Sacrilege and Sacrament

ROGER SCRUTON

Roger Scruton's argument in "Sacrilege and Sacrament" is characteristic of the sharp reasoning to be found throughout The Meaning of Marriage: Family, State, Market, and Morals. As Scruton observes, the institution of marriage -- which started out as a sacred, eternal vow and covenant -- has today been reduced to a civil contract. The implications which these changes pose for relations between the sexes, and for the future of society and culture in general are explored.

I. Two perspectives

An institution can be looked at from outside, with the eyes of an anthropologist, who observes its social function. Or it can be looked at from inside, with the eyes of a participant, whose life it transforms. And what is observable from one perspective may not be observable from the other. The anthropologist who studies the seasonal war-making of a tribe may understand this situation as a way of securing territory, a way of controlling population, and a way of reaching a renewable equilibrium with neighbors. The warrior understands the institution in quite another way. For him is a source of brotherhood, a mystical affirmation of identity between myself and the tribe, and a call to his soul from “ancestral voices.” The concepts used by the anthropologist -- social function, solidarity, ideology, and so on -- make no contact with the warrior's experience. If he were to make use of these concepts in describing what he feels, he would immediately cease to feel it. And the concepts that inform the warrior's self-understanding -- brotherhood, destiny, sacred obligation -- play no part in the anthropologist's explanation of what the warrior does.

This does not mean that the two people are entirely opaque to each other. Maybe, by an act of Verstehen, the anthropologist can enter into the experience of the man he studies and imagine what it is like to see the world as he sees it. Maybe the tribesman can stand back sufficiently from his situation to envisage how it might be understood and explained by someone who was outside the fold of membership. Nevertheless, the two assign different and incommensurable values to the institution of seasonal warfare, and criticism offered from one perspective might have no bearing on the values that inform the other. For the anthropologist the institution is justified by its function, and if it becomes dysfunctional, then it loses its rationale. For the warrior the institution is justified by the sacred obligations on which it rests, and only if those obligations are rescinded can it be allowed to decay.

This mismatch between external and internal perspectives has been frequently remarked upon, and not only in the context of anthropology. We encounter it in moral philosophy, in the conflict between consequentialism, which sees ethics as policy directed towards an external goal, and the deontological perspective that sees ethics in terms of absolute rights and duties. We encounter it in literature, in the contrast between the author's perspective and the values and motives of his characters. We encounter a version of it too in ourselves. For, as sophisticated modern people, we are in the habit of looking on our own values as though they were not ours at all, but the values of some curious stranger, who needs to be put in context and viewed from some fastidious height. We are all familiar with that Prufrock feeling, which reminds us in the midst of our warmest passions that we are perhaps wrong to presume, wrong to assume.

Indeed, it is arguable that the contrast between the two perspectives lies in the nature of things. A person is both I and he, both free subject and determined object, both rational chooser and predictable animal. We can see ourselves in either way, a possibility from which Kant derived his startling vision of our moral and metaphysical predicament. But it is perhaps a distinguishing mark of the modern condition that we are so easily tempted away from the first-person viewpoint to that other and more alienated posture that turns self into other and choice into fate.


Marriage does not merely protect and nurture children; it is a shield against sexual jealousy and a unique form of social and economic cooperation, with a mutually supportive division of roles that more than doubles the effectiveness of each partner in their shared for security.


This has a bearing, I believe, on the current debates over marriage. For marriage is one of those institutions that we spontaneously see from outside, in terms of its social function, and from inside, in terms of the moral and spiritual condition that it creates. No honest anthropologist can fail to acknowledge the functional importance of marriage. In all observed societies some form of marriage exists, as the means whereby the work of one generation is dedicated to the well-being of the next. Marriage does not merely protect and nurture children; it is a shield against sexual jealousy and a unique form of social and economic cooperation, with a mutually supportive division of roles that more than doubles the effectiveness of each partner in their shared for security. Marriage fulfills this complex function because it is something more than a contract of mutual cooperation, and something more than an agreement to live together. Hence marriage enjoys -- or has until recently enjoyed -- a distinct social aura. A wedding is a rite of passage, in which a couple pass from one social condition to another. The ceremony is not the concern of the couple only, but of the entire community that includes them. For this is the way that children are made -- made, that is, as new members of society, who will, in their turn, take on the task of social reproduction. Society has a profound interest in marriage, and changes to that institution may alter not merely relations among the living, but also the expectations of those unborn and the legacy of those who predecease them.

Wedding guests therefore symbolize the social endorsement of the union that they have assembled to witness, and the marriage is a kind of legitimization of the potentially subversive desire between the partners. Society blesses the union, but only at a price. And the price has been, in traditional Christian societies, a heavy one: sexual fidelity “till death do us part” and a responsibility for the socializing and educating of the children. As people become more and more reluctant to pay that price, weddings become more and more provisional, and the distinction between the socially endorsed union and the merely private arrangement becomes less and less absolute and less and less secure. As sociologists are beginning to observe, however, this gain in freedom for one generation implies a loss for the next. Children born within a marriage are far more likely to be socialized, outgoing, and able to form permanent relationships of their own, than children born out of wedlock.1 For their parents have made a commitment in which the children are included and of which society approves. This fact is part of the deep phenomenology of the marital home. Children of married parents find a place in society already prepared for them, furnished by a regime of parental sacrifice, and protected by social norms. Take away marriage and you expose children to the risk of coming into the world as strangers, a condition in which they may remain for the rest of their lives.

An anthropologist will hardly be surprised, therefore, to discover that marriage is regarded, in most simple societies, as a religious condition. Rites of passage are conducted in the presence of the ancestors, and the ancestors are presided over by the gods. Religion is one way in which the long-term interests of society may animate the short-term decisions of its present members. Hence it is natural that marriage should be seen from within as something divinely ordained, with a sacred aura that reinforces the undertaken duties and elicits the support of the tribe. You don't have to be a religious believer to observe this or to see its point. You need only be aware of what is at stake when people bring children into the world and claim those children as their own.

