The Superstition of Divorce Kindle ¹ The Superstition

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The Superstition of Divorce If a man had a hundred houses there would still be houses than he had days in which to dream of them; if a man had a hundred wives there would still be women than he could ever know He would be an insane sultan jealous of the whole human race and even of the dead and the unborn I believe that behind the art and philosophy of our time there is a considerable element of this bottomless ambition and this unnatural hungerIn so far as this is the modern mood it is a thing so deadly as to be already dead What is vitally needed everywhere in art as much as in ethics in poetry as much as in politics is choice; a creative power in the will as well as in the mind Without that self limitation of somebody nothing living will ever see the light hmmmmm British writer GILBERT KEITH CHESTERTON 1874 1936 expounded prolifically about his wide ranging philosophies he is impossible to categorize as liberal or conservative for instance across a wide variety of avenues he was an arts critic historian playwright novelist columnist and poet His witty humorous style earned him the title of the prince of paradox and his works 80 books and nearly 4000 essays remain among the most beloved in the English language Almost a century ago Chesteron wrote a series of articles collected in this replica 1920 volume decrying the rise in divorce and exploring from a sociological standpoint the impact he believed it would have on Western civilization His conclusions are seen by some as prophetic but whether one agrees with his cynical stance or not this is a fascinating work of modern cultural criticism This review is adapted from my blog post When you read a hundred year old book dealing with a then contemporary issue you expect it to be rather dated What you might not expect is for it to be readable relevant and even prophetic for your own day But if you’re reading an author who has a knack for seeing through the fog of rhetoric to the fundamental uestions like Gilbert Keith Chesterton you should not at all be surprised to be underlining uotes even lengthy passages and drawing all kinds of parallels between his arguments and current 21st century debatesI am referring to a booklet that was written in 1920 called “The Superstition of Divorce” Now the occasion of this booklet is the radical idea of allowing people to divorce their spouses This sounds very strange to our modern ears since we cannot remember let alone imagine a society without legal and common no fault divorce But that very assumption that our modern way is the best way to structure things is exactly what Chesterton will have you uestionOne of the simplest points he makes is that those arguing to legalize divorce do not understand what marriage is And I think it’s fair to say many of us don’t really know either“And the chief thing to say about such reformers of marriage is that they cannot make head or tail of it They do not know what it is or what it is meant to be or what its supporters suppose it to be; they never look at it even when they are inside it They do the work that’s nearest; which is poking holes in the bottom of a boat under the impression that they are digging in a garden This uestion of what a thing is and whether it is a garden or a boat appears to them abstract and academic They have no notion of how large is the idea they attack; or how relatively small appear the holes that they pick in it”What many of them did know was that marriage was a confinement and a limitation and it chafed against that powerful liberalizing spirit which still moves today That spirit which sees every fence and every wall as holding slaves in need of emancipation without stopping to ask if perhaps such structures were useful for keeping harmful things outThe parallels between the liberalizing of marriage laws and the subseuent avalanche of liberalizing that has swept through the West especially since the sexual revolution and continuing unabated today forces the reader to stop and consider when and where it will all stop Is there an end goal What does that look like Chesterton had no illusions about the end result of this attack on what he understood to be the foundation of civilization “This triangle of truisms of father mother and child cannot be destroyed; it can only destroy those civilisations which disregard it”And in what is perhaps the most prescient statement of this prescient book he says this “The obvious effect of frivolous divorce will be frivolous marriage If people can be separated for no reason they will feel it all the easier to be united for no reason”There can be no doubt that the onset of no fault divorce has led to a wave of shallow marriages which are themselves all the ripe for divorce Knowing that the decision to marry need not be a permanent one the effect could not be other than to undermine the care and effort involved in making that decision and the determination to making it lastTo adapt a Chesterton uote from another of his books we find ourselves as a society in a situation where the ideal of marriage