The Objects of Marriage

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The Objects of Marriage  (1920) 
by Havelock Ellis

What are the legitimate objects of marriage? We know that many people seek to marry for ends that can scarcely be called legitimate, that men may marry to obtain a cheap domestic drudge or nurse, and that women may marry to be kept when they are tired of keeping themselves. These objects in marriage may or may not be moral, but in any case they are scarcely its legitimate ends. We are here concerned to ascertain those ends of marriage which are legitimate when we take the highest ground as moral and civilised men and women living in an advanced state of society and seeking, if we can, to advance that state of society still further.

The primary end of marriage is to beget and bear offspring, and to rear them until they are able to take care of themselves. On that basis Man is at one with all the mammals and most of the birds. If, indeed,, we disregard the originally less essential part of this end — that is to say, the care and tending of the young — this end of marriage is not only the primary but usually the sole end of sexual intercourse in the whole mammal world. As a natural instinct, its achievement involves gratification and well-being, but this bait of gratification is merely a device of Nature's and not in itself an end having any useful function at the periods when conception is not possible. This is clearly indicated by the fact that among animals the female only experiences sexual desire at the season of impregnation, and that desire ceases as soon as impregnation takes place, though this is only in a few species true of the male, obviously because, if his sexual desire and aptitude were confined to so brief a period, the chances of the female meeting the right male at the right moment would be too seriously diminished; so that the attentive and inquisitive attitude towards the female by the male animal- — which we may often think we see still traceable in the human species — is not the outcome of lustfulness for personal gratification ("wantonly to satisfy carnal lusts and appetites like brute beasts" as the Anglican Prayer Book incorrectly puts it) but implanted by Nature for the benefit of the female and the attainment of the primary object of procreation. This primary object we may term the animal end of marriage. This object remains not only the primary but even the sole end of marriage among the lower races of mankind generally. The erotic idea, in its deeper sense, that is to say the element of love, arose very slowly in mankind. It is found, it is true, among some lower races, and it appears that some tribes possess a word for the joy of love in a purely psychic sense. But even among European races the evolution was late. The Greek poets, except the latest, showed little recognition of love as an element of marriage.

Theognis compared marriage with cattle-breeding. The Romans of the Republic took much the same view. Greeks and Romans alike regarded breeding as the one recognisable object of marriage; any other object was mere wantonness and had better, they thought, be carried on outside marriage. Religion, which preserves so many ancient and primitive conceptions of life, has consecrated this conception also, and Christianity — though,, as I will point out later, it has tended to enlarge the conception — at the outset only offered the choice between celibacy on the one hand and on the other marriage for the production of offspring.

Yet, from an early period in human history, a secondary function of sexual intercourse had been slowly growing up to become one of the great objects of marriage. Among animals, it may be said, and even sometimes in man, the sexual impulse, when once aroused, makes but a short and swift circuit through the brain to reach its consummation. But as the brain and its faculties develop, powerfully aided indeed by the very difficulties of the sexual life, the impulse for sexual union has to traverse ever longer, slower, more painful paths, before it reaches — and sometimes it never reaches — its ultimate object. This means that sex gradually becomes in- tertwined with all the highest and subtlest human emotions and activities, with the refinements of social intercourse, with high adventure in every sphere, with art, with religion. The primitive animal instinct, having the sole end of procreation, becomes on its way tp that end the inspiring stimulus to all those psychic energies which in civilisation we count most precious. This function is thus, we see, a by-product. But, as we know, even in our human factories, the by-product is sometimes more valuable than the product. That is so as regards the functional products of human evolution. The hand was produced out of the animal forelimb with the primary end of grasping the things we materially need, but as a by-product the hand has developed the function of making and playing the piano and the violin, and that secondary (functional by-product of the hand we account, even as measured by the rough test of money, more precious, however less materially necessary, than its primary function. It is, however, only in rare and gifted natures that transformed sexual energy becomes of supreme value for its own sake without ever attaining the normal physical outlet.

