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On the Institution of Marriage
Column by new Root Striker Steven Holman.
Exclusive to STR
This has been a long time coming. Recently, many of my friends and family have been getting engaged and married, so I thought I would report my understanding of the institution. First, I’d like to say that I love my friends and family and support them in their life choices, and wish nothing but happiness for them. I don’t understand why they would entertain the institution of marriage, though. I understand the appeal of a monogamous relationship, particularly when kids are involved, but marriage and monogamy are entirely different things culturally and historically. I recognize any relationship as acceptable so long as all parties involved are amenable. Marriage is not a relationship, though. It’s an institution and one invented for control.
Due to movies, music, culture, TV, and to a lesser extent even video games, a fantasy about what marriage is, was, and should be has arisen. Almost no one understands the reality, however. This fantasy is, in no small part, responsible for much of the debate concerning so-called homosexual marriage, and in fact much of the so-called culture wars. This fantasy is not one-sided, either. Many if not most advocates of homosexual marriage believe it to be what will finally legitimize their relationships because what is more legitimate than marriage? Conversely, you have advocates for so-called “traditional marriage” who believe that allowing such weddings would have the opposite effect. Rather than legitimizing homosexual relationships, it would delegitimize the institution of marriage, putting their own relationships in jeopardy. The fact is, marriage is illegitimate already and is only propped up by the culture and the institution that has co-opted it, namely the state.
Many people believe, as a part of the fantasy, that a marriage is an institution ordained by their god(s) and delivered to them from the heavens, making it sacred and unbreakable. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The institution of marriage is one used as a control mechanism, with little religious involvement before the fall of the Roman Empire.
The History of Marriage
I don’t pretend to be a historian, let alone an expert on the history of marriage. The history of marriage varies greatly between cultures, and it’s not my intention to give you an exhaustive reference. What I will show, however, is the general path and forms marriage has taken, particularly through to the modern Western culture of America today.
Marriage began as a simple property exchange contract between the father of the bride and a man and/or his family. A man or his family would pay a father who would guarantee the woman’s virginity. Virginity was very important for purposes of property/real estate inheritance. A man wanted to ensure that what he owned was passed down to his posterity. There were no DNA tests at the time, so the only way a man could ensure that he was raising his own child and that his own child would inherit his property would be if the woman with whom he had a child only ever had sex with him. In some cultures, marriages were also a way to form alliances, settle disputes, expand a family’s influence, etc. But it was always a transaction in which the woman involved was chattel.
This is where the state comes in. As the proto-state tribes formed into actual states through conquest and war, taxes became prevalent. Thus marriage laws came into being for the state to accurately track property owners and legitimate heirs. Still, this wasn’t the institution we recognize today, though this was the institution recognized throughout most of human history and can still be seen in many cultures today. Women were chattel and marriage was the means to control them.
The word matrimony comes from the Latin mātrimōnium, which combines the two concepts mater meaning "mother" and the suffix -monium signifying "action, state, or condition." In other words, a woman was only as important as her ability to be a mother to the son of her husband. In fact, often if a woman was determined to be infertile (whether the man or woman was infertile or there was some other problem, the woman was usually blamed and declared barren), the man she married was entitled to a divorce.
Should a woman’s husband die or be unwilling or unable to provide for her, there would be little recourse for her. Women had very little worth as ranch hands or other labor, and this posed a problem. Most widows became instantly destitute. In order to partially resolve this problem, many cultures created a system of dowry. A dowry was property given to the woman on the occasion of marriage. This was usually a certain percentage of the inheritance her oldest brother was set to receive. Different cultures had different laws governing the dowry. In Rome, for instance, a dowry was often paid in installments over the course of several years. Only the very rich would pay in one lump sum. It wasn’t necessarily just the family of the bride who would pay, either. Others often would pay a dowry, and there were different laws that governed this. Some would be returned upon divorce or the death of the bride. In almost all cases, the dowry was connected and sometimes controlled by the bride, so in the case of widowhood, she wouldn’t become destitute, which was a real possibility without it. Since women were seen as not fit for marriage once losing her virginity and there were few jobs for women as they were seen as lesser beings.
