by Doctor Science
Yesterday President Obama ordered the Justice Department to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act. In honor of the occasion, I decided to read the copy of What Is Marriage? by Robert George (and two male grad students) I'd downloaded when I saw various people talking about it as a serious, intellectual defense of the DOMA position. Robert George is a Princeton politics full professor who is supposed to bring the big guns in conservative thought, a guy who can argue for natural law like a latter-day Aquinas. Or so they tell me.
Now I've read it, and if this is the best they've got, no wonder the Traditional Marriage people are in trouble. No wonder the defense in the trial against California's Proposition 8 was unable to field a single witness the Judge found "expert". This paper is, technically speaking, bunk.
Here's what I mean by "bunk". George et al. define defined "the conjugal view" as
Marriage is the union of a man and a woman who make a permanent and exclusive commitment to each other of the type that is naturally (inherently) fulfilled by bearing and rearing children together. The spouses seal (consummate) and renew their union by conjugal acts—acts that constitute the behavioral part of the process of reproduction, thus uniting them as a reproductive unit.They then argue that marriage must necessarily conform to this "conjugal view":
Real Marriage Is—And Is Only—The Union of Husband and WifeThe "many people" who they cite as acknowledging this definition are contemporary political figures or gay rights activists. There are no historians or anthropologists, nor does George appear to have reflected, even for a moment, upon the works of, say, Jane Austen. Or the Bible.
As many people acknowledge, marriage involves: first, a comprehensive union of spouses; second, a special link to children; and third, norms of permanence, monogamy, and exclusivity. All three elements point to the conjugal understanding of marriage.
The Biblical story of the patriarch Jacob is a particularly clear test case for a truly old-time definition of marriage. As you may recall, the Bible is quite clear that Jacob had legitimate children by four women (Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah), was married to two of them (Leah and Rachel), but loved only one, Rachel. So what made only the relationships with Leah and Rachel "marriages"? It wasn't children, and it wasn't love. Indeed, his marriage to Leah was a deceptive trick that didn't even pass the basic test of consent -- he thought he was marrying Rachel, but Leah was switched in, instead.
The defining factor, what makes some of Jacob's relationships "marriage" and others not, is, anthropologically speaking, "affine relationships" -- in-laws. Leah and Rachel were Jacob's wives because he paid a bride-price to Laban (his uncle and also employer) for them. Indeed, the fact that Laban could switch Leah for Rachel and have the marriage still count proves that Jacob's relationship to Laban was the crux -- it was more important than Laban be Jacob's father-in-law than that Jacob marry a particular woman, at least legally.
Now, let's go back to George et al's definition, which has three parts.
1. A comprehensive union of spouses, which they explain means "a sharing of lives and resources, and a union of minds and wills". This is very pretty, but it doesn't match up to the knowledge available to anyone who's read the basic canon of Western literature (which can be a fairly good anthropological study of upper-class European marriage patterns for the past thousand years). In that culture, as in many others, a wife *never* had total or comprehensive rights to her husband's property while he was alive, and rarely had the automatic right to control it when he was dead. The idea that marriage was "a union of minds and wills" could only make a present-day Jane Austen say LOLWHUT. Psychic soul-bonds are *fiction*, dude, while the very best fiction is often about the inevitable disunion of minds and wills in marriage.
2. A special link to children for George et al. involves "bearing and rearing children together." Imagine this being said by a man from Shakespeare's day and you will see how absurd it is: he would point out that child-bearing is perforce the task of woman alone (a fact that seems to have escape Professor George), and child-rearing is hers by both custom and nature. The legitimacy of a marriage and a child thereof is completely undisturbed if events such as shipwreck or war separate a man from his wife from the time the child is conceived until its adulthood. For the nobility -- and even more for royalty -- child-rearing was not a task for either parent, and the idea that their marriage was organized around doing it *together* would have seemed patently ridiculous.
Obviously, most people were not royalty nor nobility. But royal and noble marriages are *extremely* well -documented, and I'm going to assume that any educated person -- even Professor George's wet-behind-the-ears colleagues -- will be familiar with the basics of how they worked. At the upper levels, marriage was *all* about kinship, property, and their intersection, inheritance. Yes, there was "a special link to children": marriage determined children's *status*, their place in the kinship networks that are central to every human society. And all this was bound up inextricably in property.
For instance, in Boswell's Life of Johnson:
I talked of legitimation by subsequent marriage, which obtained in the Roman law, and still obtains in the law of Scotland. JOHNSON. 'I think it a bad thing; because the chastity of women being of the utmost importance, as all property depends upon it, they who forfeit it should not have any possibility of being restored to good character; nor should the children, by an illicit connection, attain the full right of lawful children, by the posteriour consent of the offending parties.In other words, to Johnson marriage was important not because it was good for children, but because children conceived in marriage were good for property, which was good for society.
At another point, Boswell is feeling doubtful about the double standard -- that is, that married women had to be faithful, while married men did not. Johnson
talked of the heinousness of the crime of adultery, by which the peace of families was destroyed. He said, 'Confusion of progeny constitutes the essence of the crime; and therefore a woman who breaks her marriage vows is much more criminal than a man who does it. A man, to be sure, is criminal in the sight of God: but he does not do his wife a very material injury, if he does not insult her; if, for instance, from mere wantonness of appetite, he steals privately to her chambermaid. Sir, a wife ought not greatly to resent this. I would not receive home a daughter who had run away from her husband on that account.
Which brings us to
3. permanence, monogamy, and exclusivity. I hate to break it to Prof. George, but permanence and exclusivity are not part of the social or even legal definition for marriage in the US today. Monogamy (= only one per customer) is, but there are plenty of marriage systems in which that is not the case -- the one in which Jacob, Leah and Rachel lived, for example. To claim that marriages in our system are "more real" than ones in polygamous societies shows IMO a really poor understanding of the term "real".
Contemporary American marriages usually aspire to exclusivity, but that is a recent cultural development compared to the thousands of years over which the institution as we know it has been developing. I'm not referring to exclusivity on the part of the wife, of course, but that of the husband. I don't think male infidelity was considered a devastating blow to a marriage or grounds for divorce in any Western society before the 20th century -- as long as the husband didn't support his other women (and their children) at the same level as his wife or acknowledge them in public, he could dally with whomever he wanted, as Doctor Johnson says above.
I could analyze the rest of this paper in comparable detail, but I don't see the point. Their definition of marriage "points to the conjugal understanding" because it is based on it: it's a nicely circular argument without reference to history, anthropology, or reality. When you choose your premises so badly, your logic train has no where to go but down. Rob Tish at Waking Up Now is heroically going through the whole thing and I can only salute his sacrifice, which I admire but do not seek to emulate.
And yet, Robert George is the best they've got, the guy the New York Times calls this country’s most influential conservative Christian thinker. No wonder, as Fred Clark puts it, that their arguments in the courts sound like [cricket. … cricket. … tumbleweed.].
What's really astounding is that, when I was a youngling, *conservatives* were the ones you could count on to know history and the canon of Western lit; liberals were the ones who said "hey, dude, don't be square." Now it seems as though it's conservatives, the supposed followers of tradition and the wisdom of the past, who know nothing about history. What are they teaching them in these schools?
Some recommended reading for Robert George and his associates:
Thomas Mann's Joseph and His Brothers is a wonderful midrash or fanfic about Jacob, his marriages, and the way his family developed.
I knew to look for quotes in Boswell because of The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 by Lawrence Stone.
Project Gutenberg has the complete works of Jane Austen.