Love and Marriage – was Frank Sinatra wrong after all?
By Klasie Kraalogies
A little while ago I was asked a question by Mule, in the context of discussing Matthew Paul Turner’s divorce – and let me quote:
I am open to correction on this, especially from David and Klasie, but I think that the Reformation’s denigration of ‘monkery’ eventually did more damage than good. It exalted the married state and made it default in Christendom. In a way it opened the door for our present discontent, where the orgasm rather than the blessed Sacrament is the institutional means of theosis.
A very interesting concept. Of course, what we really should think about is the evolution of marriage itself, and the relationship between the sexes (including same-gender relations, btw, although I won’t specifically discuss the topic).
In 2017 a very interesting paper appeared in Nature. It highlights that whereas for the longest period in our shared human history we experienced little wealth disparity, that the dawn of agriculture led to a massive growth in wealth disparity. More recent studies of hunter gatherers by anthropologists like James Suzman (Affluence without Abundance, 2017, published by Bloomsbury) highlight the lasting nature of egalitarian societies like the Kalahari San.
Furthermore, research published in 2015 by Dyble et. al. shows that the stability of pre-agricultural revolution societies was based not so much on kin relationship as was previously suggested, but on sex equality. From the abstract:
Our results suggest that pair-bonding and increased sex egalitarianism in human evolutionary history may have had a transformative effect on human social organization.
The authors even go so far as to suggest that egalitarianism was the most important distinguishing factor between our ancestors and their close cousins, chimpanzees. From a 2015 interview with The Guardian:
“Chimpanzees live in quite aggressive, male-dominated societies with clear hierarchies,” he said. “As a result, they just don’t see enough adults in their lifetime for technologies to be sustained.”
Yet things changed quickly once man learn control. The ability to control environment spilled over into familial life. Stephen Bertman writes in his Handbook to Life in Ancient Mesopotamia (Oxford University Press, 2003):
In the language of the Sumerians, the word for `love’ was a compound verb that, in its literal sense, meant `to measure the earth,’ that is, `to mark off land’. Among both the Sumerians and the Babylonians (and very likely among the Assyrians as well) marriage was fundamentally a business arrangement designed to assure and perpetuate an orderly society. Though there was an inevitable emotional component to marriage, its prime intent in the eyes of the state was not companionship but procreation; not personal happiness in the present but communal continuity for the future.
Yet love poems from the same period abound – as well as other works of art. In the same work, Bertman describes a statue where:
An elderly Sumerian couple sit side by side fused by sculpture into a single piece of gypsum rock; his right arm wrapped around her shoulder, his left hand tenderly clasping her right, their large eyes looking straight ahead to the future, their aged hearts remembering the past.
Thus from the start we see the intertwining of economics, power, and love. Really nothing has changed.
The procedures of marriage are not really defined in the Torah. Much of the discussion around marriage and marriage life comes from the Talmud. For instance, if you think of marriage in Genesis – “he took her into his tent” – that is that. And if she can’t have children – well, then one of the servants should stand in. It is all rather ghastly and will certainly raise the eyebrows of the church ladies or the clan down at the Country Club. We don’t’ want those people around here!
As we know from the Mosaic laws, and continued through the various Jewish traditions, divorce was an accepted reality.
Over time though, custom and understanding changes. A lot. Then the early Christians started closing the door to divorce. Also, while St Paul was clear in including love in his description of marriage, in such a way that sexual intercourse is encompassed by the description, things pretty much went downward from there. Augustine has the “I’ll allow it but rather not attitude” – he believes that intercourse is solely for procreation. This quickly leads to the teachings of Chrysostom, with the claim that sexual intercourse exists because of sin, and thus the celibate life is a better way. This of course leads to a tension in reality – a tension that arises from the difference between biology and belief. At the same time, we find the ascetic ideal often including the ascetism of the table. And in the end, the viewing of life and biology as dirty. Interestingly, in my own fundamentalist upbringing, the same tension between pulpit and reality came was a defining characteristic of the culture. And the result of this is dysfunction.
But back to marriage. From Canon 50 at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215 AD):
Extending the special custom of certain regions to other regions generally, we decree that when marriages are to be contracted they shall be publicly announced in the churches by priests, with a suitable time being fixed beforehand within which whoever wishes and is able to may adduce a lawful impediment. The priests themselves shall also investigate whether there is any impediment. When there appears a credible reason why the marriage should not be contracted, the contract shall be expressly forbidden until there has been established from clear documents what ought to be done in the matter. 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 and shall have no help from their parents’ ignorance, since the parents in contracting the marriage could be considered as not devoid of knowledge, or even as affecters of ignorance. Likewise the offspring shall be deemed illegitimate if both parents know of a legitimate impediment and yet dare to contract a marriage in the presence of the church, contrary to every prohibition.
The advent of the Reformation deconstructed the culture around celibacy but tightened the control over marriage. In a brilliant paper by Saskia Lettmaier (Law and History Review, Volume 35, Issue 2) it is shown that while many think that Luther’s earlier diatribe against Rome’s view on marriage led to the secularization of the institution, in practice this most definitely wasn’t the case. What it did lead to was the raising of the clergy to effective judicial positions. A similar evolution happened in England – from the same paper:
Jurisdictionally, in marriage cases, the English Reformation only removed the right to appeal to Rome. As the headship of the English church was transferred from pope to king, appeals, formerly to the pope’s curia, would now lie to the king’s High Court of Delegates (which was an ad hoc tribunal composed of ecclesiastical and temporal lawyers). Marriage cases continued to be dealt with in the ecclesiastical tribunals, as they had been prior to the Reformation, and secular courts, when faced with questions in which the validity of marriage was a preliminary issue (which might happen in property cases), would refer that matter to the ecclesiastical courts. The only curtailment of ecclesiastical jurisdiction over marriage consisted in the fact that the common-law courts began to issue writs of prohibition, enjoining the proceedings in the ecclesiastical courts, where an annulment was sought after the death of one or both of the spouses.