2. Civil union


With the growth of the Papacy, marriage was recaptured from the secular powers, and reconsecrated as the Church's concern. And so it remained throughout the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance. An uneasy truce was struck between secular jurisdictions and ecclesiastical ceremonies, and the Church’s interdiction of divorce ensured that marriage laws would enshrine the idea of a lifelong commitment. Marriage was no longer a complex and rescindable relationship, but a permanent change of status, from which there could be no real return.


The institution of civil marriage is not a modern invention. It was already established under Roman law, which regarded marriage as a distinct legal status, protected and defined by a purely secular jurisdiction. However, the law took note of religious precedent, looked severely on those who departed from its edicts, required a kind of commitment that went well beyond any merely contractual tie involving children and property, and held both parties to their obligations. The shadow of religion fell across the Roman marriage ceremony, with its meticulous rituals and sacred words, and the household gods watched over the transition, in which they were intimately concerned. True, Roman marriages were not conceived as eternal unions: they were the legal embodiment of an intention to live monogamously together and could be ended by noting that the affectio maritalis had ceased. Legal recognition that the marriage was over could be obtained without difficulty, and although in later Christian times the Emperor Justinian briefly succeeded in penalizing consensual divorce, it is clear that the Roman law did not regard marriage as a radical existential change.

With the growth of the Papacy, marriage was recaptured from the secular powers, and reconsecrated as the Church's concern. And so it remained throughout the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance. An uneasy truce was struck between secular jurisdictions and ecclesiastical ceremonies, and the Church’s interdiction of divorce ensured that marriage laws would enshrine the idea of a lifelong commitment. Marriage was no longer a complex and rescindable relationship, but a permanent change of status, from which there could be no real return.2

When Henry VIII took the English into the Reformation, it was on account of his marital problems. He wanted a divorce, and the Church would not grant one. Traditional Catholic teaching holds marriage to be an irreversible change of status, not merely within the community but also before God. Hence a marriage cannot be undone, but only annulled. An annulment does not grant release from an existing marriage but declares that the marriage never was. Naturally enough, the process of annulment has been subject to abuses; but even Henry, Defender of the Faith, could not persuade the Church to take the easy way out of their common problem. When the King took the matter into his own hands it was not in order to break the connection between marriage and the Church. On the contrary, marriage remained Holy Matrimony, and Henry solved the Church's problems by appointing himself as the head of it. It was probably not until the French Revolution that the state declared itself to be the true broker and undoer of marriages, and neither the Catholic nor the Protestant church has ever accepted this as doctrine or afforded its comforts to those who view their marriages as purely civil affairs.

Since then, however, we have experienced a steady de-sacralization of the marriage tie. It is not merely that marriage is governed now by a secular law -- that has been the case since antiquity. It is that this law is constantly amended, not in order to perpetuate the idea of an existential commitment, but on the contrary to make it possible for commitments to be evaded, and agreements rescinded, by rewriting them as the terms of a contract.

From the external perspective this development must be seen as radical. What was once a socially endorsed change of status has become a private and reversible deal. The social constraints that tied husband and wife to each other through all troubles and disharmonies have been one by one removed, to the point where marriage is hardly distinct from a short-term agreement for cohabitation. This has been made more or less explicit in the American case by the prenuptial agreement, which specifies a division of property in the event of divorce. Partners now enter marriage with an escape route already mapped out.

3. Contracts and vows


Official policy is therefore already recognizing the effect of official policy, which is to downgrade and ultimately abolish the marriage tie.


To understand this change we should recognize that, although divorce has been permitted in Protestant cultures for some time, it has not been seen in contractual terms, even by the secular law of marriage. Divorce has been unlike annulment in recognizing that a marriage once existed and is now being undone. But it has been like annulment in recognizing that the spirit of a marriage survives its material death. There could be no return from the state of marriage, but only a transition to another state beyond marriage, in which as many of the marital obligations as possible would be salvaged from the ruin and reinstated as lifetime burdens on the parties. Typically the divorced husband would be charged with the maintenance of his ex-wife, the education and protection of their children, and such other liabilities as could be imposed upon a man now faced with a self-made enemy.

With the prenuptial agreement, however, divorce takes on a new meaning. It becomes in a sense the fulfillment of the marriage contract, which henceforth loses its force. Spouses no longer enter a marriage but, as it were, stand outside it, fully equipped to move on. Hence marriage has ceased to be what Hegel called a “substantial tie,” and has become one of a lifelong series of handshakes.3 Among the wealthy and the sexy, serial polygamy is now the norm. But the word “polygamy” already begs the most important question -- which is whether such an arrangement is really a marriage. Rescindable civil unions cannot conceivably have the function of marriage as traditionally conceived. They cannot guarantee security to children, nor can they summon the willing endorsement of society, by showing the partners' preparedness make a sacrifice on the future's behalf. The new kind of civil union exists merely to amplify the self-confidence of the partners. Children, neighbors, community, the world -- all such others are strangers to the deal. Not surprisingly, when marriage is no more than an official rubber stamp affixed to a purely private contract, people cease to see the point of it. Why bother with the stamp? Whose business is it anyway?

Official policy is therefore already recognizing the effect of official policy, which is to downgrade and ultimately abolish the marriage tie. Government forms in Britain ask for details of your ‘partner’ where once they would have asked for details of your husband or wife. It is all but politically incorrect to declare yourself married to someone (at least to someone of the opposite sex), and many of my liberal friends now refuse to refer to their lifelong companions in terms that imply any greater commitment than that contained in an agreement to share a roof. Children are no longer part of the arrangement, which is conceived purely as a contract between consenting adults. When Kant described marriage as “a contract for the mutual use of the sexual organs” he may not have had this in mind. 4 But his words were prophetic, and proof of the extent to which his Enlightenment vision was already reshaping the world.

The contrast between marriage and the new kind of civil union is yet more striking from the internal perspective -- the perspective of the partners themselves. For it is a contrast between two quite different moral positions. The traditional marriage, seen from the external perspective as a rite of passage to another social condition, is seen from within as a vow. This vow may be preceded by a promise. But it is something more than a promise. Here is how I put the point in an imaginary dialogue between Perictione, niece of Plato, and Archeanassa, alleged by Diogenes Laertius to be Plato's mistress:

“With the change in my perception of religion,” Perictione went on, “came a change in my perception of marriage. For what is marriage if not a vow taken before an altar, and what remains of the vow if no god turns up to enforce it? Of course, a man and a woman can stand in front of a table and exchange promises. But I think you will agree, most honored Archeanassa, that promises and vows are quite distinct?'

