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Hegel on Marriage


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Far from providing the natural foundation of human lives, sexuality is the very terrain where humans detach themselves from nature: the idea of sexual perversion or of a deadly sexual passion is totally foreign to the animal universe. Here, Hegel fails with regard to his own standards. He only considers how, in the process of culture, the natural substance of sexuality is cultivated, sublated, mediated—we humans no longer just make love for procreation, we get involved in a complex process of seduction and marriage by means of which sexuality becomes an expression of the spiritual bond between a man and a woman, and so forth. However, what Hegel misses is how, once we are within the human condition, sexuality is not only transformed/civilized, but, much more radically, changed in its very substance. It is no longer the instinctual drive to reproduce, but a drive that gets thwarted as to its natural goal (reproduction) and thereby explodes into an infinite, properly meta-physical passion. The becoming-cultural of sexuality is thus not the becoming-cultural of nature, but the attempt to domesticate a properly un-natural excess of the meta-physical sexual passion. This is the properly dialectical reversal of substance: the moment when the immediate substantial (“natural”) starting point is not only acted upon, trans-formed, mediated/cultivated, but changed in its very substance. We not only work upon and thus transform nature; in a gesture of retroactive reversal, nature itself radically changes its “nature.” (In a homologous way, once we enter the domain of legal civil society, the previous tribal order of honor and revenge is deprived of its nobility and appears as common criminality.) This is why Catholics who insist that only sex for procreation is human while coupling for lust is animal totally miss the point and end up celebrating the animality of humans.

The limitation of Hegel’s notion of sexuality is clearly discernible in his theory of marriage (from his Philosophy of Right), which nonetheless deserves a close reading: beneath the surface of the standard bourgeois notion of marriage lurk many unsettling implications. While a subject enters marriage voluntarily, surrendering his/her autonomy by immersing him/herself into its immediate/substantial unity of family that functions with regard to its outside as one person, the function of family is the exact opposite of such a substantial unity: to educate those born in it to abandon (their parental) family and pursue their path alone. The first lesson of marriage is that that the ultimate goal of every substantial ethical unity is to dissolve itself by way of giving rise to individuals who will assert their full autonomy against the substantial unity that gave birth to them.

This surrender of autonomous individuality is the reason Hegel opposes those (Kant, among others) who insist on the contractual nature of marriage: “Though marriage begins in contract, it is precisely a contract to transcend the standpoint of contract, the standpoint from which persons are regarded in their individuality as self-subsistent units. The identification of personalities, whereby the family becomes one person and its members become its accidents (though substance is in essence the relation of accidents to itself), is the ethical mind.” It is clear in what sense, for Hegel, marriage is “a contract to transcend the standpoint of contract”: contract is a deal between two or more autonomous individuals, each of whom retains their abstract freedom (as is the case in exchange of commodities), while marriage is a weird contract by means of which the two concerned parties oblige themselves precisely to abandon/surrender their abstract freedom and autonomy and to subordinate it to a higher organic ethical unity.

Hegel’s theory of marriage is formulated against two opponents. His rejection of the contract theory of marriage is linked to his critique of the Romantic notion of marriage, which conceives as its core the passionate love attachment of the couple, so that the form of marriage is at its best merely the external registration of this attachment and at its worst an obstacle to true love. We can see how these two notions supplement each other: if the true core of marriage is the passionate inner love, then, of course, marriage itself is nothing but an external contract. For Hegel, on the contrary, the external ceremony is precisely not merely external. In it resides the very ethical core of marriage:

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