Like I said, I have no plans to actually pursue any investigation of marriage’s historical development. But I do have some suggestions for thinking about the topic from a literary perspective.
In my post about Pope Francis’ recent encyclical I quoted Alan Jacobs, an English professor at Baylor University, as follows:
If I had my way, I’d spend the next couple of months preparing to teach a class in which this encyclical — a far richer work than I had expected it to be, and one that I hope will have lasting power — would be read alongside Guardini’s book, with both accompanied by repeated viewings of Mad Max: Fury Road. The class would be called “Who Killed the World?”
In a similar spirit of serious frivolity, I propose the following syllabus, for a class titled “What Happened To (Anglo-American) Marriage?” It exists in a fantasy world where students will read either one book or two plays per week, though it could, of course, easily be reduced to something reasonable (one play or movie a week instead of two, two weeks for a novel instead of one, relegate the critical works to an optional appendix).
- Geoffrey Chaucer: “The Franklin’s Tale”; “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”
- William Shakespeare: All’s Well That Ends Well; As You Like It
- William Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing; Twelfth Night
- Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice
- Jane Austen: Emma
- Jane Austen: Sense and Sensibility
- Denis de Rougemont: Love in the Western World
- Oscar Wilde: Lady Windemere’s Fan; An Ideal Husband
- Old Hollywood: Bringing Up Baby; The Awful Truth
- Old Hollywood: The Lady Eve; The Philadephia Story
- Stanley Cavell: Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage
- New Hollywood: Groundhog Day; Four Weddings and a Funeral
- New Hollywood: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Silver Linings Playbook
- Obergefell v. Hodges, both majority opinion and dissents
The premise of the syllabus is, of course, that we can trace the evolution of marriage through the literature that has been written about it. It also assumes that comedies, rather than self-serious books like those of George Eliot and Henry James, are the best way in which to do so; and that we can look at comedies like these, not merely as isolated works, but as representatives of genres: Shakespearean comedy, Austenian comedy, what Stanley Cavell (whose book inspired most of the above) calls “comedies of remarriage,” etc. Finally, it focuses on English-speaking literature, on the assumption that, influenced as it was by Anglicanism rather than Roman Catholicism or a more individualistic strain of Protestant Christianity, marriage evolved differently in the Anglosphere than elsewhere in Europe. (Rougemont’s book, which focuses mostly on Continental literature, and on tragedy rather than comedy, is included to offer an alternative to these suppositions.)
Beyond this, the course needn’t set out to make any particular argument. The point would be that we can learn something about ourselves through close attention to these works. It’s not too difficult, though, to say something about the basic trajectory: marriage begins as something taken-for-granted which the idea of romantic love begins to disturb (Chaucer); it becomes a way to define oneself through a relation with another (Shakespeare); then a balancing act between economic stability and personal happiness (Austen); then something subject to destabilizing attacks from outside (Wilde); then something inherently fragile, needing constant repair (Old Hollywood); then something requiring innumerable attempts to achieve, if achieving it is even possible (New Hollywood).
[Second in a series. The first post can be found here. Disclaimer: this post is highly speculative and should not be taken too seriously. Before accepting any of its theological suggestions consult your nearest catechism.]
In my previous post I told a story about the emergence of modern marriage, and how modern marriage has little to do with marriage a millenium ago; and I suggested some reasons to think the change has been, for the most part, good.
The problem with any such theory, for (most) Christians anyway, is that the Church is the bride of Christ, and each human marriage is an image of this union. Doesn’t this mean that marriage at the time of the Gospels must have something in common with marriage today? Otherwise, either we have simply stopped engaging in a practice that the Church suggests provides the best image for what the Church is, or we have only recently begun to engage in that practice, despite the fact that we have been New Testament was written almost two thousand years ago.
Well, this may be moving too fast. The Bible also says Christ is (literally) a king; few think this obliges us to revert to monarchy. (In fact, some say that because Christ is king we have no need for any other.) And it says Christ is (metaphorically) a shepherd; few think this obliges us to leave our cities and return to a pastoral life. (Though we can certainly look at what it meant to be a shepherd in ancient Palestine and ask what about that life we should continue to value.) If the Christ-as-husband image is merely a metaphor, we can treat it as we do Christ-as-shepherd; if it’s meant literally, we can treat it like Christ-as-king. Neither necessitates caring about whether marriage now is “the same thing” as marriage in Christ’s time.
If it’s an analogy, however, neither of these options are available. Analogy means that there exists a real proportion between human marriage and this divine marriage; the divine marriage acts as a guide for what human marriage should look like. Which doesn’t make any sense if human marriage is merely a social practice which we can allow to lapse (as with shepherding) or to be transcended (as with kingship). If it’s an analogy, then it seems we need to know whether marriage now has anything substantially in common with marriage then.