Archeanassa thought for a moment.

“Is it not a question of solemnity?” she suggested. “I mean, the more solemn the promise, the more it approaches a vow.”


“The difference between a vow and a promise is profound and metaphysical. For a promise is fulfilled in time. And when the promise is fulfilled it is also finished. But a vow is never fulfilled in time: it is endless and changeless, and there is no point at which the account is closed. Those bound together by vows are bound eternally; which is why the immortals must be present, to seal the vow and endow it with a more than earthly power.”


“By no means,” said Perictione, and she stared through her guest with evident satisfaction. “The difference between a vow and a promise is profound and metaphysical. For a promise is fulfilled in time. And when the promise is fulfilled it is also finished. But a vow is never fulfilled in time: it is endless and changeless, and there is no point at which the account is closed. Those bound together by vows are bound eternally; which is why the immortals must be present, to seal the vow and endow it with a more than earthly power.”

“ Furthermore,” she went on, warming to her theme, “promises and contracts can be undone by agreement, after which no obligation remains. Whereas a vow, once knit, can never be untied, but only dishonored. Such it seems to me, is the real distinction. There is another difference too, and this deeply impressed me at the time of which I am speaking, because it helped me to understand the dilemma in which my poor mother had been placed by her husband's infidelity. Contracts, I hope you agree, are useful things. Without them, no society can endure, since there can be no security between strangers -- and a modern society is a society of strangers, is it not?”

Archeanassa signified her assent to this, but could not forbear mentioning that she had heard the point argued by the great Xanthippe, whose ideas, she added, were so much more down-to-earth than those of Plato, and so much more in tune with the female temperament.

“Of course,” Perictione continued, with a slight frown, “Granny introduced me, before she died, to her friend Xanthippe, and there was an exchange of ideas between us. But to return to the point. Contracts, you will admit, involve an exchange of goods and services. Nothing is given absolutely -- all benefits offered depend upon benefits received. Hence the matter of a contract must be defined independently: a bag of horse-hair, say, or a waggon-load of beans. There cannot be a contract to be bound by a contract: such an agreement would be empty and senseless.”

“ Indeed not, ” said Archeanassa,... .

“ But the subject-matter of a marriage, ” Perictione went on, as soon as she had recaptured Archeanassa's eyes, “what is it, if not the marriage itself? What matrimony means, by way of cost and benefit, can never be foretold by those who create it through their vows. Cares and joys, rights and duties, failures and successes -- all are in the lap of Fortune, and none can be known in advance. From which it follows, as I am sure you will concede, that marriage cannot be a contract.”

“Nor,” said Archeanassa, “can the vow of love.”...

“As for that,” the girl pursued, “we must distinguish real institutions from unreal hopes. And in my father's case -- since, after all, it is my father's case that we are discussing -- love was no part of the deal. There was a marriage -- the eternal vow which bound my mother and cut off her escape. And there was a contract -- under the terms of which young Cholcis received rent and underwear, and my father expert caresses. As for the feelings -- well, they take the shape of the institutions which channel them: stern duty in the one sphere, abject lust in the other. Do you follow me?”

“I wish I didn't,” said Archeanassa, “for these are bitter things you speak.”

“Bitter no longer,” said the girl, “and hardly bitter then. For you know, I am like my uncle. When something troubles me I dissolve it in thought, and make of it an intellectual problem -- which is what my parents' marriage became. I saw that marriage is not a contract but a vow, that men could not stay the course, and that in any case the immortals had faded away, leaving all vows to unravel like tapestries in which the binding thread is cut. Marriage ceased at once to be an option for me. Of course, I was intrigued by men, and tried a few experiments. But the fun occurred at a vast distance, so to speak, way below the place from which I studied it. The question came uppermost in my mind, how to live in this society of strangers -- how to triumph, rather. For a descendent of Solon cannot merely live. And my first thought was this: I must replace vows by contracts, in which terms would be agreed in advance. Do you follow me still?”

“Yes,” said Archeanassa, “and still, I think, your story is a sad one.”5

The change described by Perictione is one special case of the transition “from status to contract” which was discussed, from the external perspective, by that great armchair anthropologist Sir Henry Maine.6 But it is clear that there is more to it than that. As the story goes on to make clear, Perictione is not taking an external view of marriage, nor is she connecting marriage with child-rearing, security, or the handing on of social capital -- vital though it may be, for the effective performance of those functions, that people think of marriage in the terms that she suggests. Perictione is reporting a change in the phenomenology of sexual union, a retreat from the world of vows and “substantial ties” to a world of contracts, promises and negotiated deals. And, as she implies, the world of vows is a world of sacred things, in which holy and indefeasible obligations stand athwart our lives and command us along certain paths, whether we will or not. It is this experience that the Church has always tried to safeguard, and it is one that has been jeopardized by the state, in its efforts to refashion marriage for a secular age.

4. The vow of love


Anthropologists can tell us why the vow of love is useful to us and why it has been selected by our social evolution. But they have no special ability to trace its roots in human experience, or to enable us to understand what happens to the moral life when the vow disappears and erotic commitment is replaced by the sexual handshake.


