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Marriage has never changed in any way


According to various folks opposed to same-sex marriage, the definition of marriage has been a constant forever. The idea of changing what marriage is should be (they say) anathema.

I'm sure they'll be pleased to read an interview with Susan Squire about the history of marriage.

For example, I imagine most people who believe marriage has never changed will be glad to learn this about marriage in Western Europe a few hundred years ago:

Especially in the aristocracy, you didn't marry the person you wanted to marry. That had nothing to do with it. You bred with the person who could bring peace to the land, or bring you more feudal servants, or enhance your bloodline.

Just like today! See, marriage hasn't changed a bit.

In fact, it hasn't changed since Ancient Greece:

The average age of male marriage in Athens was about 25 to 30, and they usually took a wife of about 15. [...] The Athenian wives were not allowed out of the house because they would be seen by other men, and that might cause them to stray. It was considered unseemly for men to love women--either their wives or, more likely, their courtesans--because women weren't worthy of the highest form of love. The highest form of love was cerebral love between men.

Again, just like today. It's remarkable how constant and unchanging marriage has been for thousands of years.

Of course, most of the abovequoted material doesn't explicitly say who can and can't get married. So let's look at that.

Wikipedia's discussion of the history of marriage is full of "citation needed"s, so I won't quote much of it, but from the parts that do have cites, we see even more evidence of the pure constancy of marriage:

In the 1200s in England it was unlawful for a woman younger than 24 years to marry.

Also, prior to 1907, in the UK, Wikipedia explains:

[I]t was forbidden for a man to marry the sister of his deceased wife.

Once again, just like today--as we all know, it is contrary to the laws of God and man, everywhere in the universe, and always has been, for a widower to marry his dead wife's sister.

Speaking of geographical universality: as we can see just by looking at a map, right here in these United States, cousin marriage is and has always been completely illegal everywhere in the world.

And, yeah, interracial marriage is still illegal in the US, just like it was fifty years ago.

I don't think I even need to mention the monogamy thing; such Biblical figures as Abraham and Jacob had multiple wives, and that's still universally understood to be completely appropriate and normal in today's marriages.

So in conclusion, I hope people who want to redefine marriage will look carefully at these examples and admit that our understanding of marriage has never changed one iota; its definition is universal, timeless, and constant.

(I probably should've checked the above stuff about Greece with, say, a Classicist before quoting it, but I'm not really all that concerned about precise accuracy in this particular entry.)


Yeah, in my head I immediately juxtaposed that article with Orson Scott Card's recent rant. I expect Card has some argument as to why all those interpretations of marriage were California-style perversions of the true and original meaning of Christmas marriage, which happens to be exactly the one practiced in middle-class Utah in the 1950s.

And marriage couldn't possibly have had a different meaning as practiced in middle-class Utah in the 1850s, what with its universal meaning through all of human history and all.

I realized after I wrote most of this entry that I've actually heard a response to this argument from an anti-same-sex-marriage person, on the radio a couple weeks back. It went more or less like this (I'm paraphrasing from memory; this is nowhere near an actual or accurate quotation):

"Yes, marriage has changed in various ways over the years. But the one thing that's always been constant is that it's between one man and one woman. (Except for weird aberrations like the Mormons and the ancient Hebrews.) For example, abolishing the laws against interracial marriage was a good thing, because it's fine for people of different races to marry. But abolishing the laws against same-sex marriage would be a bad thing, because it's bad for people of the same gender to marry, because marriage has always been between one man and one woman."

In other words, any changes that have happened in the past are fine; those haven't changed the fundamental nature of marriage. But this change is the one and only change we've ever seriously considered that would change the fundamental nature of marriage.

Or in other other words, any change that I'm okay with is okay, while any change that I disagree with is a fundamental challenge to the very nature of marriage.

Or in other other other words, (as David M suggested) the universal true and original definition of marriage is the one that the speaker personally grew up with; any variation from that is obviously evil and wrong.

...There was a nice opinion piece in the LA Times yesterday describing the Times editorial board's meeting with the pro-Pro.8 people. Among other things, it notes:

"According to one of the Prop. 8 reps, that 1948 ruling [allowing interracial marriage in California] was OK because people are born to their race and thus are in need of constitutional protection, while gays and lesbians choose their homosexuality."