The analysis I gave in my previous post about the emergence of modern marriage took inspiration primarily from social theorists, especially Giambattista Vico and from Max Weber. From Vico, the idea of the family beginning as a space of slavery, and gradually transforming into a space of freedom; from Weber, the idea of transcendental claims (marriage as sacrament) having unintended social effects. But if the above line of reasoning is correct, then from a theological perspective, what we need is not a history of how the social practice we call “marriage” has changed (and our society with it), but an account of how the idea of marriage has developed. Not social theory, but intellectual history.
The terms “development” is borrowed from John Henry Newman’s An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, a book which is about not just Christian doctrine, but also the evolution of ideas in general. He suggests that we look at the history of an idea (whether it be entirely abstract, e.g. “Platonism,” or whether it affect social practice, e.g. “marriage”) and try to see whether it is really the history of a single idea, or whether it is the history of many different ideas, called by the same name, succeeding one another. He proposes seven “notes” of genuine development: 1. preservation of type; 2. continuity of principles; 3. power of assimilation; 4. logical sequence; 5. anticipation of its future; 6. conservative action upon its past; 7. chronic vigor. (If you don’t want to read the whole book, Chapter 5 (available here) explains the seven notes in brief.)
I have yet to see a Newmanian anaysis of the development of marriage. Such an analysis would, I think, be quite useful. More specifically, we need both a philosophical account of the history of marriage, demonstrating that it has developed but not undergone corruption; and, equally importantly, a short story about marriage’s history that would make prima facie plausible that scholarly account.
To do the former would take a book, which I will not attempt to write. The latter might look something like the following.
A key tenet of Christian proponents of “traditional” marriage, at least those who attempt to base their arguments in natural reason, is that there is something called “natural marriage” which has shown up throughout human history, with minor variations, until in the last few decades it has come under attack. I doubt that a Newmanian account of marriage would accept this claim. One line in particular from the Development is often quoted: “to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Anyone who has read the book knows that this does not mean all change is good; it does mean, however, that if an idea has been changed, and if the change was good, then there is no going back.
An alternative both to the static idea of Christianity building on a permanent foundation of natural marriage, and to the idea sketched last post of Christianity as freeing us from the slavery of natural marriage, would involve Christianity genuinely developing natural marriage into something greater. The idea of marriage, even when it was merely natural, always contained implicitly a transcendental dimension. It has always had the potential to develop from a mere economic arrangement into indissoluble bond of personal, sacrificial love. Christianity merely made this potential obvious and inescapable.
Once this development takes place, there is no undoing it. The natural idea of marriage can either develop into the Christian version, or it can undergo total corruption; it cannot merely remain as it was two thousand years ago. Thus, today, in a society which does not call itself Christian but which has been thoroughly colored by its Christian history, there is no room for natural marriage. There can be only the life of Christian marriages and the undeath of marriages manqué.
Which is not, of course, to say anything about which marriages are which. Newman, though he became Catholic after writing the Development, did not write it in order to become Catholic; he wrote it in order to discover whether Catholics, Anglicans, or Protestants were in the right. The same objectivity would be required of any inquiry into the development of marriage.
[First in a projected series. Disclaimer: this post is highly speculative and should not be taken too seriously.]
Last month’s Supreme Court decision indisputably changed marriage, or recognized a change that had already taken place. Traditionalists often tell a story in which the change began with the “sexual revolution,” particularly the legalization of contraception, abortion, and no-fault divorce, and the de-legalization of marital rape. But there are other, more plausible stories we can tell—stories in which marriage has been changing for a long time.
A particularly interesting such story, from the Christian point of view (and of course most marriage traditionalists are Christian, though they claim that their arguments are based in natural reason), involves the emergence of modern marriage in Western Europe over the last millenium. According to this story, modern marriage is a product of Christianity, not a revolt against it, and its emergence is a gradual process of liberation from the slavery of traditional social structures.
(Note: I’m not a historian. This story is an amalgamation of a number of such stories I’ve seen made by people I consider pretty bright, including philosophers, historians, and literary theorists. Still it probably counts as Bad History (TM).)
We begin in the Middle Ages; say, 1000 AD. Marriages between nobility are public and formal, but other marriages are not necessary so. There may be a ceremony, but there are no official records kept, and in some ways the marriages looks more like what we call cohabitation; there are few formal mechanisms to prevent a couple from splitting up and each member getting together with someone new, though public opinion, and the economic difficulty of uprooting one’s life in this way, does discourage this. The law takes some interest in marriage, but the way it takes an interest in debt: it enforces the terms of the arrangement, but doesn’t take any notice of the arrangement unless a complaint is made. But marriage now differs from cohabitation in this way: the couple live together, not because they “love each other,” but because it makes sense, especially since at this time children are a net economic gain. The household is economic in nature: this is in a sense a tautology, since economic < oikonomia < oikos + nemein, household + management. Economic marriage is not a particularly nice institution; an academic might call it a perpetuator of Patriarchy. The real problem, however, is that it’s distinctly impersonal. One has a wife the way one has a business partner, and one wants to avoid leaving her the way one wants to avoid bankrupcy.
