The superstition of divorce

While free love seems to me a heresy, divorce does really seem to me a superstition.  It is not only more of a superstition than free love, but much more of a superstition than strict sacramental marriage; and this point can hardly be made too plain.  In is the partisans of divorce, not the defenders of marriage, who attach a stiff and senseless sanctity to a mere ceremony, apart from the meaning of the ceremony.  It is our opponents, and not we, who hope to be saved by the letter of ritual, instead of the spirit of reality.  It is they who hold that vow or violation, loyalty or disloyalty, can all be disposed of by a mysterious and magic rite, performed first in a law-court and then in a church or registry office.  There is little difference between the two parts of the ritual, except that the law court is much more ritualistic.  But the plainest parallels will show anybody that all this is sheer barbarous credulity.  It may or may not be superstition for a man to believe he must kiss the Bible to show he is telling the truth.  It is certainly the most grovelling superstition for him to believe that, if he kisses the Bible, anything he says will come true.  It would surely be the blackest and most benighted Bible-worship to suggest that the mere kiss on the mere book alters the moral quality of perjury.  Yet this is precisely what is implied in saying that formal re-marriage alters the moral quality of conjugal infidelity.

–Chesterton,  from The Superstition of Divorce

4 Responses

  1. I normally like Chesterton, but I think he’s in the wrong here.

    Formal marriage is a social institution that prevents men from killing each other (and innocent bystanders) over mating disputes.

    Making an honest woman of an illicit lover is a major function of marriage. It does not wipe out any sins; it merely establishes community stability.

  2. Note that in a truly traditional European society, adultery would probably be punished by at least half a dozen deaths – the offending parties, plus various relatives. That kind of approach is very strict, but remarrying after divorce seems to have a lower body count.

  3. Hello yfr,

    I think you’re confusing essence with social function. What marriage is is a duty to sexual fidelity and recognizing the spouse’s children as ones own. Divorce quite simply abolishes the essence of marriage by making the duty revokable on the desire of the one encumbered, meaning it’s not really a duty at all. It is by no means obvious to me that marriage will be able to perform its social function better if we just cynically discard its meaning. We must still ask why marriage so imposed itself on men’s minds that it had the power of resolving mating disputes. This brings us to the second Chesterton quote from today…

  4. Remarriage after divorce rewards adultery and neglect. If you raise the stakes (by limiting everyone to a single spouse), you increase the consequences of breaking vows. It also deters interlopers from thinking they can poach other people’s spouses, and then go on to a life of marital respectability.

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