Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Marriage and Society

The institution of marriage is a constant in human civilization. Separated by several centuries and thousands of miles, both Confucius and Aristotle identified it as one of the fundamental relationships which is a necessary component part of society.

Confucius was born around 551 BC, while Aristotle was born around 384 BC. Both produced a short list of relationships which combine to form complex institutions. Aristotle enumerated three, and Confucius five, such basic connection.

For Aristotle, the list was husband and wife, employer and employee, and parent and child. Confucius varies the list slightly: parent and child, sibling to sibling, husband and wife, friend to friend, ruler to subject.

Aristotle’s employer relationship approximates Confucius’s ruler relationship.

While a civilization usually includes many more relationships than three or five, Confucius and Aristotle seem to imply that those other relationships are produced by analogy or by mixtures of analogies to the elemental relationships.

Homer’s Odyssey arguably contains within its epic structure a dramatic subplot about marriage. The driving tension is whether or not Odysseus will be able to return to his wife. The narrative shows a series of decisions to be variously wise or foolish - decisions made by Odysseus and Penelope, decisions which harm or strengthen their marriage. It is the reunion of husband and wife which signals to listener or reader that the plot is largely resolved.

Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is a drama about marriage. Nora and Torvald make a series of disastrous decisions which reveal that they are both quite worldly, and that their devotion to personal acquisition is greater than their devotion to each other. Torvald’s selfishness and greed are obvious; Nora’s flaws are more subtle. The action is the unfolding collapse of the marriage and the character flaws which cause that collapse.

In any case, marriage is seen as an essential part of society. Only in a postmodern, or late modern, worldview is marriage construed as a right. Marriage is one way, among several, in which an individual can fulfill duties and obligations.

Marriage is more often construed as a contract, albeit an usual one. When a person marries, it is the voluntary assumption of responsibilities. To marry is to make one’s self liable, either legally or ethically.

A married person has an obligation to live for the other - for the spouse, and perhaps eventually for the children. Likewise, an unmarried person has that same obligation - to live for the other - but fulfills those duties in a different social structure.

To construe, therefore, marriage as a ‘right’ - analogous to the “right to free speech” or the “right freely to assemble” - is, at the very least, to stretch that analogy beyond any intuitive sense.

Marriage is a necessary precondition for society. Donald Sensing points out that civilization is contingent upon marriage:

Society's stake in marriage as an institution is nothing less than the perpetuation of the society itself, a matter of much greater than merely private concern. Yet society cannot compel men and women to bring forth their replacements. Marriage as conventionally defined is still the ordinary practice in Europe, yet the birthrate in most of Europe is now less than the replacement rate, which will have all sorts of dire consequences for its future.

A civilization needs children, and marriage is the most reliable and efficient way of producing them. While it may sound callous and impersonal to speak of a society’s need for children, and to speak of marriages producing them, it is nonetheless the case that low birth rates will destroy a culture and an economy.

Yet marriage provides other necessary factors to civilization beyond children: stability and clarity. The legal system is clogged with civil procedural suits in the absence of a healthy marriage structure. Society lacks an element of trust and reliability in the absence of a sound marriage culture.

Civilization needs not only marriage, but sound and healthy marriage. It will be an important task to define exactly what is sound and healthy marriage. For ‘sound’ and ‘healthy,’ a variety of adjectives could be supplied. An intuitive rough draft might include something like this: a mutually supportive and affectionate relationship in which each sacrifices willingly for the other, and willingly binds herself or himself to the other unconditionally, giving positive regard.

Much more remains to be articulated about which type of marriage edifies civilization the best and most.

In any case, however, a lack of marriage is as destabilizing and weakening as a low birth rate. It is biologically possible to generate a high birth rate despite a low marriage rate, but there is little benefit to society, and in fact some cost to society, as large numbers of children may be born illegitimately. Donald Sensing continues:

Nationwide, the marriage rate has plunged 43% since 1960. Instead of getting married, men and women are just living together, cohabitation having increased tenfold in the same period. According to a University of Chicago study, cohabitation has become the norm. More than half the men and women who do get married have already lived together.

Economically and societally, then, the United States has been preparing its own downfall for several decades.

Not only are we suffering from a low marriage rate, but those marriages which do take place lose significance in the current environment.

Weddings became basically symbolic rather than substantive, and have come for most couples the shortcut way to make the legal compact regarding property rights, inheritance and certain other regulatory benefits.

In the popular press, much discussion of marriage has been framed in terms of religious interpretations. Whatever one may understand by the word ‘religious,’ marriage is certainly a notion which can be conceived apart from organized religious institutions and apart from religious conceptual frameworks and traditions.

Notably, both Aristotle and Confucius were relatively non-religious in their analysis of society, yet both considered marriage necessary for society.

Whether or not marriage is a right, it is much more a requisite component of society. It is, at most, tertiarily a right. Marriage exists across demographic and national groups.

Marriage is primarily a social institution, not a religious one. That is, marriage is a universal phenomenon of human cultures in all times and places, regardless of the religion of the people concerned, and has taken the same basic form in all those cultures. Marriage existed long before Abraham, Jesus or any other religious figure. The institution of marriage is literally prehistoric.

The institution of marriage supports and strengthens civilization in more than one way. It is part of a larger social structure.

A late modern, or postmodern, misunderstanding of marriage is the ‘romantic’ understanding, which sees marriage as based solely on emotion, and sees marriage solely as an expression of passion. But, as Peter J. Leithart writes,

This isn't what marriage has been through most of human history. Instead, marriage has taken the particular shape it has because it is part of a larger network, the kinship system.

Against the romantic understanding of marriage stands a more objective concept, perhaps somewhat similar to a Kantian concept of duty. Affection is a powerful emotion, and certainly has a proper place within marriage.

But marriage is an objective commitment. The contractual nature of marriage - the word ‘covenant’ is often used - is essential, even if the term ‘contract’ is here used in a most unusual way, quite foreign to the usage of bankers, lawyers, and businessmen.

Quantifiably, a measured decrease in marriage rates is observed to correlate to empirically documented societal destabilization and the declines of civilizations.

Marriage is often viewed as an institution of two people. But such a view ignores the wider range of stakeholders. Society as a whole benefits from, and has an interest in, the success of relatively large numbers of healthy and sound marriages.