The Physiology of Marriage/Part 1/Med 9
Meditation IX: Epilogue
Faithful to our promise, this first part has indicated the general causes which bring all marriages to the crises which we are about to describe; and, in tracing the steps of this conjugal preamble, we have also pointed out the way in which the catastrophe is to be avoided, for we have pointed out the errors by which it is brought about.
But these first considerations would be incomplete if, after endeavoring to throw some light upon the inconsistency of our ideas, of our manners and of our laws, with regard to a question which concerns the life of almost all living beings, we did not endeavor to make plain, in a short peroration, the political causes of the infirmity which pervades all modern society. After having exposed the secret vices of marriage, would it not be an inquiry worthy of philosophers to search out the causes which have rendered it so vicious?
The system of law and of manners which so far directs women and controls marriage in France, is the outcome of ancient beliefs and traditions which are no longer in accordance with the eternal principles of reason and of justice, brought to light by the great Revolution of 1789.
Three great disturbances have agitated France; the conquest of the country by the Romans, the establishment of Christianity and the invasion of the Franks. Each of these events has left a deep impress upon the soil, upon the laws, upon the manners and upon the intellect of the nation.
Greece having one foot on Europe and the other on Asia, was influenced by her voluptuous climate in the choice of her marriage institutions; she received them from the East, where her philosophers, her legislators and her poets went to study the abstruse antiquities of Egypt and Chaldea. The absolute seclusion of women which was necessitated under the burning sun of Asia prevailed under the laws of Greece and Ionia. The women remained in confinement within the marbles of the gyneceum. The country was reduced to the condition of a city, to a narrow territory, and the courtesans who were connected with art and religion by so many ties, were sufficient to satisfy the first passions of the young men, who were few in number, since their strength was elsewhere taken up in the violent exercises of that training which was demanded of them by the military system of those heroic times.
At the beginning of her royal career Rome, having sent to Greece to seek such principles of legislation as might suit the sky of Italy, stamped upon the forehead of the married woman the brand of complete servitude. The senate understood the importance of virtue in a republic, hence the severity of manners in the excessive development of the marital and paternal power. The dependence of the woman on her husband is found inscribed on every code. The seclusion prescribed by the East becomes a duty, a moral obligation, a virtue. On these principles were raised temples to modesty and temples consecrated to the sanctity of marriage; hence, sprang the institution of censors, the law of dowries, the sumptuary laws, the respect for matrons and all the characteristics of the Roman law. Moreover, three acts of feminine violation either accomplished or attempted, produced three revolutions! And was it not a grand event, sanctioned by the decrees of the country, that these illustrious women should make their appearances on the political arena! Those noble Roman women, who were obliged to be either brides or mothers, passed their life in retirement engaged in educating the masters of the world. Rome had no courtesans because the youth of the city were engaged in eternal war. If, later on, dissoluteness appeared, it merely resulted from the despotism of emperors; and still the prejudices founded upon ancient manners were so influential that Rome never saw a woman on a stage. These facts are not put forth idly in scanning the history of marriage in France.
After the conquest of Gaul, the Romans imposed their laws upon the conquered; but they were incapable of destroying both the profound respect which our ancestors entertained for women and the ancient superstitions which made women the immediate oracles of God. The Roman laws ended by prevailing, to the exclusion of all others, in this country once known as the "land of written law," or Gallia togata, and their ideas of marriage penetrated more or less into the "land of customs."
But, during the conflict of laws with manners, the Franks invaded the Gauls and gave to the country the dear name of France. These warriors came from the North and brought the system of gallantry which had originated in their western regions, where the mingling of the sexes did not require in those icy climates the jealous precautions of the East. The women of that time elevated the privations of that kind of life by the exaltation of their sentiments. The drowsy minds of the day made necessary those varied forms of delicate solicitation, that versatility of address, the fancied repulse of coquetry, which belong to the system whose principles have been unfolded in our First Part, as admirably suited to the temperate clime of France.
To the East, then, belong the passion and the delirium of passion, the long brown hair, the harem, the amorous divinities, the splendor, the poetry of love and the monuments of love.— To the West, the liberty of wives, the sovereignty of their blond locks, gallantry, the fairy life of love, the secrecy of passion, the profound ecstasy of the soul, the sweet feelings of melancholy and the constancy of love.
These two systems, starting from opposite points of the globe, have come into collision in France; in France, where one part of the country, Languedoc, was attracted by Oriental traditions, while the other, Languedoïl, was the native land of a creed which attributes to woman a magical power. In the Languedoïl, love necessitates mystery, in the Languedoc, to see is to love.
At the height of this struggle came the triumphant entry of Christianity into France, and there it was preached by women, and there it consecrated the divinity of a woman who in the forests of Brittany, of Vendee and of Ardennes took, under the name of Notre-Dame, the place of more than one idol in the hollow of old Druidic oaks.
