The argument for same-sex marriage, although still rejected by many, seems simple, self-evident, and even rather conservative. Quite simply, there is a civil institution that confers certain advantages, legal and social, unto those couples who enter it. As the law is currently constituted, same- sex couples are denied access to this institution. And, since it is self-evident that people should not be treated differently by the law due to their sexual orientation, the case for gay marriage practically makes itself. This argument, however—despite its inherent conservatism—was quite novel and even radical, at least for its time.
Andrew Sullivan wrote the first major article advocating for gay marriage in 1989, and even then, he explicitly couched his actually modest proposal in conservative terms (the article was subtitled “A conservative case for gay marriage”). Then, four years later, he wrote an essay in The New Republic entitled “The Politics of Homosexuality” where he outlined an essentially conservative vision of gay rights and politics, one that opposed with equal vigor both the natural law types who find all non-procreative sex immoral and the radical queer activists for whom existing institutions were just Trojan horses for the assimilation of queer identities. Placed between these two extremes, Sullivan’s advocacy for simply expanding—not radically altering or replacing—the institution simply makes sense. Marriage isn’t only about procreation; after all, we let any given two people of opposite sexes get married—so why not include gays?
But this argument is, in a way, more than three hundred and fifty years old. It’s an argument that proceeds from a discussion of what the purpose and reality of the institution of marriage is—made, at the time, as part of a truly radical proposal for no-fault divorce. Because, once one accepts that there is more to marriage than the production and rearing of children and, more reductively, more to marriage than sex, then the possibilities for the institution no longer need to be grounded in the biological realities of (most) men and women. It can become whatever the married couple want it to be. What’s really strange about this argument is who made it: John Milton.
John Milton wrote his so-called divorce tracts in the mid-1640s, along with several other political writings which sought to take advantage of the (temporary) abolition of the monarchy to publicly advocate for his vision of liberal republicanism. He would, in that decade, advocate as well for the abolishment of the prior censoring of texts in his famous Areopagitica and for the sovereignty of the people as opposed to kings in On the Tenure of Kings and Magistrates. Despite Milton’s attempted political interventions, texts still needed to be licensed, divorce was still only allowed in limited circumstances and, with the Restoration in 1660, kings still ruled England supreme.
Milton published his first divorce tract, “The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce,” in 1645, in opposition to the extreme prohibitions on divorce in mid-17th century England. Divorce was only allowed in extremely limited types of cases, and so-called “no-fault” divorce, based around emotional or personal incompatibility, was far too radical to be considered. Milton was himself in an incompatible marriage with his first wife, Mary Powell. The sixteen-year-old was courted by Milton in June of 1643; married to him in July; and, in August, left him to visit her family and did not return. She was not ready for life with the poet, a man who had both an immense regard for himself and almost unrealistic expectations of what marriage could be. He had wanted mutual intellectual companionship, a comingling of minds. Instead, he got a lonely, frightened, immature girl unprepared to be the wife of an intellectual powerhouse who was totally clueless about women.
Milton’s advocacy for no-fault divorce reads much like his other work, whether it be poetry or prose: eternally torn and in conflict with itself. Just as his masterwork, Paradise Lost, is meant to “justify the ways of God to men,” while its most sympathetic and alluring character is Satan, his primary work on divorce, “The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce,” attacks tradition and custom for clouding the minds of his opponents and yet relies on the most traditional of sources, – the Old and New Testaments, – to support his arguments. But then it twists and contorts those very sources to turn them to Milton’s view. While Milton plainly exposes these contradictions, there is a central one that Milton avoids addressing: Milton both defends and praises the institution of marriage, all while picking out its very foundations and radically opening it up to new possibilities.
Milton’s argument for no-fault divorce is based on an audacious redefinition of what marriage is. For him it is not a sacrament, but instead a covenant, a societal arrangement designed so that man may not be alone. And so, when the law insists that a married couple must remain together, marriage becomes perverted: “such a marriage can be no marriage.” A man in a loveless marriage is inevitably drawn “to his neighbor’s bed” or, even worse, “suffering his useful to waste away.”
Marriage as presently constituted, for Milton, was too concerned with preventing the “impediment of carnal performance” and was myopic in seeing only regulating sex and producing children as its raison d'être. Milton, citing Genesis’s injunction that “it is not good that man be alone,” re-imagines the institution of marriage as one that protects and insures “the mutual enjoyment of that which the wanting soul needfully seeks.” If it is this, not sex, that is the purpose of marriage, then surely divorce can be allowed if the married couple has no hope of establishing or maintaining such a relationship. To not allow divorce based on mutual incompatibility would be to deny the very end that the institution is supposed to insure.
For Milton, carnality and its natural product, procreation, are of little concern. Marriage is for the married and the cultivation of their souls and intellect. People are disadvantaged by the institution’s inability to recognize the primacy of companionship. Paradoxically, the failure to allow no-fault divorce is one of the greatest drivers of adultery—it “drives many to transgress the conjugal bed,” as Milton puts it—thus undermining the institution it seeks to protect. Sullivan would echo this argument in 1989, when, in the wake of the AIDS plague, he argued for gay marriage on the grounds that “to be gay and to be responsible has become a necessity.” Milton and Sullivan both paint themselves as the true defenders of marriage, the ones who truly appreciate its benefits and its purposes, while the traditionalists, blinded by custom, let their beloved institution wither away, unsuited for those who ought to participate in it.
What Milton doesn’t seem to grasp is just what his argument implies. Though Milton obviously thinks that the type of companionate union he so exalts is only accessible by one man and one woman; common experience tells us this is not true. Once you admit that a man should find in marriage “mutual enjoyment of that which the wanting soul needfully seeks,” then why not open up the floodgates of the institution itself? Are all men going to find women as the best one of these companions? Perhaps such a relationship is even possible with more than one person.
Unsurprisingly, Milton had little positive to say about homosexual relationships. In Paradise Lost, he satirically refers to Satan’s lackey Beelzebub as his “mate,” implying that Satan’s relationship with Beelzebub is a twisted perversion of Adam’s marriage to his “mate” Eve. And when Satan encounters the embodiment of Sin at the gates of Hell, he learns that when Sin leapt from his head fully formed, she appeared “Likest to thee [Satan] in shape and count’nance bright.” Satan’s first reaction when faced with a feminine representation of himself is to rape it. And so we have Milton’s representation of homosexuality as perverse, narcissistic, and, yes, Satanic—with a capital S.
But that Milton was clearly so averse to homosexuality shows the power of his argument. From rather simple premises that liberals and conservatives can agree upon—that the highest pleasure of marriage and commitment is the total union, mental and physical (but mostly mental) with another person—same-sex marriage becomes such an obvious conclusion as to be almost an afterthought. Anything else would imply that gays and lesbians are somehow mistaken in their attractions. And although Milton was furiously denounced in his own time for his tracts, he anticipated both the eventual adoption of no-fault divorce laws in much of the Western world and the current shape of marriage: what economists Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson, (themselves domestic partners) call “hedonic marriage,” a mutual sharing of two lives.
The central mystery of Milton’s work is whether he, in Paradise Lost, presents a God as so cruel and unforgiving and a Satan so humanistic, compelling, and seductive that Milton is, in the words of William Blake, “of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Who knew that the same question could be asked about his support for gay marriage?