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On Divorce
by Louis de Bonald
translated and with an introduction by Nicholas Davidson
Transaction Press, 198 pages, $27.95

Especially in America, when we think of the Catholic intellectual tradition we tend to think exclusively of the many varieties of Thomism. And for the decades between Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879) and the Second Vatican Council, this equation was largely accurate. Before the Thomistic revival, however, nineteenth-century continental Catholicism was engaged in quite a different project, the response—the Reaction—to the French Revolution.

It is not surprising that Americans should be ignorant of this tradition, for the thinkers of the Reaction held the Enlightenment itself responsible for the European disorders with which they were contending. Consequently, they argued vociferously against many of the political institutions and social values that are at the core of the American experiment. To the American mind, there is something faintly diabolical about these philosophers of Authority. So resolute is our distaste for the “Counter-Enlightenment” that some influential thinkers—Adam Miller in Germany, Comte Louis de Bonald in France—have remained virtually entirely untranslated and therefore almost entirely unknown.

Now Nicholas Davidson and Transaction Press have given us a first glimpse into this neglected tradition with a very competent translation of one of Bonald’s principle works, his 1801 treatise, On Divorce. The book forcefully addresses one of the most vexing social questions in our political life, and it does so while providing a unique perspective on the “communitarian” critique of liberalism. On Divorce therefore deserves a much wider reading than it is likely to receive.

Of course, there is much in Bonald that will appear anachronistic and even outrageous to us. He heaps scorn on democracy and defends absolute monarchy as the most natural or perfect form of polity. He ridicules gentlewomen who want to nurse their own children. He is a patriarchalist. But if we can see beyond these historical oddities, we can find in his work a rich source of new insights surprisingly relevant to today’s policy disputes.

In 1792, applying the natural rights theories of the Enlightenment, the Revolution reconceived marriage as a civil contract, without sacramental meaning and as subject to dissolution as the political contract that had just been repudiated. In other words, the Revolution brought about a state of affairs we would consider “normal” today. After Napoleon’s 18th Brumaire coup d’état, however, general sentiment for a return to pre-Revolutionary normalcy brought legal divorce into question. Bonald quickly wrote On Divorce to influence the debates in the French Assembly on a new Civil Code. Ultimately, the traditionalists were successful, and with the Restoration in 1816, divorce again became illegal in France until 1884.

Bonald is often described as “the last scholastic,” and his turgid style and passion for elaborate, systematic definition can indeed prove tedious. But he is also an empiricist who marshals an array of statistical and historical evidence for his arguments, an approach unexpected in the Catholic tradition. In fact, Robert Nisbet, who adds a short foreword to this edition, has elsewhere argued that Bonald is the progenitor of modern sociology. As a sociologist, then, Bonald cannot treat any social question in isolation from other social questions, for “society itself is only a group of relationships.” Political disorder and domestic disorder are intimately linked for him, and thus his attack on divorce is as much an attack on detested Jacobinism.

Against the notion that marriage is simply a contract between two free and independent individuals made to further their own ends, Bonald develops a complete organic theory of society. He writes that “Society is domestic, political, and religious; it is family, State, and religion.” Each of these spheres necessarily has a certain autonomy with respect to the others, yet they are also wholly interdependent. Since human beings are by nature social creatures, “marriage is at once a social, domestic, civil, and religious act; the founding act of domestic society whose interests should be guaranteed by civil authority.” Bonald’s central claim is that marriage cannot be reduced to a civil contract without altering the nature of the thing itself. Since for him the role of the state is not so much the protection of individuals as the protection of the rights (or interests) of “domestic society,” the contractual view of marriage is seen as a corrupting invasion.

Quite simply, Bonald argues that “the end of marriage is not the happiness of the spouses,” since such happiness is available to unwed couples. Nor is the end of marriage the procreation of children, which can likewise occur without the benefit of marriage. Rather, the end of marriage is the “conservation” of children in being, and it seems this is best accomplished by permanent monogamy because of the sense of “property” in children that arises in such a relationship. (One implication of such reasoning is that affectional relations not primarily oriented toward the raising of children are a matter to which the state is indifferent. Gay “marriages” are no marriages at all.) Bonald writes, “If polygamy causes more children to be born, monogamy conserves more of them,” and for Bonald, if remarriage after divorce is available, domestic society simply is polygamous. Such characterizations were extreme in Bonald’s time, but they sound increasingly apposite in our own society, with so many mothers and children living in poverty, neglected by husbands and fathers.

