Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Country Mouse, City Mouse, and Marriage

Alexander Pruss cites a claim made by G. K. Chesterton that's more interesting than true, but I'll go with that:

There is one advantage, however, in the small state, the city, or the village, which only the wilfully blind can overlook. The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique. The men of the clan live together because they all wear the same tartan or are all descended from the same sacred cow; but in their souls, by the divine luck of things, there will always be more colours than in any tartan. But the men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment, like that which exists in hell. A big society exists in order to form cliques. A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises. It is, in the most literal sense of the words, a society for the prevention of Christian knowledge.
I will put aside the blithe confidence in the declarations about hell and other supernatural twaddle and note only in passing that this statement serves to illustrate that G.K. Chesterton held a romantic view of small communities that's common to people who don't actually spend any time in them, and for what its worth, this brief biography shows him to have been pretty London-bound.

What interests me about the claim is what Pruss makes of it, namely, a continuation of his defense of arranged marriage. Marrying a person that someone else selects for you helps to avoid "the negative, self-congratulatory effects of congeniality" (Pruss) that afflict marriages based on love matches, in much the same way that living in small communities -- those clique-free idylls -- guarantees people the needful "experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises" unknown to Londoners other than G.K. Chesterton. Pruss:
A marital selection based on congeniality lets each minimize the amount of required change and growth. But an arranged marriage, where a match in religious views is ensured by the parents, but ... [where personality characteristics may differ markedly] ... forces one to broaden one's mind ...
On top of the rest of the social, psychological, personal, romantic, sexual, religious, historical, legal, political and other freight piled onto the institution of marriage, Pruss stacks another thick fardel: marriage should occasion change and growth; it should broaden the mind. If your marriage is not expanding your perspective, honing your character, and testing your ability to deal with that which you don't like, chances are good that you're doing it wrong.

If this sounds grim or extreme, Pruss generously allows that
it's probably not a good idea to marry someone who is so far uncongenial to one as to impede moral growth, by changing love to disgust. And so on. At the same time, the evidence that a practice of love matches is better than a practice of arranged marriage at avoiding these problems is weak.
Translation: the (unspecified) evidence suggests that both approaches to marriage, arranged and self-selected, show an equal propensity to dissolve into mutual disgust. Sold!

Assuming that is so, why not let the tie-breaker be the self-directedness, autonomy, and in a word, freedom of the parties involved? Feel free to take up that question with your favorite clique.


Alexander R Pruss said...

Certainly, love matches do sometimes dissolve into disgust. The divorce rate for first marriages in the US is around 40%, and I suspect, completely anecdotally, that at least a third (this is very conservative) of these divorces involve some disgust with the other, so at least about 13% of first marriages lead to disgust.

I wouldn't call this a propensity of every particular marriage. It is a statistical propensity in the population. (There may be marriages more or less immune to this. The divorce rate, for instance, decreases significantly with college education. Small studies suggest that the divorce rate for Catholics using Natural Family Planning is about 5%. Etc.)

By the way, I think you're right about what in fact happens in small communities. Also, I think Chesterton's argument falsely assumes that if one one were in a small community or snowed in, one would interact with others. But it is probably just as possible to be a complete loner in a small community as in a large one. So Chesterton's argument only applies to the more sociable person who would not be willing to pay the price for avoiding uncongenial people in a small community, namely the price of being almost alone. The loner willing to pay the price might actually be better off in a larger community, since finding congenial people may pull her out of her shell.

Dale said...

ARP, those are fair points. Marriage is a difficult thing to get right -- and defining what constitutes 'getting a marriage right' is no mean task.

I'll bend the other way and acknowledge that Chesterton is on to something important here: situating oneself amid a diversity of people -- say, by moving from a small town to a large city -- certainly does not, in itself, constitute exposing oneself to the sort of broadening associated with the favorable connotations of "cosmopolitan." One can be extremely small-minded in the biggest of places (and likewise, broad-minded in the smallest of places).

I continue to be interested in the question of diversity and suspicious of the "honor diversity" slogan. Which diversity? And to what end? Surely not every diversity deserves to be honored.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The value of diversity is an interesting question. My best take on it is this. There are various good features of a human being that are mutually incompatible, either logically so or at least practically. And here, I don't just mean to include features like "courage", but even features like "being Bangladeshi" and "being French".

Because these good features cannot be all found in one human being, a diversity of people is the only hope for meeting up with all these features.

But I think it is important that the goal of the diversity, the opportunity for meeting with different goods, be kept in mind.

Chesterton in that chapter also says interesting things about cosmopolitanism. He is worried that traveling around the world and meeting people of various cultures is (I would weaken that to "can be") a way of avoiding deep engagement with individuals.