On August the fourth, U.S. District Chief Judge Vaughn R. Walker struck down Proposition 8. Proposition 8 was an amendment to the state Constitution of California voted on and passed in the November 2008 elections which declares that only sexually complementary (man and woman) marriages would be recognized as valid by the state of California. Needless to say, the overturning of Proposition 8 has resparked the debate about so-called “same-sex marriages” which the passing of the Proposition ignited 2 years ago, and which will undoubtedly flare up again whenever SCUSA issues its final ruling on the matter.
The same-sex marriage debate seems on one level to be silly and trivial, to both sides. To advocates of same-sex marriage, the idea that two men (or two women) being united in a union called marriage and recognized as such, could harm society, is ridiculous. To traditionalists (in which camp I belong) the idea that government fiat could make a same-sex relationship a marriage is as ridiculous as the suggestion that if the government were to declare two plus two to be five it would therefore be so. What then are we arguing about? A hypothetical objective observer to the debate (no such person could actually exist, of course) might ask “Why don’t the same-sex couples who wish to consider themselves married, do so, and those who consider marriage to be an exclusively man-woman relationship disagree”?
One answer is that such a compromise is not acceptable to the same-sex marriage side. It is society’s acceptance and approval they are demanding, not just to be allowed to do their own thing and to think of themselves in whatever way they wish. For the advocates of same-sex marriage to accept anything short of full societal approval vested in recognition of the official status of “married” for same-sex couples who wish that status would be concession of victory to the traditionalist side.
Likewise, for traditionalists to accept a situation in which society recognizes non-sexually complementary unions as marriages, would not be a compromise but a concession of defeat.
No compromise is therefore possible on this issue for either side. It is a zero-sum game.
It is important that the traditionalist side of this debate understand what the real issues are. To understand this, we need to recognize that “same-sex marriage” is a symptom, and not the disease itself. We should not waste our time by arguing that same-sex marriage will bring civilization crumbling to the ground (it will not). What is eroding our civilization and will lead to its collapse is liberalism, modernism, and post-modernism, apart from which there would have been no movement for same-sex marriage.
Liberalism is the disease, same-sex marriage just one of many symptoms.
What are the grounds upon which the advocates of same-sex marriage base their claims?
Essentially that argument goes like this: A) Marriage exists to make life happier for individuals who participate in marriage, B) Everybody is equally entitled to all things which make for their individual happiness, therefore C) Same-sex couples should be as entitled to marry each other as sexually complementary couples and to restrict marriage to the latter is to discriminate against the former which is an act of injustice.
Both premises and the conclusion are false as we shall see.
Before demonstrating them to be false, however, we will look at how they reflect presuppositions that are an essential part of the attack on the foundations of Western civilization that is liberalism, the spirit of the Modern Age since the so-called Enlightenment.
In the context of discussing abortion, George P. Grant said of Pope John Paul II:
I have some sympathy for him in what he is trying to oppose, something which is absolutely central to modernity: the emancipation of the passions. I don’t mean by the passions only the sexual passions. Modern politics is taken up with the passion for power, capitalism is taken up with the emancipation of the passion of greed. I’m not sure that this has been a great step in human history. (1)
Grant was right, in describing the emancipation of the passions as being central to modernity. The Modern Age began when philosophers came to the belief that through the application of reason and/or science they could construct a superior civilization to that which had been built upon the foundations of classical philosophy and Christianity. The so-called Enlightenment, and the liberalism which grew out of it rejected Aristotelian ethics and secularized and universalized Christian ethics beyond all recognition.
Plato and Aristotle both taught that virtue and happiness were only possible when reason ruled the passions and the appetites. Plato in the Phaedrus depicted reason as a charioteer who must control the chariot of the soul being drawn by two horses, one of whom, representing the unruly appetites or passions, is always trying to pull the chariot off course. In The Republic, he uses the relationship of reason ruling the appetites, the passions, as a model for the utopian city Socrates and his companions were hypothetically constructing. Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, divides the soul into rational and irrational parts, and the latter into parts completely independent of reason and parts which while irrational themselves can be influenced by reason. The passions fall into the latter category, and the virtuous man, according to Aristotle, is the man who cultivates the rational habit of choosing the middle path regarding his passions, leaning neither to excess or deficiency.
The modern rejection of classical/traditional Western ethics in favor of the “emancipation of the passions” is perhaps most clearly seen in Sigmund Freud. His division of the mind into the passions (id), governed by reason (ego), with both being subject to the mores of civilization (superego) was neither original nor the basis of Freud’s fame. Freud attributed neurosis to the repression of the id, and in so doing laid the foundation for the idea of mental well-being through liberation of the passions. While Freud himself has long been dismissed, his idea that traditional morality’s restraints on the libidos is harmful to the individual psyche continues to bear fruit. In many ways, however, Freud was simply expressing in psychological terms, the goals of Enlightenment liberalism in which the happiness and liberty of the individual is the highest good.
A civilized society, as Plato and Aristotle knew, must have the good as its end, its purpose. In the Christian era, the idea of the societal good came to be moderated with recognition that the individual person has valid rights and freedoms, but these were envisioned as existing within the framework of society and traditional authority. Enlightenment liberalism made the rights and liberties of the individual the enemy of traditional society, traditional morality, and traditional authority. Those who think this is a good think, a positive step towards freedom, should consider that in the same period of centuries in which liberalism triumphed and authority declined, was a period of unprecedented growth of the central state, and concentration of power into it. The emancipation of the passions, is as Aldous Huxley warned, a cover for the loss of political liberty, as the state grows more and more powerful.