Vows and oaths automatically transport us to the realm of the sacred. You can see this from the Homeric poems, from Virgil's Aeneid , from the Icelandic sagas, Beowulf , the Niebelungenlied and all the other stories of people immersed in the urgencies of tribal life. When the Church first declared marriage to be a sacrament, to be administered before the altar in the presence of God, it was attempting to give institutional form to a vow. From the inner perspective, however, this vow preceded the Church's endorsement. And the theory of marriage as a sacrament captures a prior sense that something similar is true of erotic love. Whence does this sense of the sacred arise? Anthropologists can tell us why the vow of love is useful to us and why it has been selected by our social evolution. But they have no special ability to trace its roots in human experience, or to enable us to understand what happens to the moral life when the vow disappears and erotic commitment is replaced by the sexual handshake. Indeed, anthropologists may be even more tempted than the rest of us to read their own internal perspective into the behavior of the people whom they study: witness the now notorious case of Margaret Mead, who travelled all the way to Samoa in order to witness the sexual culture of New York.7

The supposed sanctity of the erotic tie, the connection with chastity, celibacy, and the vow of love -- these themes animated medieval literature and came to the fore at the time when the Ecclesiastical view of marriage as a sacrament was beginning to take a hold on the law and the imagination of medieval Europe. The literature of courtly love, as it came to be known, was an attempt to raise the erotic from the realm of animal passion to that of rational choice.8 This literature was inspired by neo-Platonist theories which had already exerted considerable influence over Islamic and Hispano-Arabic literature, and which were distilled in the works of Avicenna (Ibn Sinna), the Persian physician and Sufi philosopher who had provided so many of the metaphysical conceptions that shaped the theology of the medieval Church. Much of what is proposed by the poets and philosophers of courtly love is apt to seem absurd. The extraordinary legalism of Le roman de la rose and the fictitious “courts of love” described by Andreas Capellanus and others strikes us now as a vain attempt to deny the obvious truth, which is that sexual desire is not a choice or a judgment but a passion.9 The medievals were themselves aware of this, and side by side with the courtly literature we find the tales of Tristan and Isolde and Troilus and Cressida, which emphasize the untameable power of sexual longing and its ability to subvert all that we might erect by way of legal, conventional, and institutional restraints.

But it is in these very dramas of passion that we find an explanation for the vow of love and for the aura of sanctity that surrounds it. The vow is not imposed on lovers by custom, nor required of them by law. It is present in the very experience of desire: such is the burden of the medieval tales. Isolde's desire for Tristan subverts her marriage vows, but only so as to prove that her true vows were not to King Mark but to Tristan. The sin of Cressida is not that she defies the laws of marriage, but that she betrays the vow of love that arose in her first desire, and which dedicated her to Troilus.


Sexual desire is not a desire for sensations. It is a desire for a person: and I mean a person, not his or her body, conceived as an object in the physical world, but the person conceived as an incarnate subject, in whom the light of self-consciousness shines and who confronts me eye to eye, and I to I. True desire is also a kind of petition: it demands reciprocity, mutuality, and a shared surrender. It is therefore compromising, and also threatening. No pursuit of a mere sensation could be compromising or threatening in this way.


Well yes, you say, that may have been true of those particular fictions. But what bearing does it have on life as it is lived by the rest of us? We are not heroes of passion, nor given to these catastrophic commitments from which there is no turning back. We are content to live at a lower level, accepting sexual desire as a source of pleasure, but wary of the obsessive attachments that it can generate and which leave us perpetually unassuaged.

That response is apt to be supported by a weight of cultural history. It will be said that the vow of love -- conceived one way by the courtly literature, and another way by the subversive response to it -- is in both versions a piece of ideology. It is an attempt to present as a permanent and metaphysical truth what is in fact no more than a passing social fashion, useful in securing the property relations of a vanished leisure class, but with no claim to be the enduring truth of the human condition. The myth of the love-vow had a lasting influence on Western culture, leading to the great celebrations of man-woman love in Shakespeare and Milton, to the heroic passions explored by Racine, literature of romantic love and to the operas of Bellini, Verdi, and Wagner. But all this is culture, not nature. Other societies have viewed love, desire, and marriage in other terms, and the idea of marriage as rooted in a personal choice and an existential commitment is as foreign to oriental traditions as the love of counterpoint, the belief in the Incarnation, or a taste for confit d'oie.

It is hard to disagree with all that. Yet there is something that it overlooks, something which is at the heart of the medieval conception of the love-vow, and of the marital practices that it has been used to authorize. This thing is the peculiar intentionality of human sexual emotion. Sexual desire is not a desire for sensations. It is a desire for a person: and I mean a person, not his or her body, conceived as an object in the physical world, but the person conceived as an incarnate subject, in whom the light of self-consciousness shines and who confronts me eye to eye, and I to I. True desire is also a kind of petition: it demands reciprocity, mutuality, and a shared surrender. It is therefore compromising, and also threatening. No pursuit of a mere sensation could be compromising or threatening in this way.

I have tried to defend those claims elsewhere.10 They are not claims about culture, nor are they claims about the way in which desire has been rationalized, idealized, or constrained by institutions. They are claims about a particular state of mind, one that only rational beings can experience, and which nevertheless has its roots in our embodiment as members of the human species. There are other states of mind that have a passing resemblance to sexual desire, but which do not share its intentionality -- for example, the sexual excitement aroused by pornography, or the excitement that finds relief in fetishism and in necrophilia. There is a whole gamut of perversions, the object of which is not to possess another person in a state of mutual surrender, but to relieve oneself on someone's body, to enslave or humiliate, to treat the other as an instrument through which to achieve some sensory excitement, and so on. But in calling these things perversions we indicate a defect in the intentionality from which they spring. They are no more to be seen as expressions of sexual desire than the desire to eat your child is to be seen as an expression of love or the desire to humble yourself before your enemy is to be seen as an expression of anger. Such is the complexity of the human condition that the mental forces that erupt in us can find just such peculiar outlets. But in describing them as perversions we convey the idea that a state of mind has a normal object, a normal fulfilment, and a normal course towards its goal. In the case of sexual desire, the norm can be seen externally, in terms of its social function, and also internally, as a feature of the intentional object and of the description under which he or she is desired.