Bonald can often sound surprisingly contemporary. For example, he notes the effect of divorce on women in particular and asks, “Is it not supremely unjust that the woman, having entered the family with youth and fertility, may leave it with sterility and old age, and that … she should be put out of the family to which she gave existence, at the time in life when nature denies her the ability to begin another one?” We now have clear statistical evidence that in America women suffer more from divorce than men, and this fact has caused even some feminists to raise the possibility of making divorce less accessible.

Perhaps Bonald’s most radical challenge to us is his claim that “there is no family today if it can end tomorrow.” This is a stark proposition, but it invites us to consider whether modern marriage is something fundamentally different from marriage in a society where divorce is an impossibility. For Bonald, “human marriage is a union with a commitment to form a society.” Without that (permanent) commitment, both to spouse and to children, there can be only “concubinage,” which is almost certainly how he would interpret modern marriage.

This insight must be stressed. While we commonly believe that divorce must be an option for those men and women trapped in rotten marriages, have we really faced the possibility that the very availability of divorce may itself be a cause of bad marriages? As individuals living under a regime of easy divorce can have no secure expectation of their “contract” lasting, they perhaps lack the incentive to give themselves fully to their spouses and their children, reserving themselves for their work or for other freedoms. Such a relationship of partial giving, always with something held back, is in turn a recipe for a bad marriage. What for Bonald is a fearsome possibility is to some extent our present reality, but we have yet to face the meaning and implications of that reality.

While he is a perfectionist in this high view of marriage, Bonald does allow for temporary legal separation of spouses under certain circumstances. Beyond this, “political power only intervenes in the spouses’ contract of union because it represents the … child.” If divorce is allowed at all, therefore, parents should be treated as deceased and the children raised as wards of the state. This follows because “a father and mother who divorce are … really two strong people who conspire to rob a weak one [the child], and the State which consents to this is an accomplice in their brigandage.” Bonald’s insistence on the primacy of the good of children in the state’s relationship to families anticipates the arguments of such contemporaries as Mary Ann Glendon. But his application of a harsh sanction to support the institution of marriage (without regard to the perceived interests of individuals) is unique to Bonald’s approach. While we would not want to contemplate the seizure of the children of divorced parents, perhaps we can find other sanctions that would alter the calculus of divorce. As Bonald says, “Choices will only be more prudent when their consequences are more serious.”

So firmly wedded to the social contract tradition is the American mind that Bonald’s positions on first reading can seem unintelligible. This very strangeness, however, is precisely why he should be read, for we are in a time that requires leaps of social and moral imagination. One implication of Bonald’s thought is that it is possible to embrace the Supreme Court’s Griswold decision about the right of married couples to use contraception, while repudiating the later Supreme Court decisions concerning a privacy right that culminate in Roe v. Wade. This is so because Griswold concerns the privacy of the family, while later decisions treat family privacy merely as an extension of a prior individual right to privacy, thereby blurring the distinction between families and other intimate affective relationships. Paradoxically, Bonald would say that while families have a right to privacy, individuals do not.

This last point is particularly relevant to the so-called communitarian critique of liberalism, for in Bonald we can see a radically communitarian vision of political and social life. He quite unabashedly begins with an idea of the state as a community of families rather than of individuals, and the family itself is seen as a series of social relations. While many communitarians when pressed would base their practical political proposals on the pursuit of happiness of individuals, Bonald is a “complete” communitarian. For him, “domestic society” is a reality, and its rights cannot be trumped by the rights-claims and interests of the individuals within it. If communitarianism is to be anything more than a very minor quibble within liberal individualism, it will have to assimilate the insights of Bonald and others like him.

Nicholas Davidson writes in his introduction to On Divorce that “as the modern world is increasingly reformed, [a] conservative approach is less and less adequate, and Bonald’s investigative and restorative approach is more and more necessary.” While Davidson might be overstating somewhat, he is on to something. When family values can mesmerize our politics and when even Newsweek can question the wisdom of no-fault divorce in a cover story, then perhaps America is ready for some creative reactions. If it is, Bonald has something to teach us.

Mark C. Henrie is a doctoral candidate in political theory at Harvard University.

Photo by Zoriana Stakhniv on Unsplash. Image cropped.