Review: The Superstition of Divorce

Rating: ★★★

Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”

Genre: Essays, pamphlet.

Overview:

The Superstition of Divorce (1920) explains why Chesterton believes that divorce should not be legally legitimized. The essays were written in 1918 for the New Witness.

The obvious effect of frivolous divorce will be frivolous marriage. If people can be separated for no reason they will feel it all the easier to be united for no reason.

It may surprise modern readers to learn that divorce was illegal in much of the world until the twentieth century. The Anglican and Catholic churches greatly discouraged divorce, whereas in Islam, divorce is explicitly legitimized but is wholly within the power of the husband. The New Testament position, of course, legitimizes divorce in cases of unfaithfulness (Matthew 19:1-9).

Meat:

Most of Chesterton’s arguments against divorce are for social and economic reasons, and not for religious or philosophical reasons. He sees traditional families as protecting citizens from the opposite dangers of being enslaved by the State (in a purely socialist scenario) or the factory (in a purely capitalist scenario).

Capitalism believes in collectivism for itself and individualism for its enemies. . . . The factory is destroying the family.

Those unfamiliar with Chesterton’s economic thought should take some time to read our reviews of A Miscellany of Men and William Cobbett.

There are a few religious arguments mentioned in passing. Chesterton is sometimes guilty of assuming knowledge of 1920 readers that cannot be assumed in 2020. For instance, the secularization of marriage was something that occurred after the Protestant Reformation; marriage came to be viewed as a contract, which could be cancelled just as easily as it was made binding. Chesterton points out that marriage should be viewed as a vow, which is not something that may be honorably taken back.

Chesterton points out that people were not asking to be able to end their marriages, but to be able to end their marriages honorably.

Any man in modern London may have a hundred wives if he does not call them wives; or rather, if he does not go through certain more or less mystical ceremonies in order to assert that they are wives.

Chesterton ends with a striking sentence that links marriage to a relational theology of creation:

What is vitally needed everywhere, in art as much as in ethics, in poetry as much as in politics, is choice; a creative power in the will as well as in the mind. Without that self-limitation of somebody, nothing living will ever see the light.

Bones:

A few of Chesterton’s arguments are difficult to follow a century later because the legality of divorce is generally a foregone conclusion the world over. Overall, these are not among his best essays, but I did enjoy it, especially as a LibriVox audiobook.

Quotes:

“Men can always be blind to a thing so long as it is big enough.”

“It is often said by the critics of Christian origins that certain ritual feasts, processions or dances are really of pagan origin. They might as well say that our legs are of pagan origin. Nobody ever disputed that humanity was human before it was Christian; and no Church manufactured the legs with which men walked or danced, either in a pilgrimage or a ballet. What can really be maintained, so as to carry not a little conviction, is this: that where such a Church has existed it has preserved not only the processions but the dances; not only the cathedral but the carnival. One of the chief claims of Christian civilisation is to have preserved things of pagan origin.”

Read for free: The Internet Archive (PDF), LibriVox (audiobook).

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