Hegel on Marriage

Far from providing the natural foundation of human lives, sexuality is the very terrain where humans detach themselves from nature: the idea of sexual perversion or of a deadly sexual passion is totally foreign to the animal universe. Here, Hegel fails with regard to his own standards. He only considers how, in the process of culture, the natural substance of sexuality is cultivated, sublated, mediated—we humans no longer just make love for procreation, we get involved in a complex process of seduction and marriage by means of which sexuality becomes an expression of the spiritual bond between a man and a woman, and so forth. However, what Hegel misses is how, once we are within the human condition, sexuality is not only transformed/civilized, but, much more radically, changed in its very substance. It is no longer the instinctual drive to reproduce, but a drive that gets thwarted as to its natural goal (reproduction) and thereby explodes into an infinite, properly meta-physical passion. The becoming-cultural of sexuality is thus not the becoming-cultural of nature, but the attempt to domesticate a properly un-natural excess of the meta-physical sexual passion. This is the properly dialectical reversal of substance: the moment when the immediate substantial (“natural”) starting point is not only acted upon, trans-formed, mediated/cultivated, but changed in its very substance. We not only work upon and thus transform nature; in a gesture of retroactive reversal, nature itself radically changes its “nature.” (In a homologous way, once we enter the domain of legal civil society, the previous tribal order of honor and revenge is deprived of its nobility and appears as common criminality.) This is why Catholics who insist that only sex for procreation is human while coupling for lust is animal totally miss the point and end up celebrating the animality of humans.

The limitation of Hegel’s notion of sexuality is clearly discernible in his theory of marriage (from his [amazon asin=0521348889&text=Philosophy of Right]), which nonetheless deserves a close reading: beneath the surface of the standard bourgeois notion of marriage lurk many unsettling implications.1 While a subject enters marriage voluntarily, surrendering his/her autonomy by immersing him/herself into its immediate/substantial unity of family that functions with regard to its outside as one person, the function of family is the exact opposite of such a substantial unity: to educate those born in it to abandon (their parental) family and pursue their path alone. The first lesson of marriage is that that the ultimate goal of every substantial ethical unity is to dissolve itself by way of giving rise to individuals who will assert their full autonomy against the substantial unity that gave birth to them.

This surrender of autonomous individuality is the reason Hegel opposes those (Kant, among others) who insist on the contractual nature of marriage: “Though marriage begins in contract, it is precisely a contract to transcend the standpoint of contract, the standpoint from which persons are regarded in their individuality as self-subsistent units. The identification of personalities, whereby the family becomes one person and its members become its accidents (though substance is in essence the relation of accidents to itself), is the ethical mind.” It is clear in what sense, for Hegel, marriage is “a contract to transcend the standpoint of contract”: contract is a deal between two or more autonomous individuals, each of whom retains their abstract freedom (as is the case in exchange of commodities), while marriage is a weird contract by means of which the two concerned parties oblige themselves precisely to abandon/surrender their abstract freedom and autonomy and to subordinate it to a higher organic ethical unity.2

Hegel’s theory of marriage is formulated against two opponents. His rejection of the contract theory of marriage is linked to his critique of the Romantic notion of marriage, which conceives as its core the passionate love attachment of the couple, so that the form of marriage is at its best merely the external registration of this attachment and at its worst an obstacle to true love. We can see how these two notions supplement each other: if the true core of marriage is the passionate inner love, then, of course, marriage itself is nothing but an external contract. For Hegel, on the contrary, the external ceremony is precisely not merely external. In it resides the very ethical core of marriage:

It is in the actual conclusion of a marriage, i.e. in the wedding, that the essence of the tie is expressed and established beyond dispute as something ethical, raised above the contingency of feeling and private inclination. If this ceremony is taken as an external formality, a mere so-called “civil requirement,” it is thereby stripped of all significance except perhaps that of serving the purpose of edification and attesting the civil relation of the parties … As such it appears as something not merely indifferent to the true nature of marriage, but actually alien to it. The heart is constrained by the law to attach a value to the formal ceremony and the latter is looked upon merely as a condition which must precede the complete mutual surrender of the parties to one another. As such it appears to bring disunion into their loving disposition and, like an alien intruder, to thwart the inwardness of their union. Such a doctrine pretentiously claims to afford the highest conception of the freedom, inwardness, and perfection of love; but in fact it is a travesty of the ethical aspect of love, the higher aspect which restrains purely sensual impulse and puts it in the background … In particular, the view just criticized casts aside marriage’s specifically ethical character, which consists in this, that the consciousness of the parties is crystallized out of its physical and subjective mode and lifted to the thought of what is substantive; instead of continually reserving to itself the contingency and caprice of bodily desire, it removes the marriage bond from the province of this caprice, surrenders to the substantive.

Along these lines, Hegel rejects the Romantic view of Schlegel and his friends that “the wedding ceremony is superfluous and a formality which might be discarded. Their reason is that love is, so they say, the substance of marriage and that the celebration therefore detracts from its worth. Surrender to sensual impulse is here represented as necessary to prove the freedom and inwardness of love—an argument not unknown to seducers.” What the Romantic view misses is thus that marriage is “ethico-legal (rechtlich sittliche) love, and this eliminates from marriage the transient, fickle, and purely subjective aspects of love.” The paradox here is that, in marriage, “the natural sexual union—a union purely inward or implicit and for that very reason existent as purely external—is changed into a union on the level of mind, into self-conscious love.” The spiritualization of the natural link is thus not simply its internalization; it rather occurs in the guise of its opposite, of the externalization in a symbolic ceremony:

The solemn declaration by the parties of their consent to enter the ethical bond of marriage, and its corresponding recognition and confirmation by their family and community, constitutes the formal completion and actuality of marriage. The knot is tied and made ethical only after this ceremony, whereby through the use of signs, i.e. of language (the most mental embodiment of mind), the substantial thing in the marriage is brought completely into being.

