Chesterton: The Superstition of Divorce

June 10, 2012

The Superstition of Divorce
G.K. Chesterton
(Ignatius Press, 1987) [1920]
60 p.

Chesterton wrote at a time when marriage laws in England were under pressure to permit easier divorce. A little digging turns up reforms in 1912 and 1918, with further changes in the 1930s and later. Chesterton’s concern was that such changes would serve to weaken both families and society, and he wrote this short book to explain why. My purpose here is to attempt to summarize and clarify the central line of argument, which — as usual with Chesterton — is interwoven with a variety of tangents and digressions that, though a delight to the reader, do obscure the trail.

He begins with an obvious point: we cannot appraise the desirability of a given change to marriage law without an understanding of marriage itself: what is it, and what is it for? We have lately had cause to reconsider these questions from an angle that Chesterton did not anticipate; in his case, with the focus on the breakdown or breakup of marriages, his central concern was the ideal of permanence.

Naturally he looked to the foundation of that permanence, and he made a simple but pertinent observation: marriage is founded on a vow. Vows are rather less central to our culture than they once were — in the Middle Ages there were vows to the priesthood, knighthood, guilds, and marriage, so that nearly everyone lived under at least one — and the fact that vows are less pervasive perhaps accounts for our poor understanding of what they mean. Perhaps we “miss the type for the lack of parallels”, as he puts it. A vow has a somewhat paradoxical nature, for by it one voluntarily binds oneself. A vow “combines the fixity that goes with finality with the self-respect that only goes with freedom.” This is equally true of the vow of marriage:

The vow is a voluntary loyalty; and the marriage vow is marked among ordinary oaths of allegiance by the fact that the allegiance is also a choice. The man is not only a citizen of the city, but also the founder and builder of the city.

In the marriage vow, a man and a woman freely make promises of commitment and fidelity to one another, and the fact that the vow is freely given lays a special obligation upon both parties to be faithful to it. Faithfulness to such promises is, one might argue, a matter of self-respect, of ensuring that one’s word is good, but it is also more. It is, for instance, a guarantee that the trust one’s spouse places in one’s promise is properly honoured. Marriage laws which discourage divorce appear, then, in a rather positive light, for they help men and women to be true to their word. The law is a buttress to stabilize and strengthen families, especially those which need it most.

We might ask a basic question: why is marriage based on a vow in the first place? Or, putting the same question in another way, why are we concerned about the stability of families? We have today ample social scientific evidence which bears on that question, but Chesterton gets at the main point: it is because marriage is intrinsically oriented toward the bearing and rearing of children. Marriage is the social institution on which family life is founded. Its permanence is directly related to this fact:

It is not hard to see why the vow made most freely is the vow kept most firmly. There are attached to it, by the nature of things, consequences so tremendous that no contract can offer any comparison. There is no contract, unless it be what said to be signed in blood, that can call spirits from the vastly deep, or bring cherubs (or goblins) to inhabit a small modern villa. There is no stroke of the pen which creates real bodies and souls, or makes the characters in a novel come to life. The institution that puzzles intellectuals so much can be explained by the mere material fact (perceptible even to intellectuals) that children are, generally speaking, younger than their parents. “Till death do us part” is not an irrational formula, for those will almost certainly die before they see more than half of the amazing (or alarming) thing they have done.

With this thought in mind, Chesterton might have paused to note as corollary that the availability of effective contraceptives strikes directly at the heart of marriage and family life.

Instead, he makes a political argument: by making it easier to break up marriages, liberal divorce law weakens the loyalty within families and thereby weakens the family itself as a social fact or presence. This mattered to Chesterton because he saw the family as the essential counterweight to the dominating ambition of political and economic powers. Quoting with approval a passage from Balzac — “With the solidarity of the family society has lost that elemental force which Montesquieu defined and called ‘honour.’ Society has isolated its members the better to govern them, and has divided in order to weaken.” — he argues that a robust family life, supported by a stable social institution, is essential to personal liberty within the state:

The civic idea of liberty is to give the citizen a province of liberty; a limitation within which a citizen is a king. This is the only way in which truth can ever find refuge from public persecution, and the good man survive the bad government. But the good man by himself is no match for the city. There must be balanced against it another ideal institution, and in that sense an immortal institution. So long as the state is the only ideal institution the state will call on the citizen to sacrifice himself, and therefore will not have the smallest scruple in sacrificing the citizen. The state consists of coercion; and must always be justified from its own point of view in extending the bounds of coercion; as, for instance, in the case of conscription. The only thing that can be set up to check or challenge this authority is a voluntary law and a voluntary loyalty. That loyalty is the protection of liberty, in the only sphere where liberty can fully dwell.