(I do have some concerns about the hardline orientation-is-innate stance, but my concerns don't allow for discriminating against people regardless of whether their orientation is innate or chosen.)

Well, and it did occur to me that almost all marriage through most of history has included at least one man and at least one woman. Having and official state-sanctioned marriage of only two men or only two women is something of an outlier. So the argument from tradition (“marriage has been the base of stable societies throughout history”) has to be addressed with something more than the existence of variation within that structure. I do think that there is a significant difference between the different versions of heterosexual marriage that have sometimes been considered normal in the past and sometimes considered aberrant or criminal (including polygamy, monogamy, levirite marriage, group marriage, morganatic marriage, chattel slavery and exogamy) and homosexual marriage.

I should make it clear: I support homosexual marriage. The argument from tradition doesn't persuade me where there is empirical evidence that the tradition is directly harming people and none that getting rid of it would directly harm people. In fact, I am in general in favor of constantly examining our inherited institutions, rituals, symbols and values to see which are harmful and need to be uprooted, largely because those IRSVs (as we call them over at my Tohu Bohu) so often exist because they once served the purpose of privileging insiders at the expense of outsiders before our (conceptual) borders shifted. But if somebody (such as Mr. Card) argues that we are introducing something new, something not inherited, something relatively untried, it seems to me that the answer is not no, this is not an innovation but yes, this is an innovation, and a good one.

Or, at least, that we have a conflict between inheritances (liberty, romantic marriage, equality before the law, and the expansion of civil rights against ideas of normative behavior, heterosexual marriage and scriptural authority). In order to resolve this conflict, we have to either abandon our traditional concept of marriage as including both sexes or we must abandon our commitment to liberty, equality and civil rights.


V: I see your point, and I certainly agree that the best tactic against an Argument From Tradition is often to say "this isn't a good tradition."

But I think there's something more going on here than Argument From Tradition. The people I hear opposing same-sex marriage don't generally just say "most of the marriages in the Western tradition in the past few hundred years have been opposite-sex marriages, so that's traditional"; I think they usually really do state that "the definition of marriage" has been eternal, universal, and unchanging, throughout all human history, everywhere in the world. And I think that's a different argument than just an A.F.T.; I think it's more an Argument From Divine Revelation. ("Who are we to question the God-given Eternal Definition Of Marriage, a.k.a. EDOM?") So I think it's useful to spread the word that the current American idea of what marriage has its roots in, say, 16th-century Europe (and that ancient Greek ideas about marriage were very different; likewise more recent ideas about marriage and marriage-like arrangements in much of the rest of the world).

In other words, if we can demonstrate that modern American "traditional" notions about marriage are not some God-given definition but rather a current and local understanding that's evolved over time, then that seems to me to be a powerful argument against the Argument From Divine Revelation.

At which point presumably the Prop 8 supporters fall back to the Argument From Tradition ("Okay, so it may not be eternal or universal, but it's what we've had in the US for a couple hundred years"); at that point we can bring out the "tradition isn't everything" response.

In the course on Roman Family Law I'm going to be teaching this fall, the question of what marriage is for comes up a lot. In Roman law, the answer is very clear: the purpose of marriage is the procreation of legitimate offspring, and, secondarily, the orderly transmission of property from one generation to the next. Those are the only things the state has a policy interest in, and at Rome, the state's involvement in marriage was extremely limited. But even Roman legal scholars recognized that those aims stood in some tension with the function of marriage as a source of affection and emotional support. If the primary purpose of marriage is to produce offspring, why are people who are incapable of procreating (the elderly, the infertile) allowed to marry? A: Because affection alone is a sufficient justification for marriage. But then why restrict legitimate marriage to those who could in theory produce children together (i.e. inter-sex couples)? The more procreation and inheritance are detached from marriage, and the more we emphasize the affective functions of marriage, the more pressing the question becomes. The Roman jurists don't address it, although same-sex weddings are attested at Rome, but that's precisely the line the Massachusetts court took in the Goodrich decision, and it seems to me a fruitful one to pursue.

