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Love, Marriage, and Divorce (1853/1889)


by Henry James, Sr. (1811-1882), Horace Greeley (1811-1872)
and Stephen Pearl Andrews (1812-1886)


IX.

MR. JAMES’S REPLY

TO THE. EDITOR OF THE. N. Y. TRIBUNE:
LMD-9.1 I declined controversy with your correspondent, Mr. S. P. Andrews, not because of any personal disrespect for him, but chiefly for the reason stated at the time, that his objections to my views of Divorce were trivial, fallacious, and disingenuous. I may now further say, that his general opinions on the subject in discussion between The Observer and myself, did not, besides, seem to me of sufficient weight to invite a public refutation. I may have been mistaken, but such was, and such continues to be, my conviction. It is, accordingly, more amusing than distressing to observe that your correspondent’s vanity has converted what was simply indifference on my part, into dread of his vast abilities. But lest any of your readers should partake this delusion, let me say a few words in vindication of my conviction.
LMD-9.2 We all know that marriage is the union, legally ratified, of one man with one woman for life. And we all know, moreover, that many of the subjects of this union find themselves in very unhappy relations to each other, and are guilty of reciprocal infidelities and barbarities in consequence, which keep society in a perpetual commotion. Now, in speaking of these infidelities and barbarities, I have always said that they appeared to me entirely curable by enlarging the grounds of Divorce. For, holding as I do, that the human heart is the destined home of constancy and every courteous affection, I can not but believe that it will abound in these fruits precisely as it becomes practically honored, or left to its own cultivated instincts. Thus, I have insisted, that if you allowed two persons who were badly assorted to separate upon their joint application to the State for leave, and upon giving due securities for the maintenance of their offspring, you would be actually taking away one great, existing stimulant to conjugal inconstancy, and giving this very couple the most powerful of all motives to renewed affection. For, unquestionably, every one admits that he does not cheerfully obey compulsion, but, on the contrary, evades it at every opportunity; and it is a matter of daily observation that no mere legal bondage secures conjugal fidelity, where mutual love and respect are wanting between the parties. You instinctively feel also that a conjugal fidelity which should obey that motive chiefly, would be a reproach to the name. You feel that all man’s relations to his fellows, and especially to woman, should be baptized from above, or acknowledge an ideal sanction before all things, and that where this sanction is absent, consequently the relation is either strictly infantile or else inhuman. In respect to this higher sanction and bond of conjugal fidelity, you call the legal bond inferior or base. As serving and promoting the former, one deems the latter excellent and honorable; but as ceasing any longer to do so, you deem it low and bestial. Now I have simply insisted that the legal sanctions of marriage should, by a due enlargement of the grounds of Divorce, be kept strictly subservient and ministerial to the higher or spiritual sanction, having, for my own part, not the shadow of a doubt that, in that case, constancy would speedily avouch itself the law of the conjugal relation, instead of, as now, the rare exception.
LMD-9.3 In this state of things your correspondent appears on the scene, professing, amid many other small insolences and puerile affectations, not to be “cruel” to me, and yet betraying so crude an apprehension of the discussion into which he is ambitious to thrust himself, that he actually confounds my denunciation of base and unworthy motives in marriage, with a denunciation of the marriage institution itself! I have simply and uniformly said that the man who fulfills the duties of his conjugal relation from no tenderer or humaner ground than the law, whose penalties secure him immunity in the enjoyment of that relation, proves himself the subject of a base legal or outward slavery merely, instead of a noble and refining sentiment. And hereupon your sagacious and alarming correspondent cries out, that I resolve “the whole and sole substance of marriage into a legal bond or outward force, which is diabolical and should be wholly abolished and dispensed with.” Surely your correspondent must admit, that when a man and woman invoke the sanction of society to their union, neither they nor any one else look upon society’s action in the premises as a constraint, as a compulsion. Why? Because society is doing the precise thing they want it to do. With united hearts they beg of society to sanction their union, and society does so. Your correspondent can not accordingly be so dull as to look upon society’s initiatory action as compulsory? The marriage partners, at this period, are united by affection, and they deride the conception of a compulsory union. But, now, suppose that this affection, from whatever cause, has ceased, while the legal sanction of their union remains unchanged; can not your corespondent understand that the tie which now binds them might seem, in comparison with the pure and elevated one which had lapsed, “a base legal bondage, a mere outward force?” If he can not, let me give him an illustration exactly to the point. I find a piece of private property, say a purse of money, which the law, under certain penalties, forbids me to appropriate. Out of regard to these penalties purely, and from no sentiment of justice or manliness, I restore it to the owner. Hereupon my spiritual adviser, while approving my act, denounces the motive of it as derogatory to true manhood, which would have restored the purse from the sheer delight of doing a right thing, or what is equivalent, the sheer loathing of doing a dirty one. What, now, would your correspondent think of a verdant gentleman who, in this state of things, should charge my adviser “with destroying the institution of private property, with resolving it into a base legal bondage, and dooming it to an incontinent abolition?” Would he not think that this verdant gentleman’s interference had been slightly superfluous? But whatever he thinks, one thing is clear, which is, that the realm of logic will not for a moment tolerate your correspondent’s notion of “Individual Sovereignty.” Whoso violates the canons of this despotic realm by the exhibition of any private sovereignty, finds himself instantly relegated by an inflexible Nemesis, and in spite of any amount of sonorous self-complacency, back to the disjected sphere which he is qualified to adorn, and from which he has meanwhile unhandsomely absconded.