If that positive argument in favour of marriage as defending domestic liberty is not enough, there is another to consider. Chesterton recognized that the state is, seemingly by nature, hostile to rival powers. Observers of modern liberal democratic politics have often remarked on the tendency of governments to attempt to circumvent or undermine social institutions not under state control, absorbing their functions into the state itself: charity, education, and medicine are examples of spheres which were once largely separate from the state but are no longer. Without such mediating institutions, however — and the family is one of them — there is nothing to act as buffer between the state and the individual, and this erodes the liberty of the individual, for he cannot on his own hope to effectively counter that great power. For this reason Chesterton looked to the family as a bulwark against tyranny:

The tyrant must find not one family but many families defying his power; he must find mankind not a dust of atoms, but fixed in solid blocks of fidelity. And those human groups must support not only themselves but each other. In this sense what some call individualism is as corporate as communism. It is a thing of volunteers; but volunteers must be soldiers. It is a defence of private persons; but we might say that the private persons must be private soldiers.

With that rousing image of resistance, we come to the end of the main line of his argument. There are a few related points which merit attention, however, and I’d like to make brief note of them.

First, a natural question arises: if strong marriages make for strong families, and strong families make for personal liberty in the face of ambitious and coercive power, why would anyone advocate for easier divorce? Chesterton considers two main reasons. The first is obvious: out of sympathy for those in unhappy marriages. This is understandable, but Chesterton points out that the proposed cure — more liberal divorce — is arguably just as bad as the disease, for it trades unhappy marriages for unhappy divorces:

The doctors of divorce, with an air of the frank and friendly realism of men of the world, are always recommending and rejoicing in a sensible separation by mutual consent. But if we are really to dismiss our dreams of dignity and honour, if we are really to fall back on the frank realism of our experience as men of the world, then the very first thing that our experience will tell us is that it very seldom is a separation by mutual consent; that is, that the consent very seldom is sincerely and spontaneously mutual. By far the commonest problem in such cases is that in which one party wishes to end the partnership and the other does not. And of that emotional situation you can make nothing but a tragedy, whichever way you turn it. With or without marriage, with or without divorce, with or without any arrangements that anybody can suggest or imagine, it remains a tragedy. The only difference is that by the doctrine of marriage it remains both a noble and a fruitful tragedy; like that of a man who falls fighting for his country, or dies testifying to the truth.

That is worth considering (as, of course, are the detrimental effects of divorce on children, which Chesterton does not directly discuss but which have been thoroughly documented in the meantime). But the second motive Chesterton identifies is more subtle than the first: the advocates of divorce typically view divorce as a “progressive” cause because, while its social effects may well be to erode certain types of personal liberty, it promotes another — namely, sexual liberty:

They may be called the friends of temperance or even of happiness; but even their friends would not call them the friends of freedom. There is only one form of freedom which they tolerate; and that is the sort of sexual freedom which is covered by the legal fiction of divorce. If we ask why this liberty is alone left, when so many liberties are lost, we shall find … [that] they recognise the vow as the vital antithesis to servile status, the alternative and therefore the antagonist. Marriage makes a small state within the state, which resists all such regimentation. That bond breaks all other bonds; that law is found stronger than all later and lesser laws. They desire the democracy to be sexually fluid, because the making of small nuclei is like the making of small nations. Like small nations, they are a nuisance to the mind of imperial scope. In short, what they fear, in the most literal sense, is home rule.

From our vantage point, nearly a century later, it has become all too obvious that sexual liberty has indeed been a central preoccupation of the self-styled progressives; it is the common thread behind the advocacy of contraception, abortion, homosexuality, and divorce. But in Chesterton’s time this was not, I believe, quite so evident, and this observation of his strikes me as being particularly prescient. That people advocate sexual liberty and all that comes with it because they dislike “home rule”, as Chesterton contends in the above passage, however, strikes me as odd; I would sooner reverse the direction of implication.

