Classically Inclined

November 27, 2018

What does a good marriage look like?

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 10:17 pm
Tags: , ,

This is one of a series of posts designed to support students and teachers looking at the Love and Relationships unit of the OCR Classical Civilization A-level. You can find all the posts in the series by clicking on the OCR Seneca hashtag.

Seneca believes it’s possible to love another human being without giving in to irrationality; he also thinks that women have the same capacity for virtue as men, which means they are not automatically inferior to their husbands. This is worth pointing out as it wasn’t necessarily a shared belief in the ancient world; by contrast, Aristotle argues in his Politics that the husband should have what he calls ‘constitutional rule’ over his wife, since men are more fit for command because of their more mature intellect (1259b). Given the premises that Seneca is starting from, what does he think a good marriage looks like?

The first important thing to remember is that Seneca doesn’t think there are any hard and fast rules here – marriage is an indifferent, a thing that in and of itself does not affect our ability to be virtuous. Similarly, a spouse in the abstract is also an indifferent – but while there are no such thing as abstract spouses, there are people who we might be married to. The combination of individuals in a marriage will determine whether or not it is a positive or negative influence on the virtue of Stoic disciples.

One point Seneca is very strong on is that relationships between spouses should not be ruled by affectus or irrational passion; the relationship should be grounded in reason, although since individual circumstances vary so greatly it’s impossible to produce a handbook of suitable guidance. What should be at the heart of the relationship, though, is that sense that reason is important. This comes back to Stoic ideas about eros and the idea that it is generated through attraction to someone else’s potential for reason: if you’ve fallen in love with someone because of their inherent potential for virtue, then you are going to use the relationship as an opportunity for them to develop that potential. This means that the non-wise become wise because of the mutual relationship between spouses, as the wise person educates their spouse or two disciples support each other along the intellectual journey. A marriage based on virtue and reason thus produces more virtue and reason.

The really important thing about the Stoic belief in the equality of the sexes here is that this means that the wise person in the marriage doesn’t have to be the husband. It could be the wife who is wise, or who is further advanced along her intellectual journey towards virtue. This opens up the possibility of a wife guiding her husband towards virtue as well as vice versa.

A further important factor about Seneca’s expectations of married life is that he strongly disapproves of the sexual double standard, as we see from On Marriage V 28:

The marriages of certain people adjoin adulteries and – what a shameful thing! – the same men who took away pudicitia taught it to those women. Consequently, satiety quickly broke down the marriages in the same way. As soon as fear vanished from the charm of desire, what became allowed became worthless.

Seneca is not impressed with men who encourage women into adultery and then expect their own wives to remain faithful – they’ve lost the moral high ground. If a relationship has at its foundation this kind of confused belief, that it’s alright for one group of people to behave in a certain way and not alright for another group of people to behave similarly, then that’s a warning signal of a marriage based on irrationality.

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