Friday, September 21, 2012

Aristotle Never Conceived of "Same-Sex Marriage" -- for Good Reason

Centuries of human society and cultural progress have not improved our ability to think. Consider the present confusion over so-called "same-sex marriage": those who advocate for it speak of lifting a "ban" on such marriage, as though it were just a matter of adjusting the definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman in a lifelong relationship.

Even though we do not have all of his writings today, it is safe to assert that Aristotle never wrote anything against same-sex marriage (let alone in favor of such a notion). That is because Aristotle knew how to think, and systematized the rules of thought for all subsequent generations. And it is to Aristotle's schema to which we must return, if we are to achieve clarity on what is illogical about all proposals to "allow" same-sex marriages -- whether celebrated in a civil or a religious ceremony.

As this excellent article by Robin Phillips reminds us, Aristotle distinguished between the essential properties of a thing, and its accidental properties. To change Mr. Phillips' illustration of the differences  a bit: consider the properties of an apple. Its greenness would not be an essential property, because an apple may also be red, or yellow, or many shades in between, and it would still be an apple. So greenness is an accidental property of apples.

On the other hand, we could not have an apple that was without malic acid, whose very name derives from the Latin word (malum) for "apple." It defines an apple's tartness, and is the acid which is found naturally occurring in all forms of an apple. So one may say, using Aristotle's schema, that having malic acid is an essential property of an apple, just as having citric acid would be an essential property of a lemon, or a lime.

Now take this analysis one step further, as does Mr. Phillips in the article just linked. One may easily speak of a red, yellow, or green apple -- but one could not comprehensibly speak of a "citric apple," or of a "malic orange." If the essential properties of a thing are those that define its essence, its very being, then to ascribe those properties to something else entirely is to create nonsense, and engender verbal (and hence mental) confusion.

And this is what all the proponents of so-called "same-sex marriage" are doing. For them, gender complementarity (male and female partners) is simply an accidental, and not an essential, property of what we call "marriage." So the adjective "same-sex" in front of the term "marriage" tells us no more than something about the partners which comprise it, and in their view does not render the concept illogical or incomprehensible.

For advocates of such a view, it is possible to speak of a current "ban" on same-sex marriage in certain States because those States do not permit such marriages under their laws. But -- hold on a minute, and consider this issue as Aristotle would have. In speaking of a "ban" on gay marriage, there is already a hidden assumption made by the speaker: namely, that there is indeed such a thing as same-sex marriage, and that it would be possible to have it exist in certain States, did they not legally prohibit it.

Aristotle would not let any such spokesperson get away without articulating that hidden assumption, and without asking him to defend its validity. In order to do so, however, the spokesperson would have to show that gender complementarity is not an essential, but only an accidental, property of marriage.

But is gender complementarity merely an accidental property of marriage? Listen to Mr. Phillips on this point:
There are a number of good reasons to think that gender complementarity is an essential property of marriage. Consider some of the concepts and conditions that marriage gives rise to: concepts such as consummation and adultery. The very existence of these concepts presupposes a notion of marriage in which the participants are members of the opposite sex. Such concepts either become confused or collapse into complete vacuity once we assert that the gender of the participants is accidental.

Thus, when gender differentiation stops being essential to the married state, consummation and adultery either cease to be meaningful or must be redefined to mean something quite different from what they currently do. This was impressed upon me when I encountered the following paragraph in the UK government's consultation document on introducing same-sex marriage to England and Wales:
Specifically, non-consummation and adultery are currently concepts that are defined in case law and apply only to marriage law. . . . However, with the removal of the ban on same-sex couples having a civil marriage, these concepts will apply equally to same-sex and opposite-sex couples and case law may need to develop, over time, a definition as to what constitutes same-sex consummation and same-sex adultery.
In other words, the British parliament wants to adopt legislation that creates a category of marriage for which there are no concomitant definitions of "consummation" or "adultery." It proposes to leave to the law courts the problem of defining those concepts in the context of same-sex marriages. Could anything be more of a demonstration that there is a problem here? One, say, of putting the philosophical cart before the philosophical horse?

When, in order to have recognition of the union of two people of the same sex as a "marriage," one also has to change the definition of what constitutes "consummation" of such a marriage, and of what acts justify divorce, say, on grounds of "adultery," one has left the realm of the essential properties of a thing in favor of unmoored, and ever-changing, relativity. No longer does marriage as such have any properties that are seen as essential; instead, all of them are accidental.

Aristotle, in short, would be astounded that anyone could argue for such an understanding and still call himself or herself a philosopher (let alone a follower of reason and logic). For something that has no essential properties, but is instead wholly accidental, is obviously not a concept or thing that can be situated in time or space. It derives its entire substance solely from its (random) "accidents" -- properties which vary according to who is observing them.

Let loose the bounds of logic and reason, in other words, and there is no end of cultural anarchy. What, pray tell, do  "consummation" and "adultery" mean in the context of a three- or four-way "marriage"? And in case of a divorce after there are children, how does one determine which parent(s) should have, or share, custody?

I am not denying the ability of a society to legislate that "marriage" may be between any two persons regardless of sex (or gender, if the latter is defined away into a meaningless continuum, along which anyone may move freely, and decide from minute to minute where they are on a scale that includes, as Victor Borge used to say, "male, female and convertible"). But then what does the word "marriage" mean, when it has been thus stripped of all its essential properties?

Those who are in favor of polygyny, or polyandry, or polygamy in general, will be equally entitled to argue that "marriage" should include all of their possible unions, as well. Neither sex complementarity, nor duality (two persons), nor anything else will be able to function as the essential property of a marriage. A person can as well "marry" a sibling, or a favored pet, or an inanimate object.