Then, by 1753, the marriage act was introduced. It declared that all marriage ceremonies must be conducted by a minister in a parish church or chapel of the Church of England to be legally binding. Only Jews and Quakers were exempted. This was followed in 1836 by Parliament removing the requirement of a Church of England wedding, and allowed non-Conformist, Catholic and even non-religious civil marriage. The amusing thing was the Scottish exemption – the 1753 act did not apply in Scotland, and therefore “irregular” marriages still occurred. These include the following:
1. A couple were legally married if they declared themselves to be so in front of witnesses, regardless of whether this was followed by a sexual connection. Marriage contracted in this way without witnesses was also legal, but much harder to prove in court unless there was other evidence, such as letters that confirmed what the couple had done.
2. A promise of marriage, followed by a sexual relationship, was regarded as a legal marriage – but this had to be backed up by some kind of proof, such as a written promise of marriage, or an oath sworn before witnesses.
3. Marriages ‘by habit and repute’ were also legal if a couple usually presented themselves in public as husband and wife, even if no formal declaration of marriage was made.
Anyone who has read Austen understands the tension between love and the securing of an economic future. The latter most often stood in the way of the former. It bears saying that Austen wrote using personal knowledge.
So until 1929, when an English couple wanted to run away, they only had to make it across the border to Gretna Green, where marriages outside of religious establishments could be officiated, the most common being over a blacksmith’s anvil (Gretna Green, by Gordon Nicoll)
The more recent history of marriage is familiar to all, and I will not discuss it here. But the point of the survey is to show that out understanding of marriage and sexual relations associated therewith has changed a lot through time. Religious, and later civil control evolved over time. But in essence, the heart of marriage was contract and property. For the longest time this was between families. Procreative sex was expected. But from the earliest times love and of course, erotic love was part and parcel of this. Ironically, it was the church that tried to drive it out – but we all know how that went. The medieval experiment with celibacy did not end well – anyone who has read the words to Carmina Burana, or the Canterbury Tales, would realise that instead of ascetic purity, celibacy led to all the lasciviousness one can imagine, and then some.
Marriage has evolved. Traditional marriage is a misnomer – pick your date for your tradition! Fifty years? Five hundred? Five thousand?
Marriage is essentially, and has always been, a legal contract. The desired outcome of the contract is a growing economic entity. Hopefully, a pleasure and not a pain.
What then, of sex?
Some months ago, on a Stoic forum, the nature and desirability of sexual relations were discussed. Some (predictably) younger men counted sexual relations as adiaphora – they are irrelevant to your morality. I countered and spoke about the nature of sex and connection, and how casual sex denies the nature of intercourse, namely that it has a profound and deep affect on the psychology of the parties. I was immediately accused by quite a few people of putting sex on a pedestal – but interestingly, all the accusers were men. Every single female commenter supported my assertion. Now that is evidence from anecdote – sure – but it tells me that disregarding the affect of intercourse, especially on “the female of the species” is a deep, and potentially damaging mistake.
And it is at this point that one needs to counter the assertion that sex is all procreation. Of course, it is not. The reality is that humanity has practiced contraception – in Ancient Egypt, a mixture of acacia leaves, honey and lint was used to stop sperm. We humans are very fertile – and the practical result of continuous pregnancy are very severe – whether you are in Memphis, Egypt, in 3020 BC, or Memphis, Tennessee in 2020 AD. I do not want to have a debate here about contraception – but it is not a modern phenomenon and one should understand that.
But what then of sex? If marriage is an economic contract, why is sex bound by it? It is a good question. After all, should the very personal be governed by faceless bureaucrats or clergy that may or may not care about you (yes, there are many wonderful clergy out there. Sadly, this is not a universal statement).
At the same time, simple questioning will show the perversity and harm of “going at it like rabbits”.
Frans de Waal notes in The Bonobo and the Atheist.
Rather than reflecting an immutable human nature, morals are closely tied to the way we organize ourselves.
Therefore we have to realize that we have begun to understand as the morality of marriage, grew out of our need to make secure an economic arrangement, which itself resulted from the upheaval caused by men grabbing power within the familial structure, following the agricultural revolution. It helps to deconstruct the culture and institution and find out what really matters. And that is relationship. Sex has meaning within the context of relationship. And by relationship, I mean connection. Deep and real connection. Which requires four things:
What it does not require is a piece of paper from a magistrate or clergyman. And yes, that statement should not be construed as a license for licentiousness. It means that within a formal marriage, if you so choose, or without a formal marriage (call it a commitment, call it a common-law marriage), sex should (ideally) not operate without those 4 things. Because if something is not real, if something is not true in its essence, it is a lie. And thus, at least from my perspective, it is entirely possible to be in an ever-so-close to an immoral relationship with the person whose name is on the economic contract sanctioned by the State and /or the Church.
Note that way up near the beginning, I said I include same-gendered relationships. Which brings us back to Mr. Turner. Him and his spouse seems to have done the right thing – they concluded the impossibility of the connected relationship they thought they had.