Hegel is perhaps the greatest defender of marriage and family life among philosophers of the modern era. First, Hegel argues against Immanuel Kant and others who see marriage as a contract for mutual sexual use. He faults this view for failing to subordinate sex to a durable, spiritual, rational love whereby two become one. Genuine love rises above the contingency of sexual passion, whereas sexual urges are “destined to be extinguished in [their] very satisfaction.”
Second, those who, like Locke, define marriage merely as a contract do not see how a contractual view precludes the overcoming of self that is necessary to any sound communal life. Contracts create temporary alliances for limited purposes, and they allow partners to promote their interests as they see fit. The family shares resources and tends its common stock, rarely if ever insisting on a line where “mine ends” and “yours begins.”
Third, and perhaps most controversially in today’s sentimental culture, Hegel argues against the equation of marriage and love. Too often marriage is equated with a love-feeling, a mutable matter of taste, an attraction, a fancy. But marriage involves many unpredictable and unforeseeable eventualities (children may become ill, personalities may evolve, and finances may become unstable) that affect how we feel. This is why genuine marital love subsumes more fleeting emotions beneath a decision to make a life together and stick it out.
Hegel’s critique of the reductively contractual or emotional views points to a robust, unified marriage and family life organized around a common good. It recognizes that marriage transforms men into husbands and women into wives. Above all, Hegel sees marriage and family life as institutions buckling together marriage, love, sex, procreation, and effective parenthood and reflecting the human need for love and community. Any defense of the family in the modern world, then, must integrate Hegel’s insights.
But we must also confront the deficiencies in Hegel’s defense of marriage. Hegel views the family as a training ground to form productive participants in the modern economy and responsible citizens in the rational state. In fact, Hegel views the love experienced in the family to be a faint, almost immature expression of the desire for recognition as an equal, self-governing person manifest in the modern state. Thus, Hegel defends the family only to subordinate it to the modern state and market.
Hegel positions himself as a conservative defender of mores and institutions sustaining unified family life. For him, the family is a natural and not merely contractual unit. But this defense is of limited value because Hegel views the overcoming of nature as essential to human freedom. For Hegel, nature appears, to use Heidegger’s phrase, as “standing reserve” to be manipulated by human ingenuity. His defense of the family as natural only opens the door to successive re-makings of family life in pursuit of a more complete conquest of nature.
In Love and Responsibility, John Paul II follows Hegel in rejecting a contractual view of love. Ethical or objective love, he argues, consists in two distinct, human moments, the first of which consists of desire, an “awareness of some lack,” and the second of which consists of a renouncing of desire and autonomy—necessary elements of the view of marriage as a contract—to become the property of another. “Love proceeds by way of this renunciation, guided by the profound conviction that it does not diminish and impoverish, but quite the contrary, enlarges and enriches the existence of the person.” Hegel calls this an “immense contradiction”; John Paul sees love as a “profound paradox.”
While Hegel would subordinate nature to the pursuit of freedom, John Paul II contends that “freedom exists for the sake of love” because it is “by way of love that human beings share most fully in the good” and because “man longs for love more than for freedom.” Thus for John Paul II the state, which is glorified by Hegel, ends up taking a back seat to the family.
John Paul also mounts a radical defense of the majesty of nature and its relation to man’s freedom. Modern thinkers tend to understand freedom in terms of the ability of men to become, as Descartes said, “Lords and Masters of Nature.” The family is arguably the most natural human institution, in the sense that it has a biological basis and exists, in some form, in nearly every human culture. As a natural institution, it has become a focus of modern attempts to control nature. This leads to attempts to disconnect marriage, sex, procreation, and parenthood in order to remake these institutions to suit human freedom.
More consistent with freedom is an ethic of continence that accepts the natural reproductive system and conforms human action to the dictates of nature. “Mastery over nature,” John Paul II writes, “can only result from a thorough knowledge of the purposes and regularities that govern it.” This ethic best serves the experience of betrothed love, where human beings live within nature as they overcome mere nature toward a great human good.
Scott Yenor is Associate Professor and Chair of Political Science at Boise State University.