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Book Review: What is Marriage?

“Friends are just strangers you haven’t alienated yet.”

If someone said this to you, you probably wouldn’t think that he had decided to refer to a different type of human interaction with the syllable “friend.” Instead, you’d think that he’d misunderstood something about the nature of friendship.

This is the basic idea behind the collaborative What Is Marriage? Man And Woman: A Defense. In 128 pages, it argues that the West has not simply “expanded the benefits” of marriage so much as redefined it wholesale–and gotten some central, objective truth wrong in the process. 

Written by three academics (Robert George, Ryan Anderson, and Sherif Girgis) as an expansion of an article in a Harvard journal, this concise book from 2012 deals readably and prophetically with one of the hot-button issues of our time.

The authors claim they harbor no illusions about “those committed to shielding their ears from reasonable arguments” favoring biologically complementary marriage. Their work is addressed to allies as well as to thoughtful interlocutors and revisionists open to engaging in a serious, good faith discussion about the nature of this human relationship.

An Honest and Philosophical Inquiry

It does so extraordinarily well. I first read this book, shortly after the baldly illegal Obergefell ruling was handed down, as a Libertarian on marriage who thought that the government had no business defining, or pretending to define, an arrangement created and implemented by God. I thought that between abortion, fiscal responsibility, and individual liberty, there were better battles to fight on all sides (so long as conscientious objectors weren’t savagely branded as bigots).

Contrary to my expectations, this book makes an honest and philosophical inquiry into the nature of marriage, in the vein of Aristotle’s and Cicero’s writings on friendship or C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves. The authors make the case that marriage is an objective human reality–a basic human good in itself, even–with a definite shape, ordered to definite purposes. Government is as powerless to remake it as to remake friendship. George and his co-authors argue that what they term the “conjugal view,” moreover, accurately grounds marriage, with all its familiar contours (chiefly permanence and exclusivity), in the conjugal act (coitus). They then argue that the state is bound to become involved with marriage because of its inextricable link with children and their rights–and that, once becoming involved in marriage, it is the responsibility of the state to get it right.

George et al. address the familiar argument that marriage’s familiar contours will remain despite the dissolved biological rationale. Including same-sex unions under the label of marriage, they distinguish, is not an expansion of the institution or its benefits but a redefinition of it. Nor, they point out, should people expect those contours to last, as did some conservatives sanguine about the future of legal marriage “opened up to” homosexuals. Permanence and exclusivity would no longer be natural extensions of organic bodily coordination to biological ends, called for by the open-ended task of raising helpless children to outlive you. Instead, insisting on permanence and exclusivity would be to fight the logical and emotional currents of an institution defined by emotional intensity.

The authors further predict that legally sanctioned confusion of what marriage is will make both marriage and friendship more difficult to achieve, and that government license to same-sex marriage in the name of “human rights” and “equality” can only end with defenders of traditional, complementary marriage being treated as we treat racists–as irrational and bigoted agents of evil, safe to exclude even from polite society.

Nationalistic Textbooks, Tied by the Tail, and Matisse vs. Van Gogh

The authors make this case free from the feel-good, gauzy, empty buzzwords that substitute for argument and infest talk about love or marriage even from supposedly serious agents of public policy: Its language is spare, careful, and compelling. Never is it dry, however: Their arguments are filled with vivid and apt illustrations. Many are hypothetical, designed to draw out philosophical points:

The authors ask us to imagine baseball teams that play but never win any games, new parents being handed babies from a maternity ward at random, trying to win a just war with nationalistic textbooks, animals tied together by their tails, enjoying Matisse versus Van Gogh. The authors also include numerous types of cases from the real world, such as Mexico City contemplating expressly temporary marriage licenses, or religiously motivated actions being prosecuted–among Georgia counselors and New Jersey ministries to Massachusetts adoption agencies and New Mexico photographers.

Those latter examples are just some of the extended essay’s ample orientation in the current of the times–their arguments rigorously plant themselves in relation to current events that bolster general points they make or confirm the trajectory they see society taking (accurately, we can say seven years later). The authors are similarly zealous about presenting objections and detractions from their arguments and tirelessly, patiently, answering each in turn (the eleven-page appendix is a response to a blog post criticizing their pilot article, defending their central concept of the organic bodily union constituted by coitus).

The book is similarly informed by helpful exposure to the track record of marriage in other cultures and in our own legal history; often, these examples serve in surprising but compelling ways in favor of the authors’ conjugal view of marriage as a basic good as universal as humanity itself. The authors mention, for example, that coitus is the unique act that our legal tradition has recognized as consummating a marriage, after which mere annulment is impossible–strong evidence, if nothing else, that animus towards homosexual individuals was not the organizing principle behind our legal culture, since analogous acts by a man and woman after the wedding ceremony were similarly meaningless to enact their marriage. Later they cite ancient Greece, where only male-female relationships were deemed “marriages” “even as they celebrated homoeroticism,” as evidence for humanity broadly recognizing marriage as a distinct, opposite-sex institution and doing so out of reach of that catch-all rebuttal, “homophobia.”

Heir to Lewis, Pieper, Plato, and Descartes

What is Marriage? makes such thorough and appropriate use of other sources–allies, naysayers, historical touchstones, recent news developments, and social science studies on relationship longevity and child rearing–that the book also serves as a guidebook into the whole philosophical conversation. Anyone intrigued by this debate, who recognizes the gravity of it (as my younger self did not) but is unfamiliar with how the conversation has been going, will find here a helpful introduction to the range of evidence, arguments, and positions.

My only critiques, such as they are, is that some supporting arguments reference “the state’s interest in productivity” and “the viability of the welfare state” in ways that are too opaque to be persuasive, or even necessarily intelligible. Is it proper for the state to tinker with incentives for raising children because of the pyramid scheme that is the welfare state, or because of some generalized interest in fostering a high GDP? There is no answer, but it is a rare lapse.

Probably as a result of multiple authors covering the same evidence and arguments multiple times, some later chapters reference previously-cited evidence with no acknowledgement that it’s been brought up earlier. It gives the book a stitched-together feel, though only if you catch it. Given just how much material (argumentative and from the headlines) they mention, you might not.

Otherwise, this book is both a mature commentary on an urgent social issue and a rare instance of first-rate new philosophy. I mentioned C.S. Lewis earlier; Josef Pieper also comes to mind, but since then no writers have written so accessibly about matters so profound. If only to discover that works are still being written such as Plato and Descartes wrote, simultaneously high-flown and intimate, you owe it to yourself to spend some time contemplating What is Marriage?

Noah Diekemper

Author: Noah Diekemper

Noah Diekemper studied Latin and Mathematics at Hillsdale College. He contributed to Goodtruebeautiful.net, motivated as always by a desire to preserve and share knowledge. Friday nights you can find him swing dancing.

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