has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried Marriage today is like a highway to a great and glorious city but that city is many thousands and thousands of miles away It will take a lifetime of traveling to get there But in the last hundred years we have built off ramps restaurants malls and amusement parks every two miles with flashing neon signs and free admission And we are shocked that so few couples make it to that great and glorious city I admit it is a weak metaphor – I am no Chesterton But perhaps it begins to make a pointOf course in making these arguments and observations I can hear the objections coming hard and fast from the modern reader It is unthinkable to imagine locking people into unhappy marriages forced to live with brutes abusers and cheaters I admit I have many of the same objections And yet there is something very healthy about listening carefully to the argument that seems so alien It may shed light on just that point in our own moral thinking where we are blind Unless enlightened progressive moderns that we are we don’t believe we have any blind spotsNear the conclusion he writes this“If a man had a hundred houses there would still be houses than he had days in which to dream of them; if a man had a hundred wives there would still be women than he could ever know He would be an insane sultan jealous of the whole human race and even of the dead and the unborn I believe that behind the art and philosophy of our time there is a considerable element of this bottomless ambition and this unnatural hunger; and since in these last words I am touching only lightly on things that would need much larger treatment I will admit that the rending of the ancient roof of man is probably only a part of such an endless and empty expansion”This striking image of a man with a hundred wives being like a jealous sultan speaks loudly to the pornographic age we live in – truly a sea of ‘bottomless ambition’ and ‘unnatural hunger’ that Chesterton could not have imagined What was only possible for the sultan is now digitally possible for every 13 year old with an internet connection and a harem – I mean a hard driveAs one poem says The secret that no one seems able to fathomIn our age of Botox and she bots and atomsThat crystalline stream could than the oceanFulfill that desire made apt in proportionIn our age we uestion and undermine every law rule authority and tradition except for the law rule and authority of our desires We have deposed everything that has built our civilization and crowned our desires in its stead Lead us Teach us we say And what do we find That our desires keep growing shifting morphing There is a very old bit of wisdom from a very old book that argued that our desires could be changed made new and purified They could be made apt in proportion to our actual need and then we would find what we had been after all along the true and lasting satisfaction of our desiresI fear that we have a generation of young men who are so lost in a far and distant country of sexual chaos and dysfunction that they will not even be able to stumble upon this truth and perhaps find happiness Why Because that far country never stops just as one’s desires never stop – each growing beyond measure and recognition But that is a topic for another dayOne last uote on why the marriage vow is esteemed and respected“The soldier is not respected because he is doomed to death but because he is ready for death; and even ready for defeat The married man or woman is not doomed to evil sickness or poverty; but is respected for taking a certain step for better for worse for richer for poorer in sickness or in health”“In short everybody recognises that there is some ship large and small which he ought not to leave even when he thinks it is sinking”Reading this book opened my eyes to the fascinating nature of the marriage vow and to the idea of a lifelong binding promise It is an idea so large that we do not see it True there is still some hint in our collective memory of the high honor due to it that we still make a big ceremony for the speaking of this vow but even there for the most part we pay attention to all the wrong things What a nice dress Such pretty flowers Sermon was a bit long The food was goodChesterton’s point in that last uote is that of all the institutions known to man marriage is the most foundational and therefore most deserving of our honor and effort and refusal to give up on itThis view of marriage is a long way in the cultural rear view mirror barely visible To many unthinkableI am not saying we should make divorce illegal I’m not convinced it would help much But one thing I am uite sure of having read this book is that making divorce legal made it common; and making it common made marriage weaker; and making marriage weaker led to the implosion of the family; and the implosion of the family has not led to the happiness and freedom that was promised when divorce was made legalNo doubt many individuals have been rescued from terrible marriages by legal divorce I do not mourn that just the opposite But if we take a look around at the state of marriages and families today