Thank you--I had been thinking that the idea implied in the Slate article that affection was never considered connected to marriage until the 16th C was an outrageous overstatement, but I don't have real history in my brain, just rags and patches. I would have said that there was an ideal of affection (often, in the West) combined with money/property/alliance/inheritance, but that where the ideal wasn't met, affection lost. But in my impression of drama and poetry in antiquity and the early medieval period, affection within marriage was viewed as a Good Thing, if neither necessary nor sufficient.

I think there are two things, there: the argument from Divine Revelation is very real and simply cannot be argued against in this case. Scripture is very clear about the kinds of marriages that are allowed and those that are not. There is a difference between a narrowing of acceptable marriage (such as eliminating polygamy, child marriage and marriage between close relatives) and expanding it to accept formerly unacceptable marriage (such as heterosexual marriage). For those that accept that Scriptural law on marriage is binding (within the possibilities of our legal structure), you are not going to convince them that it is not. In that case, the logical argument that seems appropriate is the argument from pluralism, that is, that nobody is suggesting that churches or synagogues will be forced to perform ritual marriages they don't want to, nor do such marriages need to be ritually recognized. There are many precedents there: Synagogues routinely refuse to recognize marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew, or to accept the children of such a marriage as members. The Catholic church does not recognize divorce and remarriage, and routinely refuses communion to such of its members as have remarried. Not all synagogues nor Catholic parishes, of course, but the point is that the interpretation of Scripture is left up to them, with the law wider than that.

As for the variations within the law and custom over the years making any difference to those who appeal to Authority from Divine Revelation, I don't see any reason to think that would work. Logically, there's no reason why it should--not only does Divine Revelation trump worldly practice, but (to paraphrase you), any change that I see as consistent with Revelation is OK, but any change that I see as inconsistent with Revelation is not.

Perhaps, though, you are not looking to persuade those who are actively making the arguments, but only those who might hear those arguments. But then I think the you are wrong about your history argument is not the most persuasive; the look at this lovely couple who are being denied such-and-such and how sad it makes them argument is likely to be more persuasive. Together, I should point out, with the powerful so what? They've done it for years in Canada, Northern Europe, Massachusetts, etc, etc, and nobody minds argument. If anything, the marriage is not what you thought it was argument is likely to raise the hackles of many listeners who don't like to be told that much of what they know is wrong. Even when it is.

I don't mean to be cranky about this. I'm terribly interested in persuasion and rhetoric, as you know, and I'm afraid I can't help analyzing methods to death. I should try to make it clear--you are correct, both about our customs of marriage being more fluid than people recognize, and about many people making dishonest statements about the 'integrity' of heterosexual marriage in an attempt to continue the unjust ban on homosexual marriage. Or in CA reinstate the ban. And I know you were just having some fun at their expense, not setting out a grand political strategy. So I should probably just let it go, and stop picking.


In looking at how churches and synagogues are given freedom in their religious practices to differ from secular law, remember that they are bound by secular law in their secular practices. A synagogue may refuse to recognize an intermarriage for purposes of participation or membership, but still has to consider their office manager's intermarriage as a valid marriage when they provide employment benefits.

I apologize for using the term "Divine Revelation"; that was an unintentional red herring. Didn't mean to say anything about religious definitions of marriage, or about any particular religion's statements about marriage; I should instead have used a term like "universal constant."

So forget what I said in my previous comment, and I apologize for the confusion.

To possibly clarify: I'm talking about a very specific argument, one that I see quite a lot. It doesn't mention religion or God; it says or strongly implies (in various phrases and forms) that marriage has never changed in any way. The claim is that the current form of marriage that we have is the form that marriage has always had (or at least for thousands of years), unchanged, everywhere in the world. That's a lot stronger than just saying "it's traditional"; the implicit claim, as I see it, is that it's not just traditional, but one of the roots of human society, one of the things that makes us human, one of the eternal verities. The scientific equivalent might be one of the famous equations, like "e=mc2"; when someone says that's always been true, they don't just mean it's traditional, they mean it's a natural law of the universe.

