Saturday, September 15, 2007

Marriage and Morals, Chapter 6

Chapter 6 (pages 63-77): "Romantic Love"

Brutality marked the relations between the sexes during the Dark Ages. As the doctrine of clerical celibacy took hold, their now sinful relationships with women became more depraved.

The notion of romantic love was contributed by the laity, not by the Church. This notion is that the beloved is both precious and hard to win over; all sorts of feats are required to conquer her. Russell follows many moralists (surprisingly, at least to me), when he suggests that the high value placed on the lady is the result of the difficulty of obtaining her: “when a man has no difficulty in obtaining a woman, his feeling towards her does not take the form of romantic love [p. 66].” At first, romantic love was directed at unobtainable “women of the highest respectability…[p. 66].” The Church had made sex so disreputable that high sentiments could only be nurtured towards women who were not available sexually. It is hard for moderns to grasp the sort of transcendent emotion that applied only to the unattainable, as only such women were worthy of it, being removed from the defilement of sex. But this emotion produced Dante and other excellent literature. It didn’t quite take in France and Burgundy, however, where the “Romaunt of the Rose” allowed the satisfaction of knightly courtship. The knightly love of the “Rose” was reserved for aristocrats, however, who were somewhat exempt from ecclesiastical strictures. “In our democratic age we are apt to forget what the world has owed at various times to aristocracies [p. 70]”; so writes the grandson of Lord Russell.

Renaissance romantic love was non-platonic but still poetic, with the poetry employed in wooing. “From the point of view of the arts, it is certainly regrettable when women are too accessible; what is most to be desired is that they should be difficult but not impossible of access [p. 72].” The romantic era, as personified by Shelley, saw the peak of romantic love, but even Shelley’s efforts were stimulated by the “social barriers” (p. 73) placed in his path to women.

But the love is more important than the poetry. “I believe myself that romantic love is the source of the most intense delights that life has to offer [p. 74].” (There will be much more praise of love in Chapter 9.) People should have the opportunity to experience this joy, though romantic love should not be the “main purpose” of life.

The idea “that marriage should be the outcome of romantic love [pp. 74-75]” is of recent vintage. And it is not clear that having people marry for romance – instead of, say, having parents make matches for other reasons – has been an unbridled success. Romantic views of marriage are common in the United States, “where law and custom alike are based upon the dreams of spinsters [pp. 75-76],” but the end product has been substantial divorce and a paucity of happy marriages.

Marriage transcends the pleasure of the parties, in part by producing children. Russell thinks that it is desirable that romantic love motivate marriages, but romantic visions are inaccurate. Most happy marriages require “an affectionate intimacy quite unmixed with illusion [p. 77].” And children really are key, because if it were not for them, “there would be no need of any institution concerned with sex…[p. 77].” With kids on the scene, the feelings of a husband and wife “towards each other are no longer what is of most importance [p. 77].” Again, these sentiments are re-iterated in Chapter 9.

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