Is Marriage Holy?

What attitude of mind does a perception of the inward holiness or religious sanctity of marriage enjoin upon those who suffer from any of the offenses included in the violation of the outward bond?—a vindictive attitude or a forgiving one?
More

Marriage, in its obvious import, is a civic tie, enforced by the magistrate in the interest of public order. I, for example, A B, am a married man, entitled therefore to certain civic rights, such as the right to found a family, or call my children my own; and exposed, on the other hand, to certain civic pains, in case of my conjugal unworthiness, such as the breaking up of my family, or the separation of my wife and children from my care and authority, followed by the alienation of a portion of my worldly goods to their exclusive benefit.

Now let us suppose for a moment that my conjugal peace has been interrupted, but on the other side of the house. That is to say, suppose that my wife, no matter how instigated&mdashwhether by outward constraint or by inward guile -- should be led to the overt disregard of her marriage vow, I have a clear remedy by the law of course, that is, I am entitled, not indeed to treat her with the least inhumanity or personal indignity, but to be relieved of the burden of her maintenance and association, and of all covenanted obligation to her in case of my ever being disposed to contract marriage anew.

What now will be my action in the premises? Can there be any reasonable doubt on the subject? Ah yes, a very grave doubt indeed. For marriage is not merely a civic, it is also a religious tie. It is, to be sure, very stringently enforced by the magistrate in the interest of the family, that is, established convention or decency. But it is very much more stringently enforced by the priest also, in the interest of our private manhood or character. Thus we find ourselves compelled to view marriage both as a secular tie instituted in the material interest of mankind, or with a view to protect each from all; and as a religious tie instituted in its spiritual interest, or with a view to protect all from each. As a married man, accordingly, I am subject to this concurrent jurisdiction,&mdashof human authority on the one hand, represented by law; of divine authority on the other, represented by conscience. No practical conflict announces itself between these authorities, so long as my wife and I live together in reciprocal amity. But the moment my civic obligation to my wife ceases by her misconduct, the religious bond, which had been hitherto comparatively inert, or seemed indeed tacitly subservient to the civil contract, exerts a commanding sway; so that whereas yesterday perhaps, I was ready to condemn the law of marriage for uniting me with a vicious person, I am to-day disposed to justify it as holy, pure, and good. By what spiritual alchemy is this change wrought? The answer is not difficult and is well worth our study.

The difference between statutory law on the one hand, which has respect to man as a citizen, and what we call "moral law," or conscience, on if other, which has respect to him as a man, is mainly a difference of scope; the scope of the former being to equip its subject in all conventional righteousness, of the latter to show him what a very sorry figure he cuts as so equipped. The intention of the law is to regulate the outward standing, or the esteem in which I am held by the community. The intention of conscience is to regulate my inward standing, or the esteem in which I am held by myself. Law is, for the most part, positive or mandatory. It prescribes certain duties which I am to do as the condition of my civic protection. Conscience is, for the most part, negative or prohibitory in its operation. It sets before me certain evils to be undone or repented of. Thus law aims to exalt its subject, or make him conventionally righteous; while conscience aims to humiliate him, or make him ashamed of any righteousness which implies his superiority to other men. The animus of law is to guarantee the rights of the individual against public encroachment. It protects me from overt injustice on the part of all other men. The animus of conscience, on the other hand, is to guarantee the public against all private encroachment. It protects the interest of all other men from the invasion of any secret lust or cupidity on my part, whereby the common weal might suffer damage. The law hedges me about with personal sanctity to my own imagination, and forbids the public wantonly to violate my self-respect; and it is only so far forth that I reverence the law. If it did otherwise,&mdashif it in any way exposed me to the cupidity of my kind,&mdashI should of course revolt from its allegiance. Conscience, on the other hand, desecrates me personally to my own imagination, by hedging all other men about with a superior personal sanctity, and binding me under pain of spiritual death to respect that sanctity. And it is only in this aspect that I venerate conscience. If its aim were manifestly to justify me as against other men, or exalt me above the neighbor, I should revolt from its allegiance. In a word, the end of the law is myself, is an individual righteousness; while that of conscience is my neighbor, or a universal righteousness; the aim of the former being at most to guarantee just relations between man and man, and of the latter to promote among men a spirit of mercy or mutual forgiveness.

