Marriage as an Ontological Real

By training and habit, we moderns think of marriage as a mere and adventitious arrangement of pre-existent and utterly independent entities. We think of it therefore as merely conventional, and so as subsistent completely in the continued agreement of its constituent members, the husband and wife, and so by either of them ever and completely severable, this eliminable, without appreciable rupture or wound to the goodness inherent in the causal order. We think of it as a deal, and nothing more – as if deals were nothing. We think of marriage, that is to say, as not truly real. We think of it as a social and legal fiction.

In this, we err. It is not so. For, deals are real. And they really impose themselves upon us, so shaping our acts. They *oblige* us. Who has not felt this?

As wholes are ontologically prior to their parts, so is a marriage ontologically prior to the husband and wife who together constitute it. It is a thing, as concrete as any stone, aye moreso; for unlike a stone, it acts in ways that superordain, and so constrain, its members, whom those acts effect as such – for, the marriage makes a man a husband, a woman a wife, and not vice versa. A stone does nothing apart from the acts of its members. But marriages do. Viz., they can effect households, and children, and families, which their members taken as individuals cannot do. Insofar as they are solemnized – publicly pronounced and admitted, and by the circumambient community recognized and agreed – they are new beings, nowise beforehand present in their spousal members.

The spouses do not make the marriage then, but vice versa. The espousal is not a creation of a new thing ex nihilo, but a recognition of a reality, to which the spouses find themselves compelled to recognize and agree.

The spouses are minsters of the marriage, but not its creators. They are, rather, its servants, its heirs and vassals. Their loyalty then, their fealty, is not so much to each other (although it is at least that) as to a new being, greater than either of them, and so ennobling them both in some larger purpose to which neither of them alone could be adequate, or adequately undertake; to which either of them alone would in the end be alien, and strange.

So: never kill a marriage. It is to kill a being, with a mind, a heart, a spirit and a life. It is to murder.

16 thoughts on “Marriage as an Ontological Real

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  2. Very powerful.

    And yet, (M)arriage cannot, ultimately, be murdered by the individual betrayal.

    But divorce is certainly an act of self-annihilation.

    For the sin of de-part-ing is in the insane desire to destroy the (W)hole.

    So (P)erfection will never suffer its most willing impperfections.

    • By its participation of a marriage, an individual self is rendered more powerful, thus more actual; for in virtue of that participation, it partakes of acts (at a minimum, of the marital act) that it could not by any means essay independently. Thus is the self by marriage ontologically enlarged and ennobled.

      So the destruction of a marriage does indeed diminish both the spouses. It annihilates them, as you say, at least a bit, by vitiating the enlargement that their marriage engendered in them.

      This is not just airy fairy metaphysics. It is quite practical. Divorce impoverishes reproduction even of the children that have already been generated by the marriage it ruins. I know – o how concretely, I know – how the divorce of my parents has impoverished me as a person, and thus my own marriage, and thus my children as persons, and their marriages, and their children, on and on, at least to the seventh generation.

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  4. Good words Kristor, thanks.

    So: never kill a marriage. It is to kill a being, with a mind, a heart, a spirit and a life. It is to murder.

    As a fellow Catholic, your further thoughts I meekly solicit. Our understanding of a Christian marriage is that it cannot be killed, regardless of the violence one might do to it.

    Not merely jousting with you for fun, I doubt I am even nearly the only one reading your words here whose life is very immediately affected by a proper understanding of what has really happened behind all the thick smoke surrounding marriage in our day.

    • You are correct, of course. There is no way to undo the ordination to the spousal office and marital estate effected by the consummation of the wedding. Thus so long as both spouses live, the marriage does, too. Nevertheless when they separate or divorce, and live no longer together as man and wife, the marriage suffers something like what a human suffers at death, and prior to the resurrection of the body: the form of the marriage lives on, but incorporeally, and thus defectively actualized. It looms still over all its familiars, but rather as a shade than as a tower.

      • Hah! Good point. So, to truly murder a marriage, you must murder a spouse. Both ontological reals – the person and the marriage – are then really murdered.

      • And of course your point (Kristor) still stands above – that when a marriage is … dissolved and the spouses no longer live together, the very thing itself diminishes each of the spouses to the extent (or perhaps to a greater extent than) the marriage enlarged them and made them more actual. I tend to think the same can be said of “re-marriage” to a different person following divorce. What are your thoughts on that?

        Great post, and great discussion, btw!