5. Postmodern sex

Now many people will question what I have said about desire. There is a picture of human sexuality that is propagated by the media, by popular culture and by much sex education in our schools, which tries both to discount the differences between us and the other animals and also to remove every hint of the forbidden, the dangerous, and the sacred. It is a picture that makes no place for shame, save as a lingering disability, and which describes the experience of sex as a kind of bodily sensation. Sexual initiation, according to this picture, means learning to overcome guilt and shame, to put aside our hesitations, and to enjoy what is described in the literature as “good sex.” The function of sex education in schools -- and especially in those schools controlled by the state -- is to rescue children from the commitments that have been attached to desire by displaying sex as a matter of cost-free pleasure. Even to describe desire as I have done in the foregoing paragraphs is regarded, by many educationists, as an offence -- a way of cluttering the minds of children with unmanageable guilt. Such educationists regard the free play of sexual titillation as a far healthier option than the death-encompassing passions associated with the old conception of erotic love.” Most parents, however, encountering this attitude to sex and the literature used to implant it in the adolescent mind, experience a surge of revulsion, even going so far as to question the right of the state so to poison the hearts of their children. Indeed, sex education has become one of the principal battlegrounds between the family and the state. There is a reason for this, to which I return.

Before the advent of modern sex education, the object of desire was represented through concepts of purity and pollution, sanctity and desecration, and it is the transition between these states that is dramatized in the story of Troilus and Cressida. It is because the object of desire has been perceived in this way that jealousy can take the murderous form in human beings that Shakespeare puts before us in Othello. Desdemona, in Othello's eyes, has been ransacked, polluted, like a violated temple, and only her death can extinguish this sacrilege and restore the pre-existing holiness. What Shakespeare is describing here is precisely not a local form of erotic passion, but a human universal, a predicament that we are involved in by the very fact of sexual desire. That sexual desire is directed towards an existential commitment is the unwritten assumption of the literature of erotic love, from Daphnis and Chloe to the puppet plays of Chikamatsu, and from Arcassin et Nicolette to Lady Chatterley's Lover.


The function of sex education in schools -- and especially in those schools controlled by the state -- is to rescue children from the commitments that have been attached to desire by displaying sex as a matter of cost-free pleasure.


This existential aspect of desire makes it dangerous. Rape is a crime not because it involves force, but because it is a desecration, a spoiling and polluting of that which it is in a woman's nature to hold in reserve until it can be given freely. If sexual desire were merely the desire for sexual sensations, this ransacking of the body could not occur: to be raped would then be no worse than to be spat upon. It is precisely the existential seizure that humiliates and destroys. For it is a kind of murder, a reducing of the embodied person to a corpse.

Again, however, we must confront the modern sceptic. Even if people once understood the sexual act through those quasi-religious conceptions, the sceptic will argue, they do so no longer. There is now neither pollution nor taboo, but an easy-going market in sexual commodities: a market which can be entered without shame and left without damage. And maybe the growth of this market, and its extension, through sex education, to an ever-growing number of participants, is a real contribution to human freedom and to the undistinguished contentment of the postmodern herd.

It seems to me, however, that desire freed from moral constraints, and from the ethic of pollution and taboo, is a new and highly artificial state of mind. It can be maintained in being only by forms of discourse that wilfully disenchant the sexual act and the human body: in other words, which are wilfully obscene. This partly explains the gradual invasion of popular culture by explicit sexual images, and the consequent shift in focus from the human subject to the dehumanized object. These cultural developments are not random: they have a function, and this function can be clearly seen when we contrast the old Hollywood approach to romance with the modern cult of explicit images.

When the erotic kiss first became obligatory on the cinema screen it was construed as a coming together of faces, each fully personalized through dialogue. The two faces had carried the burden of a developing drama, and were inseparable in thought from the individuals whose faces they were. When, in the last seconds of the Hollywood movie, the faces tremblingly approached each other, to be clichéd together in a clinch, the characters sank away from us into their mutual desire. This desire was their own affair, a kind of avenue out of the story, that took them quickly off the screen and into marriage.

Pornography is the opposite of that: the face is more or less ignored, and in any case is endowed with no personality and made party to no human dialogue. Only the sexual organs, construed not as agents but as patients, or rather impatients, carry the burden of contact. Sexual organs, unlike faces, can be treated as instruments; they are rival means to the common end of friction, and therefore essentially substitutable. Pornography refocuses desire, not on the other who is desired, but on the sexual act itself, viewed as a meeting of bodies. The intentionality of the sexual act, conceived in this disenchanted way, is radically changed. It ceases to be an expression of interpersonal longing, still less of the desire to hold, to possess, to be filled with love. It becomes a kind of sacrilege -- a wiping away of freedom, personality and transcendence, to reveal the passionless contortions of what is merely flesh. Pornography is therefore functional in relation to a society of uncommitted partner-ships. It serves to desecrate and thereby neutralize our sense that the object of desire is made sacred and irreplaceable by our longing. By lifting the focus downwards, from the end to the means, from the object to the object, pornography diverts sexual feeling away from its normal course which is commitment, and empties it of its existential seriousness. Pornography is sex education for life, as it were.

6. State and family

To what point does this bring us, in the contemporary discussions over marriage? My tentative conclusion is this: that the view of marriage as a sacrament is an accurate, if theologically loaded, account of how marriage has been experienced, of why it is wanted, and of what it inwardly does to those who enter it. Marriage is not a contract of cohabitation, but a vow of togetherness. Its foundation is erotic, not in the sense that all marriages begin in or exist through desire, but in the sense that, without desire, the institution would rest on nothing in the human condition. At the same time, looked at from outside, with the eye of the anthropologist, marriage has a function, which is to ensure social reproduction, the socializing of children and the passing on of social capital. Without marriage it is doubtful that those processes would occur, but when they occur they provide both a fulfillment of sexual union and a way to transcend its scant imperatives, into a realm of duty, love, and pride. The inner, sacramental, character of marriage is therefore reinforced by its external function. Together they endow marriage with its distinctive character, as an institution that is normal and sublime in equal measure.


Just as people are less disposed to assume the burdens of high office when society with-holds the dignities and privileges which those offices have previously signified, so are they less disposed to enter real marriages when society acknowledges no distinction between marriages that deserve the name ad relationships that merely borrow the title.


