Promoting a Flourishing Society

Family Politics: The Idea of Marriage in Modern Political Thought

From the Archived "Cardus Policy in Public" Series

June 8, 2011

Marriage is in trouble; today’s families break down at an alarming rate. But most of us want marriage, and indeed, 90% of us will wed one day. So it’s worth asking some tough questions: How do we understand lifelong, committed marriage in our world today? What do we understand of marriage, family, love, and freedom? Finally, is fully unified and wholly fulfilling married life a concept that is even possible? 

Marriage is in trouble; today’s families break down at an alarming rate. But most of us want marriage, and indeed, 90% of us will wed one day. So it’s worth asking some tough questions: How do we understand lifelong, committed marriage in our world today? What do we understand of marriage, family, love, and freedom? Finally, is fully unified and wholly fulfilling married life a concept that is even possible? 

Scott Yenor, associate professor of political science at Boise State University, doesn’t just ask this question in his book Family Politics: The Idea of Marriage in Modern Political Thought—he systematically unpacks the foundations of the terms themselves. He conducts a thorough investigation of modern political philosophers’ approaches to marriage, sex, relationships, children, and family, though not necessarily in that order. In addressing these questions, he brings us to the core issue: the definition and character of love.

What is love? Sadly, for most, this question will raise neither citations from Shakespeare nor Biblical visions—more likely, an Elvis or Britney Spears tune will come to mind. But Yenor takes us into deeper waters (which is, admittedly, not very hard to do). From Locke, Rousseau, and J.S. Mill through Marx and Engels, Beauvoir, Russell, and Freud, and finally concluding with Pope John Paul II, Yenor highlights marriage and family philosophies in dispassionate terms. The book reads like a highly academic and unbiased news report. Yenor does not pass judgment on the various philosophies. He is simply trying to tease out meaning, for the reader to judge himself.

One enduring theme Yenor highlights with each philosopher is that love and freedom, though both positive, are not mutually encouraging. The author argues that unified marriage based in love is at odds with freedom: “It is best to acknowledge that incompatibility and to understand the place of family within it” (16). Each philosopher is examined for his approach to divorce, gender roles, the “nature versus nature” debate, contracts, freedom, and responsibility.

So how did we get to today? Yenor starts with John Locke, whose seventeenth-century views on family would be considered fairly traditional today. He believed marriage was important, that the two genders are different and suited to different tasks, that marriage was the central and best way to raise and educate children, and that certain family forms were better able to accomplish these admirable goals (20).

However others see in Locke a shift toward thinking of marriage as a contract. What Locke held true—that legitimate governments rule by the consent of the governed—he also applied to churches and marriage (19). This vision of marriage as a contract is prevalent today. Yet at the same time, there’s not a contract in the world that can aptly capture the marriage relationship—the complicated web of hard work, duties and responsibilities, charity, forgiveness, grace, all fraught with emotional investment and tension. There are indeed some tensions that need to be managed, as there will never be full resolution on a purely legal or contractual basis for the sorts of unique problems families face.

Primary source material from past centuries—brilliantly—captures the lack of regard for anything approximating political correctness. One politically incorrect observation after reading Locke, Rousseau, J.S. Mill, Marx, Engels, and others is that not one of these thinkers even touches on the concept of same-sex marriage. This is particularly interesting given a climate that declares all opposition to same-sex marriage to be purely religiously motivated. Yet no one would accuse Marx of religious motivations and for him, as for all the others, same-sex marriage is simply not considered.

Neither would today’s politically correct era give any credit to the patriarchy. The patriarchy is  punching bag territory, the creator of today’s social ills. Yet Locke credits the patriarchy with the idea of the “nursing father”: “Without such nursing Fathers, tender and carefull of the publick weale, all governments would have sunk under the Weakness and Infirmities of their Infancy.”

This is decidedly not the case for Simone de Beauvoir in the chapter on feminism and the family. Here, a decidedly extreme approach to marriage and family is found. “Women must learn what men have, apparently, long known,” explains Yenor, “those who seek meaning in marriage and family life are destined to dull, frustrated lives.” She goes on: “As a consequence, marriage is truly chosen by neither men nor women” (188). In fact, Beauvoir believed that “[m]arriage enslaves men and women to the demands of society.”

The feminist vision for family life involved being bogged down in boredom, in routine. Beauvoir’s ideal includes reference to the promise of the Soviet Union: “Pregnancy leaves were to be paid for by the State, which would assume charge of the children, signifying not that they would be taken away from their parents, but that they would not be abandoned to them” (185). As such, the concept of love never figures into her approach to marriage or family. Love may not, in fact, be truly possible in the feminist vision, so strident are the requirements for individuality and self-sufficiency. Love is simply neither useful nor desirable, for it implies the presence of dependence (194).

Many of the philosophers either fail to mention love, or build up a concept of marriage that does not include it. Locke’s vision of marriage includes only banal concepts of “Care and Affection” and “mutual Support.” For Rousseau, love is part problem, part virtue, but ever elusive: “In love everything is only illusion,” he wrote in Emile. For Hegel, “the virtues associated with family are not the highest virtues: ethical love in the family is lower in dignity to the satisfactions of self-consciousness enjoyed as a member of the rational State,” Yenor explains. Try writing that one on a Valentine’s card. J.S. Mill is feminist in his approach to love. In Marx and Engels, communism essentially attempts to eradicate the love that binds families, such that there is no need for family anymore. In short, pushing forward chronologically from Locke, ideas around love either become more difficult to understand, more demeaning to men and women, or both.

But difficult and demeaning is thankfully not where Yenor leaves us. Chapter eleven is devoted to the views of Pope John Paul II, whose reflections incorporate a realistic approach to human nature with a healthy idealism of what family and marriage can be: “John Paul responds to this crisis [of the decline and destruction of family today] by showing people how to think about what human being means and then by showing what this means for love, sex, family, and marriage. For him, the sexual urge lies firmly within the limits of human control. Human beings are subjects, not objects, self-responsible and not merely acted upon by forces outside of our control” (232). For Pope John Paul, “[o]ur desires point, beyond biology, beyond sexual urges, beyond daily needs, beyond social needs, beyond politics, to the need for love. They point to our need for communion with another person, and ultimately, it seems, to our need for God” (241). Hegel comes closest to this sort of vision for love in family and marriage; yet, without God in the picture and only the preeminence of the state, the picture painted falls flat: it is a mediocre copy of an original masterpiece, and doesn’t serve to draw people in.

This is perhaps another point to ponder in a faithless age. If Pope John Paul II is right and a desire for love is a yearning to know God, what is a post-Christian country to understand of marriage and family? Is successful marriage meant to act as a conduit to faith, or is it only by faith that a marriage can be successful? Relationships today lie beyond our control and our choices. After all, one party in a relationship can never force the free will of the other. Perhaps even the most unstable modern relationship is then, after all, one of the last remaining areas of life where a genuine leap of faith is taken.

A certain downfall of this book is this: in The Age of Oprah Winfrey (capital letters required, for she is today’s unofficial nouveau Enlightenment), this book is no light bedtime read. The average layperson might not make it past the prologue. This is a shame, since how we think about these topics matters. And subconsciously, at least, our individualistic approach to relationships and marriage has been influenced by these thinkers. We may never know the depths to which this is true, and it may have no import in the practical reality of a wife whose marriage is over, or the husband who has been served divorce papers. Still, for academics, policy analysts, and interested laypeople, this book lays the groundwork for modern thought toward family and as such, should stand as a reference on the shelf.