If the religion of Christ, which is above all things a code of morality and politics, gave a soul to all living beings, proclaimed that equality of all in the sight of God, and by such principles as these fortified the chivalric sentiments of the North, this advantage was counterbalanced by the fact, that the sovereign pontiff resided at Rome, of which seat he considered himself the lawful heir, through the universality of the Latin tongue, which became that of Europe during the Middle Ages, and through the keen interest taken by monks, writers and lawyers in establishing the ascendency of certain codes, discovered by a soldier in the sack of Amalfi.
These two principles of the servitude and the sovereignty of women retain possession of the ground, each of them defended by fresh arguments.
The Salic law, which was a legal error, was a triumph for the principle of political and civil servitude for women, but it did not diminish the power which French manners accorded them, for the enthusiasm of chivalry which prevailed in Europe supplanted the party of manners against the party of law.
And in this way was created that strange phenomenon which since that time has characterized both our national despotism and our legislation; for ever since those epochs which seemed to presage the Revolution, when the spirit of philosophy rose and reflected upon the history of the past, France has been the prey of many convulsions. Feudalism, the Crusades, the Reformation, the struggle between the monarchy and the aristocracy. Despotism and Priestcraft have so closely held the country within their clutches, that woman still remains the subject of strange counter-opinions, each springing from one of the three great movements to which we have referred. Was it possible that the woman question should be discussed and woman's political education and marriage should be ventilated when feudalism threatened the throne, when reform menaced both king and barons, and the people, between the hierarchy and the empire, were forgotten? According to a saying of Madame Necker, women, amid these great movements, were like the cotton wool put into a case of porcelain. They were counted for nothing, but without them everything would have been broken.
A married woman, then, in France presents the spectacle of a queen out at service, of a slave, at once free and a prisoner; a collision between these two principles which frequently occurred, produced odd situations by the thousand. And then, woman was physically little understood, and what was actually sickness in her, was considered a prodigy, witchcraft or monstrous turpitude. In those days these creatures, treated by the law as reckless children, and put under guardianship, were by the manners of the time deified and adored. Like the freedmen of emperors, they disposed of crowns, they decided battles, they awarded fortunes, they inspired crimes and revolutions, wonderful acts of virtue, by the mere flash of their glances, and yet they possessed nothing and were not even possessors of themselves. They were equally fortunate and unfortunate. Armed with their weakness and strong in instinct, they launched out far beyond the sphere which the law allotted them, showing themselves omnipotent for evil, but impotent for good; without merit in the virtues that were imposed upon them, without excuse in their vices; accused of ignorance and yet denied an education; neither altogether mothers nor altogether wives. Having all the time to conceal their passions, while they fostered them, they submitted to the coquetry of the Franks, while they were obliged like Roman women, to stay within the ramparts of their castles and bring up those who were to be warriors. While no system was definitely decided upon by legislation as to the position of women, their minds were left to follow their inclinations, and there are found among them as many who resemble Marion Delorme as those who resemble Cornelia; there are vices among them, but there are as many virtues. These were creatures as incomplete as the laws which governed them; they were considered by some as a being midway between man and the lower animals, as a malignant beast which the laws could not too closely fetter, and which nature had destined, with so many other things, to serve the pleasure of men; while others held woman to be an angel in exile, a source of happiness and love, the only creature who responded to the highest feelings of man, while her miseries were to be recompensed by the idolatry of every heart. How could the consistency, which was wanting in a political system, be expected in the general manners of the nation?
And so woman became what circumstances and men made her, instead of being what the climate and native institutions should have made her; sold, married against her taste, in accordance with the Patria potestas of the Romans, at the same time that she fell under the marital despotism which desired her seclusion, she found herself tempted to take the only reprisals which were within her power. Then she became a dissolute creature, as soon as men ceased to be intently occupied in intestine war, for the same reason that she was a virtuous woman in the midst of civil disturbances. Every educated man can fill in this outline, for we seek from movements like these the lessons and not the poetic suggestion which they yield.
The Revolution was too entirely occupied in breaking down and building up, had too many enemies, or followed perhaps too closely on the deplorable times witnessed under the regency and under Louis XV, to pay any attention to the position which women should occupy in the social order.
The remarkable men who raised the immortal monument which our codes present were almost all old-fashioned students of law deeply imbued with a spirit of Roman jurisprudence; and moreover they were not the founders of any political institutions. Sons of the Revolution, they believed, in accordance with that movement, that the law of divorce wisely restricted and the bond of dutiful submission were sufficient ameliorations of the previous marriage law. When that former order of things was remembered, the change made by the new legislation seemed immense.
At the present day the question as to which of these two principles shall triumph rests entirely in the hands of our wise legislators. The past has teaching which should bear fruit in the future. Have we lost all sense of the eloquence of fact?
