A Russian friend of mine, who escaped the Soviet Union for America and who now lives in England, once told me that in his early years in the West he would always introduce himself at parties by saying, “Hello, I’m Alex, I hate my parents, don’t you?”

Slightly taken aback, his interlocutors would consider for a split second and then say, “Well, as a matter of fact,”—or “Now you come to mention it,”—“I do.” No one ever admitted to any other feelings about his parents than hatred or contempt: to have done so would have been to lose caste, at least in the intellectual circles in which he then moved. An unhappy childhood and tortured relations with one’s progenitors were essential preconditions of a reputation for profundity. If a wise son maketh a glad father, a happy childhood maketh a shallow intellectual.

When, exactly, did filial piety...