On Divorce

By Louis de Bonald, 1802

Edmund Burk, Joseph de Maistre, and Louis de Bonald are generally regarded as the “big three” founders of political conservatism.  Of the three, only Burke is accorded any respect by most historians of thought, and him only because of what are regarded as his judicious concessions to liberalism.  Maistre and Bonald are regarded as too extreme to be taken seriously.  I, on the other hand, think that Bonald is the most important of the three, and if you want to get a clear idea of what motivates conservatives, you’re better off reading On Divorce than Reflections on the Revolution in France.

In this book, Bonald explicitly rejects two of the main beliefs embraced by Enlightenment thinkers:  the idea that society is based on consent via a social contract, and the idea that the only purpose of government (and other social organs) is to help men be happy by promoting their individual interests.  On the contrary, says Bonald, the most important elements in society are not autonomous individuals, but certain relations between people, and the main purpose of social policy should be to defend those relationships.  Nor are those relations to be defended as means to the end of personal fulfillment; they are to be defended because they are willed by God Himself, and it is in fulfilling the duties associated with our relational roles that we submit ourselves to Him.  Of course, Bonald doesn’t intend to found society on just any sort of relationships—he believes that the foundational ones all share the same logical structure.  They have three components:  the power (i.e. the focus of authority), the subject (whose good is the purpose of the association), and the minister (who mediates between the power and the subject).  So God created the world through the Logos; so the father rules his children through his wife; so kings or laws (both formulations work) rule the people through ministers, and God rules the people through governments.  Both the family and society are based on this idea of mediated authority; an attack on one will tend to spill over to an attack on the other.  In modern times, authority has been replaced by consent, leading to democracy in government and divorce in marriage.  Divorce is an abomination because, by allowing the minister (wife) to leave her husband, it destroys the authority of the power and the security of the subjects.  Bonald is convinced that the monarchy will not be safe while divorce is legal.  Of course, some people would be made unhappy if they cannot divorce, but then others would be happier without this possibility hanging over their heads.  In any case, Bonald says that we must protect public morality rather than the happiness of individuals.  And public morality is synonymous with the strength of these authoritative relationships and the understandings that legitimate them.  Here we see, as far as I can tell for the first time, the conservative program spelled out explicitly.  We also see (as one could not from reading Burke or Maistre) why gender, sexuality, and kinship issues must always be central areas of concern to conservatives.

Bonald also relates a view of history embraced by many subsequent conservative thinkers.  Both liberals and conservatives have their distinct historical myths.  For liberals, history consists of an age of primitive simplicity followed by an oppressive “dark ages”, which are only now subsiding, followed by a future of enlightenment and freedom.  So the sequence is pretty good followed by horrible followed by wonderful.  For conservatives, there was a pagan era of healthy immaturity followed by the mature perfection of Christian civilization followed by democratic, impious decadence.  So the sequence is pretty good followed by really good followed by awful.  Of course, Bonald associates each phase with a particular type of government, a particular family type, and (underlying them both) a particular understanding of authority.  Despotism is connected to polygamy, monarchy to indissoluble monogamy, democracy to sexual license.  As society advances and decays, the relation between public and family authority also evolves.  Unfortunately, Bonald doesn’t present nearly enough evidence to justify these sweeping claims.  They are intriguing ideas, though, and they were later taken up more carefully by scholars such as Frederic Le Play and Carle Zimmerman.

I hope the above will convince you of Bonald’s importance in the history of political thought.  The book itself does have a number of weaknesses.  The writing is adequate but not exceptional; it is repetitive at times and never achieves the eloquence that Burke and de Maistre could summon.  There are a number of weak arguments which are likely to distract from the book’s strengths, and some good arguments are not spelled out sufficiently.  What the book does do is bequeath an original vision of governance as relationships-maintenance.

3 Responses

  1. […] de Bonald, on the other hand, concentrates on this crucial area.  There is a very specific social structure he wants to defend–the patriarchal family.  […]

  2. Does he ever discuss the threat of husbands divorcing their wives? It seems as though female-initiated divorce is the only kind that would threaten his system (can’t a monarch dismiss his ministers at will?)

    Plus, it seems as though in a pre-modern society where it was difficult for single women to economically support themselves, women would be much less likely to divorce their husbands than vice versa.

  3. ^ Jesus forbade divorce either way, in fact His language in the Bible specifically forbids “putting away wives”; meaning divorce was usually a male request back then. ergo, Jesus was actually raising the status of women, which back then could be more easily discarded.

    and well scarcity certainly helps marriages stay together. but even in more prosperous societies, like the postwar West, women would be less likely to divorce their husbands if the husbands were the sole breadwinners. modern urban society arose out of that, and only then women could start to take up easy white collar jobs, not before. there also was a shortage of men for a bit due to the world wars, which skewed things – the remaining men became more masculine and sought after, but also had to work with women more often. and even then, these “jobs for women” and the women that wanted them were a small minority; it was activist government, alongside corporations that wanted to break the unions, that had to pass laws to eventually enforce equality (and promote it through the media and academia). now we have empowered camgirls and corporate cat-ladies…

    granted, it was also the case that back in the patriarchal days, a breadwinner middle class blue collar job could support a family; or, at worst, the patriarch’s land could always be depended on, as Christianity allowed women sharing of property with husband and inheriting it (even if son had to care for it in practice). these beneficial arrangements ended when women entered the workforce, and alongside offshoring and immigration, wages were kept down in the West – while credit ramped up thanks to new consumers, bubbling up land prices. so it’s a cascade of measures that go against families in the West and eventually world at large, since women’s lib went viral but also other concurrent subversions.

    nothing against women working in itself; just that, most of them would be better housewives, and more at peace with themselves when they notice that. it would also mean that men must put up a better effort to either keep a wife or not pass genes (and if the latter, well become a cleric or otherwise lay chaste person, but not fornicate and ruin other women – in fact, help keep your sisters pure, whether natural or in Christ).

    in short, the key to success is allowing single women not to want to work and stress so much, which ergo means also supporting the breadwinner husband/father (and if not there, the Church used to step in and help widows and/or repentant disowned women – the statecorp establishment instead has usurped and bastardized that role, and become a sugar daddy).

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