The essential characteristic of relativity is that there is no anchor, no fixed point of reference. All points of reference are equally valid, and hence no one can say which concept of "marriage" is "Scriptural" -- or valid from any other viewpoint.

One might as well, argues Mr. Phillips, define apples to be "citrusy," so as to be "inclusive" of oranges, lemons and limes. No one will then be able to accuse that person of "prejudice" against (or, what amounts to the same thing in today's forums -- of advocating a "ban" on) citrusy "apples."

But what, then, becomes of the concept of an "apple"? Stripped of its essentials, and capable of assuming any identity for the moment's convenience, it becomes meaningless -- and hence useless -- as a term that describes something encountered in real life. And thus are we well on our way toward Orwellian Doublespeak, where words mean anything we say they mean, and only those who exercise (for the moment) the power in that society can set the boundaries on its language.

The very problem with "same-sex marriage," therefore, is not that it would introduce a new form of discrimination (from the polygamists' point of view). It is that it would undermine language itself as a means of communication -- of conveying, in distilled form, the essence of a thing. Those who claim a "right" to same-sex marriage (or, what comes to the same thing, an end to the "ban" against such unions), are putting the cart before the horse, and are simply assuming that what they wish to exist (despite the conflict with essential properties) already exists (and is unfairly restricted by society's selective "ban" in certain States).

The very moment in which they make that assumption is when they divorce the concept of "marriage" from its "essential properties."

And that is why proponents of modern-day "same-sex marriage" will never find any support for their position in Aristotle's writings (let alone in the writings of the apostolic fathers, who were brought up in the tradition of Aristotelian logic). Aristotle would instead flunk them out of his School of Philosophy, as would every other ancient and medieval philosopher -- for asserting that "all is relative; nothing is essential."

In short: one cannot have both "marriage" (in the traditional sense) and, in the same world, "same-sex marriage," which latter shares zero essential qualities with the former. To assert the latter as a "fundamental right" is to argue for "'marriage' as consisting of whatever we decide it is -- from time to time." And that position both annihilates the concept of traditional marriage, as well as sets us adrift in a boundless sea of cultural anarchy.

Resistance to the notion of "same-sex marriage" is thus not "homophobic" (nota bene: a word that also has no "essential" characteristics, but which in itself is a relative term, since not all homosexuals are "married," or even want to be). Indeed -- it is the very antithesis of such a description: it is wholly Aristotelian. 

Vivat Aristoteles!


  1. fine article. Perhaps you could forward to Bishop Waldo to relay to the study dialogue for Upper SC diocese. It might be of some use there, I would hope.

  2. I guess comparing apples to oranges is a thing of the past now that the true difference in known!

  3. I agree that same-sex "marriage" is nonsensical. However, I don't agree that an apple and malic acid is a good analogy. Suppose that next month a creative scientist genetically modifies an apple to produce citric acid instead of malic acid, yet continues to have the same basic structure as an apple. We then have something which is crunchy like an apple yet is sour like a lemon.

    You may reasonably argue that this thing is not an apple, because it does not have the essential qualities of an apple. It is something entirely new. Yet it is something which is more similar to an apple than to any other thing; it nearly fits into the category of apple, but not quite. It might even be genetically compatible with an apple. If that's the case, you would have a hard time convincing an average joe or a botanist that this is not an apple.

    This is the world we live in. What you and I see as relativism (because it defines categories in a manner which is relative to the popular view at any given time) is not always seen as relativism by the rest of the world. To them, their categories feel concrete, even if they are fluid over time, because they are grounded in just enough absolutism to not completely fall apart.

  4. Paul Brannan, thank you for your input here. For me, the problem with your hypothetical is that while it might look like an apple on the outside, it would not taste like an apple. (And we are assuming that the substitution of genes to create citric acid in the place of the genes that created malic acid would not affect the viability of the apple species.)

    I submit that Aristotle would never have admitted an object that looked on the outside to be an apple, but which tasted like a lemon, as a true apple -- precisely because his schema (and nature itself) has never hypothesized or allowed for such an object.

    Your proposal to admit other acids than malic to the essential definition of an apple denies the apple's very essence (which is expressed in the choice of the Latin word "malum" to define what we call an "apple"). For all that I know, some varieties of apple may well contain quantities of citric or other acids, but (if so) they are far in the minority (compositionally speaking), and their defining characteristic (as any winemaker will tell you) is their malic acid.

    In the same way, you could choose _any_ chemical element of an apple and make it predominate -- but it would no longer be an apple. You could probably create, genetically, apples that were iridescently pink and that tasted just like real ones -- in which case we would be forced to expand the essential concept of an apple from one that is predominately flavored by malic acid, to one that is basically that plus has the traditional apple colors.

    But the ability to accomplish such variations in the laboratory is not what Aristotle was emphasizing in his schema -- which rested on natural processes and natural results from those givens in this world that we physically occupy.

    So while I fully agree that, linguistically and culturally, a civilization may well "agree" to define a citric apple as an "apple," that "agreement" would not satisfy Aristotle's logical schema -- and indeed, would make it a perpetually mutable one, at the whim of the current age.

    The ultimate problem with your contention, as I see it, is that it would cede final authority to man over God's creation. That is the supreme anthropomorphic fallacy -- that what man can create in his laboratories, or argue in his journals, is the equal (or even the superior) of what God Himself has created or revealed.

    So I cannot go where you would like to go -- it would involve the very denial of my faith.