      • An interesting question. My first take is that to the extent a man abuses himself of the false notion that he can end a valid marriage to one woman and begin another, he damages himself: weakens himself, by ruining his fit to reality, and with it the fitness of all his acts. When we conform ourselves to a falsehood, ipso facto we discomfit ourselves to things as they are, and so render ourselves a bit incongruous, a bit inapt. All our acts thereafter are thereby somewhat queered, a bit misguided, errant, costly, painful, so stymied. So are we rendered less efficacious than we might have been; diminished causally, ergo ontologically.

        So, who thinks falsely that he has succeeded in divorcing his wife vitiates his vim. It is as if he had added to the schedule of his beliefs, according to which he forms all his acts, the conviction that he can work magic. Who then thinks he marries another reiterates that fault, and in his psychic economy compounds it. He partakes a double falsehood.

        Not that there is anything particularly blameworthy in so doing. We all do the same sort of thing, all the time. Each of our false acts redounds to another, which then redounds to another, in an endless cycle; and there is no way out of the relentless, implacable subsequent gyre toward Hell that yawns then before us, a devouring maw, other than confession, repentance, absolution, penance, and a change of life.

  5. By training and habit, we moderns think of marriage as a mere and adventitious arrangement of pre-existent and utterly independent entities. We think of it therefore as merely conventional, and so as subsistent completely in the continued agreement of its constituent members, the husband and wife

    You are behind the curve. In fact the individuals are themselves “adventitious arrangements of entities” — biological and cultural. It doesn’t make them unreal, nor does it make a marriage unreal if it happens to be composed of parts.

    We think of it as a deal, and nothing more – as if deals were nothing.

    Well I don’t want to presume to speak for all of modernity or postmodernity, but since that seems to be my job here: it *is* a deal, but that doesn’t make it nothing.

    We think of it as a social and legal fiction.

    No more or less than anything else.

    By its participation of a marriage, an individual self is rendered more powerful, thus more actual;

    This is a very interesting idea, that beings can become more actual by virtue of being more powerful. Very close to a passage in Latour’s Irreductions,

    1.1.5 Whatever resists trials is real.
    1.1.5.1 The real is not one thing among others but rather gradients of resistance.
    1.1.5.2 There is no difference between the “real” and the “unreal”, the “real” and the “possible”, the “real” and the “imaginary.” Rather, there are all the differences experienced between those that resist for long and those that do not, those that resist courageously and those that do not, those that know how to ally or isolate themselves and those that do not.

    • A.morphous, thanks, honestly; this was a far more interesting and valuable challenge than most – a more *challenging* challenge.

      … the individuals are themselves “adventitious arrangements of entities” – biological and cultural. It doesn’t make them unreal, nor does it make a marriage unreal if it happens to be composed of parts.

      It’s adventition all the way down, eh? Just the orderless collisions of pointless dead stupid atoms? Don’t you see that this *does* make the marriage, and the individuals who constitute it, utterly void? They don’t actually exist, under atomism. All that exists under atomism is atoms. Period. Full stop. That’s it. Under atomism, there is nothing but atoms. There is then no such thing as atomism, or atomists. “Atomism” then is just noise, sound and fury, signifying nothing.

      It’s a philosophical dead end. You should abandon it, if you want to live.

      … [marriage] *is* a deal, but that doesn’t make it nothing.

      Exactly. That marriage is at least a deal makes it more than nothing. That was my point. Deals, too, are real; albeit, that they are not real in the same way that a person or a marriage is real, nor are they as much real as a person or a marriage. So, to break a deal is really to break something, something real. It is to do an injury to the good order of things, it is to degrade the beauty of what is.

      Likewise a band is real, or a baseball team, or a fraternity, or a corporation. But they are not as real as marriages, or families, or nations. It’s not an all or nothing thing. It’s an all and everything thing.

      [Marriage is no] more or less [a social and legal fiction] than anything else.

      Either it is a fiction, or it is real. If it is a fiction, then … to Hell with it. It’s an illusion, and *nothing more whatsoever.* In that case, we are better off without it.

      That’s what the Left wants for it – that it should be nothing to us – because that’s what the Left thinks it really is. So the Left is focused like a laser on destroying marriage, thus the family, thus society.

      But, if marriage is real, then it is something we must reckon with really. We must accept it as a fact, rather than a mere fiction. If it is real, then also can it have true legal and social standing; then only might it really matter, actually, socially or legally (as we find that it always, always does, along all three dimensions, and absolutely without exception). Otherwise, its legal and social standing are just lies, and no one is actually affected by it, or therefore socially or legally affected by it. Which no one ever says is true.

