Reasons to Prefer Monogamy

In a prior post Grim asks, "Is there some fundamental reason to prefer monogamy, or is it just what we're used to seeing?" Perhaps more disturbingly, he asserts that there is no competing interest to be balanced against the expressed desire of a woman to be in a polygamous marriage. I can think of several fundamental reasons why a society might prefer monogamy. I can also easily think of a crucial competing interest: that of children born into polygamous marriages. Both points will be addressed below:

Reason #1 to prefer monogamy to polygamy: Inbreeding.
Doctors and family members interviewed by New Times say up to 20 children from families in the polygamist community are currently afflicted with the condition that requires full-time attention from caregivers. Victims suffer a range of symptoms, including severe epileptic seizures, inability to walk or even sit upright, severe speech impediments, failure to grow at a normal rate, and tragic physical deformities.

"They are in terrible shape," says Dr. Kirk A. Aleck, director of the Pediatric Neurogenetics Center at St. Joseph's Hospital. Aleck is a geneticist who participated along with Tarby and others in the groundbreaking study of several polygamous families with fumarase deficiency in the late 1990s.

There is no cure for the disease, which impedes the body's ability to process food at the cellular level.

"But...", you say, "that's just one community". Except the same problems exist halfway across the world in Turkey. Different religion. Different culture. Same result:
Ayla has recently uncovered a disturbing side effect of polygamy and inbreeding.

Repeated intermarrying within families, typically between first and second cousins, has produced abnormally high rates of children with Downs Syndrome and Mediterranean anaemia.

Hmm... let's try a third continent:
Often it is not a question of remarriage but simply of inheritance, a widow being automatically transferred as wife to the man designated by the rules of succession. This implies a certain weakness or even the non-existence of prohibitions on marriages between affines; a man can inherit wives from his brother and from his father, although naturally his own mother is excluded. This practice, which is fairly frequent in Africa, flagrantly contravenes bothe the Christian and the Muslim teaching on incest.”

So much for that whole consent thingy. Wives are property....which brings us to reason #2.

2. Forced marriages and child brides.
Forced marriages, child brides, polygamy and arranged marriages between first cousins are some of the problems that Canadian immigration officials in Pakistan have to deal with.

3. Aging fathers + aging sperm = more birth defects. In societies where polygamy is common, men often continue to have children into their old age. Not only are older men unlikely to live long enough to ensure their latter born offspring are provided for, but their children face a higher risk of birth defects.

In a monogamous marriage, fertility is limited - naturally - by a woman's waning fertility and eventually, her inability to conceive. Not so when an 80 year old man can marry (and impregnate) a 12 year old.

4. Welfare and immigration issues. From communities where half the residents are on welfare and the majority of children live below the poverty level to Muslim immigrants who repeatedly return home (where polygamy is legal) and then bring their wives back to North America to collect welfare and state medical benefits to smuggling of child brides (gotta do something about that incest problem!), it's pretty clear that the rosy scenario of a rich, benevolent man supporting multiple wives and many children doesn't quite live up to the advertising.

5. Cost of living/stability: it costs more to support 3 wives and 15 children than one wife and 2 childen. The greater the number of dependents, the worse the consequences of financial reverses.

Not all rich men stay rich for life. What happens to all those wives and children when Daddy loses his nest egg? (see previous item)

6. Human nature/jealousy. Few women want to share a man. For that matter, few men want to share a woman. Pretty much every article I read pointed out that the Koran says the first wife must agree to a multiple marriage. And they all said that this is ignored in practice. Why? (hint: see item #8)

7. Parental neglect/children growing up with no father in their lives. Not recognizing your children when you meet them in the street is not a good thing:
Mehmet Arslan Aga, a sprightly, pot-bellied, 64-year-old Kurdish village chieftain from Isuklar, seems an unlikely defender of monogamy as he has five wives, 55 children, 80 grandchildren and a small army of servants. But he insists that if he had his time again, he would only marry once.

Although his large number of wives underlines his powerful status, he has found it a challenge to build each wife a house far from the others to prevent them from competing and struggles to remember all of his children's names.

He recently saw two young boys fighting on the street and intervened, breaking up the fight and telling them they would bring shame on their families. "Don't you recognize me?" one of them said. "I'm your son."

His biggest headache, though, he says, stems from jealousy among the wives, the first of whom he married out of love. "My rule is to behave equally toward all of my wives," he said. "But the first wife was very, very jealous when the second wife came. When the third arrived, the first two created an alliance against her. So I have to be a good diplomat."