For the most part the by-product accompanies the product, throughout, thus adding a secondary, yet peculiarly sacred and specially human, object of marriage to its primary animal object. This may be termed the spiritual object of marriage.

By the term, "spiritual" we are not to understand any mysterious and supernatural qualities. It is simply a convenient name, in distinction from animal, to cover all those higher mental and emotional processes which in human evolution are ever gaining greater power. It is need- less to enumerate the constituents of this spiritual end of sexual intercourse, for everyone is entitled to enumerate them differently and in different order. They include not only all that makes love a gracious and beautiful erotic art, but the whole element of pleasure in so far as pleasure is more than a mere animal gratification. Our ancient ascetic traditions often make us blind to the meaning of pleasure. We see only its possibilities of evil and not its mightiness for good. We forget that, as Romain Rolland says, "Joy is as holy as Pain. ,, No one has insisted so much on the supreme importance of the element of pleasure in the spiritual ends of sex as James Hinton. Rightly used, he declares, Pleasure is "the Child of God," to be recognised as a "mighty storehouse of force," and he pointed out the significant fact that in the course of human progress its importance increases rather than diminishes.[1] While it is perfectly true that sexual energy may be in large degree arrested, and transformed into intellectual and moral forms, yet it is also true that pleasure itself, and above all, sexual pleasure, wisely used and not abused, may prove the stimulus and liberator of our finest and most exalted activities. It is largely this remarkable function of sexual pleasure which is decisive in settling the argument of those who claim that continence is the only alternative to the animal end of marriage. That argument ignores the liberating and harmonising influences, giving wholesome balance and sanity to the whole organism, imparted by a sexual union which is the outcome of the psychic as well as physical needs. There is, further, in the attainment of the spiritual end of marriage, much more than the benefit of each individual separately. There is, that is to say, the effect on the union itself. For through harmonious sex relationships a deeper spiritual unity is reached than can possibly be derived from continence in or out of marriage, and the marriage association becomes an apter instrument in the service of the world. Apart from any sexual craving, the complete spiritual contact of two persons who love each other can only be attained through some act of rare intimacy. No act can be quite so intimate as the sexual embrace. In its accomplishment, for all who have reached a reasonably human degree of development, the communion of bodies becomes the communion of souls. The outward and visible sign has been the consummation of an inward and spiritual grace. "I would base all my sex teaching to children and young people on the beauty and sacredness of sex," wrote a distinguished woman ; "sex intercourse is the great sacrament of life, he that eateth and drinketh unworthily eateth and drinketh his own damnation; but it may be the most beautiful sacrament between two souls who have no thought of children."[2] To many the idea of a sacrament seems merely ecclesiastical, but that is a misunderstanding. The word "sacrament" is the ancient Roman name of a soldier's oath of military allegiance, and the idea, in the deeper sense, existed long before Christianity, and has ever been regarded as the physical sign of the closest possible union with some great spiritual reality. From our modern standpoint we may say, with James Hinton, that the sexual embrace, worthily understood, can only be compared with music and with prayer. "Every true lover," it has been well said by a woman, "knows this, and the worth of any and every relationship can be judged by its success in reaching, or failing to reach, this standpoint."[3]

I have mentioned how the Church — in part influenced by that clinging to primitive conceptions which always marks religions and in part by its ancient traditions of asceticism — tended to insist mainly, if not exclusively, on the animal object of marriage. It sought to reduce sex to a minimum because the pagans magnified sex; it banned pleasure because the Christian's path on earth was the way of the Cross ; and even if theologians accepted the idea of a "Sacrament of Nature" they could only allow it to operate when the active interference of the priest was impossible, though it must in justice be said that, before the Council of Trent, the Western Church recognised that the sacrament of marriage was effected entirely by the act of the two celebrants themselves and not by the priest. Gradually, however, a more reasonable and humane opinion crept into the Church. Intercourse outside the animal end of marriage was indeed a sin, but it became merely a venial sin. The great influence of St. Augustine was on the side of allowing much freedom to intercourse outside the aim of procreation. At the Reformation, John a Lasco, a Catholic Bishop who became a Protestant and settled in England, laid it down, following various earlier theologians, that the object of marriage, besides offspring, was to serve as a "sacrament of consolation" to the united couple, and that view was more or less accepted by the founders of the Protestant churches. It is the generally accepted Protestant view to-day.[4] The importance of the spiritual end of intercourse in marriage, alike for the higher development of each member of the couple and for the intimacy and stability of their union, is still more emphatically set forth by the more advanced thinkers of to-day.

