Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Modern Marriage and the Cult of Personal Responsibility

Justin E.H. Smith's essay on modern marriage is annoying in some ways but very interesting in others. I was especially struck by his emphasis on marriage as another front on which we "work" to better ourselves. As he says, for much of human history most people's marriages were arranged by their families, and whether they worked out well was not really under any spouse's control:
Countless young people throughout the generations have hoped and prayed that fortune would shine on them and they would be blessed with a rich, strong husband, or with a buxom, fertile wife. But this was a question of fortune, not of work, and if one ended up with a lout or a hag for a spouse, this seems to have been interpreted mostly as a matter of fickle fortune, not the mark of an underdeveloped work ethic.
Now, though, we often when speak of the "work" involved in marriage, and "when it goes sour it is because we are not working hard enough."

Smith's distinction is overdrawn -- there are sixteenth-century advice books that recommend what sounds a lot like "working" on your marriage -- but real. Compared to people in the past, we see much more of our lives as under our control, and much less as determined by forces outside us. We choose our careers rather than inheriting them, and we pick our spouses rather than entering into marriages arranged by others. We even "make our own luck." Smith uses the changing meaning of the word "passion" as a metaphor for this social transformation:
In this connection the contemporary use of “passion” serves as a revealing misnomer. For how many can recall that, originally, from classical antiquity through Descartes’ The Passions of the Soul, to undergo a passion was to suffer an affliction over which one had no control? To undergo a passion was to be on the receiving end of an action, to be a patient rather than an agent, and in this respect the idea of choosing to live a life of passion, to “follow one’s passion,” could have made no sense.
Our new-found agency no doubt makes our lives more fulfilling in some ways, but it also places the burden for our successes and failures squarely on our own shoulders. And this, I think, explains why our achievement of so much freedom and wealth has not made modern people happy. We are now, to a greater extent than anyone before us, the captains of our own fate. Some people thrive on this freedom, while others are reduced to anxious wrecks, and most of us have worries that most people in the past simply did not. "Who am I?" is a thoroughly modern question, since every peasant or tribesman knew the answer from birth.

The pursuit of happiness is, we think, our birthright. But happiness itself is nobody's birthright, and when sadness is compounded by a sense that it is all our fault, that is a bleak place indeed.

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