Love, Marriage, and Divorce (1853/1889)

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



[Online editor’s note: This chapter appears only in the second edition (1889). – RTL]

S. P. Andrews, Esq.:
LMD-18.1 DEAR SIR, – My letter of December, 1872, was not designed for publication, as is obvious upon the face of it, and I regret that my friend Mr. R. should have been so inconsiderate as to print it without consulting me. Has it been intended for publication, I should have modified its phraseology in more than one respect. It was written in the confidence of friendship, and betrays a latitude of expression permissible only to such confidence. My sole conscious purpose in writing it was to characterize two rival doctrines, and I should have abhorred to reflect injuriously upon the supporters of either doctrine, least of all the unfashionable one. For while multitudes of equally sincere people may be found doubtless arrayed on either side of this controversy, there can be just as little doubt that sincerity in your direction costs a good deal of thoughtless opprobrium, while in mine it wins a good deal of equally thoughtless popular applause; and sincerity that forfeits one’s personal consideration will always argue a higher manhood than sincerity that attracts it. It is more than a duty, it is a pleasure, to admit all this; but I repeat that my difference with you is primarily intellectual and only derivatively personal.
LMD-18.2 Your doctrine – if I understand it – is twofold, namely: First, that men are de jure exempt from outward liability, which is liability to other men, for the indulgence of their appetites and passions; Second, that they are de facto exempt from all inward liability for such indulgence, or liability to their own distinctive nature as men. In other words, you hold that I am not only under no conventional obligation to control my passions, no obligation imposed by outward law, but also under no natural obligation to that effect, no obligation imposed by my essential human quality. To say all in a word: You hold man to be his own law in respect to his passions, as well as in respect to his actions: provided of course that he doesn’t wound his own ideal, or violate good taste.
LMD-18.3 (1) Thus your doctrine has both a negative or implicit force, as addressed to the making marriage free by progressively enlarging the grounds of divorce; and (2) a positive or explicit force, as addressed to the making love free by denying its essential subordination to marriage.
LMD-18.4 Now, I wholly agree with your doctrine on its negative merits, or in so far as it teaches man’s rightful insubjection to other men (1); and I wholly disagree with it on its positive merits, or in so far as it teaches his actual superiority to his own nature (2).
LMD-18.5 (1) First as to the point in which we are agreed. I am not responsible to my fellow-man for the exercise of my appetites and passions, because on my passive side, the side of appetite and passion, I am not free, but in palpable bondage to my constitutional necessities, to my finite organization, or my mineral, vegetable, and animal subsistence. And responsibility is the attribute, not of a bondman, but of a freeman. I remain doubtless for a long while unconscious of my bondage, because in the infancy of my career I have at most only a traditional and not an experimental knowledge of my true spirituality of nature, and hence am sure to identify myself with my organization, or look upon its proper life as my own. But my intellectual day does eventually break, and I then perceive with mingled awe and disgust that what I had hitherto reckoned to be freedom and life was all the while a cunningly disguised slavery and death. The truth is so, however, whether I perceive it or not. I am outwardly free only to act, not to suffer or to be acted upon; so far accordingly as I am a subject of this latter or passive freedom, this freedom to suffer or to be acted upon, my life is not outwardly but altogether inwardly constituted or energized, and disdains any outward responsibility. Thus I may experience love to any extent my temperament enjoins or allows; but so long as I commit no overt act of hostility to marriage, no one has a particle of right to complain of me. To the entire compass of my passionate life or organization I am the subject, not of any outward or moral law, but of an inward or spiritual law exclusively, a law which is one with my race or nature, and determines all the issues of my destiny; and however properly therefore it may upon occasion subject me to my own unfavorable judgment, it at all events renders me superior to the judgments of other people.
LMD-18.6 And this brings me to our point of disagreement.
LMD-18.7 (2) I am outwardly free to act, for my physical organization and environment render me so; and, being free, I am properly responsible to others for the use I make of my freedom in their direction. They accordingly insist that I exercise my freedom of action within the limits of a discreet regard to their persons and property, under pain of forfeiting their good will, or incurring their acute resentment. Thus my freedom of action is essentially limitary, not absolute. It is limited by my sense of justice, commonly called conscience, or the sentiment of duty I feel toward my fellow-men. The limitation is often practically inconvenient, is often indeed very painful, but it can be persistently resisted only at the cost of my spiritual manhood, only at the cost of my personal degradation below the level not merely of human but of brute nature, and my assimilation to devils.