It sounds like y'all don't run into this kind of statement as often as I do. I agree that this entry of mine does not effectively counter lots of other statements and arguments about same-sex marriage. But I still maintain that my entry here is a valid counterargument to the specific statement that it was intended to rebut.

Here's an example (though a somewhat oblique one) that I happened across the other day:

"Here we are with the Democratic National Party conducting an assault directly on marriage that throws out everything we have known in 6,000 years of history."

That's from an article quoting Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). I do see more direct/explicit statements of the argument I'm referring to, but I have this one immediately to hand so I'll use it even though it's a little oblique.

"everything we have known in 6,000 years of history." That to me suggests that, from Rep. King's point of view, either marriage has remained utterly unchanged for 6k years, or no previous change to marriage has been at all significant, whereas the current change completely shatters everything that marriage has been about for 6k years. I can't see anyone who actually knows anything about the history of marriage making such an argument (except as an exaggeration for effect, or else to intentionally mislead people). My guess is that Rep. King simply doesn't know anything about what marriage has been like at any time or place before he was born. I could be wrong--I can imagine many other reasons for him to have said that, and I may be reading into it more than he intended--but I think it's a pretty good guess.

And this is just one example among many. Nearly every article I see about same-sex marriage includes some quote or other to the effect that marriage has been not just traditional but utterly invariant throughout recorded history.

So, again, this entry isn't intended to argue against any other argument or statement that people might make; only to rebut that specific claim, that marriage has always been exactly what it is today.

OK, so here we are, in Mike Huckabee's speech last night: "He [John McCain] doesn't want to change the very definition of marriage from what it has always meant throughout recorded human history." Do you interpret this as equivalent to marriage has always been exactly what it is today?


Yep, that's the kind of comment I'm talking about. I'm pretty sure I've seen more direct and explicit statements that it's never changed at all, but I would also include comments like this one as meaning essentially the same thing.

But from your phrasing, I'm thinking that you're interpreting it differently from how I'm interpreting it. How are you interpreting it?

Well, I think it's meant to be read both ways. I mean, I think anybody who thinks (on a gut level, not as historical analysis) that marriage, properly speaking, is divinely ordained and thus eternal and unchanging will feel that the Gov. is agreeing. On the other hand, I think the statement leaves room for saying that the definition of marriage has undergone some changes but that there is overlap, and that this overlap is what has remained unchanged and is under attack. Similarly with the one you quote above: I could say that spray-can cheese is an assault directly on [cheese] that throws out everything we have known in 6,000 years of history without meaning that all cheese has been everywhere exactly the same. Cheese can be soft or hard, yellow or blue, sour or sweet. Cheese can be made from cow's milk, from goat's milk, from buffalo milk. But it must never—and we must be ever vigilant—it must never come from a spray can!

Not that I myself would liken homosexual marriage to spray-can cheese, but that's a matter of taste, isn't it?

Anyway, I do, after thinking about it, take back my initial instinct that your counter to the rhetoric is wrong. I think you have to make a slightly different point along with it, though, that every time the culture changes, there are some rich old guys who have been in high political office forever who want to stop it. There were people saying that all this romantic marriage stuff was terrible and degenerate, and people saying that letting wives out of the house was terrible and degenerate, and that civil marriage in a courthouse was terrible and degenerate, and that interracial marriage was terrible and degenerate, and that allowing women to choose whether to marry or not was terrible and degenerate. Those rich old guys didn't like change, you know, because they already had what they wanted, and they fought like hell to keep their own rights while anybody else' rights were terrible and degenerate, and going against a thousand years of history. And you know what? Those rich old guys eventually lose.


Quick example in passing:

Rick Warren, the evangelical minister who hosted a presidential debate at Saddleback Church this summer, threw his support behind the effort to ban same-sex marriage last week. "For 5,000 years, every culture and every religion--not just Christianity--has defined marriage as a contract between men and women," Warren said on Friday. "There is no reason to change the universal, historical definition of marriage to appease 2 percent of our population."

--US News & World Report article "California Same-Sex Marriage Initiative Campaigns Shatter Spending Records," 29 October 2008

(That "appease 2 percent" line is particularly amusing given that Mormons comprise about 2% of the California population.)

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