LMD-9.4 I am sure that it is only this foolish notion of “the Sovereignty of the Individual” which obscures your correspondent’s mother wit. I call the notion foolish, because, as I find it here propounded, it is uncommonly foolish. As well as I can master its contents, it runs thus: That every man has a right to do as he pleases, provided he will accept the consequences of so doing. The proposition is strikingly true, although it is any thing but new. Thus you are at liberty, and have been so since the foundation of the world, to eat green apples, provided you will accept a consequent colic without wincing. Or you are at liberty to prostitute, by dishonest arts, your neighbor’s daughter, provided you are willing to encounter for so doing the scorn of every honest nature. Or the thief is at liberty to steal, provided he will bear the consequences of doing so; and the liar to lie, provided he will accept the consequences of lying. All these are instances of “Individual Sovereignty.” They illustrate the doctrine more than they commend it. For while no rogue ever doubted his perfect freedom to swindle, on condition of his accepting its consequences, I take it that no rogue was ever such a goose as to view that condition itself as a satisfactory exhibition of his sovereignty. As a general thing, rogues are a shrewd folk, and I suspect you would canvass all Sing-Sing before you would light upon a genius so original as to regard his four irrefragable walls as so many arguments of his individual sovereignty.
LMD-9.5 To think of a preposterous “handful of men” in the nineteenth century of the Christian era, “accepting and announcing for the first time in the world” – and no doubt also for the last – “the sovereignty of the individual, with all its consequences” – however disorderly, of course – “as the principle of order as well as of liberty and happiness among men!” Was ever a more signal proof given of the incompetency of democracy as a constructive principle, than that afforded by this conceited handful of fanatics? They are doubtless more or less men of intelligence, and yet they mistake the purely disorganizing ministries of democracy for so many positive results, for so much scientific construction, and identify the reign of universal order and liberty with the very dissolution of morals and the promulgation of abject license! In the discolored corpse they see only the blooming hues of life, and in the most pungent evidences of corruption recognize the flavor of immortality. Your correspondent professes to admire “pluck,” but it seems to me that the “pluck” which takes a man blindly over a precipice, and leaves him crowing at the bottom over an undamaged sconce and an unperturbed philosophy, necessarily implies the usual accompaniment of sheep’s-head also.
LMD-9.6 Your correspondent kindly applauds an observation of mine, to the effect, that “freedom is one with order”; and I infer from the general tenor of his letter that I have hitherto enjoyed a quasi patronage at his hands. Now I will not affect an indifference, which I by no means feel, to the favorable estimation of your correspondent, or any other well-disposed person, but I am incapable of purchasing that advantage at the expense of truth. It would doubtless greatly suit your correspondent if, when I say “freedom is one with order,” I should also add, “and order is one with license,” but I really can not gratify him in this particular. Somehow, as he himself naively phrases it, when I “apply my intellect to deduce that conclusion, it flickers out into obscurity and darkness.” Rather let me say, it reddens into a lurid damnable falsehood. I can not, therefore, regret the withdrawal of a patronage of which I have been both unworthy and unconscious. I can not reduce my brain to mud, were my reward to be the approbation even of a much more plenary “handful” of individual sovereignties than that represented by your correspondent is ever likely to grow.
LMD-9.7 For my own part, Mr. Editor, I can conceive of no “individual sovereignty” which precedes a man’s perfect adjustment to nature and society. I have uniformly viewed man as under a threefold subjection, first to nature, then to society, and finally to God. His appetites and his sensuous understanding relate him to nature; his passions and his rational understanding relate him to society or his fellow-man; and his ideas relate him to God. Now, as to the first two of these spheres, man’s subjection is obviously absolute. If, for example, he indulge his appetites capriciously or beyond a certain limit, he pays a penalty, whatever be his alleged “sovereignty.” And if he indulges his passions beyond the limit prescribed by the interests of society, he pays an inevitable penalty in that case also, however sublime and beautiful his private pretensions may be. To talk of man’s sovereignty, therefore, in either a physical or moral point of view, save as exerted in the obedience of physical and moral limitations, is transparent nonsense. And even regarded as so exerted, the nonsense is scarcely more opaque. For what kind of sovereignty is that which is known only by its limitations, which is exercised only in subjection to something else? There are, indeed, indisputable sovereigns without any territorial qualifications; but their titles are allowed only because they are men of diseased faculties, whom one would be unwilling to rob of a soothing illusion.