Apart from the need to play marital referee, Mehmet, who owns land and shops throughout the region, says the financial burden of so many offspring can be overwhelming. He explained, "When I go to the shoe shop, I buy 100 pairs of shoes at a time. The clerk at the store thinks I'm a shoe salesman and tells me to go visit a wholesaler."

Despite his fecund lifestyle, Mehmet Aga acknowledges that polygamy is an outmoded practice and has taken personal steps to ensure that it is coming to a halt in his village. He has banned his own sons from taking second wives and is educating his daughters; he will not allow them to become second wives. He claims that his situation derives from his ignorance and the need to make tribal alliances. "I was uneducated back then, and Allah commands us to be fruitful and multiply, but having so many wives can create problems. If you want to be happy, marry one wife."

8. Lack of consent/willingness from the first wife. An old movie quote comes to mind:

"But we had a deal!"

"I have altered our arrangement. Pray I do not alter it further".

9. Gross power imbalance. A man and a woman who marry have roughly equal power. It is up to them to decide how it will be shared. In a marriage between one man and multiple women, the wife faces not only competition from her husband but competition from other wives eager to gain power/influence.

10. Divorce. It's a big enough problem now between monogamous couples. How is marital property equitably disposed of when there are multiple wives, each with children? If a woman wants to leave a polygamous marriage, her actions affect many more people. Maybe that explains why most societies that allow polygamy don't think a woman should be able to get a divorce (unlike men).

I can think of many more, but this has gone on long enough. This article has an example of a situation where polygamy seems to have worked out for all concerned. I'm sure there are others, but anecdotes are generally a pretty poor basis for public policy decisions.

Note: Because Grim's argument was rooted in the notion of what a woman thinks is good for her, I purposely did not consider the drawbacks for men (though I believe they exist and would have little problem coming up with a similar list from the male perspective).


Grim said...

This is an impressive list, so let me begin by complementing you for the work that went into it.

I would offer, though, that while you have identified a set of evils, polygamy isn't the cause of most of these problems. It is only correlated with them, because the societies that currently practice polygamy also have other bad practices.

The proof of this is that nearly all of these things existed in Europe, while it was monogamous, until the most recent period. In other words, the problem isn't polygamy, it's the idea of women as inferior objects.

There are a few exceptions, but they prove the rule. Interbreeding by cousin-marriage was well known in Europe, but not because women were viewed as inferior: because the traditional rules of inheritance strongly suggest cousin-marriage as a way of keeping property in the family.

Aging fathers is another exception, but one that isn't easily answered by monogamy. Morgan Freeman, I read today, is divorcing his wife to marry his step-granddaughter. (That also speaks to the point about competition between women undermining the equality of women in polygamy... or Morgan Freeman's family, I suppose. Is this wrong? Absolutely. Is it caused by polygamy? I don't think so.)

John Stuart Mill fought for the equality of women while engaged in a marriage that was lawfully quite unequal, but which he appears to have tried to live out in equality and with respect. For the current generation, and future generations that arise in polygamous societies, I think we should not feel it is proper to say: "Our way is the right way," because we suffered pretty much all the same problems not that long ago.

What I think we ought to be able to say is, "If this is what you want, there are some principles that will allow you to reform the institution in ways that will make it as just as a human institution can be."

The wrongs practiced under monogamous marriage 150 years ago didn't undermine the moral legitimacy of monogamy as a system. I want to say that I think the same could be true of polygamy. If we are talking to the women of Iraq, for example, I think we should be able to say that their inherited customs and traditions may need reform, but that it isn't necessary to abandon them entirely in order to have a just society. We should be able to offer them principles that can be used in reform, rather than a recommendation that they walk away from their culture entirely. There is much in it that is good, even though there is much in it that is not.

Cassandra said...

I would offer, though, that while you have identified a set of evils, polygamy isn't the cause of most of these problems. It is only correlated with them, because the societies that currently practice polygamy also have other bad practices.

I have not asserted that polygamy causes any of these things. What I *have* argued is that they are strongly correlated in a way that they are not strongly correlated with monagamy.

The logical corollary is this is that if these effects occur more often where polygamy is more frequent, then more polygamy is likely to lead to more of its known(and highly correlated) effects.

Saying that some of these things happen outside of polygamy really has no bearing on that argument whatsoever.

I would have thought you might ask why (as you assert) the "societies that currently practice polygamy also have other bad practices"? The fact that polygamy is only practiced by societies that (again, your assertion) view women as inferior objects likewise merits some thoughtful scrutiny. For some reason, societies where women *do* have rights seem to have outlawed the practice.

I would go so far as to assert that polygamy is extremely unlikely to survive under a legal system where women have equal rights or anything even close to equal rights. The fact that women from cultures that view women as actual people with rights of their own are demonstrably NOT calling for it is suggestive.

