Legislating respectability

And we are now in a position to ask more clearly what is divorce.  It is not merely the negation or neglect of marriage; for any one can always neglect marriage.  It is not the dissolution of the legal obligation of marriage, or even the legal obligation of monogomay; for the simple reason that no such obligation exists.  Any man in London may have a hundred wives if he does not call them wives; or rather, if he does not go through certain more or less mystical ceremonies in order to assert that they are wives.  He might create a certain social coolness round his household, a certain fading of his general popularity.  But that is not created by law and could not be prevented by law.  As the late Lord Salisbury very sensibly observed about boycotting in Ireland, “How can you make a law to prevent people going out of the room when somebody they don’t like comes into it?”  We cannot be forcibly introduced to a polygamist by a policeman.  It would not be an assertion of social liberty, but a denial of social liberty, if we found ourselves practically obliged to associate with all the profligates in society.  But divorce is not in this sense mere anarchy.  On the contrary, divorce is in this sense respectability; and even a rigid excess of respectability.  Divorce in this sense might indeed not unfairly called snobbery.  The definition of divorce, which concerns us here, is that it is the attempt to give a certain social status, and not a legal status.  It is indeed supposed that this can be done by the alteration of certain legal forms; and this will be more or less true according to the extent to which law as such overawed public opinion, or was valued as a true expression of public opinion.  If a man divorced in the large-minded fashion of Henry the Eighth pleaded his legal title among the peasantry of Ireland, for instance, I think he would find a difference still existing between respectability and religion.  But the peculiar point here is that many are claiming the sanction of religion as well as of respectability.  They would attach to their very natural and sometimes very pardonable experiments a certain atmosphere, and even glamour, which has undoubtedly belonged to the status of marriage in historic Christendom.  But before they make this attempt, it would be well to ask why such a dignity ever appeared or in what it consisted.  And I fancy we shall find ourselves confronted with the very simple truth, that the dignity arose wholly and entirely out of the fidelity; and that the glamour merely came from the vow.  People were regarded as having a special dignity because they were dedicated in a certain way; as bound to certain duties and, if it be preferred, to certain discomforts.  It may be irrational to endure these discomforts; it may even be irrational to respect them.  But it is certainly much more irrational to respect them, and then artificially transfer the same respect to the absence of them.  It is as if we were to expect uniforms to be saluted when armies were disbanded; and ask people to cheer a soldiers’s coat when it did not contain a soldier.  If you think you can abolish war, abolish it; but do not suppose that when there are no wars to be waged, there will still be warriors to be worshipped.

–Chesterton, from The Superstition of Divorce

4 Responses

  1. Off the topic, but the assumption that you cannot “make a law to prevent people going out of the room when somebody they don’t like comes into it” is amusing, now that so many such laws are enforced on us.

  2. Hello AMcguinn,

    Thanks for pointing to that. The whole article excerpt seems remarkably contemporary. Restricting social liberty by forcing us to consort with profligates sounds just like the “anti-hate” and “anti-bullying” bullying we are subjected to at work or school. Using the law to legislate respectability by bending the definition of marriage sounds like…well, that’s just too obvious.

  3. “the dignity arose wholly and entirely out of the fidelity; and that the glamour merely came from the vow. ”

    Sorry, but this horribly misunderstands marriage, and divorce. It is sacred, because it is god-ordained, and its dignity and glamor come from its god-ordained sacrality.

    The Book of Genesis describes God’s plan and His intent of divine union. Jesus affirms it, directly and specifically. Jesus goes further and prohibits divorce.

    Outside of this sacred context, any dignity and glamor of marriage and divorce quickly fade and lose any authority.

  4. Hi Justin,

    I don’t think this has to be an either-or thing. Grace builds on nature. The sublimity of a promise of lifelong fidelity makes marriage a fitting symbol of Christ and the Church.

    I guess I’m not sure what you mean by “god-ordained”. If you mean that marriage is just a matter of divine positive law, then I would disagree. If you mean that it inherently belongs to the sacred order (because, for example, procreation means an eruption of divine creativity into the world), then I would agree. The sacred context is not something extrinsically added onto marriage, but part of its (natural) essence.

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