As has been evident in our own more recent debates about the meaning and purpose of marriage, and as was apparently also the case in Chesterton’s time, the churches and religious traditions have had a central role in the defence of the traditional understanding of marriage. To some this suggests that the opposition is specifically religious in nature, but a moment’s reflection will show that this does not in fact follow. Chesterton points out that people will often turn to religion to strengthen even a perfectly natural (as opposed to supernatural) good that is under threat:

Those of us who have seen all the normal rules and relations of humanity uprooted by random speculators, as if they were abnormal abuses and almost accidents, will understand why men have sought for something divine if they wished to preserve anything human. They will know why common sense, cast out from some academy of fads and fashions conducted on the lines of a luxurious madhouse, has age after age sought refuge in the high sanity of a sacrament.

In his book Eugenics and Other Evils Chesterton made a similar point, writing that “a religion is the practical protection of any moral idea which has to be popular and which has to be pugnacious. And our ideal, if it is to survive, will have to be both.”

The relevance of religion is illuminated from another angle too. In the case of divorce, for instance, we now have several decades’ worth of evidence from the social sciences to show that “no-fault divorce” has been bad for families, and especially bad for children. Chesterton observes that the accumulation of this evidence is surely a vindication of those who opposed divorce in the first place, religious traditions included. That evidence was not available to Chesterton, but he anticipated it:

If it could be shown, as I think it can, that a long historical view and a patient political experience can at last accumulate solid scientific evidence of the vital need of such a vow, then I can conceive no more tremendous tribute than this, to any faith, which made a flaming affirmation from the darkest beginnings, of what the latest enlightenment can only slowly discover in the end.

The case of Christianity is especially relevant, not only because it is the dominant religion in our culture, but also because, in a unique way, it has put a family — the Holy Family — very near the center of its thought and devotion, and has consistently had a special concern to guard and protect that natural, but also, in the light of faith, sacred institution from assault:

From its first days in the forest this human group [the family] had to fight against wild monsters; and so it is now fighting against these wild machines. It only managed to survive then, and it will only manage to survive now, by a strong internal sanctity; a tacit oath or dedication deeper than that of the city or the tribe. But though this silent promise was always present, it took at a certain turning point of our history a special form . . . That turning point was the creation of Christendom by the religion which created it. Nothing will destroy the sacred triangle; and even the Christian faith, the most amazing revolution that ever took place in the mind, served only in a sense to turn that triangle upside down. It held up a mystical mirror in which the order of the three things was reversed; and added a holy family of child, mother and father to the human family of father, mother and child.

That is a very nice, and suitably Chestertonian, note upon which to finish.


But perhaps not quite: let me add one final word about the title of this book, for it might strike some as peculiar. The superstition of divorce? It seems an odd choice of word. Chesterton sees in those who seek legal sanction for divorce and re-marriage a kind of superstitious belief in the power of civil law to effect substantive change. He explains himself better than I can:

While free love seems to me a heresy, divorce does really seem to me a superstition. It is not only more of a superstition than free love, but much more of a superstition than strict sacramental marriage; and this point can hardly be made too plain. It is the partisans of divorce, not the defenders of marriage, who attach a stiff and senseless sanctity to a mere ceremony, apart from the meaning of the ceremony. It is our opponents, and not we, who hope to be saved by the letter of ritual, instead of the spirit of reality. It is they who hold that vow or violation, loyalty or disloyalty, can all be disposed of by a mysterious and magic rite, performed first in a law-court and then in a church or a registry office. There is little difference between the two parts of the ritual; except that the law court is much more ritualistic. But the plainest parallels will show anybody that all this is sheer barbarous credulity. It may or may not be superstition for a man to believe he must kiss the Bible to show he is telling the truth. It is certainly the most grovelling superstition for him to believe that, if he kisses the Bible, anything he says will come true. It would surely be the blackest and most benighted Bible-worship to suggest that the mere kiss on the mere book alters the moral quality of perjury. Yet this is precisely what is implied in saying that formal re-marriage alters the moral quality of conjugal infidelity.

I can’t decide if he has a point or not. In any case, this passage arises as an aside, and does not contribute to the main line of the book’s argument.

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