      I had not heard of Latour, but I am interested to have done so now, and thank you for the introduction. I notice that in the quotation you provide, he contradicts himself (ah, those Gauls!):

      There is no difference between the “real” and the “unreal,” the “real” and the “possible,” the “real” and the “imaginary.” Rather, there are all the differences experienced between those that resist for long and those that do not …

      There are no differences, except the differences … how adorable. So cute, the wee bairn!

      Is it not *rather obvious* that what is real will resist longer than what is unreal, and that what is real will resist longer than what is merely possible, and that what is real will resist longer than what is merely imaginary? The quote you provide is obviously excerpted from a much greater and more sapient context, and it would therefore be jejune of me, and unfair, to judge Latour on the basis of the words you have quoted. But, honestly: all he seems to be doing here is treating the real differences between the real, the possible, the unreal, and the imaginary in terms of their “resistance.” That’s fine; those categories do in fact differ along the dimension of resistance. But that does not make their differences irreal. It does not mean that there are no differences between them, as Latour says it does. On the contrary – as he says. So I am not sure what he is getting at, but he sure does seem to be getting at it in an odd and roundabout way.

      All that said, yes: it is a standard doctrine of classical metaphysics that to be actual is to be in act; is, i.e., to be effectual, which is to say, powerful, influential in the constitutions of other entities. The more influential an act, the more actual it is. This is only to notice that the more a thing acts, so the more it acts – for, to act *just is* to effect.

      Thanks, again, a.morphous. Always fun to spar with you.

      • It’s adventition all the way down, eh? Just the orderless collisions of pointless dead stupid atoms? Don’t you see that this *does* make the marriage, and the individuals who constitute it, utterly void? They don’t actually exist, under atomism. All that exists under atomism is atoms…

        You keep making this strawman argument. I՚m not sure how to respond, since I don՚t believe in what you are attacking. The whole point of this discussion is about what counts as real, and the position “atoms are the only thing that is real” is not held by anybody here.

        To repeat myself: atoms are real, people and marriages are also real, even though they are composed of parts.

        Deals, too, are real; albeit, that they are not real in the same way that a person or a marriage is real,

        I think we are in complete agreement for a change.

        So, to break a deal is really to break something, something real. It is to do an injury to the good order of things, it is to degrade the beauty of what is.

        But here I have to disagree at least with the intent of this thought. Things like deals (and people, and everything else) get broken all the time, it՚s the fate of composites to eventually decompose.

        In the case of a deal or of marriage, it is obviously better (all else being equal) that it continue – that՚s part of their nature. But it doesn’t mean that any individual marriage, which is embedded in all sorts of other phenomenon, deserves to last forever. It means that it was not strong enough to resist the forces that tear things apart. C’est la vie.

        Either it is a fiction, or it is real. If it is a fiction, then … to Hell with it. It’s an illusion, and *nothing more whatsoever.* In that case, we are better off without it.

        Now here I am in complete disagreement. There is no such hard and fast boundary, and social constructs like nations or marriages are precisely fictions that take on aspects of reality by virtue of many people taking them seriously.

        That’s what the Left wants for it – that it should be nothing to us – because that’s what the Left thinks it really is. So the Left is focused like a laser on destroying marriage, thus the family, thus society.

        This is just another reflection of a basic cognitive difference between us. You think that “the family” is something fixed, eternal, created and thus defined by the Absolute and hence absolute itself. I, a leftist, think it՚s more of a contingent thing, created in the process of the evolution of mankind (biological and cultural), different in different historical and social contexts, and thus changeable in our own. To change it is to breathe new life into it, not to kill it. And it changes constantly, each new actual family is a a new variation on a theme; and changes in the law are merely tracking these variations, not causing them.

        These are just vastly different ways of thinking. Obviously I prefer my own, but I don՚t see how to convince you of its superiority. Still, you might be able to understand that a leftist who supports gay marriage might not be motivated in his own mind by a desire to destroy the family and society, even if those are the consequences you predict.

        There is no difference between the “real” and the “unreal,” the “real” and the “possible,” the “real” and the “imaginary.” Rather, there are all the differences experienced between those that resist for long and those that do not …[Latour]

        There are no differences, except the differences … how adorable. So cute, the wee bairn!

        The clear intent here is the same as I said above: to say that there aren՚t hard boundaries between the real and unreal, but rather a continuous degree of variation in ability to resist.

        And Latour (whatever his merits) is 70 and one of the most prominent of French philosophers, so calling him a “wee bairn” sounds a bit off.