LMD-18.8 Evidently, then, my personal freedom – my freedom of action – is not in itself a thing to be proud of. It is at best a purely finite – that is to say, moral or voluntary – freedom, consisting in my ability to obey or disobey an outward law, and realize, if I please, a certain mid-career, a certain earthly success, in conciliating the warring extremes of heaven and hell, or duty and inclination; and its ideal consequently in human character is prudence or worldly wisdom. Now, how do you account for this inveterate finiteness of the human personality? Why should my personal freedom, my conscious selfhood, confess this essentially limitary quality? The fact seems to me wholly unaccountable but in one way, and that is on the principle that my personal life or consciousness is essentially subservient to a higher because spiritual or divine life in my nature identical with what we call SOCIETY among men; and is contingent therefore for its character upon the measure of practical obedience or disobedience I pay to the social spirit. I call this higher life God’s life in my nature, as opposed to the life I feel in myself and call mine, because I manage to realize the one only in so far as I mortify the other. That is to say, I give up my outward life or freedom, which is my freedom to act from myself as a centre, or to consult only what makes for my worldly welfare, and I find as I do so an inward life – a spiritual freedom – making itself over to me. which is unspeakably satisfying, which is in fact so unlike everything I have hitherto called my life that I cannot help pronouncing it literally divine and infinite. I dare not call this life mine of course any more than yours, since it is a life in our nature exclusively, and not in ourselves; and yet it is so intimately near and precious to me as to make my own proper life (and yours) seem utterly worthless and odious in comparison.
LMD-18.9 Now what is the warp upon which this life of God in our nature – that is, in you, and me, and all men quite equally – is woven? I do not hesitate to say: the warp of suffering. Not voluntary suffering, or suffering for suffering’s sake, of course, which is mere hypocritical or dramatic suffering, – the base counterfeit coin of the flesh which the Roman Catholic or other pietist pays to his idol in lieu of the pure gold of the spirit, when he would inspire it with a favorable conceit of his own merit, – but rational or helpless suffering, originating in what used to be called a conscience of sin, meaning thereby a hearty contempt of one’s self, and inflamed by the endless labor it costs to get away from that self, or live down the monstrous superstition of a possible personal worth or private righteousness in us.
LMD-18.10 Of course every one must here bear witness for himself alone. We are now dealing with the realm of our inward being – of our true freedom or individuality – where we dwell in direct contact with the highest, and disallow all mediation. But I do not hesitate to affirm for myself that I experimentally know no freedom but that which is here indicated as pure human, being a freedom of illimitable inward disgust with my own and, if need be, every man’s personal pretensions. I relish my moral or outward freedom, my freedom of finite action, as much as any man. I relish it so very much indeed that I doubt not it would soon run my head into a noose, if it were not perpetually belied by this more living or spiritual freedom within. The two things cannot co-exist in the same bosom but as substance and shadow, life and death. The one sensibly finites me, the other expands my consciousness to infinitude. The more I prize my moral freedom, or freedom of outward action, and identify myself with it, the more my life is finited or concentrated upon my petty person. The more I prize my spiritual freedom, or freedom of inward reaction, and practically identify myself with it, the more my life is infinited or socialized, until at last it becomes so transfigured into universal dimensions as to make me feel myself almost sensibly blent with the life of my race or nature, which is God.
LMD-18.11 Understand me. The distinctive badge of our nature hitherto has been passion, not action, suffering, not enjoyment, in order to base a truly human consciousness in us, or separate us from the animal. Rather let me say it has been action inspired by suffering, since our natural infinitude or divinity has been almost wholly swamped in our mineral, vegetable, and animal beginnings, and has only come to consciousness in the person of one man in history, who yet realized in such amplitude its power to sanctify all men that he could say to a petty thief who shared his cross: This day shalt thou be with me in paradise. [Online editor’s note: Luke 23:43. – RTL] In short, passionate and not rational action has been the inevitable law of human life, the indispensable condition of its eventual extrication from the mud and slime of its finite maternity. Thus no man has been great in history, with a truly human greatness, who has not won his way to it through suffering; that is, by painfully subjugating the rampant hell of his merely personal ambition and aspiration to a tranquil inward heaven of just and equal relations with his fellow-man. And to be blind to this great fact is to be blind in my opinion to the total divine worth and significance of human nature.
LMD-18.12 Now it is precisely here as it seems to me that your doctrine avouches its signal incompetency as a law of human life. The doctrine stamps itself indeed fundamentally vicious, in that it utterly ignores this profound subserviency which what is personal or particular in us has always been under to what is human or universal; and so practically subverts our natural dignity, or declares it undivine. You conceive – such at least is the logic of your position – that our appetites and passions are a direct divine boon to us, intended to enhance our personal enjoyment and power, and to that extent relieve our existing prison-house of its gloom. I deny this with all my heart. I am persuaded that they are given to us in no positive interest whatever, as they are given for example to the animal to constitute his feeble all, but in a distinctly negative interest, or with a view to disgust us with our prison-house, or finite heritage, and stimulate us to demand a new birth more consonant with our spiritual or race traditions. Thus I can’t for the life of me figure to myself what free love means, unless it be one of two things: either, 1. A freedom to love promiscuously, which is a mere speculative freedom equivalent to list, and therefore disowned by the universal human heart; or else 2. A freedom to desecrate love, or reduce it to animal proportions, by divesting it of an exclusively marriage-hallowing. But no man, least of all a man of your great sense and decency, will contend for the former alternative; so that the latter alone needs to be considered.