By 1300 AD, things have begun to change. For the last few hundred years, the Catholic Church has engaged in a sustained campaign to codify the sacramental nature of marriage. In other words, it has sought to give a transcendent significance to what had been merely a useful social practice. Of particular importance was the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215 AD, which mandated the formal proclamation of marriage banns, on pain of bastardy: “If any persons presume to enter into clandestine marriages of this kind, or forbidden marriages within a prohibited degree, even if done in ignorance, the offspring of the union shall be deemed illegitimate.” Clandestine marriages—in fact, any marriage not publicly overseen by the church—was still possible, but it ceased to be normal. Marriage is now a formal public act, and is the same for nobility and for commoners. But noble marriage had been a public concern for a practical reason: the private lives of nobility had political repercussions. If marriage among commoners is also a public concern, the reason must be different; not practical, but transcendent. What might it be?
It takes a while, but by, say, 1600 AD, an answer has emerged. Marriage fundamentally changes who you are, and who your children are, in a way that needs to be public knowledge. It forms a bond between you and your spouse fundamentally different from any other social connection. Marriage is not just building a household, it tells you something about who you are: namely, that you are someone married to this other someone. This deep personal relationship ends up being characterized much like had been the romantic love of the medieval troubadours, except that, for the troubadours, romance was always between unmarried lovers. This makes all the difference. Unconsummated love-at-a-distance idealizes the beloved, and might last five minutes or fifty years. Intimate marital love has no room for idealization, because it is intrinsically temporal: it requires changing oneself in response to the changes one sees in one’s beloved. It is, one might say, an ongoing conversation. Children arise from this conversation, and their lives are colored by it, but they do not themselves participate in what is fundamentally a relationship between husband and wife.
By 1900 AD, this idea has had unexpected consequences. Before Christianity made it a sacrament, people almost never thought of marriage as indissoluble: its dissolution was merely extremely difficult, and would only take place in extraordinary circumstances—only if life in the household the marriage created was intolerable. In the Catholic world, marriage remains in theory indissoluble, but this leads to rank hypocrisy (e.g. the normalization of extramarital affairs). In most Protestant countries, something more interesting has happened. The law has made room for the dissolution of marriages in extraordinary circumstances, and, in so doing, admitted that no marriage is indissoluble. But the circumstances under which marital dissolution make sense have changed. It now seems reasonable to dissolve a marriage, not only if the household it has built has collapsed, but also if your conversation with your spouse has turned into silence; and, while houses are difficult to pull down, conversations are difficult to keep up. Even a good marriage can no longer be taken for granted: it must be sustained through continual effort. This shift—the outer sign of which is the liberalization of divorce laws—has the consequence of making the begetting of children appear less central to marriage than it once was; marriage comes to seem essentially an erotic friendship.
Which, by 2015 AD, makes gay marriage the logical next step.
In brief: marriage used to be a social phenomenon; it is now a public act. It used to be the construction of a household; it is now a form of conversation. It used to be indissoluble under normal circumstances; now the dissolution is always a possibility. So, yes, marriage now is different from traditional marriage—but we shouldn’t want to go back. A millenium ago, to enter into a marriage was to enslave oneself to economic necessity. Marriage has now become a space within which to build free personal relationships. These changes were brought about by Christianity: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”
[A follow-up to Render unto Caesar. Happily coinciding with the feast of Sts. John Fisher and Thomas More.]
Let’s consider another example of religio-political equivocation. In Tudor England, Bishop John Fisher preached publicly against Henry VIII’s “marriage” to Anne Boleyn. Chancellor Thomas More did not; he merely resigned, and refused to take an oath affirming the reality of the “marriage.” Both were convicted of treason, and beheaded.
More’s refusal walked a fine line between the taxpayer and the incense-burner (cf. previous post). He did not intend to affirm the substance of the oath, which would have been an act of apostasy. He did, however, foresee, or thought he foresaw, that his silence would be seen as an acceptance of that substance, namely, that Anne Boleyn’s children would be heir to the throne. He thought he could foresee this because of a legal principle he cites, qui tacet consentire videtur, “he who is silent is seen to consent.”