As for Morgan Freeman, if you can't see the difference between something that happens only infrequently (and only when the man has much more power/money than the woman and the woman enters into the marriage voluntarily as opposed to forced/arranged marriage) in monogamy and a system where the husband has far more power/money than any of his wives (and in fact women are routinely forced and/or sold into marriage), then I really don't know what to say.

MikeD said...

I should also like to throw some gasoline on this fire and ask an impertinent question. If polygamy is not incompatible with women holding equal rights (and I do believe it IS incompatible), then should not a woman be allowed to take multiple husbands?

Sure, you could say that such a situation would lead to questions of paternity amongst the children, but I would assert that it no longer would. Technology would allow us to overcome that issue, and thus there ought to be no difference of polygamous women. And yet, I cannot imagine any polygamous culture allowing such a thing. And honestly, for the very reason I mentioned at the beginning. Polygamy as currently practiced worldwide (with statistically insignificant exceptions) is inherently incompatible with equal rights and equal respect for women.

Dad29 said...

I want to say that I think the same could be true of polygamy.

No. What you advocate is a re-definition of "marriage" (at least as it was defined by Christ), just as the advocates of gay "marriage" seek to re-define the term 'marriage.'

As B-16 said the other day, positivism can be good, but it also can be disastrous. And as GKChesterton said, 'don't tear down the fence until you understand [completely] why it was erected.'

So. Are you willing to admit that you are in the same club as the advocates of gay "marriage"?


Grim said...


I am under the impression that Christ did no such thing; the Parable of the Ten Virgins, which we have from Jesus himself, seems to use polygamous marriage as an analogy to the Church. Jesus says some difficult things at times, but it's hard to imagine him making an analogy between the Church and something despicable -- say, a gang of thieves, or perhaps more appropriately a band of fornicators.

I know that St. Paul felt otherwise, but I don't think Jesus is on the anti-polygamy side -- and unlike Jesus, St. Paul is a man who can be in error.


As I said in the last post, I don't see a problem with that, given mutual consent on all sides. Apparently Ayn Rand wanted to do just that. I don't imagine her to be a bad person because of it.

Grim said...


Re: Freeman, I think you may have just walked all over my point without recognizing it. :) What I am suggesting is that polygamy isn't the cause of the ills you cite; other things are the cause. You just identified one of the things -- a wealth/power imbalance that is relatively rare in our society, but common in societies that do not view women as equals.

You say that you doubt polygamy would survive in any society in which women had anything like equal rights. I don't have a problem with it failing to survive, though, if free and equal women never want to choose it.

What I'm asking about is a case like the one posited in the Georgia school curriculum: an Islamic woman who does choose it.

You probably don't realize this, but in just two years I've almost completely altered my view of the contribution of feminism to our society. This has come from talking with you and Elise in particular, and T99 on the occasion that she takes a feminist line. I see now that my earlier objections were not entirely fair, and I've come to value the line of inquiry.

The one exception to this reversal was at the core of my objection, and it's this: the feminist line of inquiry called "false consciousness." (I've since learned that this was originally a Marxist line, but it became important to feminism in the late 20th century).

False consciousness theory bothers me no end. The argument is that someone who is being oppressed cannot see that they are being oppressed because they are trapped in their circumstances. The only way to prove you are not oppressed is to demonstrate your liberation by adopting the correct opinions. Thus, the Marxist would say, the opinion of the worker in a factory who wants to overthrow the government is legitimate and should be heeded; but the worker who was proud of his job, his role in society, and so forth is simply to be ignored because he is too oppressed to know better.

You can see why this approach bothers me: it is a violation of several principles I hold dear. Thus, in the present instance, an Ahlima who did choose polygamy would be in a trap. Simply by virtue of having made the choice, she would be said to have given evidence that she wasn't truly free and equal; the only way she could prove her free equality would be to reject polygamy.

I think the reason that societies that practice polygamy are also likely to think little of women is that most societies in history, monogamous or otherwise, have thought little of women. The roots of the West's rejection of that model don't seem to me to lie in monogamy, though, but in courtly love -- which was usually not monogamous. (There are exceptions to this; Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival is a good example of courtly love within monogamous marriage, as is the story of Enid and Geraint from Chretian de Troyes and so forth -- you know that one, because I value it so much that I based my 9/11 poem on it).

If that's the root, then monogamy or polygamy isn't the issue. The issue is love per se.

Elise said...

I hate to say this but I think Grim has the right of it here - with some caveats. I don't think polygyny (let's be honest here) causes the dire conditions of women in countries where it is practiced. Rather, I believe that - absent those dire conditions - few women would be willing to live in polygynous marriages. Theoretically, therefore, to make polygyny legal in a country like the United States would result in few, if any, such marriages.