we see a desolate wasteland abounding in human miseryPerhaps at some point we have lost our way A short piece on divorce what Mr Chesterton calls a pamphlet He approaches it with an appeal from reasonnatural law rather than with any religious argument He is convoluted than usual—in his own words it’s one of his ‘crude and sketchy’ pieces Nevertheless I still enjoyed his ramblings and clever lines and insights—and of course the glimpse his writings always afford of our age in its childhood stages of lunacy His argument though necessarily underdeveloped centers on the family as a form of government that threatens the state and therefore a supreme target of the state—and therefore the civic permission to divorce Ponderable content I have my Collected Works of Chesterton sitting on my Kindle in case of the emergency that reading for whatever reason loses its luster I'm sorry guys I haven't been reading as much lately due to a variety of things graduating defending my thesis house hunting having a new child etc But probably the biggest thing was the luxury of working from home the past few weeks it obliterated my regularly scheduled reading time for which I reserve my bus rides With that gone I hardly get a few pages in Add to that the fact that I hadn't found a book that I really got into so I had to pull out my emergency ChestertonI flipped to some of his non fiction and ended up with this pamphlet on divorce Sounds like a happy topic right Back in the day divorce laws were liberalizing battlegrounds from what I can gather It seems that the specific law in uestion Chesterton was writing about would have allowed a woman or man to file for divorce in the case of three years absence Chesterton as usual writes very wittily on the topic with a very shrewd defense of conservative values that rings very full of common sense His opening argument is the classic conservative positionThe man like the mouse undermines what he cannot understand Because he bumps into a thing he calls it the nearest obstacle; though the obstacle may happen to be he pillar that holds up the whole roof over his head He industriously removes the obstacle; and in return the obstacle removes him and much valuable things than heThe discussion of divorce includes a beautiful section on vows that a Latter Day Saint could definitely appreciate Covenants are central to our theology and perhaps the idea of a vow is slightly different freely chosen to a larger extent than covenants you can choose to make the covenant but the terms and conditions are less up to you than in a vow Take this sectionThe idea or at any rate the ideal of the thing called a vow is fairly obvious It is to combine the fixity that goes with finality with the self respect that only goes with freedomWhen society lost the centrality of vows men were a little less free Chesterton paints marriage as family as the only institution that can stand up to ever growing governmentsThey desire the democracy to be sexually fluid because the making of small nuclei is like the making of small nations Like small nations they are a nuisance to the mind of imperial scope In short what they fear in the most literal sense is home ruleTo me Chesterton paints the family in a romantic light that the formal language of The Family A Proclamation to the World doesn't capture I think we need a Mormon Chesterton tbh One that makes it clear that the conservative position doesn't have to be that of a stuffed shirt accepted blindly from tradition But an intellectually engaging one one filled with a spirit of adventure and one that embodies the love that is meant to be central to the gospel I had always hoped I would like his books because of his adorable uippy uotes on Pinterest I was deeply disappointed in his full bore lack of logic his casual racism and his deeply anti feminist message Should I ever be gifted the great joy of being a girlmom I do not want my beautiful ferocious fierce beautiful daughters to receive this sort of messaging A convincing read done with wit and copious ethos as per usual in his writings A good little read As usual Chesterton mixes wit with an uncanny ability to make clear the enduring truths of Christendom Though not a Catholic book per se Chesterton defends the Catholic position on Marriage and shows how this position is the one taken by all sane persons throughout time Chesterton illustrates how the desire for divorce is not a desire for liberty but rather a desire for respectability of sin The dissolving of marriage is not the end but merely a symptom of a much greater divorce from Christianity; most notably Catholic Christianity The original articles toward the front are typically brilliant Chesterton The chapters he adds in addition to the original articles are good though perhaps a bit tedious in comparison The thing I found primarily fascinating was less his arguments and the fact that he saw this as a problem 100 years ago at a time which many of a conservative bent today look back upon as some sort of golden age But modernity and its individualism at the expense of the family was already doing the destructive work which we now see in fuller fruition