Contesting Cultural Norms: Divorce

John Milton, from The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce Restored to the Good of Both Sexes (2nd edition)

[Click on image to enlarge] John Milton's four divorce tracts (1643–45) offered a profound challenge to religious, legal, and cultural principles governing marriage. As its marriage ceremony declared, the English Church proclaimed that valid marriages are indissoluble, save for the spiritually authorized ground of adultery (Matthew 19.3–11) and sometimes impotence. English law did not permit remarriage after such divorce, though Protestant nations on the continent did and many reformed theologians approved it for the innocent party. Both Church law and English law recognized that some conditions — among them, impotence as a condition preceding the marriage, lack of free consent on either side, close kinship — violated the very nature of marriage; any seeming marriage contracted in such circumstances was no marriage and the parties could remarry. Milton urges the Parliament to enact a reform virtually unheard of in his day: divorce for incompatibility, with right of remarriage for both parties. He argues his case by re-ordering the usual ends of marriage to place companionship above procreation or relief of lust, based on Genesis 2.18–24; other arguments are that Moses allowed divorce and remarriage to the Jews on such grounds (Deuteronomy 24.1–2) and that the overarching principle of Charity in the New Testament demands a nonliteralistic interpretation of the apparent revocation of that permission by Jesus in Matthew 19. Most remarkable are the eloquent passages describing the human misery caused by the present divorce laws — an appeal to human experience as a guide to the interpretation of scripture.

CHAPTER I.

What thing more instituted to the solace and delight of man than marriage? And yet the misinterpreting of some scripture, directed mainly against the abusers of the law for divorce given by Moses, hath changed the blessing of matrimony not seldom into a familiar and coinhabiting mischief, at least into a drooping and disconsolate household captivity, without refuge or redemption — so ungoverned and so wild a race doth superstition run us from one extreme of abused liberty into the other of unmerciful restraint. For although God in the first ordaining of marriage taught us to what end he did it, in words expressly implying the apt and cheerful conversation of man with woman, to comfort and refresh him against the evil of solitary life, not mentioning the purpose of generation till afterwards, as being but a secondary end in dignity, though not in necessity; yet now, if any two be but once handed in the church, and have tasted in any sort the nuptial bed, let them find themselves never so mistaken in their dispositions through any error, concealment, or misadventure, that through their different tempers, thoughts and constitutions, they can neither be to one another a remedy against loneliness nor live in any union or contentment all their days; yet they shall, so they be but found suitably weaponed to the least possibility of sensual enjoyment, be made, spite of antipathy, to fadge together and combine as they may to their unspeakable wearisomeness and despair of all sociable delight in the ordinance which God established to that very end. What a calamity is this, and, as the wise man, if he were alive, would sigh out in his own phrase, what a "sore evil is this under the sun!" >> note 1 All which we can refer justly to no other author than the canon law and her adherents, not consulting with charity, the interpreter and guide of our faith, but resting in the mere element of the text.

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CHAPTER II.

The first reason of this Law grounded on the prime reason of matrimony. That no covenant whatsoever obliges against the main end both of itself, and of the parties covenanting.

For all sense and equity reclaims that any law or covenant, how solemn or strait soever, either between God and man, or man and man, though of God's joining, should bind against a prime and principal scope of its own institution, and of both or either party covenanting; neither can it be of force to engage a blameless creature to his own perpetual sorrow, mistaken for his expected solace, without suffering charity to step in and do a confessed good work of parting those whom nothing holds together but this of God's joining, falsely supposed against the express end of his own ordinance. And what his chief end was of creating woman to be joined with man, his own instituting words declare, and are infallible to inform us what is marriage, and what is no marriage, unless we can think them set there to no purpose: "It is not good," saith he, "that man should be alone. I will make him a helpmeet for him." >> note 2 From which words so plain, less cannot be concluded, nor is by any learned interpreter, than that in God's intention a meet and happy conversation is the chiefest and the noblest end of marriage, for we find here no expression so necessarily implying carnal knowledge, as this prevention of loneliness to the mind and spirit of man. * * * And indeed it is a greater blessing from God, more worthy so excellent a creature as man is, and a higher end to honor and sanctify the league of marriage, whenas the solace and satisfaction of the mind is regarded and provided for before the sensitive pleasing of the body. And with all generous persons married thus it is, that where the mind and person pleases aptly, there some unaccomplishment of the body's delight may be better borne with, than when the mind hangs off in an unclosing disproportion, though the body be as it ought; for there all corporal delight will soon become unsavory and contemptible. And the solitariness of man, which God had namely and principally ordered to prevent by marriage, hath no remedy, but lies under a worse condition than the loneliest single life; for in single life the absence and remoteness of a helper might inure him to expect his own comforts out of himself, or to seek with hope; but here the continual sight of his deluded thoughts, without cure, must needs be to him, if especially his complexion incline him to melancholy, a daily trouble and pain of loss in some degree like that which reprobates feel.

