Marriage Tactics

John Michael Wright

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I suppose it must be theoretically possible to create an ethic without God or a god, but historically in the west it’s been a problem.

When Machiavelli developed the first utilitarian handbook on politics, that is to say, a book on politics that approached them without religion (except considered as a tool), he laid the foundations for Thomas Hobbes to develop his Social Contract.

Hobbes argued, following Machiavelli, that we are driven, not by reason, but by our appetites. That being the case, and to both it seems self-evident, though in Hobbes perhaps more explicitly so, society is not arranged around or by a moral law, but by people’s desires and passions.

The only way to organize such a society is through a continuous negotiation among its members. The fruit of this negotiation was the social contract. To maintain order, Hobbes argued, we need Leviathan.

Thus political tyranny and the whole western stream of politics-without-God walk hand in hand.

In the social contract we discern the basis of modern political theory, one that permeates economics as well, as it was applied by Adam Smith.

Without this notion of the social contract, we would have no Locke, no Rousseau, no American or French Revolution, no Marxism, and no special-interest industry negotiating their share of the social market with the representatives of the various parties appointed to oversee this great negotiation in Congress.

The reason the idea had such staying power in Machiavelli and Hobbes was twofold: one, much of the intellectual leadership of Europe was trying to escape the dominance of the Roman Catholic church and its appeal to a law of nature, and two, in a dynamic day to day sort of way, it is true that we are continuously negotiating the terms of our contract.

Under Machiavelli, Hobbes, and most other modern philosophers, the basis of that negotiation is personal advantage. We laugh at honor. We snicker at the idealist who would abandon his advantage for right and wrong.

Do not believe for a moment that I am referring primarily to financial transactions. On the contrary, I am talking about friendship, marriage, parent-child relationships, teachers and students, and so on.

Our underlying premise in every relationship is that we are engaged in a negotiation.

Think, for example, of the transition from the marriage covenant to the marriage contract. Think of the way people time their weddings to optimize tax benefits. Think of how parents are afraid to exercise their natural authority over their children for fear the children will reject the terms and hurt the parents.

I’m not sure, in such a context, good and evil are relevant terms. We have got “beyond good and evil,” to quote Nietzsche and Skinner.

Tom Wolfe expresses well the post-humanity of our condition in his 1998 novel A Man in Full:

Should he pour his heart?… Something told him that would be a tactical mistake. A tactical mistake. What a sad thing it was to have to think tactically about your own wife.

Sad indeed, and yet that is precisely how we are conditioned (and I use that word carefully) to approach these most foundational of human relationships.

Family, marriage, is a form. Form creates by limiting. We despise limits. Form is truth. Living in the form of the truth is virtue. Virtue is freedom.

We are no longer free to be married or to raise our children. Unless, of course, we seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.

Then all is restored, no matter what is lost.