Reading a short biography of the nineteenth century American feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, I came across an intriguing line of argument in favor of changes in the (then) marriage laws to allow more easily for divorce. Speaking of “English radicals of the Enlightenment,” the author, Vivian Gornick, tells us:
Among people like William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, and later, Robert Owen, the French Revolution had sharpened the conviction that beyond the need for political equality [between men and women] lay an equally great need to create the conditions in which the inner life could flourish. First on the list of their demands was a radical revision of the marriage laws. For these remarkable thinkers, marriage without intimacy—that is, the marriage commonly made without friendship or love out of economic and social considerations—was a prime villain in the matter of stunted or deformed inner lives. They saw that, at best, such arrangements promised neutrality of feeling, and they wrote eloquently to demonstrate that neutrality of feeling is a dangerous illusion: to live without intimacy in the most intimate of circumstances is to sustain permanent damage to the spirit. Forced by law to live in the presence of such an absence, one’s inner being closes down—is made cold, defensive, remote—and all too soon one becomes incapable of human empathy: a danger both to oneself and the world. Goodwin and Owen became known as “sexual radicals” as a consequence of writing and speaking endlessly about the death-in-life that is marriage without friendship or love.
Setting aside the question of divorce and laws governing marriage, I find it a remarkably personalistic insight, and one that is deeply true. The same line of thought could, I think, be used to make a compelling case against both arranged marriages and the hook-up culture prevailing in our society today. The objective intimacy of bodily union must be matched by subjective intimacy and self-giving or it becomes positively harmful.
But I’d love to know how it strikes others.