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

I am by no means satisfied that I have done any too ample justice to my subject; but I think I have at least made it clear to the reader that the sanctity of marriage inheres eminently in its social, and by no means in its selfish, uses; in other words, that its purpose is to educate us out of our animal beginnings into a definitely humane consciousness at last. And if this be so, I am sure we have small cause for exultation, when we look around us and contemplate the awful horrors which beset the institution in its present almost exclusively selfish administration. Taking the newspapers for our guide, we should say that marriage as a legal bond had sunk so low in men's esteem as to have become the appanage of the baser classes exclusively; that no one any longer really identifies himself with the outer covenant but some sordid ruffian, steeped in debauchery, whose lust of blood finds an easy victim in his unprotected wife, or some fancied paramour of his wife. The only original inequality known to the human race is that of the sexes, and marriage in annulling this forever sanctifies weakness to the regard of the strong, or makes true manhood to consist no longer in force, but in gentleness. But who, according to our newspapers, are the men that are now most forward to vindicate in their precious persons the honor of marriage? Are they not for the most part men, notoriously, of profligate antecedents, who are much more disposed to live UPON society, as things go, than to live for it? And what a stunning farce it is that heaven and earth should be convulsed, every other day, to render to such caitiffs as these what they are pleased to consider justice! What good man, what man who ever felt a breath of true reverence for marriage in his soul, does not abhor to think of its hallowed name being prostituted to such vile issues as these?

It revolts all one's instincts of God's goodness to suppose that any essential discrepancy can exist between the interests of man and man: as that I, for example, can ever be really harmed by any other person's entire freedom to do as he pleases, or really profited by his partial restraint. For every man who thinks knows that absolutely no conflict of interests exists among men, which does not grow out of some merely instituted or conventional inequality to which they are subject, and which would not instantly disappear by voiding such inequality, or releasing the parties from each other's thraldom. And we may as well, therefore, make up our minds to it at once&mdashfor we shall be obliged to do so sooner or later&mdashthat any law which makes itself the partisan of men's divided, and not exclusively of their associated, interests may call itself divine if it pleases, but it has no claim whatever to the conscientious reverence of mankind. It may put on what solemn airs, and array itself in what tinsel majesty it will, no one is the least deceived by it, or will ever entertain anything but an interested regard for it. Men will make use of it of course to promote their selfish or merely prudential ends; but every upright man will scorn to endue himself in its righteousness. Nothing, I am persuaded, but the active influence and operation of such a law, professing to adjudicate between man and man, and not, as it ought to do, exclusively between every individual man on the one hand, and our infirm traditional civilization on the other, accounts for the beastly lasciviousness, the loathsome adulteries, and bloody revenges which disfigure our existing manners. For no man is wiser than the community of men of which he is an atom; and if the community tolerate a law which distinguishes between the interests of husband and wife, or makes either primarily responsible, to the other, and not both alike exclusively responsible to society, then we may depend upon it, every man of simply defective culture, much more every man in whose breast the social sentiment has been precluded by a vicious life, will be sure to take this inhuman communism for his own rule of action and see in the law, whenever his bad occasion arises, not the enemy, but the accomplice of his implacable lusts.

Does any of my readers doubt these things? Is there any intelligent reader of this magazine who can persuade himself that the interests of society, in any just sense of that much-abused word, were involved, for example, in any conceivable issue to the most recent conspicuous divorce suit in New York? It is of absolutely no moment, in fact, to our social well-being, but, on the contrary, a very great prejudice to it, that any particular person should be convicted at any time, or acquitted at any time, upon a charge of lying, theft, adultery, or murder; and our judiciary, regarded as the voucher of society, or of a plenary divine righteousness in the earth, acts, as it seems to me, with sheer impertinence in wasting its strength in these frivolous perquisitions. For what you want, supremely, to do with every man, is to qualify him at last for human society; and how can you do this, save in so far as you gradually exempt him from all allegiance to outward law, or a law with exclusively outward sanctions,&mdashthose of hope and fear,&mdashand accustom him instead to the law of his own nature, which acknowledges only the inward sanctions positive and negative, of his own unforced self-respect and unaffected self- contempt? Pray tell me then, my reader, what business it is of yours or mine, that any man's wife in the community, or any woman's husband, has either veritably or conjecturally committed adultery, and should be legally convicted or legally absolved of that unrighteousness. What social right has any man or woman to thrust the evidence off a transaction so essentially private, personal, and irremediable upon the light of day? "To assist them," it may be said, "in obtaining justice." Yes, indeed, the demands of justice are absolute; but when did it ever become just that one person should be rendered simply infamous to promote the welfare of another? On the contrary, it would seem almost invariably that what the applicant in these cases craves is, not justice, but revenge pure and simple. In fact, I can see no reason, in my own observation, to doubt that Christ's judgment, recorded in the eighth chapter of John's Gospel, is conclusive on all this class of cases; and this judgment implies that they who thus invoke the public resentment of their private griefs are seldom so sincerely averse to the offense itself as they are to being themselves passively and not actively related to it. For when we really hate evil itself, and not merely the personal inconveniences it entails, nothing is so instinctive to us as compassion for its victims. I cannot imagine, for example, that any man or woman whose own bosom is the abode of chaste love, could ever be tempted by any selfish reward to fasten a stigma of unchastity upon anybody else. The existence of a sentiment so pure in one's own bosom is inconsistent with a defamatory or condemnatory spirit towards another person; must infallibly dispose one to put the mildest interpretation upon any apparent criminality in another, to mitigate rather than heighten every evidence of misconduct which to a baser mind would afford a presumption of guilt.