There is something pathetic in the spectacle of those among us who are still only able to recognise the animal end of marriage, and who point to the example of the lower animals — among whom the biological conditions are entirely different — as worthy of our imitation. It has taken God — or Nature, if we will — unknown millions of years of painful struggle to evolve Man, and to raise the human species above that helpless bondage to reproduction which marks the lower animals. But on these people it has all been wasted. They are at the animal stage still. They have yet to learn the A. B. C. of love. A representative of these people in the person of an Anglican bishop, the Bishop of Southwark, appeared as a witness before the National Birth-Rate Commission which, a few years ago, met in London to investigate the decline of the birthrate. He declared that procreation is the sole legitimate object of marriage and that intercourse for any other end was a degrading act of mere "self-gratification." This declaration had the interesting result of evoking the comments of many members of the Commission, formed of representative men and women with various stand- points — Protestant, Catholic, and other — and it is notable that while not one identified himself with the Bishop's opinion, several decisively opposed that opinion, as contrary to the best beliefs of both ancient and modern times, as representing a low and not a high moral standpoint, and as involving the notion that the whole sexual activity of an individual should be reduced to perhaps two or three effective acts of inter- course in a lifetime. Such a notion obviously cannot be carried into general practice, putting aside the question as to whether it would be desirable, and it may be added that it would have the further result of shutting out from the life of love altogether all those persons who, for whatever reason, feel that it is their duty to refrain from having children at all. It is the attitude of a handful of Pharisees seeking to thrust the bulk of mankind into Hell. All this confusion and evil comes of the blindness which cannot know that, beyond the primary animal end of propagation in marriage, there is a secondary but more exalted spiritual end.

It is needless to insist how intimately that secondary end of marriage is bound up with the practice of birth-control Without birth-control, indeed, it could frequently have no existence at all, and even at the best seldom be free from disconcerting possibilities fatal to its very essence. Against these disconcerting possibilities is often placed, on the other side, the un-aesthetic nature of the contraceptives associated with birth-control. Yet, it must be remembered, they are of a part with the whole of our civilised human life. We at no point enter the spiritual save through the material. Forel has in this connection compared the use of contraceptives to the use of eyeglasses. Eye-glasses are equally un-aesthetic, yet they are devices, based on Nature, wherewith to supplement the deficiencies of Nature. However in themselves un-aesthetic, for those who need them they make the aesthetic possible. Eyeglasses and contraceptives alike are a portal to the spiritual world for many who., without them, would find that world largely a closed book.

Birth-control is effecting, and promising to effect, many functions in our social life. By furnishing the means to limit the size of families, which would otherwise be excessive, it confers the greatest benefit on the family and especially on the mother. By rendering easily possible a selection in parentage and the choice of the right time and circumstances for conception it is, again, the chief key to the eugenic improvement of the race. There are many other benefits, as is now generally becoming clear, which will be derived from the rightly applied practice of birth-control.

To many of us it is not the least of these that birth-control effects finally the complete liberation of the spiritual object of marriage.

References[edit]

  1. Mrs. Havelock Ellis, James Hinton: A Sketch, Ch. IV.
  2. Olive Schreiner in a personal letter.
  3. Mrs. Havelock Ellis, James Hinton, p. 180.
  4. It is well set forth by the Rev. H. Northcote in his excellent book, Christianity and Sex Problems.