March/April 2012

Much Ado About MARRIAGE

Written by Tom McGuire

A cynic once said that tying the knot involves three rings: an engagement ring, a wedding ring and suffering. It is true that many marriages are disastrous, and a higher percentage end in failure now than ever before.

However, some people will claim that it is the best thing they ever did. My uncle and aunt found each other at 17 while still in high school, exchanged vows and now enjoy in their 60s, if not ‘marital bliss’ then something reasonably close.

Even philosophers have wives. Marriage raises important philosophical issues, and not just about whether to leave the toilet seat up or down. Socrates, perhaps the most influential Western philosopher, married Xanthippe. “By all means marry” advised Socrates. “If you get a good wife, you'll become happy; if you get a bad one, you'll become a philosopher.” It seems that the contributions of Xanthippe (apparently a quarrelsome nagger) to Western philosophy have gone mostly unrecognised.

We don’t need to go all the way back to ancient Greece to find philosophers with strong views about marriage. Not many people know that the 19th century German author of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche, offered enough marital advice to fill numerous weekly columns. Granted, some of his suggestions seem alien to modern sensibilities. “Are you visiting women? Do not forget your whip!” is wisdom which the Sensitive New Age Guy may find a little difficult to take on board. But if we look past the more obvious signs of misogyny, in many ways Nietzsche was ahead of his time as this edition of Café Philosophy reveals.

But let’s not forget the most important thing about marriage, which is love. Surely, the two go together ‘like a horse and carriage’ as the famous song attests? Yet, it is only recently that marriage was widely perceived as a natural consequence of falling in love. In European society, at least, there were more important reasons to get married like expanding one’s family influence, or getting out of poverty. Even today, it is quite normal for Indian parents to work out who their offspring will marry well before they are even old enough to fall in love. In Saudi Arabia, where the government has yet to set a minimum age for marriage, children as young as 9 or 12 are frequently betrothed to much older suitors through no real choice of their own.

Then there is the question, hotly debated in Western countries, about whether gender should get in the way of a good marriage. I find this debate fascinating because it is intertwined with so many deeper issues such as freedom, love, tradition and spirituality. One of the articles in this issue is a personal reflection which explores the question of whether, even within a lesbian relationship, there should still be a ‘husband’ and a ‘wife’.

You will sometimes hear that marriage is little more than a glorified piece of paper, which no longer even has much legal significance now that, in New Zealand at least, de-facto relationships are treated virtually the same. However, there is still a mystique about marriage which gives it an air of importance, over and above bare legal obligations, that is hard to pin down. I think it has something to do with the fact that most Western people still get married in a church. Plenty of cultures have the idea that marriage is the creation (or rediscovery) of a spiritual bond that can never be severed. “Till death do us part” is a pretty heavy promise, if treated sincerely. But for many people, this bond continues even beyond death. I was invited to an old friend’s marriage recently where the Christian priest emphasised again and again his belief that, by getting married, the couple were becoming one on a spiritual level. He used the analogy of two flames uniting. For many people marriage symbolises a metaphysical change that, at some level, is irreversible.

There has been a lot of recent focus on the impermanence of marriage. Not only has divorce become more common, but a lot of people see the entire institution of matrimony as redundant and outdated. Why pledge your allegiance to one person for the rest of your life? Why not just proceed through a whole string of relationships, or none at all? This change in attitude will inevitably produce a different sort of society than the one dominated by the ‘nuclear family’ of the 1950’s. Only time will tell if it is for better or for worse.