This profound difference in the scope respectively of law and conscience (or law human and divine) perfectly accounts for the change operated in my breast between yesterday and to-day. A new relation has come about between my wife and myself, giving me a manifest legal advantage of her; and I no sooner perceive this advantage and dispose myself to pursue it, than the hitherto slumbering voice of conscience arouses itself, and bids me at all events pause before I determine on vindictive action. "Take time," it says; "give the question consideration, at least. This poor wife of yours, whose conduct deserves, of course, the deepest legal reprobation, is yet by that fact entitled to every good man's compassion. Look to it, therefore, that you deal not out to her judgment untempered by mercy, under penalty of forfeiting yourself a merciful regard when your own day of trouble comes." The reader will see, then, that my action in the case supposed between me and my wife will probably be determined by the degree in which I shall have previously harmonized these conflicting interests of law and conscience, or justice and mercy, in my habitual conduct, that is to say, if I have habitually allowed both motives really to concur in my education, my action will be one way, and if I have habitually allowed the lower or obvious interest to rule the higher and hidden one, my action will be directly opposite. In point of fact, then, what will it be? Will I accept the rehabilitation to which the law invites me, at the expense of my guilty life; or will I persistently reject it? The reader perceives that I study to keep the question in the first person, or take counsel of my own heart exclusively; for my purpose is not to dogmatize in the least, or lay down any new law of action for men, but only to illustrate by my proper culture a law which is as old as God almighty, and which yet will be always as fresh as any newest-born babe. I repeat, then, how shall I, A B, specifically act in the premises? What practical obligation does my conscience impose upon me with reference to the legal wrong I have sustained? In short, what attitude of mind does a perception of the inward holiness or religious sanctity of marriage enjoin upon those who suffer from any of the offenses included in the violation of the outward bond,&mdasha vindictive attitude or a forgiving one?

I cannot hesitate to reply at once, The latter attitude alone. All my culture—that is to say, every instinct of humanity in me&mdashteaches me that whenever any conflict arises between law and conscience, or the interests respectively of my selfish and my social life, harmony is to be had only by subordinating the former interest to the latter. Thus, in the case supposed, I am bound by my culture or the allegiance I owe primarily to humanity, and only secondarily to myself, to absolve my erring wife in the forum of conscience of the guilt she has contracted in the forum of law. Of course I cannot disguise from myself the odiousness of her conduct. That is palpable and will not be dissembled. Our conjugal unity has been grossly outraged by her act, and nothing that I can do will avail to make the outrage unfelt. No, my sole debate with myself is, whether I shall make my private grief a matter of public concern, and so condemn my wife to open and notorious shame. And this is what, debate being had, I cannot conscientiously afford to do. For the voice of conscience, I repeat whenever confronted by that of law, claims a supreme authority; and its fundamental axiom is, that, in all cases of conflict between myself and another, I give that other a preference in my regard, or at all events treat with him on equal terms, so that any pretension on my part to construe my legal right of property in another as an absolute right, or a right underived at every or any moment from that other's free consent or living concurrence, is an outrage to conscience, and entails its just reprobation. Thus, to keep to the case supposed, when the civil magistrate says to me. "Your wife has violated the conjugal bond, and so exposed herself to condign punishment at my hands," I shut my ears to his invitation. I dare not listen to its solicitations. The awful voice of God within forbids me to do so, compels me rather to say to him, Get thee behind me, Satan! In other words, my conscience tells me, in letters of living light, that I am here by its supreme appointment expressly to interpose between my faithless wife and the yawning death of infamy which is ready to ingulf her. The Marriage covenant comprehends us both alike in its indissoluble bond and cannot be legally set aside but by our joint action. If then I, on my side refuse any vindictive response to provocation I have received, the law has no right to complain. And a human soul, perhaps,&mdashwho knows?&mdashhas been rescued from spiritual blight for I should be extremely sorry to compliment my own magnanimity at the expense of the divine.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Do You See When You Look in the Mirror?

In a series of candid video interviews, women talk about self-image, self-judgment, and what it means to love their bodies


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In