The church gets involved
During the reign of Constantine, the Christian church became intertwined with the government. Christianity became the official religion of Rome, and much of its rituals and dogmas became codified at this time. As Rome began to fall, many civil duties once performed by government officials began to be performed by church officials, including marriage. Despite the intrusion of religion into this civil institution, little changed concerning its form or function within society. Monogamy, however, became the prevailing form of marriage. Prior to this and for most of human history, men taking multiple wives was the norm, but the church of the day decided that monogamy would finally be the official form of marriage.
It wasn’t until 1215 that marriage became one of the church’s seven sacraments. It was at this time the idea of consent began to take hold. Before this, marriage had very little to do with what the woman wanted. She was just the goods being exchanged. Now, it was considered uncouth to marry a woman against her will. This was a formality, of course. Her will was what her father told her it would be. This was still an exchange of goods so to speak, except now the goods could choose not to be sold to a particular man. At this time, still no official ceremony or tradition had yet been laid down.
It was not until the Council of Trent in 1563 that strides to codify marriage were made. They decreed that there must be a witnessed ceremony officiated by a priest for a marriage to be legal. What form that ceremony looked like or how it was to be performed had yet to be decided. Still, love had nothing to do with marriage and the relationship between man and wife was not one of equals joining together. The French essayist Montaigne once even quipped that love's a bore—any man in love with his wife must be so dull that no one else could love him.
Love enters the scene
Finally, love and romance became introduced to the idea of marriage in the 17th Century. Still, many Protestant ministers warned about loving your spouse too much or using pet names that could undermine the husbandly authority. In the 18th Century, love and romance became more prominent, but this did nothing to remove the control mechanisms. A loveless marriage at that time was seen as regrettable, but the old traditions of money and security were still seen as far more admirable reasons for marriage. Also, at that time the honeymoon replaced the older tradition of the bridal tour where the couple traveled to visit family and friends who couldn’t attend the wedding. The honeymoon at this time was not one of pure romance, however. Often the couple was accompanied by others on these trips.
Finally, at the beginning of the 20th Century, marriage had started to take the shape that may be more recognizable. Virginity was still very important, however, as evidenced by laws such as “breach of promise to marry.” These laws stated that if a man became engaged to a woman and backed out, he must pay her father for the inconvenience. As these laws began to be abolished, a new tradition gained traction: the engagement ring. The engagement ring was a way for the man to show his fiancé’s family that he was still financially invested without the promise of repayment if he backed out. As a side note, diamonds became popular for engagement rings due to clever marketing by the De Beers Company who at the time owned 70% of the diamonds and mines in the world and still today control a significant share. They prop up the price by warehousing most of the diamonds excavated and releasing a small amount each year.
Today, although people believe that marriage is the natural result of a loving, committed relationship, it is still used as a means to control. Through tax codes, marriage, divorce, custody laws, etc., controlling a population becomes much simpler. Additionally, marriage is a way for couples to control each other. Where traditionally marriage was a way for men to control women, now both can use the institution to control the other. This is called progress? As I showed earlier, religion has very little to do with the institution historically, but the churches have recognized it as an effective tool for the control of individuals as well. Marriage is an antiquated control mechanism that ought to be thrown away with every other government institution. It is unnecessary for any true, loving relationships, as are all control mechanisms.
One might say, “Well my partner would feel more secure in our relationship if we got married.” To which I would respond, if your partner is insecure in the relationship and needs a control mechanism over you in order to feel secure, then there may be a problem with your partner or relationship that ought to be addressed before such a commitment. Let me be clear. I am not against commitment or monogamy at all. I am against the control mechanism designed by the state and co-opted by religion that we call marriage.
One might say, “All this may be true, but marriage is good for keeping couples together.” To which I would reply, if you need to force your partner to stay with you through the institution of marriage, it may be better that you split. There is no virtue in force and the institution of marriage is an institution of force.
BUT WON’T SOMEONE PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!! It is true, as best I understand, that children excel in stable home environments, but as I said before, marriage is not necessary for such stability. Marriage is an institution of force, and no one has the right to control you, even for the sake of children.
Marriage began as an institution of force and control, has historically been an institution of force and control, and remains to this day an institution of force and control. Marriage as an institution, therefore, ought to be opposed if you follow the Non-Aggression Principle. Some may still cling to it as a security blanket, and I understand that. I was once a minarchist for the same reason. I believe the consistent, principled approach, however, is to oppose the institution of marriage.