LMD-9.8 What, then, is the sphere of human freedom, of human sovereignty? It is the sphere of ideas, the sphere of man’s subjection to God. As ideas are infinite, as they admit no contrast or oppugnancy, as they are perfectly good, and true, and beautiful, so, of course, the more unlimited becomes his freedom or sovereignty. He who obeys his appetites merely, finds himself speedily betrayed by the inflexible laws of nature to disease and death. He who obeys his passions merely, finds himself betrayed by the inflexible laws of society to shame and seclusion. But he who obeys ideas, who gives himself up to the guidance of infinite goodness, truth, and beauty, encounters no limitation at the hands either of nature or society, and, instead of disease and shame, plucks only the fruits of health and immortal honor. For it constitutes the express and inscrutable perfection of the Divine life, that he who yields himself with least reserve to that, most realizes life in himself; even as He who best knew its depths mystically said, Whoso will lose his life temporarily shall find it eternally, and whoso will save it shall lose it. [Online editor’s note: Matthew 16:25; Mark 8:35. – RTL]
LMD-9.9 But the indispensable condition of one’s realizing freedom or sovereignty in this sphere, is that he be previously in complete accord with nature and society, with his own body and his fellow-man. Because so long as a man’s physical subsistence is insecure, and the resect of his fellow-men unattained, it is evident that his highest instincts, or his ideas of goodness and truth, can receive no direct, but only a negative obedience. His daily bread is still uncertain, and the social position of himself and family completely unachieved; these ends consequently claim all his direct or spontaneous activity, and he meanwhile confesses himself the abject vassal of nature and society In this state of things, of course, or while he remains in this vassalage – while his whole soul is intent upon merely finite ends – the ideal sphere, the sphere of infinitude or perfection, remains wholly shut up, or else only faintly imaged to him in the symbols of a sensuous Theology. I say “of course,” for how can the infantile imagination of man, instructed as yet only by the senses, receive any idea of a good which is infinite? It necessarily views the infinite as only an indefinite extension of the finite, and accordingly swamps the divine life – swamps the entire realm of spiritual being – in gross materiality.
LMD-9.10 No man accordingly can realize the true freedom he has in God, until, by the advance of society, or, what is the same thing, the growing spiritual culture of the race, he be delivered from the bondage of appetite and passion. A’s appetites and passions are as strong under repression as B’s. Why does he not yield them the same ready obedience? It is because society has placed A above their dominion, by giving him all the resources of spiritual culture, and bringing him accordingly under the influence of infinite ideas, under the direct inspirations of God. The sentiment of unity he experiences with God involves that also of his unity with nature and society, and his obedience to appetite, therefore, can never run into vice, not his indulgence of passion into crime. In short, the inexpugnable condition of his every action is, that it involve no degradation to his own body and no detriment to his fellow-man. Now, what society has done for A it has yet to do for B, and the entire alphabet of its members. when it has brought them into perfect fellowship with each other, or made duty and interest exactly reciprocal, then every man will be free to do as he pleases, because his appetites and passions, receiving their due and normal satisfaction, will no longer grow infuriate from starvation, nor consequently permit the loathsome and morbid displays they now yield. I will not say any such stupidity, as that man will then “be free to do as he pleases, provided he will take the consequences”; for in a true fellowship of mankind no action of any member can possibly beget evil consequences, either to himself or others, since the universal practical reconciliation of interest with duty will always make it his pleasure to do only what is noble and undefiled. A freedom which consists in taking the consequences of one’s actions, when one’s actions are not at the same time perfectly regulated by a scientific society or fellowship among men, is such a freedom as men may enjoy in hell, where might makes right, and insensibility constitutes virtue. But I incline to think that hell, with its fashions, is dying out of human respect every day, and that society is continually approximating that contrary state in which a man’s power will accurately reflect the measure of his humanitary worth, or, what is the same thing, his elevation be strictly proportionate to his humility.
LMD-9.11 Your correspondent, very consistently, exhibits a sovereign contempt for society, and calls the State a “mob;” and this judgment gives you a fair insight into his extreme superficiality of observation. Irresponsible governments, or those which do not studiously obey the expanding needs of society, are doubtless entitled to hearty contempt. Their day, indeed, is over, and nothing remains in the sight of all men but to give them a decent interment. But society never decays. It increases in vigor with the ages. It is, in fact, the advance of society among men, the strengthening of the sentiment of fellowship or equality in the human bosom, which is chiefly uprooting arbitrary governments. It is because man is now beginning to feel, as he never felt before, his social omnipotence, or the boundless succor, both material and spiritual, which the fellowship of his kind insures him, that he is looking away from governments and from whatsoever external patronage, and finding true help at last in himself. Accordingly, if there is any hope which now more than another brightens the eye of intelligent persons, it is the immense social promise opened up to them, by every discovery in the arts and every new generalization of science. Society is the sole direct beneficiary of the arts and sciences, and the individual man becomes a partaker of their bounties only by his identification with it. Thus the best aspiration of the individual mind is bound up with the progress of society. Only as society ripens, only as a fellowship so sacred obtains between man and man, as that each shall spontaneously do unto the other as he would have the other do unto himself, will the true development of individual character and destiny be possible. Because the very unity of man’s creative source forbids that one of its creatures shall be strong, except by the strength of all the rest.
Yours, truly,
HENRY JAMES.
NEW YORK, Jan. 29.




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