Noah Millman’s Actual Self
Noah Millman has a long post over at the American Scene explaining why he has come to accept same-sex marriage. The gist of it is that Millman now recognizes that his former position had little to do with “real practical concerns about ‘the state of marriage in America,’” but was instead the product of “very real anxieties” about his own marriage — anxieties that led him to embrace what he calls the “ideology of marriage.”
What, exactly, is this ideology of marriage? Millman tells us that marriage was traditionally understood as a contract “imposing obligations on both parties” — especially obligations pertaining to “property and rights.” Beginning in the Renaissance the definition of marriage shifts, so that it is no longer thought of in those terms, but rather as an expression of romantic love. Yet romantic love is notoriously fleeting, with the result that marriage ideology arises as an attempt to restore stability and certainty to the marital bond. As Millman explains:
In the marriage ideology, marrying isn’t primarily about love, or any other aspect of the relationship between two people; it’s about the creation of a third thing, different from either spouse, greater than either spouse, into which they pour themselves and are dissolved. This union finds its material expression in children, the product of a fertile marriage that cannot be torn asunder even in divorce, and who thereby give sign to the world that you and you are now parts of a larger whole, and if you break that whole it will not restore you to yourself, but merely leave the world broken.
The remedy, it turns out, is worse than the cure — or, at least, that is Millman’s view:
But the self cannot be escaped so easily. The marriage ideology is not really that different from other romantic ideologies that have sought to assuage a sense of loss of self by subsuming the self in a larger, purportedly organic whole, and substituting this whole for the actual self. Nationalism does this with the nation, various religious ideologies do this with a religious group, etc. Not marriage itself, but the marriage ideology, is pernicious for the same reasons these other ideologies are.
Millman’s use of the term “actual self” is, I think, highly significant. For Millman, the actual self is what remains after the marriage and other “romantic” ideologies have been stripped away. It does not need to be described or defined because it is always already there — defining the good for itself, independently of culture and tradition; discovering objective truths about science, metaphysics, and morality through the exercise of its reason; and pursuing its interest in the marketplace by forming and dissolving contracts with other autonomous selves. That such a self might be no less of an ideological construct than the “purportedly organic whole” to which it is opposed never seems to occur to Millman.
Yet what is Millman’s “actual” self, if not an ideological child of the Enlightenment?
A key tenet of Enlightenment ideology is choice — not choice as such (which is nonexistent), but choice as understood in a particular way: we must be, to use Millman’s phrase, “sovereign arbiters of our fate.” Hence, it will simply not do to place prohibitions or limitations on divorce (to take the example obliquely alluded to by Millman.) Never mind that fact that marriage vow has always been understood to be binding and lifelong in nature; according to this line of thought “if you choose wrongly,” you should be able to “undo it, choose again without moral opprobrium.” It is as if Millman were to argue that the very nature of gambling impinges on individual liberty insofar as I cannot withdraw money once it has become clear that I’ve lost a bet.
What all this amounts to is — I am sorry to say — a bland restatement of individualism that has little discernable relation to same-sex marriage. (Millman does broach that topic later in the post, countering his previous bad arguments with new bad arguments.) One can, as I do, disagree with most of what Millman is saying here, but still favor same-sex marriage.