This strategy ought to have worked; it did not, only because the Crown produced Richard Rich as a witness, claiming (somewhat improbably) to have heard More deny the proposition. But the reason the strategy should have worked is not that legal principles are somehow “fictional,” such that he was giving fictional, legal assent to the proposition, but not “actual” assent. Language is conventional, and legal principles are among those conventions, and if the legal principle had been qui tacet assentit, “he who is silent, assents,” More’s defense would have been nonsense. Instead, the legal principle itself makes room for, indeed codifies, an equivocation, allowing More reliably to mislead his auditors, without lying to them.
More’s equivocation is both an examplary instance, and a limit case, of mental reservation. Now, in mental reservation, a person makes a statement that can be interpreted two ways, and intend to speak truly, while intending also that the auditor misinterprets him. Mental reservation is often said to be justified through the principle of double effect, but it’s far from clear how that argument is supposed to run.
His mental reservation is illustrative because his ambiguity is not in the words he speaks (he speaks no words), but in the conventions surrounding his silence: he does not intend to signal assent, but can still be seen as consenting. This brings out equivocation’s apparently absurd quality of linguistic tyranny: More is like a mute Humpty Dumpty, his silence meaning just what he means for it to mean, “neither more nor less.”
Yet More’s is also a limit case, for mental reservation is usually intended to pass unnoticed by the auditor. If it’s noticed, after all, how can it be misinterpreted? More, however, not only fails to avoid discovery, but positively calls attention to his reservations. This difference means that, unlike other exemplary equivocations, like Athanasius’s “He is close to you,” the moral argument in favor of More’s is quite straightforward and unobjectionable.
The legal principle More cites is often expanded ubi loqui debuit ac potuit, meaning “when he ought to have spoken and was able to.” The purpose of this qualification is simple: someone keeping silent at the scene of a crime might be either an enthusiastic accomplice or a horrified onlooker. If he was able to object to the crime and did not, that is enough to indict him as an accomplice, even if there’s no record of him endorsing the crime—unless he could not speak without fearing for his safety, in which case it’s likely that he was an onlooker instead. If the Crown had taken this into account, it could have recognized that More had not, in fact, meant to give his assent; but it could not have made this recognition without also recognizing its own criminality.
The structure of More’s utterance, then, is less like an action undertaken despite having certain unfortunate accidental side effects, and more like a riddle which cannot be understood by men of ill will. I don’t mean that More outwitted his enemies, that the Crown was too thickheaded to understand what he really meant; More obviously expected them to know exactly what he was trying to do. Rather, given More’s silence, and given the principle qui tacet consentire videtur, ubi loqui debuit ac potuit, the Crown could not conclude that he withheld assent without also concluding that his inability to speak stemmed from the Crown’s violent threats. The Crown might know this, but it could never admit it. More utterance was meant to render this forbidden knowledge perspicuous.
This makes More’s silence less like a mental reservation, and more like a risky venture: if he wins, he brings his auditor to repent. If he loses, either his auditor lashes out, and he becomes a martyr; or his auditor overlooks the venture, and he becomes a liar, or, at least, an equivocator of the usual kind. Without going into whether the usual kind can be justified, it seems clear to me that the Morean kind certainly can.
: The mental reservationist intends to speak the truth, and foresees… what exactly? What he foresees without intending cannot quite be the misinterpretation, for the misinterpretation is, it would seem, precisely what he intends. If this were true, then, to justify mental reservation through double effect, we would have to accept that misleading others was not evil per se, but only tended to have evil consequences, which were foreseen yet unintended. Yet there must be, or at least tend to be, evil consequences, otherwise there would be no reason not to use mental reservation all the time. What might these accidental evil consequences be? This question is often left unasked, which I suspect accounts for much of the disgust non-Catholics often feel in response to the doctrine of mental reservation. Without a reason not to equivocate unless absolutely necessary, one suspects that anyone who endorses equivocation can never be trusted, since they might equivocate whenever convenient. I don’t mean to suggest that an answer cannot be given—only that it’s not particularly easy to give one that’s satisfying.
: From John Henry Newman’s Apologia pro vita sua:
He [Athanasius] was in a boat on the Nile, flying persecution; and he found himself pursued. On this he ordered his men to turn his boat round, and ran right to meet the satellites of Julian. They asked him, “Have you seen Athanasius?” and he told his followers to answer, “Yes, he is close to you.” They went on their course as if they were sure to come up to him, while he ran back into Alexandria, and there lay hid till the end of the persecution.
“Yes, he is close to you,” contains no riddle as far as I can tell. Newman’s Apologia offers a tentative defense of equivocation, which I ought to reread, when I get the chance. From what I recall, however, his argument works better as a defense of analogizing (which is to speak approximately) rather than equivocating (which is to speak misleadingly).