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Marriage and Morals by Bertrand Russell

Marriage and Morals (1929)

by Bertrand Russell

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Said Russell, "There is no country in the world ... where sexual ethics and sexual institutions have been determined by rational considerations." In this book he suggests that the system in vogue in Western civilization should be amended by the application of rational considerations. This got him into a lot of trouble! Some of his views were controversial, but he defended them with formidable logic. And what did he mean by “rational considerations”? That’s what this book is about.

On page 96 Russell states that marriage need not “exclude other sex relations.” This upset many people. He calls for sexual freedom among childless couples, and divorce by mutual consent. He approves of trial marriages among the young, assuming the effectiveness of contraception. He decries irrational guilt, inhibitions, and taboos. Of course, relationships that procreate children call for a much more complicated ethic. Published in 1929, this book knew nothing of HIV-AIDS and the changes it brought, but most of its arguments stand up well to the test of time. His views on population seem dated, because the demographics have changed.

A provocative book, whether or not you agree with his views. ( )
2 vote pjsullivan | Apr 26, 2012 |
Bertrand Russell

Marriage and Morals

Routledge Classics, Paperback, 2009.

8vo. vi+195 pp.

First published, 1929.


1. Introduction
2. Matrilineal Societies
3. Patriarchal Systems
4. Phallic Worship, Asceticism and Sin
5. Christian Ethics
6. Romantic Love
7. The Liberation of Women
8. The Taboo on Sex Knowledge
9. The Place of Love in Human Life
10. Marriage
11. Prostitution
12. Trial Marriage
13. The Family at the Present Day
14. The Family in Individual Psychology
15. The Family and the State
16. Divorce
17. Population
18. Eugenics
19. Sex and Individual Well-Being
20. The Place of Sex among Human Values
21. Conclusion


In my attempt for a review of What I Believe (1925), I said that the prose of Lord Russell causes addiction. I was joking - but it turned out to be true. Marriage and Morals (1929) has been my first encounter with a book by Bertrand Russell, and I was somewhat sceptical whether his admirable prose would be able to hold my attention in the course of 21 chapters as completely as it does in a separate chapter, a pamphlet or an essay. Well, as a matter of fact, it doesn't - the experience in book form is much more compelling. As can be seen from the table of contents, a book by Lord Russell is exactly as perfectly organised as his prose is. Moreover, it is very thorough; there is a lot about sex, but there also is a great deal about both the personal and the social significance of marriage and family, their historical development and the crucial role religion played in it, and even something about often evaded issues like prostitution and eugenics.

It should be stressed that those who are looking for some kind of obscene gossip and dirty stories will be gravely disappointed. Bertrand Russell is as frank, provocative, opinionated, contentious and argumentative as ever, but there is not a single sentence in these almost 200 pages that is vulgar, let alone obscene; what is more, there is a huge amount of common sense, extremely perceptive observations and uncommonly sensible precepts. To be sure, certain part of the book is completely obsolete by today's moral standards, but that is not to say that it does not make a fascinating read as an important historical document. The bottom line, though, is that much of Marriage and Morals is as relevant and important today as it ever was. And there is no reason to suppose that this will not remain so - at least as long as mankind exists.

Our present day morality, if any, is so extraordinarily different than the one in the 1920s, that it requires a powerful imagination to imagine what a monstrous scandal the publication of Marriage and Morals in 1929 must have been. Small wonder, indeed, that it was often quoted in the New York courts in 1940 when Bertrand Russell was officially declared morally unfit to teach (philosophy and mathematics) the bright young minds in the local City College. I am yet again flabbergasted that a man who writes with such astonishing lucidity and exquisite choice of words can be so often and so grossly misunderstood; indeed, the only fault of Lord Russell's prose is his tendency to use the adverb ''extraordinarily'' a little too often - otherwise his style is simply perfect. Yet, he was regarded by many people, supposedly intelligent enough to be socially powerful, as a noxious and obscene influence to be eschewed at all costs. The only possible explanation is that they never read Marriage and Morals carefully, or they were stupendously stupid lot, lamentably and entirely devoid even of the slightest amount of common sense - or both.

Bertrand Russell was once seriously regarded as a man who disapproved of marriage and any fairly decent behaviour between the sexes, but, on the other hand, was all for adultery, prostitution and appallingly indecent education of children. This is all moonshine. The case with the marriage is extremely amusing indeed. Lord Russell could hardly have been such a fool as to disapprove of something he did exactly four times in his life. As a matter of fact, this only proves what he flatly said in Marriage and Morals, namely that marriage is of great importance both as a social institution and as a purely personal relationship, and it should be dissolved only when it is childless or one of the parents is obviously unfit for his or her duties. Though he was far from the Catholic notion of marriage as sacred, Lord Russell was dead conscious that matrimony is no easy matter; a number of conditions should be observed and many old prejudices demolished if it is to have any chance to be successful. His own triple (at least) failure in the field, just as much as his notorious extra-marital affairs, corroborates his reflections, no doubt because they were partly stimulated by each other. He finishes the eponymous chapter thus:

It is therefore possible for a civilised man and woman to be happy in marriage, although if this is to be the case a number of conditions must be fulfilled. There must be a feeling of complete equality on both sides; there must be no interference with mutual freedom; there must be the most complete physical and mental intimacy; and there must be a certain similarity in regard to standards of values. [...] Given all these conditions, I believe marriage to be the best and most important relation that can exist between two human beings. If it has not often been realised hitherto, that is chiefly because husbands and wives have regarded themselves as each other's policemen. If marriage is to achieve its possibilities, husbands and wives must learn to understand that whatever the law may say, in their private lives they must be free.