The principles of the East resulted in the existence of eunuchs and seraglios; the spurious social standing of France has brought in the plague of courtesans and the more deadly plague of our marriage system; and thus, to use the language of a contemporary, the East sacrifices to paternity men and the principle of justice; France, women and modesty. Neither the East nor France has attained the goal which their institutions point to; for that is happiness. The man is not more loved by the women of a harem than the husband is sure of being in France, as the father of his children; and marrying is not worth what it costs. It is time to offer no more sacrifice to this institution, and to amass a larger sum of happiness in the social state by making our manners and our institution conformable to our climate.
Constitutional government, a happy mixture of two extreme political systems, despotism and democracy, suggests by the necessity of blending also the two principles of marriage, which so far clash together in France. The liberty which we boldly claim for young people is the only remedy for the host of evils whose source we have pointed out, by exposing the inconsistencies resulting from the bondage in which girls are kept. Let us give back to youth the indulgence of those passions, those coquetries, love and its terrors, love and its delights, and that fascinating company which followed the coming of the Franks. At this vernal season of life no fault is irreparable, and Hymen will come forth from the bosom of experiences, armed with confidence, stripped of hatred, and love in marriage will be justified, because it will have had the privilege of comparison.
In this change of manners the disgraceful plague of public prostitution will perish of itself. It is especially at the time when the man possesses the frankness and timidity of adolescence, that in his pursuit of happiness he is competent to meet and struggle with great and genuine passions of the heart. The soul is happy in making great efforts of whatever kind; provided that it can act, that it can stir and move, it makes little difference, even though it exercise its power against itself. In this observation, the truth of which everybody can see, there may be found one secret of successful legislation, of tranquillity and happiness. And then, the pursuit of learning has now become so highly developed that the most tempestuous of our coming Mirabeaus can consume his energy either in the indulgence of a passion or the study of a science. How many young people have been saved from debauchery by self-chosen labors or the persistent obstacles put in the way of a first love, a love that was pure! And what young girl does not desire to prolong the delightful childhood of sentiment, is not proud to have her nature known, and has not felt the secret tremblings of timidity, the modesty of her secret communings with herself, and wished to oppose them to the young desires of a lover inexperienced as herself! The gallantry of the Franks and the pleasures which attend it should then be the portion of youth, and then would naturally result a union of soul, of mind, of character, of habits, of temperament and of fortune, such as would produce the happy equilibrium necessary for the felicity of the married couple. This system would rest upon foundations wider and freer, if girls were subjected to a carefully calculated system of disinheritance; or if, in order to force men to choose only those who promised happiness by their virtues, their character or their talents, they married as in the United States without dowry.
In that case, the system adopted by the Romans could advantageously be applied to the married women who when they were girls used their liberty. Being exclusively engaged in the early education of their children, which is the most important of all maternal obligations, occupied in creating and maintaining the happiness of the household, so admirably described in the fourth book of Julie, they would be in their houses like the women of ancient Rome, living images of Providence, which reigns over all, and yet is nowhere visible. In this case, the laws covering the infidelity of the wife should be extremely severe. They should make the penalty disgrace, rather than inflict painful or coercive sentences. France has witnessed the spectacle of women riding asses for the pretended crime of magic, and many an innocent woman has died of shame. In this may be found the secret of future marriage legislation. The young girls of Miletus delivered themselves from marriage by voluntary death; the senate condemned the suicides to be dragged naked on a hurdle, and the other virgins condemned themselves for life.
Women and marriage will never be respected until we have that radical change in manners which we are now begging for. This profound thought is the ruling principle in the two finest productions of an immortal genius. Émile and La Nouvelle Heloise are nothing more than two eloquent pleas for the system. The voice there raised will resound through the ages, because it points to the real motives of true legislation, and the manners which will prevail in the future. By placing children at the breast of their mothers, Jean-Jacques rendered an immense service to the cause of virtue; but his age was too deeply gangrened with abuses to understand the lofty lessons unfolded in those two poems; it is right to add also that the philosopher was in these works overmastered by the poet, and in leaving in the heart of Julie after her marriage some vestiges of her first love, he was led astray by the attractiveness of a poetic situation, more touching indeed, but less useful than the truth which he wished to display.
Nevertheless, if marriage in France is an unlimited contract to which men agree with a silent understanding that they may thus give more relish to passion, more curiosity, more mystery to love, more fascination to women; if a woman is rather an ornament to the drawing-room, a fashion-plate, a portmanteau, than a being whose functions in the order politic are an essential part of the country's prosperity and the nation's glory, a creature whose endeavors in life vie in utility with those of men--I admit that all the above theory, all these long considerations sink into nothingness at the prospect of such an important destiny!——
But after having squeezed a pound of actualities in order to obtain one drop of philosophy, having paid sufficient homage to that passion for the historic, which is so dominant in our time, let us turn our glance upon the manners of the present period. Let us take the cap and bells and the coxcomb of which Rabelais once made a sceptre, and let us pursue the course of this inquiry without giving to one joke more seriousness than comports with it, and without giving to serious things the jesting tone which ill befits them.