this the “second person of dirty diapers”. It is in my mental reference grammar in a numbered paragraph after the entry for the “royal we (“We are not amused”) and the medicinal we (“How are we feeling today?”). The second person of dirty diapers is used by one parent to dissociate herself from the undesirable qualities of her offspring, and to identify the other parent as the source of those qualities in the child.

This is the opposite of the verdict at the end of Aeschylus’ Eumenides, where Athena asserts that Orestes is not really a matricide because the female parent contributes nothing to the blood – we would say the genes – of the offspring.

οὔκ ἔστι μήτηρ ἡ κεκλημένου τέκνου
τοκεύς, τροφὸς δὲ κύματος νεοσπόρου.
τίκτει δ ̓ ὁ θρῴσκων,… (657-659)

The one we call mother is not the begetter of the child,
But the nourisher of the new-sown fetus.
The begetter is the one who sires it.

Thus, filial relationship has multiple implications for duties: it can imply the parent’s responsibility for the actions of the child, as in the second person of dirty diapers; but it can also imply the child’s duty toward the parent, as can be seen from the way Apollo excuses Orestes from the duty to refrain from matricide by trivializing the filial relationship to mothers, reducing them to mere incubators.

In Exodus 32, God and Moses trade upon the “second person of dirty diapers”:

And the Lord said to Moses, “Go, get down! For your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves…”
Then Moses pleaded with the Lord his God, and said: “ Lord, why does Your wrath burn hot against Your people whom You have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? (Exodus 32:7, 11 NKJV)

Nothing terribly profound, of course. Just neat that Moses and YHWH talk this way too. Who brought Israel out of Egypt? God says Moses did, so that they are Moses’ people, and God may destroy them. Moses says God did, so that they are God’s people, and He must take them in hand and not destroy them.


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