Provided, however, that we had some rules. A fixed age of consent for a polygynous marriage; it should be high (I'd like 25, would settle for 21 - yes, there is a touch of the false consciousness concern there - good catch, Grim) and could absolutely NOT be waived via parental consent. Consanguinity laws would have to be updated and enforced strictly. Such charming Southern designations as double cousins would have to be taken seriously. It would be nice to figure out a way to handle the first wife consent thing - perhaps making such consent (or lack thereof) a part of the original marriage certificate. And sorting out things like Social Security would be a nightmare.

Does this mean I think polygyny (or polygamy in any form) should be legal? No, absolutely not. My objections have to do with my conviction that there is something particularly valuable about a dyad as the basis for marriage. I cannot, however, justify that logically, rationally, reasonably. And, since the society in which I live no longer accepts something as amorphous as "moral aversion" as a reason not to do something, I am convinced that we will be looking at legalizing polygamy within the next, oh, 10 years - at the outside. Without the safeguards I listed. I'll oppose it vociferously but I imagine I'll lose. And I'm very much afraid the Institutional Feminists will be among those who support it.

I've actually got a post 90% written about this. Maybe I'll get it up in the next couple of days.

Grim said...


Please let us know when you have the post up -- or, if you like, I'd be very happy to have you cross-post it here. I think I may have given you posting rights in the past, but I certainly would be glad to do so if I haven't thought to do it yet.

I stop by and check your blog most days, but sometimes I might forget. I don't want to miss out on the discussion. :)

Dad29 said...

Jesus himself, seems to use polygamous marriage as an analogy to the Church.


The story concerns bridesmaids, not 'brides.' Christ's flat condemnation of divorce is also clear, reversing the Deuteronomic teaching.

And Paul wouldn't be running off contrary to a teaching of Christ in a matter of such gravity, either. Would make him ineligible for the "saint club."

In the Catholic Encyclopedia we find this: "By principles borrowed from Christian tradition, polygamy, strange to say, is proscribed even by those whose ethics of marriage are naturalistic, evolutionary and socialistic..."

There is not now, nor ever has been, a Christian license for polygamy.

Grim said...

The Sacra Vulgata has virginibus, not anything like "bridesmaids."

Also, the story does not include anyone else identified as a bride: the only women at the wedding feast appear to be these ten virgins. When the bridegroom speaks to the five who left to go buy oil, refusing to let them into the feast, he says he does not know them -- and you are of course familiar with the sense of "know" between man and woman in the Bible.

This isn't that strange, surely. You know that priests are supposed to be married to the Church -- all of them at once -- and nuns are supposed to be brides of Christ -- again, all of them at once. Again, you have a poetic likening of a very sacred relationship to a marriage of this type.

Remember that the very early church was largely Jewish, and the Jews continued to practice polygamy until about 1,000 AD. It was the Romans who were monogamous -- and that is why the early Church, once it became predominantly non-Jewish, became so. Paul and Augustine and other important figures from the Roman cultural tradition were adamant on the point for largely the reasons we Americans tend to be.

Grim said...

By the way -- I can see why someone might have interpreted that as "bridesmaids," but notice that the story doesn't really make sense if they are not in fact intending to marry the bridegroom. If they were just there as bridesmaids, being shut out of the wedding feast by the bridegroom would be disappointing; it would be perhaps somewhat uncomfortable, having to sleep outside overnight; but it wouldn't be all that significant.

This is a parable about eternal salvation, and the need to be watchful for it. Marriage, because it is until death, is a permanent state of blessed union. This isn't a parable about how you might miss out on a good party if you're not careful. It's about the importance of being ever prepared for a permanent judgment.

Cassandra said...

Grim: I'm not sure where you are getting polygamy from that parable, unless you are completely unfamiliar with Jewish wedding traditions (part of which is a rite in which the bridegroom goes to the bride's home and they return to his home in a procession, attended by women she has selected). It is an honor to be selected and thus, being unprepared would bring shame both on the women and the bride, for having selected such foolish friends.

You are forgetting that ancient societies were not all about the individual. Bringing shame on yourself or those you cared about was a BIG deal and often even a single mistake would cause the community to judge you very harshly. In the parable, the 10 virgins accepted a duty and 5 of them then failed to perform their duty. They let the bride down.

Nowadays we'd just shrug and say, "whatevah", but that mind set was not at all typical of Jewish communities in the time of Christ.

As for Morgan Freeman, once again I took your point but you seem not to understand mine at all.

