14 February 2017

A realist approach to the pelvic issues, part 4: an ‘unnatural’ good

from Vladimir and Rogneda (1770)

Some profoundly unromantic thoughts for the day. Here again I feel like I will run the risk of offending both the Puritanical conservatives and their rebellious feminist offspring, by making points that would seem to be grounded in the ‘red-pill’ logic of the ‘manosphere’ and the men’s rights movement, or which wouldn’t sound out-of-place in a misogamist tract. Given the end I want to have in view, the points I make in this section may seem counterintuitive and perhaps even a bit self-contradictory. But there is a reason I want to touch on this issue, and up front I want to make clear that I have already in this series made three points – and I want to put my gentle readers in mind of a fourth before they judge me too harshly for what I am about to write.

Firstly: sex is irrational (or, more properly, pre-rational). Erōs is a form of divine madness – but madness all the same. The winged charioteers of Plato’s Socrates were yoked to two very unlike beasts for a reason: the one noble, obedient, clear-eyed and swift; and the other wild, bestial, sullen and vicious. There is in sex both a worshipfulness, a holy fear and awe of something godly – and also the beastly urge to take, to ravish, to conquer and use for self-gratification. Both horses are not the charioteer; both horses represent drives within the human spirit that are not rational. But one is ennobling, and the other is not.

Secondly: people are weak. This is ever and always the realist conviction. In Socrates’ myth in Phædrus, even the souls of the noblest of philosophers lose their wings as they try to get glimpses of the divine! The desire to consummate, and the impact this desire has on our reasoning, is every bit as much present in the philosopher as in the tyrant – though the true philosopher, Socrates believes, will understand how to control the urge.

Thirdly: men and women have different natures, which subjecting to an arbitrary disembodied will cannot complete but only damage. The flesh is not neutral with regard to the will – that is to say, the ‘chain of being’ goes both ways. Human beings do not stop being animals merely by the fact that we are capable of reason; just as animals and plants do not stop being living organisms merely because they are made up of non-living matter. Being animals, we are also sexual dimorphs, subject to different hormonal patterns, different reactions to our environment, differing views of reality.

And the fourth point I want people to remember as I explore this third point, is that our natures alone cannot inform us fully about what is good; we cannot fall victim to the naturalistic fallacy. The Orthodox Church would likely correct me on this point, to say that the nature we see around us has been damaged and that it is not nature as it was intended to be before the Fall – which was created good. That is fine. For our present purposes, I’m dealing merely with the realities that can be observed in the sinful, post-lapsarian world, without the aid of faith.

With me so far? Good. Whew. Here goes.

Marriage – defined as voluntary, monogamous, heterosexual and indissoluble – is not natural. It is an ascetic discipline and a transcendent social good which had to be deliberately cultivated.

For the vast majority of recorded human history across the vast majority of the globe, the prevailing model of sexual relations between men and women has not been monogamous, heterosexual marriage. It has been polygyny for wealthy and powerful men; monogyny for lucky, less-wealthy men; and whatever-you-can-get for the rest. This was the normal state-of-affairs in almost every single pre-Christian civilisation, Old World or New. In old China, the Emperor had hundreds of women of various ranks at his beck and call; even lower-ranking officials might have a couple of concubines or mistresses as well as a wife; and uprisings and rebellions in China often grew out of the ranks of unattached, poor young men. Concubinage was not unknown among the upper classes in classical Greece. Having two wives, or bed-thralls in addition to a wife, was normal among wealthy pre-Christian Germanic men. Before becoming Christian and marrying Anna Porphyrogenita, the Norse tribal chieftain Valdimárr Sveinaldsson had five wives (including Rogneda, shown above) and eight hundred concubines – all of whom he provided for, but put away, upon converting. The Hebrew patriarchs had numerous wives and various mistresses with whom they had children (think Hagar and Abraham, or the two wives of Jacob, or the harems of David and Solomon). Polygyny is still broadly practised with legal sanction in the Muslim world.

Without question, the relations between men and women in the pre-Christian world were characterised by a significant degree of brutality; the feminist critique of pre-Christian civilisations is not without basis. But women did much more than simply passively acquiesce in them. Even in societies where women had recognised legal rights outside the home (such as the heathen societies of the Germanic peoples), women still participated willingly as unequal partners in polygynous relationships. Without getting too far into the weeds of evolutionary psychology (more than half of which I still consider to be bunk, by the way), history does seem to be indicative that women, in general, are indeed sexually drawn toward powerful and influential men, even when they know that such men will not be exclusively faithful to them. Likewise, heterosexual men are erotically drawn to youth, physical beauty and variety, and historically those who had the means and opportunity to take more than one partner, did so gladly.

The history of the ways in which men and women have related to each other, sexually, have therefore been intrinsically inegalitarian. And I have a strong suspicion that if you look at the history of ‘free love’ movements, on close examination, the vast majority of them will be characterised by intrinsically inegalitarian power dynamics.

So what does this mean for marriage – defined as voluntary, monogamous, heterosexual and permanent? Is marriage a kind of doomed utopianism? Is ‘mundane conjugal love’, as my commenter Mr C— put it, a lasting love which is characterised by ‘sanctified domesticity’, an unattainable ideal, when faced with these amorphous and protean beasts of our animal natures, hungry for dominance or voluptuousness or novelty, that constantly cut against our rationalities?

Okay, so maybe I’m not hopelessly unromantic. But the short answer is ‘no’.

The sorts of asceticism demanded by marriage, if they are approached in an ascetic way, are not unattainable or utopian. Again, we don’t have to appeal to evo-psych or to Christian dogmas to make this case: it’s enough to appeal to history. In cultures where (voluntary, monogamous, heterosexual, permanent) marriage has been normative for long periods of time, the vast majority of marriages have been successful, stable, and even happy, the vast majority of the time. Not to sound too much like an agony aunt here, but suffice it to say that it’s really common to hear that having a lasting marriage is work. Even in the best marriages, self-denial, compromise, sacrifice, vulnerability, trust and just plain damn hard work are necessary.

But such marriages aren’t impossible. They are attainable goods, to a degree of work that is reasonable for most people. The danger only happens when we attempt to convince ourselves that the goods of marriage are ‘natural’ – when we buy into the myth that marriage is something that comes to us as naturally as sex does, and that it does not require either individual effort or social support. The idea that sentiment alone is enough to sustain a marriage (or worse yet, hormones alone): that’s the real killer.


  1. OK, I think I see where you are going. You are not seeing sex as dangerous in the sense that wild, dangerous sex is an ideal to be pursued (which is probably what rogue Evangelical Mark Dricoll would say), but that an element of danger in sex must be acknowledged.

  2. Right on the money, Matthew! (And again, thank you for the comment!) I'm not attaching any normative value to the dangers inherent in sex either way, except to say that they can be either ennobling or degrading.

    I'm trying to put forward a realist view of sex, that takes account of human weakness, vulnerability and aspiration, and that doesn't overestimate human rationality, or capacity for detachment of the will from the natural desires.

    1. So wives shouldn't feel the need to hire that Wonder Woman costume.

    2. ... Unless they're into that kind of thing? :?