        Is it not *rather obvious* that what is real will resist longer than what is unreal, and that what is real will resist longer than what is merely possible, and that what is real will resist longer than what is merely imaginary?… So I am not sure what he is getting at, but he sure does seem to be getting at it in an odd and roundabout way.

        It՚s not obvious to me, at least, not that you can dispense with the categories of real and unreal and replace it with the idea of resistence.

        But it is a common criticism of Latour that all his fancy ideas boil down to commonplaces or tautologies. I don՚t agree, but you aren՚t alone.

        Always fun to spar with you.

        Same here! Thanks for letting me crash the party here.

      • It’s adventition all the way down, eh? Just the orderless collisions of pointless dead stupid atoms? Don’t you see that this *does* make the marriage, and the individuals who constitute it, utterly void? They don’t actually exist, under atomism. All that exists under atomism is atoms…

        You keep making this strawman argument. I’m not sure how to respond, since I don’t believe in what you are attacking. The whole point of this discussion is about what counts as real, and the position “atoms are the only thing that is real” is not held by anybody here.

        To repeat myself: atoms are real, people and marriages are also real, even though they are composed of parts.

        Well, I’m relieved to hear you say this. What led me to think that you credited atomism was your use of the word “adventitious” in saying that:

        … the individuals [who together make a marriage] are themselves “adventitious arrangements of entities” – biological and cultural. It doesn’t make them unreal, nor does it make a marriage unreal if it happens to be composed of parts.

        An arrangement that is adventitious is “of the nature of an addition from without, not from the essence of the subject.” It is an arrangement that, in other words, is not a thing in its own right, with an essence and nature all its own. And this is to say that it is a thing that it does not act; that it has therefore no actual existence, but is rather purely and only the product of its causal factors. And this is to say that it is only *apparently* a “thing,” whereas in reality it is *nothing but,* and nothing more than, the operations of other things – namely, its constituent parts. Those operations can be real, so the “thing” can still be a real occurrence. It’s just that it can’t be an entity, a being. If, as you say, the individuals are adventitious, then they don’t really exist. Their nonexistence is not due to the fact that they have parts. It is due to the fact that they are entirely products of their parts. Such is the doctrine of eliminative materialism.

        It is not unusual for reductionists of the stricter, more bloody minded, honest and thoroughgoing sort to insist that *none* of the composite wholes of our experience are real; that, on the contrary, only the basic Democritean atomic constituents are real. So: Rutherfordian atoms, protons, cells, molecules, organelles, organisms, and so forth – ergo, notably, human persons – none of them are real. There are no such things.

        I am extremely pleased, my dear friend, to hear that you do not subscribe to that nonsense. That you do not, tells me that there is at least one sort of insanity to which you are not subject.

        … to break a deal is really to break something, something real. It is to do an injury to the good order of things, it is to degrade the beauty of what is.

        But here I have to disagree at least with the intent of this thought. Things like deals (and people, and everything else) get broken all the time, it’s the fate of composites to eventually decompose.

        Notice that we are not disagreeing here. For, as you then say:

        In the case of a deal or of marriage, it is obviously better (all else being equal) that it continue – that’s part of their nature.

        We agree that it is better to keep a deal, or a marriage, than not. We agree also that deals and marriages are fragile things, and that they must end eventually. But that death is inevitable does not mean that it is good. No one celebrates the premature ruptions of marriages. On the contrary: everyone rejoices at a marriage that has lasted 50 or 60 years. And everyone who is honest and right in the head mourns a divorce – even a divorce of two spouses who hated and abused each other – just as everyone who is honest and sane mourns a death – even the death of a great and unrepentant sinner. The mourning is not restricted in scope to the fact of the death, either of a wicked man or a vicious marriage; rather, it apprehends and covers all the horrors that led up to it.

        … social constructs like nations or marriages are precisely fictions that take on aspects of reality by virtue of many people taking them seriously …

        Wait, what? But you had just written that marriages are real! Now, just a few sentences later, you are saying that they are fictions. Which is it?

        Fictions *are not real.* That’s what makes them fictions. You can’t get a real fiction. That would be like getting a square circle. It’s a contradiction in terms. Either things are real, or they are not. And if they are not, then they are nothing but hallucinations. They are then false; false to facts. So they cannot but mislead us; cannot but lead us toward ruin – as, say, socialism does, or feminism, or globalism. Errors about what is real are lethal. That is why humans spend almost all their waking hours on the problem of understanding what’s what.

        You think that “the family” is something fixed, eternal, created and thus defined by the Absolute and hence absolute itself. I, a leftist, think it’s more of a contingent thing, created in the process of the evolution of mankind (biological and cultural), different in different historical and social contexts, and thus changeable in our own. To change it is to breathe new life into it, not to kill it. And it changes constantly, each new actual family is a new variation on a theme; and changes in the law are merely tracking these variations, not causing them.