My point is that in a traditional monogamous marriage, two partners are "equally yoked", in theory at least. Polygamous marriage, by its very structure, both creates and perpetuates a gross power imbalance in which any woman is easily replaced in her husband's affections and easily marginalized.

In monogamous marriage, both partners take a solemn vow to uphold the marriage and support each other. Under polygamous marriage, the husband takes another wife - and each time he does that, the benefits to each existing wife are lessened. There is no way this cannot happen, whether we're talking time, money, property, love, attention. And the same is true for children, but even more so due to the math.

No agreement can change this - it's simply a question of scarcity.

Cassandra said...


I hate to say this but I think Grim has the right of it here - with some caveats. I don't think polygyny (let's be honest here) causes the dire conditions of women in countries where it is practiced.

Again, I never argued that it did.

Rather, I believe that - absent those dire conditions - few women would be willing to live in polygynous marriages.

That is what I *was* arguing :p Which seems to undercut Grim's point about women wanting to be in such marriages. As to the False Consciousness theory (which is hardly unique to feminism - the same argument is used against black conservatives, female conservatives, etc.), there's a HUGE grain of truth in it. Can you really deny that culture shapes our world view? If you're raised in a family where your mother is treated as an inferior/has no rights and your friends and other family all subscribe to the inferiority of women; if you this message is continually reinforce at Church and at school, it will seem normal and natural to you.

The flaw is not in the idea that culture and societal pressure matter tremendously: unless you want to leave your family, friends, culture, you have to conform. It's in the notion that other people have the right to make that decision (uninformed or unthinking as it very well may be... or not!) for you.

Which is a very different argument than whether society wants to accept/legitimize practices with visible costs to the rest of the community. Just as Muslim communities don't accept modern morality and culture, a modern hetergeneous society has no duty to accept Muslim practices. Especially if they impose costs on others (like children, or social welfare services) who never consented.

Theoretically, therefore, to make polygyny legal in a country like the United States would result in few, if any, such marriages.

Theoretically, I agree :)

Cassandra said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cassandra said...

Clarification to this comment:

My point is that in a traditional monogamous marriage, two partners are "equally yoked", in theory at least. Polygamous marriage, by its very structure, both creates and perpetuates a gross power imbalance in which any woman is easily replaced in her husband's affections and easily marginalized.

The structure of monagamous marriage "leans toward" equal partnership, by which I mean that it is more likely than not to result in a fairly balanced sharing of power/influence even though human nature being what it is, that balance *may* be subverted.

The structure of polygamous marriage "leans toward" unequal partnership for all sorts of reasons.

In a monogamous marriage, you have to deal with your (one) spouse - there is no one else. So the incentives favor negotiation and compromise. In a polygamous marriage, the bargaining power of any wife decreases every time another wife is added to the mix. It's a structural problem inherent in the one-to-many relationship between husbands and wives or vice versa.

Grim said...


I'm not completely unfamiliar with Jewish wedding traditions, but my understanding is that on the occasion when there are processions, it is the bride who is escorted by bridesmaids. There is no bride in this story. The bridegroom comes for the virgins, who go with him (if they are ready) to the marriage feast.

Christ uses very similar poetic language with himself as the bridegroom in Mark 2:18-19:

"And the disciples of John and of the Pharisees used to fast: and they come and say unto him, Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but thy disciples fast not? And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bridechamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them? as long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast."

When I was a boy, I grew up around the kind of intense Southern Baptist who was totally opposed to beer, wine, and any sort of alcohol. They assured me that there was nowhere in the Bible where Jesus does anything that might appear to endorse drinking alcohol, which is clearly a sin.

They would tie themselves into knots over this point. Changing water into wine? 'Well, you see...' and we'd be off for an hour of careful web-weaving.

I've always thought it was important to try to understand the Bible where it seems to say things different from what we expect it to say. There may be reasons that drinking is sinful, but they have to be rational reasons: you won't find them in the Bible, but you might still be able to argue for it on other grounds.

By the same token, you won't find an argument against polygamy in a Bible whose main character is supposed to be descended from the later wives of polygamous kings like Solomon. There may be an argument on other grounds -- for example, you seem to me to be beginning to structure what might be a good one with this "equally yoked" phrase, which I've heard before. I'd like to hear more about the foundations of that argument.

Grim said...

By the way, I see that this latest citation has been interpreted by later English versions of the Bible as "wedding guests," so once again I'll point to the Latin Vulgate -- that is, the earliest form I can actually read -- which has it exactly as the KJV citation I gave. The language is "fili nuptiarum," children of the nuptial chamber.

Elise said...

Thanks for the invitation, Grim. I'll get it up tomorrow - Italian class today - at my blog. And let you know when it's up.

Dad29 said...


