Delivered Friday 29th June, 2015
The Meaning of Marriage & Wedding
My decision to ask for your hand in marriage was free and I did it without thinking. It was free insofar I did not follow any external norms; I did not ask you to marry me for religious, social or pragmatic (fiscal) reasons, let alone because 'one' does it. As the decision was motivated by love alone and love is an essential determination of will, it conforms to Kant's criteria of a autonomous, i.e. a truly free act (according to H. Frankfurt). I did it without thinking as I never reflected on whether I did the right thing, but also never really thought about what it was that I was doing. Without being able to explicate that, I cannot be said to know what I am doing. And this is unacceptable.
The freedom of my marriage proposal and our marriage rests on the fact that they were not necessitated by any given norm. This implies however that I cannot draw on any traditional ideology to explain what marriage is. One feature found across many accounts which I would like to incorporate is the emphasis on stability, consistency and a lifelong commitment. I also assume that marriage is based on love. Marriage is therefore a loving relationship explicitly projected as one for life. Although temporary marriage and purely political marriages are thereby excluded, this formal definition of marriage leaves its implementation fairly undetermined: quality, quantity, modality and relation are to be settled by the partners. This also implies the possibility to change these categorical parameters as life and love allow or demand it. Marriage is not static.
But is a loving, life-long relationship at all possible? And is it a good idea to even try it? The usual postmodern replies go that despite all dynamism you needlessly limit yourself and give up all the possibilities of lust and life in favour of a metaphysical or romantic ideal. Marriage offers just another possibility of failing and there might be reasons to assume that this is indeed unavoidable. Anthropological considerations certainly seem to show conditions of impossibility of marriage rather than the opposite. Marriage would then have turned out to be a honorable but basically hopeless undertaking. Factors contributing towards this state of affairs include: the castration-complex, a genetically fixed mixed-mating-strategy, a genetically fixed propensity for Bonobo-like free love, the (hormonal) instability of love itself and last but not least the human potential for boredom and the matching curiosity. The rates of divorce seem to confirm the power of these factors. We seem to be limited to medium-range relationships at best and all promises and decisions beyond that appear to be precarious and illusory.
How destructive these considerations are hinges on how powerful we deem these factors to be – and how open we deal with them. A lifelong relationship is certainly under threat from many external and internal forces, so a successful relationship needs to be understood as a difficult accomplishment rather than the 'natural' course of things. But this just corrects the enlightened mistakes about the power of man to understand and control himself – and so maybe even allows for a realistic adjustment of expectations. As long as we do not absolutes of the factors listed above, but grant ourselves a (small) corridor of free decisions and a certain amount of power over ourselves, marriage remains possible. To deal ultimately with this issue we would have to investigate the human condition in general and solve the problem of free will in particular. But I will leave that as a topic for lighthearted conversation over the next course.
Given that marriage as I conceive of it is possible and indeed desirable, we still need to deal with the meaning of the wedding. Since for a marriage to start with a formal or official ceremony is no necessity – and indeed not even self-evident. The Roman matrimonium for example was not based on any official or religious ceremony, but on the verbal consent of all parties – although the nuptiae were of course celebrated duly with family and friends. Even our own pre-marital relationship could count as a kind of common law marriage. That we were in it for the long run even before I proposed to Nora can be gleaned from the fact that Nora did not just answer “yes”, but “yes, of course, naturally!”. In general no loving lifelong relationship is dependent on any official or public act. And in turn neither the vows, nor the signatures or the rings guarantee a happy marriage. There is no such guarantee, we are not powerful enough to give it, but we are free enough to decide consciously to devote our lives fully to someone and to promise to care about her for the rest of our lives. And thereby I have arrived at the essence of wedding as I understand it.
For the dual fact of decision and promise is decisive. The beginning of our marriage thus differs radically from the start of our relationship, which was – from my point of view – mainly something that happened to me, a passive experience, despite all my confused activity. This is why I dislike the polemical metaphor of conquest in the context of falling in love: conquering implies a certain strategic distance to the events and genuine – calculating – activity, both of which I can safely deny my former self. If one wants to use a violent metaphor, stick to Eros' arrow when talking about falling in love.
To propose (and answer) is – in stark contrast to falling in love – an action. But what exactly does it consist in? However marriage is defined exactly, according to our given definition, the decision to get married is a decision for a lifelong commitment. It thusly stands in a long row of decisions leading out of the chaotic, passive beginning of a relationship, two of which I'd like to pick out, namely the avowal of love and the public appearance and introduction. There are many ways of constituting a relationship and communicating your feelings, but the saying the L-word is special. Why? We do not have to go deep into speech act theory to understand that an avowal of this kind is not just a description of the state of affairs – or merely an expression a la Wittgenstein. It is an act of becoming responsible, it destroys ambivalence, objectifies our feelings and shows how serious we are about the relationship. Introducing our partners to our friends has a similar function. We objectify and stabilise 'us' by letting the others acknowledge us as a couple. Implicit prestages are holding hands in public or even the decision to go out as a couple at all. Again the explicit introduction of your better half destroys ambivalence, so the public appearance constitutes another decision in favour of the relationship.
I believe the proposal and the wedding should be understood in line with these decisions, in fact, as a combination of the two. It is the highest form of decision, because it aims at the whole course of your life and manifests publicly and symbolically, i.e. in maximally objectified form. In this it stands opposed to the mute, passive, momentary beginning of the relationship. To be true no matter what is the meaning of our vows, just as the gold of our rings will 'work', i.e. be shaped and formed slightly for the whole course of our lives, but never rust or lose its form.
Having conceived of the wedding as a combination of avowal and public introduction, i.e. as a very loud “I love you”, I'm left with doing just that: Nora, I love you; I wish to spend my life with you and I promise you to be true to you in good times and in bad. I'm infinitely grateful and happy that you have decided to become my wife!