Essay 19b (Part 1)

Argument for and Against Divorce

January 14, 2020


How long should monogamous marriages last? Should we allow voluntary divorces, which were customary among the Greeks and Romans?

Arguments for Divorce

  1. Loveless marriages just increase hate and pain

Disgust and aversion often arises after marriage from:

  • the most trivial accidents, or
  • incompatibility

Time can add new quarrels and reproaches which makes their mutual wounds fester more every day instead of curing them. Let us separate hearts which were not made to associate together. Each of them may, perhaps, find another for which it is better fitted.

At least, nothing can be more cruel than to preserve, by violence, an union, which, at first, was made by mutual love, and is now, in effect, dissolved by mutual hatred.

  1. Divorces are natural

The heart of man delights in liberty. The very image of constraint is grievous to it.

When you would confine it by violence, to what would otherwise have been its choice, the desire is turned into aversion.

If polygamy is not allowed, at least, do not deprive us of that liberty.

I had my choice of who I would marry, my prison. But this is but a small comfort, since it is still a prison.

Arguments against divorce

  1. What will happen to the children upon the separation of the parents?

Must they be committed to the care of a step-mother; and instead of the fond attention and concern of a parent, feel all the indifference or hatred of a stranger or an enemy?

These inconveniencies are sufficiently felt, where nature has made the divorce by the doom° inevitable to all mortals: And shall we seek to multiply those inconveniencies, by multiplying divorces, and putting it in the power of parents, upon every caprice, to render their posterity miserable?

  1. If the heart of man naturally delights in liberty, and hates every thing to which it is confined, then that heart naturally submits to necessity, and soon loses an inclination, when there appears an absolute impossibility of gratifying it.

These principles are contradictory. But what is man but a heap of contradictions!

It is remarkable that, where principles are contrary in their operation. But they do not always destroy each other. The one or the other may predominate as circumstances are more or less favourable to it.

For instance, love is a restless and impatient passion, full of caprices and variations. It arises in a moment from a feature, from an air, from nothing, and suddenly extinguishing after the same way.

Such a passion requires liberty above all things. Therefore in order to preserve this passion, Eloisa refused to marry her beloved Abelard.

How oft, when prest to marriage, have I said, Curse on all laws but those which love has made: Love, free as air, at sight of human ties, Spreads his light wings, and in a moment flies.

But friendship:

  • is a calm and sedate affection, conducted by reason and cemented by habit
  • springs from long acquaintance and mutual obligations
  • is without jealousies or fears, and
  • is without those feverish fits of heat and cold which cause such an agreeable torment in the amorous passion.

Friendship rather thrives under constraint. It never rises to such a height, as when any strong interest or necessity binds two persons together and gives them some common object of pursuit.

Therefore, we should not be afraid of drawing the marriage-knot, which chiefly subsists by the closest friendship.

The solid and sincere amity between the persons will rather gain by marriage. Where it is wavering and uncertain, this is the best expedient for fixing it.

Prudent people can forget the many frivolous quarrels and disgusts when they are under a necessity to live together. But such quarrels can soon be inflamed into the most deadly hatred if there were a prospect of an easy separation.

  1. Nothing is more dangerous than to unite two persons so closely in all their interests and concerns, as man and wife, without rendering the union entire and total.

The least possibility of a separate interest must be the source of endless quarrels and suspicions. The wife, not secure of her establishment, will still be driving some separate end or project;h and the husband’s selfishness, being accompanied with more power, may be still more dangerous.

Should these reasons against voluntary divorces be insufficient, I hope nobody will refuse experience.

When divorces were most frequent among the Romans, marriages were most rare. Augustus was obliged, by penal laws, to force men of fashion into marriage. This never happened anywhere else.

The more ancient laws of Rome prohibited divorces. They are extremely praised by Dionysius Halycarnassæus.8 He said that “Wonderful was the harmony which this inseparable union of interests produced between married persons; while each of them considered the inevitable necessity by which they were linked together, and abandoned all prospect of any other choice or establishment.”

The exclusion of polygamy and divorces sufficiently recommends our present European practice with regard to marriage.


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