There's a reason that the Church stands on BOTH "Scripture" and "Tradition."

We will have to disagree--seriously--on your interp of the parable.

Yes polygamy for the Jews; it was allowed under Deuteronomy. One reason that we call it the "New Covenant" is that Christ specifically revoked the Deutero license.

.......and I'm pretty sure that your wife will not look favorably on your thoughts re: her bridesmaids.....

Grim said...

I certainly agree that Jesus revoked the Deut. license for divorce, which is quite explicit.

As for tradition and scripture, I have no problem with that; I'm certainly not suggesting that Jesus wanted everyone to live in polygamous marriages, or that Catholics should do so. I'm only suggesting that the Roman Catholic tradition on this point is really a Roman tradition.

As for my wife, her views on polygamy are informed by her maternal grandfather, who was Lakota. The Lakota practiced polygamy until the US government had succeeded in restricting them to reservations, and the agencies created to rule over them forced them to abandon the practice in the late 1880s. She doesn't feel that polygamy as practiced by the Lakota was a bad thing at all, but rather a sensible arrangement in a culture where survival depended on having a family, and where men were often killed in wars or hunting.

She does feel that it was wrong of the government to force them to stop, though.

Suburbanbanshee said...

1. Jesus explicitly said that polygamous marriage was not the form of marriage founded by God, and only existed because of the hardness of men's hearts.

2. The parable of the virgins is indeed about the female attendants of the Bride.

3. If you go to a Jewish wedding, here's the format, IIRC. We waited around for the groom to come, (pictures were taken), he came inside before sunset (when the wedding contract became invalid), everybody who was a guest came in and they shut the doors behind us. He sat with the bride and did wedding contract things, they came out of their room, they got married before sunset, we all partied, and the groom took the bride home after sunset.

You have no idea how many guests are at a Jewish wedding, or how many obligations they have to do right by the bride and groom. (You're responsible for making sure they stay joyful, for example.) It's amazingly fun but you have to come prepared.

"fili" isn't a declension of "daughter", filia. It's a declension of "filius", son (or both male and female children). So your source has something wrong with it. "nuptiarum" is the genitive plural of "wedding, marriage, nuptials", not of "wedding chamber".

Suburbanbanshee said...

"waited around outside the house they were getting married in". Both bride and groom and their relatives and friends were coming to a neutral site, so that does change things, of course.

Grim said...

We've actually got two threads going on this subject right now (and I expect it will be three when Elise puts up her post), but we just looked at those verses in the other thread. You can find all three variations of Jesus' remarks on marriage here.

These verses are very clear and explicit that you may not "put away" your wife to marry another. What we do in America, then -- regular divorces to take a new wife -- is a clear violation of Jesus' intent.

What he doesn't appear to speak to at all is the question of a (let's say) Lakota-type polygamy, where there is no divorce, no 'putting the wife away' -- you just accept another partner into the arrangement. You could try to play off the "two become one flesh" line; but if one flesh can join with one flesh to form one flesh, why can't the third "one" flesh join with one flesh to form one flesh?

Instead of a two-in-one, you have a three-in-one, but it's still two-becoming-one because the first two were already joined into one. Questions of unification out of multiplicity will be of real interest to neoplatonic Christian philosophers, and this is one example of a kind of metaphysical unification of the separate.

That, however, is approaching a level of metaphysics that is probably not helpful to answering the practical question. The practical question is Dad29's: are we going too far into positivism, and walking away from Jesus' revelation of divine law? The answer to that seems to me to be yes, but not in the direction we might like to believe. We're wrong because we permit divorce-and-remarriage, which is the one thing that Jesus very plainly condemns re: marriage.

Elise said...

I apologize. I didn't get anything up on Friday and today I have up what is basically an intro/placeholder. I've tried to make amends for my tardiness via an homage to Grim in the new category name. (Although "Villainous Polygamy" would have worked just as well as the label I chose.)

Dad29 said...

A couple of notes from the Cath. Encyclopedia:

"About the only important peoples of ancient times that showed little or no traces of it [polygamy] were the Greeks and the Romans. Nevertheless, concubinage, which may be regarded as a higher form of polygamy, or at least as nearer to pure monogamy, was for many centuries recognized by the customs and even by the legislation of these two nations (see CONCUBINAGE). The principle peoples among whom the practice still exists are those under the sway of Mohammedanism, as those of Arabia, Turkey, and some of the peoples of India."

So you're right on that score.

"In all those regions in which polygamy has existed or still exists, the status of woman is extremely low; she is treated as man's property, not as his companion; her life is invariably one of great hardship, while her moral, spiritual, and intellectual qualities are almost utterly neglected....

