Marriage in Western Civilization

So, first off, if you are really interested in Marriage in Western Civilization you should read Rita Nakashima Brock’s piece on the Huffington Post, or one of her books on the topic. If, on the other hand you are interested to hear what I think about Plutarch, keep reading.

In comparing the stories of Lycurgus and Numa Pompilius, Plutarch writes:

With respect to wives and children, and that community which both, with a sound policy, appointed, to prevent all jealousy, their methods, however were different. For when a Roman thought himself to have a sufficient number of children, in case his neighbour who had none should come and request his wife of him, he had a lawful power to give her up to him who desired her, either for a certain time, or for good. The Lacedaemonian husband, on the other hand, might allow the use of his wife to any other that desired to have children by her, and yet still keep her in his house, the original marriage obligation still subsisting as at first. Nay, many husbands, as we have said, would invite men whom they thought likely to procure them fine and good-looking children into their houses.

Full selection. Did the modern institution of marriage evolve from traditions like this? These traditions do seem to have something in common with this: You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor, what with wives included in a list of things that belong to a neighbor. I have written before about the nontraditional nature of the Patriarchs’ marriages. E.g.

This all reminds me of one of the more clever assaults on marriage equality from this summer. Ross Douthat suggested we should pause in our inevitable march toward marriage because

lifelong heterosexual monogamy at its best can offer something distinctive and remarkable — a microcosm of civilization, and an organic connection between human generations — that makes it worthy of distinctive recognition and support. . . . It’s a particularly Western understanding, derived from Jewish and Christian beliefs about the order of creation, and supplemented by later ideas about romantic love, the rights of children, and the equality of the sexes.

When I read this over the summer, I knew that the Bible did not support monogamy, but this reading from Plutarch suggests that neither did the ancient Greek and Roman traditions. It actually makes me wonder where we got the current understanding from.

2 replies on “Marriage in Western Civilization”

Reminds me of that famous face-off between Jesus and the Sadducees recounted in Mark 12:18-27. Quick overview: the Sadds come to J asking another question of him (in a series by various religious power-groups) concerning marriage in the resurrection. Point to note is that the Sadds themselves do not believe in the Res — if you are in the land-owning class, cozying up to the Roman occupiers, why would you want anything but the current social status-quo? So they who will have nothing to do with anything Resurrection-ish pose this question to Jesus. Red flags instantly waving all over the place.
What does Jesus do in response to this clear ingenuous provocation? He takes on the real issue. Just as Hebrew patriarchs and Greco-Roman society had it, marriage was intended to maintain a balance of power in the plantation household of the "pater familias." Marriages were arranged corporate mergers (sometimes hostile takeovers!).
Jesus' response is, in essence, in the Resurrection (which would be the living reality of the New Reality sometimes called the "Kingdom of God") we will not play those power games. No marriage — as you understand it. Elsewhere in Mark he lines out other details of life in God's New Reality. But here he is clearly taking on said domestic (and thus societal) power-hierarchies, and making plain that such will not be in the new life. And then backs it up by making the outrageous claim that these religious experts don't know their stuff — neither the scriptures nor the power of God (to which they point).
Takeaway for us? God's way rejects human power-over-hierarchies, whether in domestic relationships or in society at large. God's power is freely shared with all, to uplift all. Marriage (and family), then, becomes the "laboratory" to nurture such power-to-uplift, for the sake of all humanity.

I love those face-off scenes. And perhaps this answers my question about the source of loving marriage. While it seems to have been the ideal for religous heros such as Abraham & Sarah; Jacob & Racheal; Lover & Beloved; etc., first century judiaism saw the beginnings of providing access to this relationship to the commoners. Maybe.

Leave a Reply