Chesterton v. Ibsen: On the Family & Divorce

Those ACS’ers who were part of our conversations on Heretics will recall Chesterton’s attention to a certain Henrik Ibsen.  Below, a quote which resonates on a couple levels (emphasis mine):

“…Ibsen has throughout, and does not disguise, a certain vagueness and a changing attitude as well as a doubting attitude towards what is really wisdom and virtue in this life– a vagueness which contrasts very remarkably with the decisiveness with which he pounces on something which he perceives to be a root of evil, some convention, some deception, some ignorance. We know that the hero of GHOSTS is mad, and we know why he is mad. We do also know that Dr. Stockman is sane; but we do not know why he is sane. Ibsen does not profess to know how virtue and happiness are brought about, in the sense that he professes to know how our modern sexual tragedies are brought about. Falsehood works ruin in THE PILLARS OF SOCIETY, but truth works equal ruin in THE WILD DUCK. There are no cardinal virtues of Ibsenism. There is no ideal man of Ibsen. All this is not only admitted, but vaunted in the most valuable and thoughtful of all the eulogies upon Ibsen, Mr. Bernard Shaw’s QUINTESSENCE OF IBSENISM. Mr. Shaw sums up Ibsen’s teaching in the phrase, “The golden rule is that there is no golden rule.” In his eyes this absence of an enduring and positive ideal, this absence of a permanent key to virtue, is the one great Ibsen merit. I am not discussing now with any fullness whether this is so or not. All I venture to point out, with an increased firmness, is that this omission, good or bad, does leave us face to face with the problem of a human consciousness filled with very definite images of evil, and with no definite image of good.”

I came to the topic at hand thanks to a discussion on Ibsen on favorite blog of mine (a blog of the greatest type – those which concern themselves with ideas (not narcissism) and are moderated most carefully.)

What it seems to distill down to is this:  the affirmation of nihilism, versus the affirmation of life (i.e. love, commitment, virtue, marriage).  This distinction, and Chesterton’s bold stance in the fight, is why I love our G.K. so.  Like a voice crying out in the wilderness.

So, to finally come around to the point, excerpted below is Chesterton’s collection of essays, “The Superstition of Divorce.”  (And, while we’re at it, here is what Dale Ahlquist had to say about it at the American Chesterton Society’s Chesterton 101 lecture series.).

As the master of paradox we know him to be, Chesterton reminds us that limitation is the truest way to freedom.  He asks us to remember what we forgot we knew:  that the family is the great adventure – that defense of the family is the hoisting of the flag which proclaims love and permanence.  That said, do go read the whole thing for yourselves… in typical Chestertonian fashion, it is more relevant today than it was at its publication in 1920.

I shall therefore begin by asking, in an equally mystical manner, what
in the name of God and the angels a man getting married supposes he is
doing. I shall begin by asking what marriage is; and the mere
question will probably reveal that the act itself, good or bad, wise
or foolish, is of a certain kind; that it is not an inquiry or an
experiment or an accident; it may probably dawn on us that it is a
promise. It can be more fully defined by saying it is a vow.

Many will immediately answer that it is a rash vow. I am content for the moment to reply that all vows are rash vows. I am not now defending but defining vows; I am pointing out that this is a discussion about vows; first, of whether there ought to be vows; and second, of what vows ought to be. Ought a man to break a promise? Ought a man to make a promise? These are philosophic questions; but the philosophic peculiarity of divorce and re-marriage, as compared with free love and no marriage, is that a man breaks and makes a promise at the same moment. It is a highly German philosophy; and recalls the way in which the enemy wishes to celebrate his successful destruction of all treaties by signing some more. If I were breaking a promise, I would do it without promises. But I am very far from minimising the momentous and disputable nature of the vow itself. I shall try to show, in a further article, that this rash and romantic operation is the only furnace from which can come the plain hardware of humanity, the cast-iron resistance of citizenship or the cold steel of common sense; but I am not denying that the furnace is a fire. The vow is a violent and unique thing; though there have been many besides the marriage vow; vows of chivalry, vows of poverty, vows of celibacy, pagan as well as Christian. But modern fashion has rather fallen out of the habit; and men miss the type for the lack of the parallels. The shortest way of putting the problem is to ask whether being free includes being free to bind oneself. For the vow is a tryst with oneself.

I may be misunderstood if I say, for brevity, that marriage is an affair of honour. The sceptic will be delighted to assent, by saying it is a fight. And so it is, if only with oneself; but the point here is that it necessarily has the touch of the heroic, in which virtue can be translated by virtus. Now about fighting, in its nature, there is an implied infinity or at least a potential infinity. I mean that loyalty in war is loyalty in defeat or even disgrace; it is due to the flag precisely at the moment when the flag nearly
falls. We do already apply this to the flag of the nation; and the
question is whether it is wise or unwise to apply it to the flag of the
family. Of course, it is tenable that we should apply it to neither; that misgovernment in the nation or misery in the citizen would make the desertion of the flag an act of reason and not treason. I will only say here that, if this were really the limit of national loyalty, some of us would have deserted our nation long ago.


I asked in the last chapter what those most wildly engaged in the mere dance of divorce, as fantastic as the dance of death, really expected for themselves or for their children. And in the deepest sense I think this is the answer; that they expect the impossible, that is the universal. They are not crying for the moon, which is a definite and therefore a defensible desire. They are crying for the world; and when they had it, they would want another one. In the last resort they would like to try every situation, not in fancy but in fact, but they cannot refuse any and therefore cannot resolve on any. In so far as this is the modern mood, it is a thing so deadly as to be already dead. What is vitally needed everywhere, in art as much as in ethics, in poetry as much as in politics, is choice; a creative power in the will as well as in the mind. Without that self-limitation of somebody, nothing living will ever see the light.



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