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Argumentative pacifism

August 17, 2015

[A follow-up to a previous post about St. Athanasius, extrapolating further the ideas suggested there regarding equivocation.]

So Athanasius did not speak misleadingly: the soldiers were only misled because they “operate[d] under a false premise”? If this were sufficient, then it could justify every equivocation. Equivocations would never be misleading if people didn’t assume things about why they were spoken.

Things cannot be so simple. Without assumptions of some sort, communication is almost impossible. Linguists have, in fact, codified the most important everyday assumptions as the “cooperative principle,” consisting of four “Gricean maxims”: the maxim of quality (be truthful); the maxim of quantity (be as informative as required, and no more); the maxim of relation (be relevant), and the maxim of manner (be perspicuous). Equivocations insist on the first of these, but violate the other three.

If equivocation differs in some important way from lying, it must be because the first of these maxims is absolutely inviolable, while the others are not. But if equivocations are to be justified only in extraordinary circumstances, we cannot dismiss the rest of the cooperative principle entirely. We must explain in what circumstances the maxims of quantity, relation, and manner can be overruled.


Some case studies:

(1) I ask who the president is, and you say “Well, Bob’s term ends next year.” I assume that you mean to say that Bob is still president. If you actually know that Bob resigned yesterday, I will feel deceived; you spoke the truth, but still refused to cooperate. It does not excuse your refusal to call it a “riddle.” The riddle teaches us only this: “Don’t assume everyone wants to cooperate.” That is, it asks us to replace trust with suspicion. This is a good way to make enemies of your neighbors.

(2) I ask you to help me run for president, and you say “I always wanted to manage a presidential campaign.” I assume that you meant to accept the job. As with (1), I will feel deceived if it turns out you did not. But this deception will mean something different: while I desired cooperation in my campaign, I knew that you might not think I ought to be president. I did not take for granted practical assistance, but only linguistic cooperation: either a yes, or a no. Your response here refuses even that; it poses a riddle with the meaning, “Don’t assume someone will cooperate (with your conversation) who doesn’t want to assist (with your enterprise).” It asks us to replace our assumption that even enemies can talk to one another, with a belief that they cannot. This is a good way to alienate your adversaries.

(3) I ask you whether my political advertisement is effective, and you say “Flags in the background usually make advertisements better.” I assume that you meant I should revise my advertisement to have flags in the background. I will feel deceived if it turns out that you actually thought that in this particular case, flags would hurt the advertisement, and were trying to sabotage me. As with (2), I asked for help without assuming you necessarily wanted to provide it. But like (1), I did not ask for anything more than your linguistic cooperation, which in this context just is assistance with my enterprise. Your response here refuses both; it suggests the maxim, “Don’t assume someone who doesn’t want to assist (with your enterprise) will cooperate (with your conversation) if to do the latter is also to do the former.” This maxim is reasonable. One should not assist in what one thinks is evil. But to word it as a riddle not only refuses, it conceals that refusal. This is a good way to make sure your opponents never know that you oppose them.

(4) I, a ruthless dictator, ask you whether you support my campaign for reelection, and you say “I am sure your lordship will triumph.” I assume that this counts as expressing support. I will feel deceived if it turns out that, while you do suspect I will win (the polls are fixed), you are doing everything in your power to defeat me. This case resembles (2), except for the introduction of an implied threat of force: if you announce your opposition, it might result in your imprisonment. (Refusing to answer, rather than answer “no,” would likely make no difference.) This threat changes everything. I am not now actually asking for help (I do not even desire it); I am trying to compel assent to my reelection, as if by magic. The riddle the equivocation poses thus has an entirely different solution: “Don’t assume violence can control minds just because it can make events turn out as you desire.” If I recognize the riddle and see it solution, perhaps I will hear the voice of conscience. If not, I will have been misled by your elision of the inevitability of my victory into your belief in its justice—but only because I already believed they were the same thing, or could be made to be.

(5) I, a ruthless dictator, ask you if you have seen Athanasius, who is fleeing from me, and you say “He is close to you.” I assume that this means he is further down the road. I will feel deceived if it turns out that Athanasius is your friend, and is hiding downstairs. This case resembles (3), in which I pursued an enterprise to which you objected: as there, you ought not to cooperate, for that would be to assist in evil. But given the threat of force, it is also like (4). I am trying to compel assistance in my pursuit. I have tried to make it so that you must either assist me, or lie, and so set yourself against me. The riddle of this equivocation thus means: “Don’t assume violence can force one’s enemies to hate you.”


