Lecture 33: The Superstition of Divorce

In 1918, Chesterton wrote a series of articles called “The Superstition of Divorce” for the New Witness. The essays were published as a collection under the same title in 1920. He said it wasn’t supposed to be a book, but a pamphlet, and the object of a pamphlet is to be out of date as soon as possible. “It can only survive when it does not succeed.”

Unfortunately, it survived. Chesterton’s warnings about the rise of divorce have gone unheeded, warnings best summed up in his prophetic line: “The obvious effect of frivolous divorce will be frivolous marriage. If people can be separated for no reason they will feel it all the easier to be united for no reason.”

In this book, Chesterton for the most part does not talk about the sacramental and religious nature of marriage, but rather focuses on the practical and historical and social reasons for it. His main point is that if the family breaks apart, the whole society will break apart.

Divorce, by any account, is a failure. But the modern world has begun to portray divorce as a freedom. This comes as no surprise to Chesterton. The modern world, he says, specializes in two forms of freedom: suicide and divorce. “In a dreary time we listen to two counsels of despair: the freedom from life and the freedom from love.” In our society, he says, where every real freedom has been curtailed, the two doors of death and divorce stand open. But just as we should not accept a system that drives men to drown and shoot themselves, we should not accept a system that produces so many divorces. He insists that we admit that divorce is a failure and that it would be much better for us to find the cause and cure rather than allow divorce to complete its destructive effect.

But freedom means the freedom to make a vow, not break a vow. A vow, says Chesterton, “is a tryst with oneself.” Divorce, he argues, is a superstition. In fact, it is more of a superstition than sacramental marriage itself. The advocates of divorce believe that a vow can be undone by a mere ceremony, disposed of by a mysterious and magical rite. The superstition also applies to the idea of re-marriage, that the mere ceremony will undo a vow so that the vow can be made vow again. Chesterton says they want to have their wedding cake and eat it, too. And we have now created a system where this is possible. We now reward a man for deserting his wife by letting him have another wife. We never encourage him to go back to the woman he first chose from all the women in the world.

But besides the horrible problem of disloyalty, there are other enemies, both philosophical and practical, attacking marriage and the family. This revolt against the family is utterly unnatural, a revolt against nature itself and the natural attraction between father and mother. This natural attraction, says Chesterton, is called a child. It is a simple truth that the modern world insists on ignoring.

A family is of course the best way to create, to protect and to raise children. Besides this obvious truth, Chesterton also argues that the family must be kept intact because the home is the greatest refuge of freedom in the world.

Divorce is not an act of freedom. On the contrary, it is an act of slavery. A society where vows can be easily broken is not a free society. A free society cannot function without volunteers keeping their commitments to each other. When the most basic unit of society, the family, breaks apart, some other institution will try to replace it and restore order, and will then become more important than the family.

Chesterton knew that the proponents of divorce would object to his characterization of divorce as being an act of slavery. But he reminds them that anyone who’s ever read Uncle Tom’s Cabin knows that one of the oldest and simplest charges against slavery was that it broke up families.

Chesterton said that the two greatest enemies to freedom in our society are big government and big business. And they are also enemies of the family. Families are a nuisance to businesses that have to provide a living wage, health care plans, maternity leave, and have to put up with employees coming in late or going home early because a child is sick or missed the school bus. And families are a nuisance to the State because they interfere with regulation, standardization, officialism, and the secularization of everything sacred. Traditionally, the State has been subordinate to the family, but when the family loses its strength, the government gains extraordinary power over people’s personal lives. Chesterton says that without the family we are helpless before the State.

The solution? Instead of rejecting marriage, we have to reject the poisonous modern philosophies and get back to the primary things, the permanent things. We have to honor the family above the State, and more importantly, above the office or the factory. And we begin to honor the family by honoring marriage.

Chesterton says quite frankly that anyone who believes that marriage is a divine institution would not believe in divorce. But he is not asking anyone assume the worth of his creed, but simply to consider the worth of the claims made by modern society. He asks those who are so caught up in defending divorce: what do they really finally expect for themselves and for their children?

Father-mother-child, says Chesterton, form a sacred triangle that cannot be destroyed. It will only destroy the civilization that disregards it. And the Church has held up a mystical mirror to that sacred triangle in which the order of the three things is reversed, the Holy Family of Child, Mother, and Father.

If you would like to purchase this book, it is available in Vol. 4 of The Collected Works.

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