When the state usurped the rite of matrimony, and reshaped what had once been holy law, it was inevitable that it should loosen the marital tie. For the state does not represent the Eternal, nor does it have so much regard for future generations that it can disregard the whims of the merely living. The state is always and inevitably the instrument of its current members; it will respond to their pressures and try to satisfy their demands. It has therefore found it expedient to undo the sacrament, to permit easy divorce, to reduce marriage from a vow to a contract, and -- in the most recent act of liberalization -- to permit marriage between people of the same sex. None of this has been done with evil motives, and always there has been, in the back of people's minds, a memory of the sacred and existential ties that distinguish people from animals and enduring societies from madding crowds. The desire has been to retain the distinctiveness of marriage, as the best that we can hope for by way of a lasting commitment, while escaping from its more onerous demands -- demands that people are no longer prepared to recognize. As a result, marriage has ceased to be a rite of passage into another and higher life and become a bureaucratic stamp with which to endorse our temporary choices. I would not call this a gain in freedom -- for those choices have never been denied to us, and by dignifying them with the name of marriage we merely place another obstacle before the option to which humanity has devoted so much of its idealizing fervor. Of course, we are still free to dedicate our lives to each other, to our home and to our children. But this act is rendered the more difficult, the less society recognizes the uniqueness, the value, and the sacrificial character of what we do. Just as people are less disposed to assume the burdens of high office when society with-holds the dignities and privileges which those offices have previously signified, so are they less disposed to enter real marriages when society acknowledges no distinction between marriages that deserve the name ad relationships that merely borrow the title.

Ordinary conjugal people, who marry and raise children in the traditional way, and who believe that these acts point beyond the present moment to an indefinite future and a transcendental law, have a voice in law-making and will tend to vote for legislators who uphold the sacramental view of marriage and who pass laws endorsing the normal way of marital sacrifice. From the external point of view, that is what an anthropologist would expect. For societies endure only when they are devoted to future generations, and they collapse like the Roman Empire when the pleasures and fancies of the living usurp the inheritance of those unborn. Here in the United States, however, there is another way to legislation, through the Supreme Court, and this way is the way of the state and of the elites who control it. And because the Supreme Court can override any merely democratically elected body, and will -- as the case of Roe v. Wade amply demonstrates -- use any measure of sophistical argument if it sees the need to do so, Americans are increasingly aware that -- in many of the most important matters, the matters that govern the life and death of society -- it is the state, not the people, that decides. The attitude of the state to marriage should therefore be set beside its attitude to sex education and the bearing of children. The burden of state-sponsored sex education, I have suggested, is to turn the sexual urge away from erotic passion, marital commitment, and dutiful child-bearing towards disposable pleasures. This attitude is reinforced by the state's support for abortion, and its “discovery,” in Roe v. Wade, that the unborn have no rights under the Constitution and therefore no rights at all. Put all this together with the state's constant tendency to erode the tie of marriage, and you will be tempted to believe that the state has set itself against the goal of reproduction. This has not been a conscious decision. Nevertheless it reflects a vast movement in the modern world towards the confiscation of hereditary rights.

Some will see this attitude as involving a kind of collective infanticide: such, I suspect, is the response of the Roman Catholic Church. Others, however, welcome it, even under the somewhat bleak description that I have offered. Thus Richard Rorty, in Achieving Our Country, ostensibly a critique of the anti-patriotism of the left establishment, sees the emergence of the easygoing culture of promiscuity, and the political correctness which is well on the way to censoring out every alternative, as positive steps towards the only thing that matters, which is an “Enlightenment utopia” in which complete equality of condition will have at last been achieved.12 To get there you need the Supreme Court, if only to extinguish those exclusive passions and loyalties which are the source of local privilege. The fact that the resulting Utopia will be unable to reproduce itself is not a fact that pragmatists like Rorty are equipped to notice. And what a pragmatist doesn't notice is in any case not a fact.13

7. The function of ideology

It is here that we should step back from the discussion of marriage in order to visit a distinction fundamental to the Marxist vision of human institutions: the distinction between ideology and science. A scientific theory is part of our search for truth, and it endures because it has not been refuted. An ideology is part of our search for stability, and it endures because it fulfills a social function, shoring up customs, practices, and institutions that require just this if they are to provide their benefits. We can see the point from the initial example that I took of seasonal warfare. The warrior's belief that this is a sacred duty, an obligation to the ancestors, and a solemn gesture of brotherhood is ideological. His belief is to be explained in terms of its function, rather than its explanatory power. Its function, roughly, is to commit the warrior to his dangerous exploits, in a way that he could be committed by no merely dispassionate analysis of the cost and benefit of pursuing them. From the external point of view seasonal warfare too must be explained by its function: it is a way of securing territory, controlling populations, and achieving equilibrium in the search for scarce resources. The external view is scientific: it explains the behavior of the tribe, but does not justify it. The internal view is ideological: it justifies the behavior, but does not explain it. The true explanation of the behavior is also an explanation of the ideology, and in both cases the explanation refers to a social function.

You might wish to apply Marx's distinction to what I have said about sex and marriage. The external viewpoint offers an explanation of marriage in terms of its social function. It is because it facilitates social reproduction that marriage exists and endures. If marriage became dysfunctional it would disappear, just as seasonal warfare has disappeared from modern societies. This external explanation can also form the starting point for a justification, by showing that the consequences attached to marriage are socially beneficial, and the consequences of destroying marriage socially disastrous. I believe that this kind of consequentialist justification of marriage has already been made by Charles Murray, James Q Wilson, and others. But there is also an internal justification of marriage in terms of the sanctity of the erotic tie. The Marxist anthropologist might say of this internal justification that is “mere ideology, ” meaning that it is to be explained in terms of its function in securing marital commitment, but has no rational basis in the erotic tie itself. To explain the institution of marriage from the external perspective is also to expose the internal perspective as a kind of illusion, which records no independent fact of the matter, being merely an aura cast by the institution in the minds of those over whom it holds sway.

