My wedding approaches rapidly, and with my love of philosophy it’s important for me to have profound and meaningful readings at the ceremony. We have each picked a modern reading that meant a lot to us – she from Walt Whitman, and I from Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata, beautiful advice from when I was a child. But I also wanted to find meaningful premodern readings, and that turned out to be a lot harder.
The problem I quickly realized is that romantic marriage is a recent invention, a construct of our own time. It was obvious to me from the beginning that I’d get little help from Indian Buddhism, where sex and marriage are emphasized as fetters that bind us in suffering. I knew that to choose marriage was to side against Śāntideva. Sure, Śāntideva praises the monk Jyotis for breaking his monastic vows and marrying a woman who fell in love with him – but Jyotis, like a good bodhisattva, did this entirely out of compassion. “I’m marrying you out of sympathy” is not exactly the note on which I want to start married life.
Classical Buddhism is an ascetic tradition through and through, as uncomfortable as such asceticism might make us today. But then much the same can be said about classical Christianity, at least as expressed in Paul’s New Testament writings. “Better to marry than to burn”: marriage is a third-best option, not as good as converting to celibacy as Paul did, let alone lifelong celibacy. It is good only because it prevents the worse option, of being led around by sexual lust. For this reason I tend to chafe a bit when I hear the standard wedding reading of 1 Corinthians: “Love is patient, love is kind,” and so on. Paul is not even talking about familial love, let alone romantic love; that’s the last thing on his mind. He’s talking about agape, compassion, close to Buddhist karuṇā. The King James Bible makes the point well when it renders the passage with “charity” rather than “love.”
But what about the non-ascetic traditions? Clearly some premoderns gave an unqualified endorsement to married life, even if the classical Buddhists and Christians did not. Indeed they did – but marriage so viewed was a very different thing. I touched on the point in my previous post about weddings, but it’s worth coming back to. Traditionally, marriage was not about the couple, it was about the community and its continuity, arranged by parents for the sake of producing and raising new children. And it was often the wife’s job to raise the children and the husband’s to provide materially – or sometimes the job of the extended family, if both were working. This is the married relationship that Confucius praises; but it is not our marriage. We fell in love without our families’ involvement, and we do not intend to have children. All of my family members are hundreds of miles away; hers do not live with us. To top it off, for the moment, she is our breadwinner while I am unemployed and taking care of the household. When classical Jewish or Confucian texts endorse marriage, it is for reasons far removed from ours. While I’ve said that weddings always imply a certain amount of traditionalism, to most traditional audiences our marriage looks a lot more like libertinism.
So the best premodern texts for a modern marriage are likely those which are not about marriage. The last time I got married, we read Pausanias’s speech from Plato’s Symposium, arguing that the best kind of love is pursued for the cultivation of virtue. A great and noble sentiment, and here we are talking about a love closer to modern romantic love – sexually charged eros, not compassionate agape. A good reading, but worth remembering that the eros that’s at issue here is the love Plato knew, between an older man and a younger boy. The dialogue never even entertains the idea that a married couple would feel eros for each other.
So likewise the Song of Songs, that Hebrew text that has made so many wonder “why is this in the Bible?” Not being constrained in our interpretations by tradition, we don’t need to take the strained reading of the text as an allegory for God’s love for the church. We can read it literally for what it is, the erotic passion of two heterosexual lovers, in a text that is nevertheless ancient and passed down by tradition. The text never says these lovers are married; in their time, they probably wouldn’t have been. But their love is much more like ours than is Paul’s agape, Śāntideva’s karuṇā, or the community- and family-oriented Confucian marriage. And so we are having a selection from this text sung at our wedding.
The other premodern reading we’ll have at the wedding is the short closing lines of the Rig Veda (X.191.4): “May your aim be one and single / May your hands be joined in one / The mind at rest in unison / At peace with all, so may you be.” It is also not about marriage in its original context, but about unity among Agni worshippers; and the translation is quite loose. In these respects I suppose it’s really no better than the Corinthians. But my father has regularly sent it as a wedding blessing to most of the couples we know who have married in my lifetime. So it’s become part of our own family tradition, in a way, as well as being an appropriate wish expressed in beautiful English. And all of that matters.
This will be my last post for a couple weeks – because of the wedding, of course! The next week and a half will be frenetic with wedding planning, and after that we are having a week’s honeymoon in New Orleans. (We had intended to go further afield, but immigration issues intervened; we expect to take a longer honeymoon this winter.) Blogging will take a back seat during this period. If I am seized by the urge to write about something topical, it’s possible that there may be a post in the interim; but I expect the blog’s writing to resume on the first of August.
Naturally, comments will remain open during this period; I’m happy that some lively discussions have got going here recently and I would be delighted if they continue. Before I pause, I would like to say a word of thanks to all my commenters and regular readers. You have made writing this blog a tremendously rewarding experience for me, and I look forward to resuming it in August.