But let my reader settle this point as he may, I insist upon it that the law, regarded as the earthly palladium of divine justice, is fast forfeiting its ancient renown, by too assiduously ministering to these cupidities of a frivolous and malignant self-love. Society, I repeat, has no manner of interest in seeing any of her children justified or made righteous at the cost of any other's permanent defilement. What alone society demands&mdashand this it imperatively demands&mdashis, that lying, theft, adultery and murder be effectually done away with, cease any longer to characterize human intercourse. A true society, or LIVING fellowship among men, is incompatible with these hostile and clandestine relations. And exactly what the law, regarded as the carnal symbol of such society or fellowship, logically covenants to do, is no longer to content itself with exalting one man by the abasement of another, but to scourge without mercy every instituted decency upon earth, which, usurping the hallowed name of society, and reaping all its revenues from such usurpation, not only permits, but actually thrives by, the grossest inhumanity of man to man.

I beg my reader will not misunderstand me. What I say is, in effect this. The duty of the judge who tried the recent case in New York was doubtless to enforce the letter of the law, so far as it had been violated by either party to the prejudice of the other. But this was a subordinate duty. An infinitely more binding duty lay upon him to vindicate the spirit of the law, which was all the while so foully outraged and betrayed by the very trial itself, whatever might be its literal issues. The spirit of a law which on its literal side restrains men from evil-doing is obviously a spirit of the divinest justice among men, or, what is the same thing, of the heartiest mutual love and forbearance. And how openly crucified, mocked, and put to shame was this divine spirit, when the letter of its righteousness was perverted to the ends of the basest selfishness, or even made to echo the foulest spiritual hate and malignity! The husband in this case, like every man similarly tempted, came before the august tribunal of the law with a bosom of the deadliest animosity towards the person of his wife. He appealed to the traditional sanctity which the law enjoys in men's regard, not with any view to honor its peaceful and loving spirit, but only to avail himself of the power which its pitiless letter gave him to crush his offending and helpless wife out of men's kindly sympathy and remembrance; thus displaying a spiritual turpitude beside which any probable amount of literal evil-doing seems to me almost white and clean; for at the worst these things never have the effrontery to demand a legal justification. And yet the judge who tried the cause, who sat there only to avouch the honor of the law, had not a word to say in behalf of its prostituted majesty, not a word in rebuke of the flagrant hypocrisy which appealed to its majesty for no other purpose than to glut a base personal lust of vengeance!

Of course no one can harbor any personal ill-will towards the complainant in the case. On the contrary, he is entitled to every man's unfeigned commiseration. He is himself the victim of a vicious system of an unenlightened public conscience, and has done nothing more than illustrate its habitual venom; nothing more than almost every one else would do under like provocation, who believes as he does in our existing civilization as a finality of God's providence upon the earth, and cultivates the rapacious, libidinous, and vindictive temper it breeds in all its froward children. No, I refer to his case only because it furnishes a fair exemplification of the unsuspected moral dry-rot among us which conceals itself under the sanctions of religion and police, and yet degrades our law-courts on occasion into foci of obscene effluence unmatched by any brothels in the land. And I have obviously no interest either in these examples themselves, save as they enforce my general argument, which is that no possible discredit could ever befall the administration of justice among us, if only our magistrates would comprehend the spirit of their great office, which is eminently a social and not a selfish spirit; that is to say, which is never a spirit of petty condemnation towards this, that, or the other man, but of the freest, frankest justification of all mankind. I have not the least intention, of course, to hint that the law has not always been stanch at bottom to the interests of human society, as society has been hitherto constituted. All I want to say is, that society is getting to mean, now, something very different from what it has ever before meant. It has all along meant an instituted or conventional order among men, and this order was to be maintained at whatever cost to the individual man; if need be, at the cost of his utmost physical and moral degradation. People no longer put this extravagant estimate upon our civic organization. Our existing civilization seems now very dear at that costly price. Society, in short, is beginning to claim interests essentially repugnant to those of any established order. It utterly refuses to be identified with any mere institutions, however conventionally sacred, and claims to be a plenary divine righteousness in our very nature. The critical moment of destiny seems to be approaching, the day of justice and judgment for which the world has been so long agonizing in prayer, a day big with wrath against every interest of man which is organized upon the principle of his inequality with his brother, and full of peace to every interest established upon their essential fellowship. Every day an increasing number of persons reject our cruel civilization as a finality of God's providence upon earth. Every day burns the conviction deeper in men's bosoms, that there is no life of man on earth so poor and abject, whose purification and sanctification are not an infinitely nearer and dearer object to the heart of God than the welfare of any Paris, any London, any New York extant. And this rising preponderance of the human sentiment in consciousness over the personal one is precisely what accounts for the growing disrespect into which our legal administration is falling, and precisely what it must try to mould itself upon, if it would recover again the lost ground to which its fidelity to the old ideas is constantly subjecting it.

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

What's the Number One Thing We Could Do to Improve City Life?

A group of journalists, professors, and non-profit leaders predict the future of livable, walkable cities


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