The institution of marriage, does not exist primarily for the happiness of individuals. That is not its function. It exists to bind society together, by tying parents of children to each other, as closely as they are tied to their children or their children are tied to each other, and to make of the two basic divisions of mankind, male and female, a one combing both complementary parts. As an institution it is foundational to the family, which is the basic building block of society, prior to and more important than the individual. The relationships between a father and his child, between a mother and her child, and between siblings are permanent relationships. They are based on ties of blood which cannot be untied. Marriage exists to make the relationship between father and mother as binding and permanent as these. The security that comes, from one’s father and mother being permanently tied to each other, is of immeasurable importance to the well-being of their children. Marriage is by nature, a sacrifice. It is about giving of oneself to another and to their possible offspring. It is about giving up one’s rights and liberties and taking burdens and duties upon oneself. It is a step towards maturity and responsibility.
In 2003, just as an earlier round of the same-sex marriage debate was heating up in Massachusetts, Dr. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese delivered three lectures on the subject of marriage at Princeton University. She was in the process of expanding those lectures into a book when she died in 2007. The work was subsequently completed by her former student and editor Sheila O’Connor Ambrose and published posthumously by ISI Books in 2008 under the title Marriage: The Dream That Refuses to Die. The first of the lectures became Chapter One “Male and Female Created He Them”, which is not, despite its title, a sermon from the Book of Genesis, but a history of the institution of marriage, as a social, economic, and political institution, and it’s evolution into modern marriage.
Dr. Fox-Genovese writes:
Having originated more as a relation between families, tribes, or clans than as a relation between individuals, marriage has gradually been transformed into an exclusively personal relation—a matter of an individual’s “right” to specific benefits and privileges and, perhaps above all, community recognition and approval. Thus, the institution that anchored and transmitted legitimate authority has emerged as the frontline target of a comprehensive attack on any notion of legitimate authority, natural or divine. (2)
A significant contributing factor to this transformation, which Dr. Fox-Genovese focused on, was the concept of romantic love as the basis for companionate marriage. She notes that this idea goes against much ancient wisdom in the Western tradition, warning against the dangers of passionate love. For the latter she points to examples in Shakespeare, Arthurian Legend, the legend of Tristan and Isolde, and even Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Countless other examples could be pointed to. The first great epic poem of Greece was Homer’s Illiad. While the poem’s theme is a different passion, manis (wrath), specifically the wrath of Achilles against Agamemnon and its destructive consequences, we cannot miss the fact the background setting of the story is a war whose roots lay in passionate love (of Paris and Helen). Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is essentially an updated version of the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. How many of the most famous classic stories of passionate love end very badly for one or both of the lovers? In addition to those already mentioned think of Dido and Aeneas, Troilus and Chriseyde, Mark Anthony and Cleopatra – the list goes on and on. Note that the love St. Paul eulogizes in the famous 13th chapter of his First Epistle to the Church in Corinth is agape – selfless, giving love, and not eros – passionate desire.
These countless cultural warnings were not to tell us that passionate love is a bad thing per se, but to warn us that it must be ruled, that we must rule our passions rather than let them rule us. This is in stark contrast to the message of Hollywood, television, popular music, and every other cultural drug mass-produced in this decadent age.
Liberalism, in seeking to free the individual and his passions, from the restraints of traditional moral society, allied itself with modern, centralized government, and secured the passing of legislation aimed at transforming marriage from the traditional institution into something like a business contract, albeit with less of a legal penalty if the contract is broken. The purpose was to make marriage about the individual rather than about the society. A young couple are in love and want to get married to “complete their happiness”. Instead of being told about responsibility, and sacrifice, and “til death do us part”, a compact breakable only by severe betrayal on the part of one of the spouses, now marriage comes with government benefits and can be dissolved by government at will at the request of one of the partners, no reason necessary. Same-sex marriage is only the latest step in this process, itself part of the larger liberal project of freeing the individual of all duties to traditional moral society (while enslaving him to modern collective power in government and big business).
People do not have a “right” to whatever they think will make them happy. They have a right to what is their own. Justice lies in seeing that everyone gets that which is due him – not that everyone gets to be “equal” with everyone else. Teaching people that they have a “right” to whatever they think will make them happy, i.e., whatever they want, and that they are or ought to be equal with everyone else, is the recipe for turning people against society.
The traditionalist side of the same-sex marriage debate needs to understand that our battle is not primarily against same-sex marriage, but for traditional marriage, which means more than just sexual complementarity. It means marriage that is more than just a contract, marriage that is demanding, marriage that cannot be broken at the whim of government or a spouse. Our fight is for traditional society, which respects the rights and liberties of individuals, while placing just demands on them in pursuit of he good of the whole.
(1) David Cayley, George Grant in Conversation (Concord: Anansi Press, 1995) , p., 156 (This is an edited collection of interviews Grant gave to Cayley on CBC Radio)
(2) Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Marriage: The Dream That Refuses To Die (Wilmington, ISI Books, 2008), p. 4.
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