...[Divorce] "is a modification of monogamy that seems to be no less opposed to its spirit than polyandry, polygamy, or adultery. It requires, indeed, that the parties should await a certain time or a certain contingency before severing the unity of marriage, but it is essentially a violation of monogamy, of the enduring union of husband and wife."

Now, from another source:

"The Catechism of the Council of Trent gave this definition of marriage: It is the conjugal union between a man and a woman, both in legal status, establishing a perpetual and indissoluble communion of lives. "


It's not difficult to analogize to an oath of loyalty, is it?

Since it is impossible to maintain TWO loyalty oaths (say, to the US Constitution and to the King of Saudi Arabia), how can you propose that polygamy (or polyandry) is 'natural'?

Grim said...

That's a very interesting question you end with, Dad29. It probably deserves an entire post of its own.

I agree with the first point you make entirely -- it's one I've often made here, in fact. The similarity of courtly love to feudal service in its structures and oaths is not an accident, and indeed seems to underlie the readiness of Western culture to accept female leaders in an era (I am thinking of the 1100-1300s) where that is certainly not normal elsewhere.

However, feudal oaths are not of the type that are limited to one only. For example, in the Prose Lancelot, one of the major sources of conflict is competing feudal oaths. Often a nobleman will hold some land from each of two kings, which kings end up at war with one another; or something similar.

Also, feudal oaths (like marriage vows) are reciprocal: you owe loyalty to the king, but he also owes loyalty to you. You are to defend his rule and his interests, and he is to defend your interests as well. Kings certainly can't have only one loyalty oath -- they have this kind of relationship with all of their vassals. What happens when two vassals come into conflict, as happened for Arthur when Gawain and Lancelot went to war?

Lancelot ends up on the opposite side of King Arthur, as you may recall, because Arthur sides with family; but he can do this without being seen as breaking his oath to King Arthur, because he can claim to be honoring his oath to Queen Guinevere -- and also, by keeping her from being shamed, therefore serving Arthur in a way.

In general, competing feudal oaths are important to us because they created a space for the development of individual liberty -- including protections for such as those seen in the Magna Carta. One reason it was important to have a trial of one's peers, where "peers" meant other barons, was to adjudicate whether the king's accusation of treason was fair or not given the baron's complex position.

It's also a reason for our reliance on natural/divine law as opposed to purely positive law. One way you could reliably establish that you were in the right in defying a lord to whom you had a loyalty oath would be to show a violation of that higher law. If you had only one loyalty oath, the positive law would be in a stronger position to command total obedience from you. (This is why Hitler required non-reciprocal, personal oaths of loyalty to himself.)

All of that is background to the argument. I hadn't thought to consider that in reference to polygamy before you asked the question; I probably need to think about it a little while to decide what I think about it.

Grim said...


I'm honored, I think. :)

Grim said...

Oh, one more thing: I have to disagree with the Catholic Encyclopedia on this point:

"Nevertheless, concubinage, which may be regarded as a higher form of polygamy, or at least as nearer to pure monogamy..."

That doesn't seem right to me. I can understand the concern -- which Cassandra has expressed -- that introducing a second or subsequent partner in the marriage undermines the dignity of the first partner of that sex (we have normally been talking about additional wives, but we can assume it works with extra husbands too). So the argument here is that concubinage is a higher form of polygamy because it preserves the original partnership on a privileged level. The argument would be, then, that this is more dignified for the original (monogamous) partnership.

The problem I have with that argument is that the preservation comes entirely at the expense of the dignity of the concubines. Whatever the original partner gains is exacted at the expense of the concubine, whose status is unfit for a free and equal person in an obvious and indisputable way.

I would have to regard concubinage as merely a form of prostitution, or slavery, or at best adultery. Far from being higher, it seems to me to be rather obviously lower: we may argue about whether it is possible for polygamy to be truly fair and equal to all the partners, but it clearly is not possible for concubinage to do so.

Dad29 said...

The C.E. was not DEFENDING concubinage; the passage was part of a 'history of marriage' given.

While you're thinking about it, here's TA (actually, Mgr P. Glenn's reduction/editing in "A Tour of the Summa"):

"Whatever upsets the normal proportion of an action or state, with reference to its end or purpose, is contrary to the natural law. ...simultaneous plurality of wives upsets the same balance and proportion of marriage with reference to its end....a peaceful and united family life which pertains to the welfare of offspring (the chief end of marriage) is rendered impossible in such circumstances.

"Besides...[plurality] destroys that blessing of marriage called 'fidelity' which is the exclusive use of marital rights....

[Acknowledgement of the Old Testament allowance "by way of exception"]

" make use of a adultery."

(Obiter dicta): "...

