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Philosophy Shorts

Philosophers on Marriage

by Matt Qvortrup

More Songs About Buildings and Food was the title of a 1978 album by the rock band Talking Heads. It was about all the things rock stars normally don’t sing about. Pop songs are usually about variations on the theme of love; tracks like Rose Royce’s 1976 hit ‘Car Wash’ are the exception.

Philosophers, likewise, tend to have a narrow focus on pistemology, metaphysics and trifles like the meaning of life. But occasionally great minds stray from their turf and write about other matters, for example buildings (Martin Heidegger), food (Hobbes), tomato juice (Robert Nozick), and the weather (Lucretius and Aristotle). This series of Shorts will be about these unfamiliar themes; about the things philosophers also write about.

The caricature image of the otherworldly philosopher is often that of the absent-minded bachelor. And certainly a fair number of them fall into the ‘single man’ category. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Thomas Aquinas, John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, and Friedrich Nietzsche, have very little in common, except that they remained unmarried.

Of course, there were exceptions, such as Hegel, Marx, and Aristotle. Plato, who also had a spouse, adopted a rather unforgiving view of those who avoided the nuptials. His aforementioned colleagues would have suffered severe consequences if the Athenian philosopher had his way. In Laws, Plato spoke about ‘the obligation to marry’, and continued, “if anyone disobeys [this duty], and unsocially keeps himself to himself so that he is still unmarried at the age of thirty-five, he must pay an annual fine” (p.253).

Immanuel Kant, although another bachelor, nevertheless reflected on aspects of the institution of marriage. The Prussian philosopher romantically defined sex as “the reciprocal use that one human being makes of the sexual organs and capacities of another…” (The Metaphysics of Morals, p.96). He went on to conclude that once a couple had exchanged vows, they have the exclusive right to use the sexual organs of the other person. Thomas Aquinas was less creative in his reflections on the subject, since he was at pains not to depart from the Church’s party line. He wrote: “In matrimony there is a joining in respect of which we speak of husband and wife; and this joining, through being directed to some one thing [procreation], is matrimony; while the joining together of bodies and minds is a result of matrimony” (Summa Theologica, Q44).

Philosophers always disagree, and few are further apart than Thomas Aquinas and his namesake Thomas Hobbes. They also disagreed on marriage. Hobbes – who also remained unmarried – had a rather dim view of matrimony. It was placed in the section on ‘Eternal Torment’ in his most famous book, Leviathan, “For the wicked”, he wrote, “may marry, and give in marriage, and have grosse and corruptible bodies, as all mankind now have” (p.411). Perhaps this was sour grapes.

Søren Kierkegaard, who notoriously broke off an engagement with the famed Regine Olsen in order to devote himself to philosophy, not surprisingly also pondered marriage. True to the soul-searching that characterises the father of existentialism, he wrote in Either/Or: “If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regret it; if you marry or if you do not marry, you will regret both; whether you marry or you do not marry, you will regret both” (Either/Or, p.33).

Well, not much guidance there. Maybe we need to think for ourselves about it?

© Prof. Matt Qvortrup 2021

Matt Qvortrup is Professor of Political Science at Coventry University.

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