        No; that’s not what’s happening. The law of marriage is being changed by judicial fiat, in direct contravention to the expressed will of the people. It is not thereby effecting a change in the nature of marriage, which is a fact in its own right. It is rather only deranging public policy more and more, degrading its fit to reality, its rationality, its working.

        That marriage has sometimes been polygynous or (in one or two cases) polyandrous does not mean that it has ever been homosexual. It has never been homosexual; for, it *just isn’t* homosexual, nor can it be. In evolutionary terms, and in all its forms, marriage is an institution intended to ensure that men devote themselves and their resources to the care of their own children, and not to the children of other men. No children, no marriage.

        You are right: we think in diametrically opposed terms. I am an essentialist. I think that that things have real natures – that they are true things, and not adventitious appearances – and that insofar as our terms pick out those natures accurately, they have true meaning – i.e., that they are (or can possibly be) true. You think otherwise.

        Do you not see how the notion that things have no true natures dooms all knowledge, all thought, all reason; all language, all discourse, all science?

        … you might be able to understand that a leftist who supports gay marriage might not be motivated in his own mind by a desire to destroy the family and society, even if those are the consequences you predict.

        Take yourself. You don’t think marriage has a real nature, apart from whatever it is we happen to have been thinking about it lately, so there is nothing really out there in marriage to destroy. Why not change marriage, then? That would not be to destroy anything, after all. It would be only to change our thoughts, which, in the final analysis, are only our thoughts, and which do not therefore have any purchase on reality; which can’t therefore have real consequences, such as destruction; which do not therefore matter. It’s all just a shadow play; why not play the shadows the way that we like?

        You don’t see that you are destroying marriage with your “improvements” to it, because you don’t see it out there in the first place, independent of you and your feelings about things.

        Latour (whatever his merits) is 70 and one of the most prominent of French philosophers, so calling him a “wee bairn” sounds a bit off.

        The notion he proposes is puerile. No; it is infantile. Nuff said.

        It’s not obvious to me, at least, [that] you can dispense with the categories of real and unreal and replace it with the idea of resistance.

        It is obvious to me that you *can’t* dispense with the categories of real and unreal, and replace them with the notion of resistance. The real is obviously more resistant than the unreal – facts are stubborn – but that does not mean there is nothing to reality other than resistance.

      • Fictions *are not real.* That’s what makes them fictions. You can’t get a real fiction. That would be like getting a square circle. It’s a contradiction in terms. Either things are real, or they are not.

        Well, this is another point on which we differ at a very fundamental level. Although some of your language (eg when you asserted that some things are more real than others) indicates you might not treat this as such a binary property yourself.

        We swim in a sea of fictions that are sort-of real: like the United States, for instance, a fiction in some sense (it used to not exist, it was created through somewhat arbitrary human processes) which is now very real and can assert power and be treated as an agent. The Latourian viewpoint is precisely that this sort of thing is very common, even in the hard sciences, because scientists minds work like anybody elses.

        So they cannot but mislead us; cannot but lead us toward ruin – as, say, socialism does, or feminism, or globalism.

        Some people view capitalism as equally ruinous. But socialism certainly has been as “real” as capitalism, in certain times and places. Only history will determine which one is “more real”, that is, more enduring.

        The law of marriage is being changed by judicial fiat, in direct contravention to the expressed will of the people. It is not thereby effecting a change in the nature of marriage, which is a fact in its own right.

        You live in San Francisco so you can՚t be unaware that there were a great many gay marriages and families that existed prior to any change in the law.

        Do you not see how the notion that things have no true natures dooms all knowledge, all thought, all reason; all language, all discourse, all science?

        No. I think this notion of “true nature” blinds people to actual phenomena.

        In the case of marriage, I think both the institution and the concept are richer by virtue of all the variation and experiment found in the actual phenomenon of marriage. It՚s not an eternal unchanging abstract concept, but a plastic idea that expresses itself in many different ways.

        You see only two possibilities: a world of unchanging eternal essences or a completely chaotic world where nothing is true and nothing can be known. But those aren՚t the only choices. The actual state of the universe IMO: There is a true reality, which is not fictional or arbitrary or a human creation. But it is not made of essences and it is not directly knowable. Our knowledge and ideas and conceptualizations of the universe are always partial and context-dependent, hence we are in a position of building fictions (representations) that are more or less real, but never perfect reflections of the Real.

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