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Westminsterian Aristotelianism: Marriage


In Politics 1259a-b, Aristotle distinguishes between the type of authority fathers have over children and that possessed by husbands over wives as follows:

“Of household management we have seen that there are three parts—one is the rule of a master over slaves, which has been discussed already, another of a father, and the third of a husband. A husband and father rules over wife and children, both free, but the rule differs, the rule over his children being a royal, over his wife a constitutional rule. For although there may be exceptions to the order of nature, the male is by nature fitter for command than the female, just as the elder and full-grown is superior to the younger and more immature. But in most constitutional states the citizens rule and are ruled by turns, for the idea of a constitutional state implies that the natures of the citizens are equal, and do not differ at all. Nevertheless, when one rules and the other is ruled we endeavour to create a difference of outward forms and names and titles of respect, which may be illustrated by the saying of Amasis about his foot-pane. The relation of the male to the female is of this kind, but there the inequality is permanent. The rule of a father over his children is royal, for he receives both love and the respect due to age, exercising a kind of royal power. And therefore Homer has appropriately called Zeus ‘father of Gods and men,’ because he is the king of them all. For a king is the natural superior of his subjects, but he should be of the same kin or kind with them, and such is the relation of elder and younger, of father and son.

That is, he distinguishes between them via types of regime (“royal” vs. “constitutional”; he had earlier called the rule of masters over slaves “despotic”). Something very like this distinction found a home in Protestant understandings of the household. Take, for example, the discussion of the New England Puritan minister and sometime president of Harvard College Samuel Willard, the author of A Compleat Body of Divinity (published in 1726). The work consists of 250 lectures on the Westminster Shorter Catechism. In Sermon 178, on Q/A 64 (the Fifth Commandment) and originally delivered on July 27, 1703, Willard says:

“We have Considered the Order of Superiority, which is purely Natural, viz. of Parents and Children: It follows that we take an Account of that which is Political: The former is called Natural, because the Relation itself is made by Natural Generation; whereas those that follow, are not so. For tho’ the Light of Nature will teach us, that if there are such Relations, there are answerable Duties belonging to them; as also the necessity at least of some of them, for the well-being of Mankind; and that therefore the Infinitely wise God hath ordained them: Yet the placing of these Relations between these and those Individual Persons is not Natural, but Arbitrary, and ariseth partly from the Governing Providence of God, partly from a mutual stipulation between the Parties themselves: And these may be distributed either into those that are more Private, and are called, Oeconomical, or those which are more Publick, and are by way of specialty called Political.”1

So, very like, but not quite the same. Willard’s distinction, in brief, is that between the “natural” and the “political,” and it is, if anything, superior to Aristotle’s (though closely related to it) because it does away with the category of “natural slavery” discussed earlier in Politics 1. Instead of a threefold division (master/slave, parent/child, husband/wife), Willard has a twofold division (natural and political) with the second category further subdivided (private/economical and public), and the first of these subdivisions divided once again (husband/wife and master/servant). The only “natural” superiority (as he is using the term here) that Willard acknowledges is that of parents over children. We must be cautious in interpreting “natural”: Willard does not mean that the relation in marriage of man and wife, or the headship of the husband, is unnatural in general; he rather means that the particular relation between this man and this woman is not “natural” in the way that the relation between father and son is, because the former relation is by voluntary consent and agreement, whereas the latter is not.

After making the distinctions he does above, Willard goes on to treat further the kind of relation marriage is and the mutual (i.e. owed by each) and proper (i.e. owed by one party or the other) duties of marriage; more on this in future posts.

  1. Emph. orig.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

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