Both (4) and (5) seem to be licit equivocations, while (1), (2), and (3) do not. Why? It hinges on the clause “a ruthless dictator”: the threat of force justifies the evasive response. Importantly, this threat is not part of my question; it’s a fact about my person, of which you were aware before my question was ever asked. Even if I’ve told you explicitly that I intend to punish any answer I don’t like, that statement must be distinguished from the question it precedes. The problem is not with my speech act, but with my reasons for making it.

Similarly, while your response can (and perhaps ought) to stultify an evil intention, it must constitute a reasonable response to my speech act. We might hypothesize that this is the criterion for licit equivocations: if I undergo a sudden conversion, such that my intentions are now good, your response ought not to deceive me.

If deception resembles violence, we might describe this criterion as a kind of argumentative pacificism; rather than responding to violence with violence, one must respond in a way that opens the door to peace. But this does not mean one must do nothing to evade an attack. Physical and argumentative violence differ, however, in that it is rather more difficult to evade conversational violence without inflicting violence in return.

Bodily forms from natural things

August 10, 2015

[A round-up of links old and new, and a sequel of sorts to this previous post.]

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick

“Want to understand what it means to be a woman? Look at robots.” So Alyssa Rosenberg instructs us. To be sure, there’s some sort of connection; she amasses sufficient evidence, in the form of movies and music videos, to demonstrate this. (Surprisingly, Rosenberg doesn’t mention the origins of the Turing Test, which, as I discuss here, emerged from a parlor game in which a man tries to imitate a woman.)

The problem with Rosenberg’s commentary is implicit in the title. How is looking at robots supposed to help us understand women? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Which of those two things do any of us know anything about? Of course, she doesn’t actually want us to look at robots; she wants us to look at how certain people imagine robots. “Robots,” for her, is not a technological concept, but a mythological one. More specifically, a science fiction one: its status as fiction is obscured by its claim to a scientific pedigree.

………………………………… unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress

To be a robot, in this mythic world, means that to be your own person you must escape belonging to someone else. Nature, or perhaps culture—no sharp distinction is drawn between them. Paradoxically, in this mythos, you escape one’s createdness by creating yourself: for example, by getting a tattoo.

But as Christine Rosen discusses in The Hedgehog Review, this is rather self-defeating:

Today we treat our bodies like material possessions over which we have exclusive ownership and, we incorrectly assume, total control. But questions about the human body will only become more important in the near future, when we will have access to a range of new technological and genetic enhancements that will force us to confront what it even means to be human. The conversations we should be having aren’t about deviance and power and the fetishization of difference; they are about the integrity of the human body. After all, our physical bodies are the means by which we understand ourselves and the world, and the greatest proof of our shared history as human beings. They are what we have in common with each other, no matter how much we attempt to change. That understanding, like the tattooists’ skill with needle and ink, is something we must cultivate if we don’t want it to fade.

True, a tattoo transforms your body from an emblem of commonality with other human beings, into an expression of personal preference: but if your culture is built around the glorification of such expression, what exactly have you escaped?

Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence

The problem, perhaps, is the equation of culture and nature described above; perhaps the two are, in fact opposed. Matthew Crawford, in an excerpt published in The New Atlantis from his new(ish) book The World Beyond Your Head, suggests that modern culture is built around a rejection of nature, and an elevation of “virtual reality as moral ideal,” such that culture seeks to reshape human nature to function better within it. Crawford takes as emblem of this ideal a contemporary cartoon show (contrasted with the old Mickey Mouse cartoons, in which the characters experience the world as something that resists their desires):

When the choosing will is sealed off from the fuzzy, hard-to-master contingencies of the empirical world, it becomes more “free” in a sense: free for the kind of neurotic dissociation from reality that opens the door wide for others to leap in on our behalf, and present options that are available to us without the world-disclosing effort of skillful engagement. For the Mousekedoer, choosing (from a menu of ready-made solutions) replaces doing, and it follows that such a person should be more pliable to the “choice architectures” presented to us in mass culture.

The absence of the real from Mickey Mouse Clubhouse — indeed the dissociative or abstract quality of children’s television in general these days — makes it an ideal vehicle for psychological adjustment; for constructing and managing the kind of selves that society requires, without meddling interference from the nature of things. The particular adjustments to be carried out will have to be determined by a Disney script supervisor, or some other functionary of the modern self.