LMD-18.13 Now, if by freedom of love you mean emancipation from marriage constraint, you compel me to regard your use of the word love as symbolical merely, and to view the word itself as meaning substantially hell. I hope you will not deem me silly enough to suppose that I thus stigmatize your doctrine to any good man’s regard. On the contrary, I am only making an honest attempt intellectually to characterize it; and as by the marriage-love of the sexes heaven has always been appropriately symbolized to the intellect, so I take no liberty with thought in saying that hell is no less appropriately symbolized by love as opposed to marriage. I repeat, then, that free love, regarded as the enemy of marriage, means to the philosophic imagination free hell, neither more nor less. Free hell, it is true, – which is a greatly improved aspect of the subject, – but still hell, and not by any means either earth or heaven. It is this fact alone as it seems to me which supplies the philosophy of the free-love agitation, and redeems it from an otherwise utter triviality. Free love is only the shibboleth of the movement, only the specious battle-cry under which its shadowy cohorts are being marshalled for the final field of Armageddon. But, viewed under the surface, it is a surging up of great hell itself into the current of our daily life, to become henceforth an acknowledged factor in human affairs, or to be reckoned with no longer as a suppressed and disreputable, but as an every way free and respectable force in our nature.
LMD-18.14 You pay me the somewhat dubious compliment of calling Swedenborg my fountain of wisdom. I flatter myself that the fountain in question is somewhat more highly placed. I am quite sure at all events that Swedenborg’s stately wig would rise off his head in astonishment and awe of the waters that flow from that fountain. Swedenborg is not the least a man of ideas, but eminently a man of facts; and if any one goes to him therefore for ideas themselves, and not for the mere raw material out of which ideas are constituted, he will be sadly disappointed. This is what makes Swedneborg at once the most unauthoritative and the most instructive of writers, – that he has no pretension to supply his readers with intelligence, but only with facts, which nevertheless are a sure vehicle of intelligence to every one who knows how to use them. Now, altogether the most impressive fact I find in Swedenborg is the fact of the Last Judgment, effected, as he declares, more than a century ago in the world of spirits, and resulting in the complete practical effacement of the old antagonism of heaven and hell, and their joint and equal subjugation henceforth to the evolution and uses of a new manhood on earth, at once natural and spiritual, or finite and infinite, which he calls a Divine-natural manhood, and represents to have been the sole creative and the sole formative force in our history.
LMD-18.15 Now, if this Last Judgment of Swedenborg’s be a fact of our spiritual or race-history, and the elements of good and evil in our nature have become actually reconciled in a new divine manhood, have become actually fused, blent, or married in a new or divine-human life on earth, what can worthily express this grand spiritual achievement in our nature but society? Society then is the true form of human destiny. And if society itself be a marriage of good and evil, of spirit and flesh, of heaven and hell, consummated in the divine heart of our nature, why should not hell declare itself free of heaven, or love declare itself free of the purely enforced bondage it has hitherto been under to marriage? How indeed can it help doing so? The slave, in disavowing his coerced bondage to his master, does not refuse him a spontaneous loyalty on occasion. And love, in refusing a constrained homage to marriage, will not deny itself the honor and advantage of a spontaneous adhesion. Society, when once it is fairly established to men’s recognition as the sole law of their origin and destiny, as the sole divine justification of their past disreputable existence, will exhibit or express a perfect reconciliation of our most finite or personal necessities with our most free or spiritual and infinite aspirations. But that is only saying in other words that man’s life, whether inward or outward, whether celestial or infernal, will then be no longer moral or voluntary as centred primarily in self, or primarily in the neighbor, bur altogether aesthetic or spontaneous, as centred in self and the neighbor quite equally. And when the law of man’s life thus expresses itself no longer in the rugged forms of duty, but in every winning form of delight, the lower element in our nature will be found even more prompt to its social allegiance than the superior element. Hell in that event, as a recognized factor in human life, coequal with haven, will vindicate its freedom no longer by voluntarily deferring to heaven, but by doing so instinctively as the very condition of its subsistence; for reciprocal deference is the life-blood of freemen. Thus, when the veriest prudence of a man, or his inmost love of himself, binds him to society as the law of his being, he may surely be allowed to claim what freedom in love he pleases: his love – in spite of himself, if need were – will evermore strive to indue itself in marriage lineaments, for marriage is both the substance and the form of true society, and nothing derogatory to the marriage spirit can subsist in it. This is why it is written: “There shall in no wise enter into it anything that defileth, neither anything that worketh abomination or maketh a lie; but they which are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” [Online editor’s note: Revelation 21:26. – RTL]

I am, dear sir, yours very truly,

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