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?

But if in its legal aspect marriage is indissoluble save by the joint action or concurrence of the parties to it, in its religious or spiritual aspect it cannot even be violated without such concurrence. I am very sure, for example, that my wife's affection would hardly have wandered from me, if I had been worthy of her affection. She thought me full of worth when she married and how little pains have I ever taken perhaps to foster that conviction! Love is not voluntary, but spontaneous. That is to say, I cannot compel myself to love; I cannot even compel myself not to love; for I cannot help loving whatsoever is worthy to be loved. Of course the worth of the object, in every case, will be determined to my own eyes, by my own previous character; but that does not affect the truth, that love will unerringly obey its proper object. Who can say, then, that my behavior in this crisis may not reveal me to the heart of my wife in a new character, and fill her with remorse and anguish that she has so grossly wronged me? But however this may be, it remains wholly indisputable to my own mind that, while my wife is alone guilty before the law for the dishonor done to the letter of marriage, we have been both alike guilty of bringing a much deeper discredit upon it in spirit, inasmuch as we have been content all along to allow the ritual covenant practically to exhaust and supersede, to our imagination, the real or living one. This is the only vital profanation of which marriage is susceptible, that a man and woman should consent to stand in a purely obligatory relation to each other, where human authority alone sanctions their intercourse, and not the supreme homage of affection they owe to infinite goodness and truth; and seeing this to be true, I cannot deal with my wife but in the way I propose. She and I are both very infirm persons, not only by nature and education, but still more by the fact of our position in the midst of a hostile civilization, envenomed by all manner of selfishness and rapacity; and we have neither of us the least equitable right, therefore, to each other's absolute allegiance, but only to each other's unqualified concession and mercy, any law or custom or convention whatsoever to the contrary notwithstanding. I see, in fact, that whatever legal defilement towards me my wife may have contracted, I should inevitably contract, myself, a far deeper because spiritual defilement towards God, by holding her to my permanent outward allegiance, when her heart refuses to ratify my claim. Thus as between me and my misguided wife, I dare not cast the first stone at her; for while I perceive well enough that she stands truly condemned by my natural mind, or human law, I at the same time perceive that I myself must outrage my higher or cultivated human instincts, and so incur a far more poignant rebuke of conscience, by consenting to press that condemnation home.

The sum of the matter, then, in my estimation, is, that marriage is not only holy, but holy in a far deeper sense than men commonly imagine. By most persons the sanctity of marriage is thought to be a merely instituted thing, depending upon some arbitrary divine decree. Others, more rational, deem it to inhere in the uses which marriage subserves to the family tie. And this is true, but it is only a part of the truth. For the family tie itself is not a finality. It is only the rude acorn out of which that great tree is predestined to spring, which we call society, and which will one day melt all the warring families of the earth into the impartial unity of its embrace. Thus the true sanctity of marriage inheres at bottom in its social uses. It is the sole nursery of the social sentiment in the human bosom. This indissoluble marriage of man and woman, which constitutes the family bond, steadfastly symbolizes to the imagination of the race, long before the intellect is quickened to discern or even to guess at the spiritual truth itself, the essential unity of mankind, or that complete fusion of the public and private interest, of the cosmical and domestic element, in consciousness, which is eventually to constitute human society, and cover the earth with the dew and fragrance of heaven. I beg to be distinctly understood. I say that marriage, though it seems to be fast disowning the merely ritual or symbolic sanctity which has always attached to it as the guaranty of the family bond, is yet putting on a much deeper and more real because spiritual sanctity, that, namely, which belongs to it as the sole actual source and focus of the social sentiment. Let us pause here one moment.

What is the social unit? What the simplest expression to which society is reducible? What, in short, is the original germ-cell which lies at the base of all that we call society? Is it the individual man, or is it the family? Clearly the latter alone. The individual man is only the inorganic protoplasm, so to speak, which goes to subsequent cell-formation in the family, the tribe, the city, the nation. The family itself is the primary organized cell out of which society flourishes. For society, it must be remembered, is exclusively a generic or race phenomenon in humanity. It organizes all mankind in indissoluble unity, or gives the race the personality of a man. Hence it exacts as a foundation, not the individual man or woman, who of course are unprolific, but man and woman married, that is, united in the family bond, or with a view to prolification. And what chance of unity would exist in the family, if its offspring had not been legitimated by the previous marriage of the parents; that is, if the father and mother were not equally entitled by law to the love and reverence of the children? Not unity, but the most frightful of all discords, namely, domestic discord, would then be the rule of our tenderest human intimacy; in fact, brother would so dominate sister, that the weaker sex would sink into the squalid and helpless servant of the stronger, until at last every vestige and tradition of that divine charm of privacy which now sanctifies woman to man's imagination, and quickens all his spiritual culture, had hopelessly disappeared. This is what woman always represents to the imagination of man, a diviner self than his own; a more private, a more sacred and intimate self than that wherewith nature endows him. And this is the source of that passionate self-surrender he makes in marrying; of that passionate divorce he organizes between himself and his baser nature, when he would call the woman he loves by the sacred name of wife, or make her invincibly his own. Thus if marriage constitute the normal type of the sexual relations in humanity, we may say that the sentiment of sex in man is a strictly social and not a merely sensual or selfish sentiment, and marriage consequently becomes the very cradle of society. The distinctively generic or race element in humanity, unlike that of animality, is moral, not physical; is freedom, not servitude; is rationality, not caprice. And society consequently, regarded as exhibiting the human conscience in universal form, or expressing the race interest in humanity, has to do with man only as a moral or rational being, that is to say, as he is under law to his father and mother, brother and sister; friend and neighbor. Now the family alone, in the absence of society, provides man with this related, or moral and rational, existence; so that marriage, as alone guaranteeing the family integrity, may be said to guarantee implicitly the integrity of the human race as well.

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