CHAPTER III.

The ignorance and iniquity of Canon law, providing for the right of the body in marriage, but nothing for the wrongs and grievances of the mind. An objection, that the mind should be better looked to before contract, answered.

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The soberest and best governed men are least practiced in these affairs; and who knows not that the bashful muteness of a virgin may ofttimes hide all the unliveliness and natural sloth which is really unfit for conversation? Nor is there that freedom of access granted or presumed as may suffice to a perfect discerning till too late: and where any indisposition is suspected, what more usual than the persuasion of friends that acquaintance, as it increases, will amend all? And lastly, it is not strange though many who have spent their youth chastely, are in some things not so quick-sighted, while they haste too eagerly to light the nuptial torch; nor is it, therefore, that for a modest error a man should forfeit so great a happiness, and no charitable means to release him, since they who have lived most loosely, by reason of their bold accustoming, prove most successful in their matches, because their wild affections, unsettling at will, have been as so many divorces to teach them experience. Whenas the sober man honoring the appearance of modesty, and hoping well of every social virtue under that veil, may easily chance to meet, if not with a body impenetrable, yet often with a mind to all other due conversation inaccessible, and to all the more estimable and superior purposes of matrimony useless and almost lifeless; and what a solace, what a fit help such a consort would be through the whole life of a man, is less pain to conjecture than to have experience.

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CHAPTER IV.

The Second Reason of this Law, because without it marriage, as it happens oft, is not a remedy of that which it promises, as any rational creature would expect. That marriage, if we pattern from the beginning as our Savior bids, was not properly the remedy of lust, but the fulfilling of conjugal love and helpfulness. * * * We know St. Paul saith, "It is better to marry than to burn." >> note 3 Marriage therefore was given as a remedy of that trouble: but what might this burning mean? Certainly not the mere motion of carnal lust, not the mere goad of a sensitive desire: God does not principally take care of such cattle. What is it then but that desire which God put into Adam in Paradise, before he knew the sin of incontinence — that desire which God saw it was not good that man should be left alone to burn in — the desire and longing to put off an unkindly solitariness by uniting another body, but not without a fit soul, to his in the cheerful society of wedlock? Which if it were so needful before the fall, when man was much more perfect in himself, how much more is it needful now against all the sorrows and casualties of this life, to have an intimate and speaking help, a ready and reviving associate in marriage? Whereof who misses by chancing on a mute and spiritless mate, remains more alone than before, and in a burning less to be contained than that which is fleshly, and more to be considered as being more deeply rooted even in the faultless innocence of nature. As for that other burning, which is but as it were the venom of a lusty and over-abounding concoction, strict life and labor with the abatement of a full diet, may keep that low and obedient enough; but this pure and more inbred desire of joining to itself in conjugal fellowship a fit conversing soul (which desire is properly called love) "is stronger than death." >> note 4

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He, therefore, who lacking of his due in the most native and human end of marriage, thinks it better to part than to live sadly and injuriously to that cheerful covenant (for not to be beloved and yet retained, is the greatest injury to a gentle spirit), he, I say, who therefore seeks to part, is one who highly honors the married life and would not stain it: and the reasons which now move him to divorce are equal to the best of those that could first warrant him to marry; for, as was plainly shown, both the hate which now diverts him and the loneliness which leads him still powerfully to seek a fit help, hath not the least grain of a sin in it, if he be worthy to understand himself.


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