Against this, Crawford wants to argue (my words, not his): the pathways of causality are labyrinthine. We should not think that these pathways can be smoothed out for us, giving us what we want while avoiding any confrontation with “the nature of things.” Such smoothing represents, not freedom from nature, but enslavement by culture.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall

It’s true, of course: the pathways of causality are labyrinthine. But Crawford’s response accepts the science fiction mythos it claims to reject. It merely inverts the view that those pathways ought to be smoothed out, by claiming that their ruggedness ought instead to be celebrated, as an opportunity for self-creation. Culture is what other people do, when they smooth out the world for me; nature is when I make myself rugged through a direct confrontation with a rugged nature.

When he accepts this mythos, equating nature with what resists us, he denies nature what he means to restore to it: integrity. This denial is conceptual, but also practical. As any student of American history knows, rugged individualism is not exactly the natural world’s friend. Consider, not an obvious example like buffalo-hunts, but something more pervasive: air conditioning, and the general belief that it is somehow unnatural, because it takes a shortcut through the labyrinth of causality. It’s true that it’s pathway is fairly complex (though once you do understand it, it’s quite fascinating). Yet, as Megan McArdle describes, air conditioning is better for the environment than heating. So why does everyone believe the opposite?:

Heating also seems normal because it is normal, if not exactly natural. Once we harnessed fire, humans started moving into temperate areas that were previously uninhabitable by hairless bipeds evolved for the equatorial plains of Africa. By now, warming ourselves in the winter seems like “something that everyone has to do”; we don’t see it as “a great deal of energy expended to live in an area that’s not really all that suitable for human habitation.”

In other words, air conditioning feels “smooth,” rather than “rugged.” It does not feel like an interaction with nature, but like an escape from it. Whereas heating involves manipulation of a basic chemical process, one so basic that it’s not obvious there even is anything to understand, and for whose contours we can quickly get an intuitive feel. Pre-modern cultures often considered fire one of the basic elements. It is the epitome of “rugged” nature.

But fire, quite literally, destroys the labyrinthine pathways of nature, reducing complex organic matter to heat pure and simple. A/C does the same thing—everything does, as the second law of thermodynamics tells us—but it’s less wasteful. It does less to destroy the labyrinthine pathways, less to propel the universe towards its final oblivion. While the rugged/smooth dichotomy concerns nature-as-alien-force, the hot/cool dichotomy concerns nature-as-common-home. These dichotomies are not antiparallel, but orthogonal. A/C is smooth and cool, fire is rugged and hot; cars are smooth and hot, bicycles are rugged and cool.

Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is

This observation doesn’t compel us Chicagoans to stop heating our homes, or to all move to Texas (which isn’t a realistic possibility anyway). But it forces us to ask: is our goal to keep things rugged, or to keep them cool? Is it to test our mettle against nature, or to live peacefully within nature?

The same question applies also to less hypothetical controversies. Many conservatives object to trangender surgery because it’s not “natural.” Most supporters of transgender rights find this objection difficult even to comprehend, and so don’t really try. An interesting exception can be found in this article in Public Discourse, “Rethinking the Conservative Approach to Transgenderism.” Basically (the author argues), transgender persons aren’t psychologically disordered; their minds were ordered the way they are from their beginning. So nothing would count as restoring their mind to proper alignment with their body. In the terms developed above, psychological treatment is of course more rugged than sex-change surgery (talking is a fairly basic technology), but it’s no less hot; any psychological treatment that successfully altered a mind’s gender would consume, not heal, what had been there before, just as much as would any surgical sex-change.

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

Of course, while transgender surgery is “smooth” in the sense that it’s not “rugged,” no one would ever imagine that it was shiny and chrome. We might introduce here a third dichotomy: normal and grotesque: what feels like part of the world, and what feels like a distortion of the natural way of things. As with rugged/smooth and hot/cool, these terms don’t translate simply into good/bad; they’re about sensibilities, not ethics. For example, organ transplants feel grotesque, and probably always will. And when people invoke the mythos of the Robot Future, that future feels to them normal. Perhap’s it’s terrifying, but it’s not disgusting; it’s the way of things. Technology, like history, flows ever onward.

