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Wesminsterian Aristotelianism: Marriage (2)

In the last post, we saw that Samuel Willard recognizes only one natural “order of superiority,” that of parents over children. All other relations of superior and inferior are what he calls “political.” We further saw that he divides the “political” into the two spheres of public and private, the former of which is called “political” by way of eminence (the phrase he uses is “by way of specialty”) and the latter of which he (re-)classifies as “oeconomical.” He then goes on to discuss the subdivisions of this latter class.

He writes:

I. The Oeconomical is that which belongs to the Constitution of Private Families; which are the first foundation of Humane Societies, and out of which all other do arise; and do necessarily require that there be Order in them, without which Mankind would fall into a Rout. And here are Two Relations to be observed, 1. That which is between Husband & Wife. 2. That which is between Master & Servant: and these may be taken up in Order:

[I.] The Relation is made between Husband & Wife: And I mention this first for Two Reasons,

I. Because this Relation comes nearest to that which is Natural. For tho’ not Nature, but mutual Consent, makes these Individual Persons Correlates in this Order; yet the natural Necessity of this Relation was founded in the Order and End of Man’s Creation. Humane Nature was at first confined to one Man, and one Woman, by whom it was to be Propagated and Multiplyed in it’s [sic] Individuals, which was the reason why God made a distinction of Sex between them: And to prevent Confusion, God from the First appointed Marriage, as a necessary Medium of it, (plainly intimated in, Gen. 2.14.) And in this he laid a foundation for distinct Families, to set up each by themselves; hence one Man was to have but one  Wife at once, nor would ever have had occasion for a second, if Man’s Apostacy had not opened a Door for Mortality to break in upon him; and this the Prophet argues from God’s making but One, Mal. 2.15. So that if this Order be not upheld, either Mankind must cease, or Mankind must degenerate into the State and Order of Brutes, which is altogether disagreeable.

Willard again strikes an Aristotelian note in two respects. First, Willard adheres to the classical idea that households, or families, are the foundation of society. Aristotle says:

Seeing then that the state is made up of households, before speaking of the state, we must speak of the management of the household.1

Second, in his division of the household into two types of relation, Willard echoes Aristotle’s description in Politics 1, although where Aristotle had given three relations, Willard only gives two. Aristotle in the same paragraph continues:

The parts of the household are the persons who compose it, and a complete household consists of slaves and freemen. Now we should begin by examining everything in its least elements; and the first and least parts of a family are master and slave, husband and wife, father and children.

In his introduction to the Politics, Benjamin Jowett summarizes Aristotle’s position as follows:

Now the state is founded upon two relations; 1) that of male and female; 2) that of master and servant; the first necessary for the continuance of the race; the second for the preservation of the inferior class or of both classes. From these two relations there arises, in the first place, the household, intended by nature for the supply of men’s daily wants; secondly, the village, which is an aggregate of households; and finally, the state.

On the other hand, there is a distinctly Reformational note in what Willard says as well, and that is the focus on the principle of consent in marriage, which came to new prominence in the marital thought of the Protestant Reformers and their heirs.

Finally, we might note that the marital relation is peculiarly human and that without it there can be no human society. The family or household is the foundation of society, as Willard says; this means that we should observe what is not the foundation of society: the individual. This is a point recognized by both the classical political tradition and by Christian thinkers as well; for Christians, one might have thought that the opening chapters of Genesis make this clear enough. Why must this be the case? Because, for there to be any ordered human society at all, there must be humans. And these only come about in one way (at least until very recently in human history). But that one way must be disciplined, that is, subject to sharply delineated restriction, or what one ends up with will not be human society at all; it will only be a concatenation of beasts, and thus will render man’s fundamentally political character impossible–and thus, too, will overthrow human nature itself, if it is true that man is, by nature, a zoon politikon, as the classical and Christian traditions both affirm. For that reason, Willard says: “[I]f this Order be not upheld, either Mankind must cease, or Mankind must degenerate into the State and Order of Brutes, which is altogether disagreeable.”

Effective understatement, that.


  1. That is, the oikonomia.

By E.J. Hutchinson

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

2 replies on “Wesminsterian Aristotelianism: Marriage (2)”

What is new about the emphasis on consent in marriage? Wasn’t it was hoary by his age. See, e.g., Lombard’s Sentences.

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