Although not all debunkers of “bourgeois” society make use of Marx’s distinction between ideology and science, the idea that our dearest beliefs and most precious values are merely ideological constructs, destined to disappear with the institutions and the power relations that temporarily require them, is now a common assumption in the social science and humanities departments of our universities. It is assumed by feminism of the Judith Butler kind, by Foucault in his theory of the episteme, by Edward Said in his critique of the “Orientalist” posture, by Fredric Jameson in his postmodern Marxist criticism, and by most of those exposed by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont in Intellectual Impostures and satirized by Frederick Crews in Postmodern Pooh.14

Applied to the case of marriage it would very quickly deliver interesting results. It would tell us, for example, that the view of marriage as a sacrament, and the associated experience of erotic love as involving a vow, a commitment, and an existential tie, are all part of the ideology of marriage. When marriage loses its function so too does the ideology; and since the ideology rests on no independent ground, it will disappear like a dream in the waking conditions of modernity. Moreover, the Foucauldian will say, societies no longer require bourgeois marriage in order to generate children and endow them with social capital. On the contrary, bourgeois marriage stands in the way of the new forms of social reproduction, which are all in the hands of the state. Through welfare benefits and social initiatives the state takes charge not only of the education of children, but also of their production. Modern sex education is not concerned to convey the facts about sex any more than was the old apprenticeship in chastity. Sex education too is ideology, functional in relation to the new form of social reproduction, in which the parties are the single mother and the state, and in which exclusive and lifelong attachments threaten the state's control over the reproductive process. By desacralizing the sexual bond and removing the existential danger, the new ideology prepares the way for a process of social reproduction in which sexual desire and sexual excitement play only a transitory and non-constitutive part.

My response to that argument is twofold. Although (as I suggested above) modern sex education is functional in relation to the society that it seeks to produce, I do not believe that the function of traditional marriage can be effectively performed by the welfare state or by any other institution in which love is not the principal foundation. Empirical observation is beginning to confirm what should have been obvious a priori, which is that societies in which the vow of marriage is giving way to the contract for sexual pleasure are also rapidly ceasing to reproduce themselves.

Second, and more important, the theory of ideology is incomplete and depends on a contrast between the merely functional and the scientific that is neither exhaustive nor exclusive. The belief that murder is wrong is not a scientific belief: it is not based on evidence, nor can it be refuted. No society could survive without this belief, and in that sense it serves a social function. But it is also true, objective, capable of justification in ways that are spelled out by Kant in the second Critique and which are familiar to all of us in some simpler and less metaphysical version.

Similarly, our beliefs about the bindingness of erotic love and the existential change that it inflicts on us are objective, based in a true apprehension of what is at stake in our sexual adventures, and what is needed for our fulfilment. To spell out the justification may be hard, and the full reality of sexual emotion will always be more readily presented by a work of art, such as Troilus and Criseyde, Tristan and Isolde, or Mansfield Park than by a metaphysical discourse. Nevertheless, it is true of erotic feelings as it is of moral values, that their functionality does not undermine the vision that they impart.

8. Same-sex marriage

How does all that bear on the debate over “same-sex marriage”? For a religious person, who regards marriage as a sacrament, the matter is (or ought to be) urgent in the extreme. This is because people who abuse a sacrament, who turn a sacrament against itself, as in the Black Mass, commit an act of sacrilege, which is an offence against God. Such people must therefore ask themselves whether the distinction of sex between the spouses is essential to the sacrament of marriage, or merely accidental. I suppose that if God has pronounced it essential, then the believer must accept this as a revelation. But appeals to authority don't go down so well these days, not even in those institutions, such as the Christian Churches, which are founded on appeals to authority. Believers are apt to look, therefore, for secular guidance, if only so as to understand how the word of God must be reinterpreted to fit our changing circumstances.

It seems to me that the external perspective is hardly likely to countenance gay marriage. Not that the external perspective is inherently conservative; rather, that it puts social function before individual happiness. To treat marriage simply as the seal set upon a (possibly fleeting) sexual relationship, rather than a mutual assumption of the burden of social reproduction, is to deprive the institution of its rationale.

That argument tells heavily against accepting the idea of gay marriage. But it tells heavily against accepting just about everything else that people have come to take for granted, from no-fault divorce to prenuptial agreements, and from welfare support to single parents to libertarian sex education in schools. If the function of marriage has already been destroyed, why not extend what has become only a name to any other relationship that seeks the charm of it?

From the internal perspective, however, matters are more troublesome. Even if homosexual men are more given to promiscuity than those of the other persuasion, few people doubt the possibility of faithful homosexual attachment or of lifelong domestic harmony achieved from the starting point of a homosexual affair. The vow of love does not, in itself, demand that the partners be of separate sex: think of the Sacred Band of Thebes, in which men went side by side with their lovers into battle, sworn to die for each other.


It is a near certainty, therefore, that the state, acting through the Supreme Court, will “discover” a constitutional right to same-sex marriage just as it discovered constitutional rights to abortion and pornography and just as it will discover, when asked, a right to no-fault divorce. Moreover, the state will use all its weapons, and in particular the new forms of censorship, to make resistance futile.


To mention such cases, however, is not to address the central issue, which is the place of sexual difference in desire and in all that is built on desire. Heterosexual union is imbued with the sense that your partner's sexual nature is strange to you, a territory into which you intrude without prior knowledge and in which the other and not the self is the only reliable guide. This experience has profound repercussions for our sense of the danger and the mystery of sexual union, and these repercussions are surely part of what people have had in mind, in clothing marriage as a sacrament and in the ceremony of marriage as a rite of passage from one form of safety to another. Traditional marriage was not only a rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood; nor was it only a way of endorsing and guaranteeing the raising of children. It was also a dramatization of sexual difference. Marriage kept the sexes at such a distance from each other that their coming together became an existential leap, rather than a passing experiment. The intentionality of desire was shaped by this, and even if the shaping was -- at some deep level -- a cultural and not a human universal, it endowed desire with its intrinsic nuptiality, and marriage with its transformatory goal. To regard gay marriage as simply another option within the institution is to ignore the fact that an institution shapes the motive for joining it.

Marriage has grown around the idea of sexual difference and all that sexual difference means. To make this feature accidental rather than essential is to change marriage beyond recognition. Homosexuals want marriage because they want the social endorsement that it signifies; but by admitting same-sex marriage we deprive marriage of its social meaning, as the blessing conferred by the unborn on the living. The pressure for same-sex marriage is therefore in a certain measure self-defeating. It resembles Henry VIII’s move to gain ecclesiastical endorsement for his divorce by making himself head of the Church. The Church that endorsed his divorce thereby ceased to be the Church whose endorsement he was seeking.