What Hegel does here is bring forward the “performative” function of the marriage ceremony. Even if this ceremony appears to the love partners as a mere bureaucratic formalism, it enacts the inscription of the sexual link into the big Other, the inscription which radically changes the subjective position of the concerned parties. This explains the well-known fact that married people are more attached to their spouses than it may appear (to themselves also). A man may have secret affairs, may be dreaming about leaving his wife, but anxiety prevents him from doing this when a chance presents itself—in short, we are ready to cheat on our spouses on condition that the big Other doesn’t know it (register it). The last quoted sentence is very precise here: “The knot is tied and made ethical only after this ceremony, whereby through the use of signs, i.e. of language (the most mental embodiment of mind), the substantial thing in the marriage is brought completely into being.” The passage from a natural link to spiritual self-consciousness has nothing to do with “inner awareness” and all with the external “bureaucratic” registration, a ritual whose true scope can be unknown to its participants, who may think they are just performing an external formality.

The key feature of marriage is not sexual attachment, but “the free consent of the persons … to make themselves one person, to renounce their natural and individual personality to this unity of one with the other. From this point of view, their union is a self-restriction, but in fact it is their liberation, because in it they attain their substantive self-consciousness.” In short, true freedom is liberation from pathological attachments to particular objects determined by caprice and contingency. But Hegel goes all the way to the end here, i.e., to the dialectical reversal of necessity into contingency. To overcome contingency does not mean to arrange marriage based on careful examination of the future partner’s mental and physical qualities (like in Plato); it is rather that, in marriage, the partner is contingent, and this contingency should be assumed as necessary. So when Hegel deals with the two extremes of prearranged marriages and marriages out of attraction and love, he ethically prefers the first one. At one extreme,

the marriage is arranged by the contrivance of benevolent parents; the appointed end of the parties is a union of mutual love, their inclination to marry arises from the fact that each grows acquainted with the other from the first as a destined partner. At the other extreme, it is the inclination of the parties which comes first, appearing in them as these two infinitely particularized individuals. The more ethical way to matrimony may be taken to be the former extreme or any way at all whereby the decision to marry comes first and the inclination to do so follows, so that in the actual wedding both decision and inclination coalesce.

The beginning of the last sentence is worth rereading: “The more ethical way to matrimony may be taken to be the former extreme or any way at all whereby the decision to marry comes first and the inclination to do so follows”—in other words, the pre-arranged marriage is more ethical not because the benevolent elder relatives see further than the young and are in a better position than the young, blinded by their passions, to judge if the young couple has the qualities needed to make their shared life happy; what makes it more ethical is that, in this case, the contingency of the partner is directly and openly assumed. I am simply informed that it is expected from me to freely choose as a life-long partner an unknown person imposed on me by others. This freedom to choose what is necessary is more spiritual because the physical love and emotional tie come as secondary. They follow the abyssal decision to marry. Two consequences follow from this paradox: not only is the surrender of abstract freedom in marriage a double surrender (I not only surrender my abstract freedom by accepting to immerse myself in the family unity; this surrender of abstract freedom itself is only formally free, since the partner to whom I surrender my abstract freedom is de facto chosen by others); furthermore, the surrender of my abstract freedom is not the only surrender implied by the act of marriage—let us read carefully the following passage:

The distinction between marriage and concubinage is that the latter is chiefly a matter of satisfying natural desire, while this satisfaction is made secondary in the former … The ethical aspect of marriage consists in the parties’ consciousness of this unity as their substantive aim, and so in their love, trust, and common sharing of their entire existence as individuals. When the parties are in this frame of mind and their union is actual, their physical passion sinks to the level of a physical moment, destined to vanish in its very satisfaction. On the other hand, the spiritual bond of union secures its rights as the substance of marriage and thus rises, inherently indissoluble, to a plane above the contingency of passion and the transience of particular caprice.

So what do we surrender in marriage?3 Insofar as, in marriage, the pathological attraction and lust are sublated into a symbolic link and thus subordinated to spirit, the consequence is a kind of de-sublimation of the partner: the implicit presupposition (or, rather, injunction) of the standard ideology of marriage is that, precisely, there should be no love in it. The true Pascalean formula of marriage is therefore not: “You don’t love your partner? Then marry him or her, go through the ritual of shared life, and love will emerge by itself!” On the contrary, it is: “Are you too much in love with somebody? Then get married, ritualize your love relationship in order to cure yourself of the excessive passionate attachment, to replace it with the boring daily custom—and if you cannot resist the passion’s temptation, there are extramarital affairs …” In other words, what is sacrificed in marriage is the object. The lesson of marriage is that of Mozart’s [amazon asin=B00IZPWSG6&text=Così]: object replaceable.

Così fan tutte


From the New Heloise to the Communist Couple


[Extract. Appeared in e-flux issue #34, April 2012.]


  1. All Hegel quotes that follow are from Philosophy of Right. See also on marxists.org–Ed.
  2. In a strange argumentative turn, Hegel deduces the prohibition of incest from the very fact that “marriage results from the free surrender by both sexes of their personality—a personality in every possible way unique in each of the parties”: “Consequently, it ought not to be entered by two people identical in stock who are already acquainted and perfectly known to one another; for individuals in the same circle of relationship have no special personality of their own in contrast with that of others in the same circle. On the contrary, the parties should be drawn from separate families and their personalities should be different in origin.”
  3. I rely here on Jure Simoniti, “Vrtnica bi pod drugim imenom disala drugace,” Problemi 1-2/2010 (in Slovene).