...marriage as a sacrament signifies the union of Christ with the Church, and this is a union of One with one.

Earlier, TA states that [marriage] was raised to a supernatural rank by our Lord when He made it a sacrament.

Now we can take TA's thought this way: marriage is a sacrament; it signifies the union of One with one; therefore, it is impossible for "polygamy" to be a sacrament.

Further, he quotes Peter Lombard thus: "[Matrimony] is the marital union of a man and a woman, which involves their living together in undivided partnership."

It is difficult to read TA and Peter's words and to state that they allow for, or justify, polygamy. Granted, neither wrote "polygamy is forbidden" in those terms. But such was not required, for the 'undivided', 'One with one', and 'sacramental' language is pretty clear in itself.

Grim said...

The problem with "One with one," in this context, is that at least One of these ones is three-in-one; and the other one, the Church, is many-in-one. So yes, one with one! But also, "Three-in-one with many-in-one."

The same argument seems to apply, as indeed I gave it before. The married couple is one flesh, but clearly this is a two-in-one. So it is a union of one with one, to make one. Why can't we unify this last one (the two-in-one) with one, and make one (now three-in-one, but still one)?

However, the 'balance and proportion' issue may be decisive. Balance and proportion are elements of the beautiful; and the true and the beautiful are the twin objects of reason, which is the most divine part of human nature. At what portion of the Summa is this commentary pointed? I'd like to read it over.

Dad29 said...

IIIa suppl, Q's 41-68

You're on thin ice, I think, in citing the Trinity that way.

The analogy is clearly put by TA (and has been in use by the Church for a long time.) To extend the reality of the Trinity, three Persons in one God, to cover polygamy is, ummnnnhhh, almost dodgy.

A less contentious argument against your position would be that the analogy is specifically "Christ and His Church", not "God" and His Church. So Christ's human nature is what is being referenced, not the Trinity per se.

Grim said...

The argument is the same even if you don't cite the Trinity, because the Church is many-in-one regardless. Since the polygamous marriage is "one-who-is-only-one" plus "one-who-is-also-multiple," having an atomic Christ doesn't damage the analogy. In fact, it makes the analogy more technically correct.

However, I had thought of the objection, and it seems like the Trinity is in fact what is being cited. For the Christ who is united to the Church is not just Christ as human being: he is also Christ as unification with God and the Holy Spirit. The Church benefits to some small degree with each additional man who is added to it, but it would all be for nothing if there was not that fundamental connection to the divine. It is the Christ element of that marriage that provides the connection, precisely because he is part of the Trinity.

Drop it if you wish; you still have "One-who-is-one joining with one-who-is-multiple." On this version of the analogy the new wife/husband is the analogue to Christ, by the way, which would seem to increase the dignity of his (or her) position.

Again, though, this is metaphysical argument at a level of abstraction that may or may not be useful to real-world application. Let me read what is said about balance and proportion, and think it over. Those are the kinds of arguments that have the potential to be very important.

Grim said...

Here's a link to that part of the Summa for those trying to keep up. :)

I assume you know this, by the way, but in case any readers don't: the "Tully" being cited here is Marcus Tullius Cicero. Romans again!

Grim said...

The corpus to Q 41 is very good. You'll have some trouble convincing some of the readership here, however, that "among those works that are necessary for human life some are becoming to men, others to women." :) Still, his distinction between laws of physics and laws to which "natural reason inclines" is a good beginning, and very useful.

There is quite a bit here, so I may be a little while with it.

Dad29 said...

Oh, I dunno about 'convincing.'

Any of your readers who are lactating men (or sperm-producing women) are invited to step right up and dispute TA!

douglas said...

A couple of thoughts-

Can something be worse for the individuals involved, but better for society morally? If so, then perhaps it's possible for concubinage to be closer to monogamy, but worse for the participants.

On the 'why can't you add one to the one and one make one' arrangement? question- I was thinking about parents of multipe children as a similar arrangement- you have more than one child, more than one commitment to give your all to them, and yet, it's certainly o.k. to have more than one, perhaps better. Then I realized the important distinction- which also corresponds to the diminution of the concubine- it's that there is a hierarchy in concubinage, and I think one could argue there must also be in polygamy- it certainly seems so in practice. That is different than the one equal joined to one equal makes one greater entity equation, and that seems critical to me.

Grim said...

There is a hierarchy in parentage too, though; but like the feudal bond, it is one of mutual duties. A father owes his son a great deal. A son owes his father a great deal as well -- chief among which is the duty to have a son, if he can, to whom he will owe much in turn.

douglas said...

Certainly so! My point being that there isn't one in the matrimony of man to woman. That being the critical difference with polygamy or concubinage.