Marriage in the ancient world was vastly different from the modern world in the way I shall demonstrate in this following article. In a day and age where many marriages/relationships are failing and marriage being redefined in many ways I think it is now necessary that we clearly think about these issues and make a clear future road map.
Now I’m going to put in a quote here by Plato from his works ‘Laws’. The context here is Plato is talking about the Laws that an ideal state should legislate and concerning marriage he finally says “Let there be one word concerning all marriages:–Every man shall follow, not after the marriage which is most pleasing to himself, but after that which is most beneficial to the state.” This statement would be extremely unwelcome in the modern individualistic age but the truth is this is how the ancient world thought about marriage. Let me provide some commentary to what Plato means, what he means as beneficial to the state is the common well being of man aka human flourishing or what the Greeks called Eudaimonia which translated in English means happiness more akin to the word bliss. Thus in modern terminology the institution of marriage provides the necessary socio-economic sustenance to society.
How much ever this modern hyper romantic age tries to dissuade this fact that pre modern societies thought of marriage largely as means or in terms of socio-economic personal and societal well being, I could prove that to you easy-peasy. Take one the Laws in Plato’s ‘Laws’, he considers marriage a duty towards society as everyone is obligated to contribute towards societal well being and if anyone stayed unmarried beyond marriageable age he has to pay a fine towards the state. Plato says “Let this be the prelude of the law about the duty of marriage. But if a man will not listen, and at thirty-five years of age is still unmarried, he shall pay an annual fine: if he be of the first class, 100 drachmas; if of the second, 70; if of the third, 60; and if of the fourth, 30.”
Therefore Saint John Chrysostom(349-407 CE) says “The love between the husband and the wife is the force the wields society together” . How so ?
Marriage brings together under its ambit procreation and child rearing. Children learnt their fathers trade and practiced it, therefore providing continuous economic sustenance. Large families living together is groups also provided the necessary social security against the vicissitudes of life and also companionship through life’s ebbs and flows; happiness and sorrows. Thus marriage in this way contributed towards achieving ‘eudaimonia’ or in normal English, human flourishing and societal well being.
The marriage laws in the ‘Ecloga’ a compilation of Byzantine law issued in 726 CE by Emperor Leo III reveal this fact and that romantic love was hardly considered an important factor in marriage. This is in stark contrast to modern notions of pursuing romantic love in marriage which we shall try to contrast now with traditional love and marriage. Therefore in the Socratic dialogues these two loves are contrasted, ‘Love is not love Which alters when it alteration finds. … Love’s not time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks Within his bending sickle’s compass come; Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, But bears it out even to the edge of doom.’ Now you may object that this continues to be the modern creed of love but let me clarify traditional marital love was faithful through happy and bad times, through health and sorrow so that it may lead to the greater good of personal and societal well being and eudaimonia. This proposition I may again superfluously demonstrate, modern romantics can read for themselves this quote from a Socratic dialogue where Plato makes sacred marital love and union because it benefits personal and societal well being. The Socratic dialogue reads
“Question:Then clearly the next thing will be to make matrimony sacred in the highest degree, and what is most beneficial will be deemed sacred?
Question : And how can marriages be made most beneficial?”
The modern breakaway
The modern breakaway from these traditional ideas starts with the 18th Romanticism movement that introduced fancies to pursue in real life and the Industrial revolution that produced the wealth and affluence to pursue it. The term “romantic“ was used in England for the first time in the 16th century to indicate the unreal and fanciful elements and romantic love continues to this day to introduces fanciful phantoms into life to this day. One such element is what they call ‘the soul mate’, every teenager grows up in life expecting to meet in life a person after which life is eternally blissful. Thus every love story those days had this plot, that a boy and a girl find this magical intuitive connect they call love and going against traditional wisdom and parental advice of well arranged marriages which would lead to the ‘good life/eudaimonia’, the couple marry and forgo parental support and society’s approval and start their lives on their own, socio-economically way backward in the hope that the magic of romantic love would last and would help them achieve eudaimonia.
However as all know how the story goes the magic of romance is short lived and it ends in disappointment. Here however now we start seeing a complete subversion of the tradition idea of marriage which was thought of more as a means to the larger personal and society well being(eudaimonia) but now the romantic partner is pursued as the end that will keep you eternally blissful. Surely this pursuit is disappointing and myself as an Augustinian Christian am best positioned to point out why. Only an infinitely desirable and satisfying object/person when pursued as an end could keep you eternally happy and this can only be done by God and we as finite beings having only finite desirability and efficacy are sure to disappoint in keeping each other eternally blissful. However there is no despairing of couple in pursuing the lies of romantic culture and the tall order set by Mills and Boon that ‘He/She has to my everything aka He/She is my Happiness’. Anyway this fact in surely evident to all of us by experience that Romantic love that arises from physical attractiveness fades with time as sex becomes less and less attractive. Maybe there are evolutionary explanations to this phenomenon(in terms of propagating genes) but certainly nobody says the true words more boldly and honestly than Arthur Schopenhauer who says “Right after copulation the Devil’s laughter is heard”. He says that without the physics attraction all the lovey-dovey talk of couples would be abhorrent even to them.
Incompatibility of romance and stable relationships
Pop culture thus started portrayed that a eternally romantic marriage should be pursued in what was the fragmented reminiscent remains of a traditional marriage structure but as British philosopher Alain de Botton points out in his writings Romanticism took marriage (hitherto seen as a practical and emotionally temperate union) and fused it together with the passionate love story to create a unique proposition: the life-long passionate love marriage but in order to make a relationship last we almost have to be disloyal to the Romantic emotions that get us into it in the first place thus making romantic love and traditional love almost incompatible.
Concluding words on contemporary scene
However post the industrial revolution as the affluence increased and role played by traditional marriages in establishing ‘socio-economic well being/human flourishing’ was being reduced and its job was done by well paying jobs in industries and scientific & technological advances in research centers. The traditional generations also stopped seeing the rationale connect between eudaimonia and well arranged marriages and thus started seeing well paying jobs as licence for their wards to make life choices of their choice.
However even in this affluence of a post industrial society progressing towards automation of jobs, Romantic marriages remains ill afforded by many. Mainly for reasons already mentioned that if we are going to pursue the Romantic tall order of always staying in this heightened mystic enthusiasm for bae and we as finite beings are only finitely desirable and beyond a point we are only be able to do this by going against our natural inclinations which requires work. Thus to gratify to all heightened romantic expectations created in your partner by Hollywood it might even require you to quit your job to pursue this one full time because every time you aren’t singing ‘You’re beautiful’ like James Blunt she’s already singing ‘Say something I’m giving up on you’
There are many other falsities and lies told by Hollywood and believed by romantics, like to mention a few of them that you can be completely yourself with this one person but we all with experience know that being yourself is something you want to spare any human being from. Another one which I find personally very limiting is the goal romantics pursue of doing everything together. All women with some experience know that they really don’t want to do shopping with men and the men rather not watch football and play video games if they had to do it with their woman. Philosophically all this arises out of the heavy idealization and utopianization that happens with the romantics that all people have the same likes and dislikes and had the same goals and ends in life. There is no ideal yoking like that in the real world, all relationships are at best social contracts of mutual coalition.
Thus romanticization which arose as an escapism in the past but now having become part of our everyday pursuits has now ruined relationships/marriages.