Perhaps this is the real problem with the robot mythos. It knows robots are smooth, not rough; but it has no views on whether they’re hot or cool; and it mistakenly believes that robots are normal, not grotesque. In fact, far from being Cartesian, robots are Lovecraftean. When a computer looks at the world, the result looks to us like Yog-Sothoth.

He is close to you

August 3, 2015

In a previous post about equivocation, I mentioned in passing, regarding St. Athanasius’s famous equivocation “Yes, he is close to you” (said on Athanasius’s orders, by a friend, in response to the soldiers of Julian the Apostate who were trying to capture him), that it

contains no riddle as far as I can tell.

I retract this claim. The riddle of Athanasius’s statement is simple. It misleads only because the soldiers operate under a false premise: a reasonable person will lie to save the life of a friend.

If this premise is granted, then the soldiers can interpret what they hear in one of two ways. Either the speaker is a friend of Athanasius, and so is lying, and what he says will be of no use; or he’s no friend of Athanasius, and so is trying to be helpful, and has given as much information as possible. Only if they admit the falsity of their premise can they see that the response might be both true, and spoken by a friend of Athanasius, in which case Athanasius might be hidden on the ship, not further down the Nile.

To see through this riddle, they would have to admit that one could value the truth over the life of one’s friend. Such an admission would be the first step on the path to realizing that one should so value the truth. This path would end with overturning the entire enterprise of Julian’s persecution, which took for granted that truth was subordinate to political expediency.

Athanasius’s response contains, in addition to a riddle, an additional ironic meaning: Athanasius is close to you; he is your neighbor; you have a duty to love him. This appeal to conscience would not need to have been intended by the speaker in order for the soldiers to hear it, and if they did hear it, they need not hear it as coming from their interlocutor. Unlike the riddle, the irony of “He is close to you” reverberates independently of the conversational context. But the speaker still has some control over it; he can choose his words such that they will, as if by happenstance, call other words to mind.

As it happened, the soldiers heard neither the equivocation or the allusion. They went on their way down the river, where they thought the saint had gone.

Dante and transhumanism

July 27, 2015

Heads up: an essay of mine titled “What Dante, Tolkien, and Harry Potter Fan Fiction Can Teach Us about the Contemporary Quest for Immortality” was published today (or yesterday? the dating is confusing) on Public Discourse. The subtitle: “From Dante to Tolkien to Harry Potter fan fiction, mankind has been tempted by the desire to transcend human limitations. This impulse is dangerous, but its dangers are not inexplicable.”

The piece talks about Dante, Tennyson, Melville, Tolkien, Rowling, and Eliezer Yudkowsky—altogether too much for a 2000-word essay, as I realized soon after writing the thing. Especially since I make no claim to original thinking on the first two or three listed writers. But the stuff in the second half might be worthwhile if you care about understanding the rhetoric of both transhumanism and anti-transhumanism.

Incidentally, I wrote this essay in part because I’ve grown interested recently in the author’s relationship with his audience, an interest which has made me more self-conscious about the fact that the writing I do here most often takes the form of thinking out loud. Which is fine, but it means that I make no claim to authority than any audience should take seriously, and (so?) attract almost no audience (~30 hits per day, for those keeping score). Should I care about attracting an audience? Probably more than I do. I thus decided to write a “public” essay, to see whether I knew how; and what topic would be more appropriate for an essay intended to attract an audience than the images various authors offer for the relationship between didactic poetry and its audience?My efforts are occasionally somewhat self-stultifying.

What happened to (Anglo-American) marriage

July 20, 2015

[Third and last in a series. Previous posts can be found here and here.]

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).

  1. Introduction
  2. Geoffrey Chaucer: “The Franklin’s Tale”; “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”
  3. William Shakespeare: All’s Well That Ends Well; As You Like It
  4. William Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing; Twelfth Night
  5. Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice
  6. Jane Austen: Emma
  7. Jane Austen: Sense and Sensibility
  8. Denis de Rougemont: Love in the Western World
  9. Oscar Wilde: Lady Windemere’s Fan; An Ideal Husband
  10. Old Hollywood: Bringing Up Baby; The Awful Truth
  11. Old Hollywood: The Lady Eve; The Philadephia Story
  12. Stanley Cavell: Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage
  13. New Hollywood: Groundhog Day; Four Weddings and a Funeral
  14. New Hollywood: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Silver Linings Playbook
  15. 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).

The development of Christian marriage

July 13, 2015

[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.

The emergence of modern marriage

July 6, 2015

[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.”


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