That does not alter the fact that same-sex marriage furthers the hidden tendency of the postmodern state, which is to exclude future generations from the legal order and to rewrite all commitments as contracts between the living. It is a near certainty, therefore, that the state, acting through the Supreme Court, will “discover” a constitutional right to same-sex marriage just as it discovered constitutional rights to abortion and pornography and just as it will discover, when asked, a right to no-fault divorce. Moreover, the state will use all its weapons, and in particular the new forms of censorship, to make resistance futile.

Those who are troubled by the matters that I have been discussing in this paper must take note of this censorship. It is a remarkable fact, and proof of the preconscious and collective emotions that are propelling liberal democracies, that public debate about the most important things is now more or less impossible. Already it is widely assumed that opposition to same-sex marriage is proof of “homophobia.” As we know from the history of political name-calling, once the name is called it sticks. We have already seen the effect of this in the adoption of feminism as the unquestionable premise of what is jokingly called liberal education in the American academy. To believe in the reality of sexual differences is to be a “sexist ,” and “sexism” comes next to racism in the litany of crimes. There is no defence, since the charge is too vague and too all-encompassing to permit one. As a result, few people will take the risk, in an American university, of questioning the fundamental tenets of feminism, even if these tenets are (as I think they are) transparently false.

The same is true concerning the normalization of homosexual desire. Just as the person who publicly expresses doubts about the feminist assumptions is dismissed as a sexist, so will the person who dissents from what is fast becoming orthodoxy in the matter of gay rights be accused of “homophobia.” Maybe I have proved myself guilty of the crime in this essay, so risking my future career, were there any likelihood that I had one. All over America there are appointment committees intent on examining candidates for suspected homophobia and summarily dismissing them once the accusation has been made: “you can't have that woman pleading at the Bar, she is a Christian fundamentalist and a homophobe”; “no, even if he is the world's authority on second dynasty hieroglyphs, you can't give him tenure, after that homophobic outburst last Friday.” This censorship will advance the cause of those who have made it their business to “normalize” the idea of homosexual union. It will not be possible to resist it, any more than it has proved possible to resist the feminist censorship of the truth about sexual difference. But maybe it will be possible to entertain, between consenting adults in private, the thought that homosexual marriage is really no such thing.15

The Meaning of Marriage: Family, State, Market, and Morals


"Its essays -- by an array of philosophers, economists, sociologists, historians, and law professors -- offer insights that are impressive in both breadth and nuance. Some highlights: Robert P. George argues that marriage is an intrinsic, rather than an instrumental, good; Hadley Arkes explains that, once same-sex marriage is legalized, we will have "no ground in principle" to regulate sexual morality at all; and Seana Sugrue makes a libertarian case against same-sex marriage on the grounds that traditional matrimony is a pre-political civil institution restraining the reach of the state." - National Review

The Meaning of Marriage:
Family, State, Market, and Morals

Edited by Robert P. George
and Jean Bethke Elshtain
Spence Publishing, 316 pp


References:

  1. See James Q Wilson, The Moral Sense, New York, 1994; Charles Murray, Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980, New York, 1984.
  2. On this point, and the subsequent history of marriage, see John Witte, From Sacrament to Contract: Marriage, Religion and Law in the Western Tradition, Louisville KY, 1997.
  3. G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, tr. T.M. Knox, London1952, §161.
  4. Kant's Philosophical Correspondence: 1755-99, ed. and tr. Arnulf Zweig, Chicago 1967, p. 235, The Metaphysic of Morals, Academy Ed., 277.
  5. R. Scruton, Perictione in Colophon, South Bend Indiana, 2000, pp 30-32. On the real identity of Archeanassa, see R. Scruton, Xanthippic Dialogues, South Bend Indiana, 1998, pp 269-70.
  6. Sir Henry Maine, Ancient Law, Oxford 1861.
  7. Margaret Mead, Coming of Age in Samoa, New York 1928.
  8. Actually l'amour courtois, so named by Gaston Paris in a seminal article of 1883: ‘Lancelot du Lac: Le Conte de la Charrette', Romania 12, 459-534.
  9. Andreas Capellanus, De arte honesti amandi, tr. John Jay Parry as The Art of Courtly Love, New York 1941.
  10. Sexual Desire, New York and London 1986; Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the sacred in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, New York 2003.
  11. The research necessary to back up these claims (at least in the case of England and Wales) is available in Valerie Riches, Sex Education or Indoctrination: how ideology has triumphed over facts, with additional research by Norman Wells, London, Family and Youth Concern, 2004. Americans will be familiar with the research of Kay Hymowitz and others to the same effect.
  12. Richard Rorty, Achieving our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America, New York 2002.
  13. Still, it is worth pointing out that societies where marriage has broken down or where children are routinely born out of wedlock are now dying: in Europe because the children are not born, in sub-Saharan Africa because the children die of AIDS. In societies where marriage is the norm and children are born in wedlock, population is increasing, notably in the Islamic world.
  14. See Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, Intellectual Impostures, London 1998 (published in the USA as Fashionable Nonsense, NY 1998), and Frederick Crews, Postmodern Pooh, NY 2001, London 2002.
  15. I have benefited greatly from Seana Sugrue's comments on an earlier draft of this paper.


 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Roger Scruton. "Sacrilege and Sacrament." Chapter 1 in The Meaning of Marriage: Family, State, Market, and Morals (Dallas: Spence Publishing Company, 2006): 3-28.

This excerpt is reprinted with permission from Spence Publishing Company.

THE AUTHOR

Roger Scruton is a writer, philosopher, publisher, journalist, composer, editor, businessman and broadcaster. He has held visiting posts at Princeton, Stanford, Louvain, Guelph (Ontario), Witwatersrand (S. Africa), Waterloo (Ontario), Oslo, Bordeaux, and Cambridge, England and is currently visiting professor in the Department of Philosophy, Birkbeck College, London. Mr. Scruton has published more than 20 books including, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy, Sexual Desire, The Aesthetics of Music, The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat, Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, A Political Philosphy, and most recently Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life.

See Roger Scruton's web site here.

Copyright © 2006 Witherspoon Institute




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