I do not know how often marriages turn out to be happy, but I venture to claim that the above passage will retain its importance as long as people want to marry, or to live together at all.

Another important, and singularly prescient, idea of Bertrand Russell about marriage is that the two parties who are going to be married need by no means be virgins. On the contrary, they should have as much sexual experience as possible, especially with one another. This, of course, is quite common today; no one would turn a hair that the bride is no virgin at all, much less so that the bridegroom has been something of a Don Juan. But Lord Russell goes even further, claiming that a stable, lifelong marriage does not necessarily exclude extramarital sexual relationships, and I cannot but think that here he is too advanced even for our present and reportedly wiser in terms of morality times. Perhaps we have gained freedom at the expense of common sense.

Lord Russell's notion is that the mellowing of marriage, after the sexual passion is all but dead, and its transformation into affectionate companionship should in theory be sufficient for a sensible man not to throw it away because of a new love, no matter how passionate that may be. Even in 1929, when he was still only in his second marriage, Bertrand Russell must have been conscious that it does not always happen that way. But his remarks about the perils of sense of duty or obsession with work are surprisingly modern, perhaps even more relevant today, in this so much more hectic world, than they were in the 1920s. Especially perceptive, if a bit dated, are his reflections about the pre-marital sexual experience:

Most men and women, given suitable conditions, will feel passionate love at some period of their lives. For the inexperienced, however, it is very difficult to distinguish a passionate love from mere attraction; especially is this the case with well-brought-up girls, who have been thought that they could not possibly like to kiss a man unless they loved him. If a girl is expected to be a virgin when she marries, it will very often happen that she is trapped by a transient and trivial sex attraction, which a woman with sexual experience could easily distinguish from love. This has undoubtedly been a frequent cause of unhappy marriages.

Here is a good example about positively dated but quite charming bits of moral history mixed with perspicacious remarks which time cannot wither away. One instance of historical example quite irrelevant to our times but which I find particularly extraordinary, not to say shocking, is Lord Russell's claim that even at present time - the 1920s, if I may remind you - there were newly-wed couples who were so inexperienced sexually that they needed a doctor's advice because they simply didn't know what to do with themselves. I find this totally incredible, but I'll take Russell's word on it.

Bertrand Russell's views of love are something, to use his language, I cannot subscribe to, at least not completely. When he generalises about love being the greatest thing a man can experience, though by no means the only one important, it seems to me that he is unduly idealistic, or perhaps relies too much on his own experience. On the other hand, it may well be that I am unduly cynical, or lack the necessary experience for a more accurate judgment. But it does seem to me that very often love - and marriage too, for that matter - includes a great deal of repugnant egotism and insufferable restraint of the personal freedom. However that may be, Lord Russell's discourse on love makes a truly compelling read, mostly because of the tremendous amount of common sense that seems almost never to desert him; nor does his marvellous prose which somehow manages to say more in few pages than others could in a whole book.

I cannot but admire Lord Russell's view of love as a fine symbiosis of physical and mental elements, which may reach different degrees of intensity and is there to be enjoyed by all who are lucky enough. His claim that sexual intercourse divorced from love, though by no means wicked or something like that, cannot bring any lasting satisfaction also is more than sensible. Nor is his warning that the ''gospel of work'' is a great enemy of love any less important today that it was then. Only today, in a more virtual, digital and high-tech world than ever before, we should add the disconcerting tendency love to be digitalised and dehumanised, mercilessly transformed into chats and webcams. In the end, this is just another method for fighting the terrible loneliness that affects at one time or another, seldom or often, any of us; it remains to be seen whether this method is any better than the old-fashioned one. This certainly is the place to quote one of Lord Russell's most penetrating and strongly affecting passages:

Love is something far more than desire for sexual intercourse; it is the principal means to escape from the loneliness which afflicts most men and women throughout greater the part of their lives. There is a deep-seated fear, in most people, of the cold world and the possible cruelty of the herd; there is a longing for affection which is often concealed by roughness, boorishness or a bullying manner in men, and by nagging and scolding in women. Passionate mutual love while it lasts puts an end to this feelings and breaks down the walls of the ego, producing a new being composed of two in one. [...] Those who have never known the deep intimacy and the intense companionship of happy mutual love have missed the best thing that live has to give; unconsciously, if not consciously, they feel this, and the resulting disappointment inclines them towards envy, oppression and cruelty.

Beautiful, powerful and stirring writing, if going a trifle overboard as well. No matter. One is compelled to reflect on it. Lord Russell brilliantly summarises the ''three extra-rational activities in modern life'' as religion, war and love. Of these, he continues, only love is not anti-rational, that is incompatible with reason. Then we, in the beginning of the XXI century, have a cause to rejoice, for we have eliminated almost completely religion and war. But there are two big and rather difficult questions: 1) is it worth while what he have substituted war and religion with?, and 2) is it worth while what we have transformed love into? I do not profess to give the answers. Not yet.

There are a number of other issues in Marriage and Morals which must have shocked Lord Russell's contemporaries, but wouldn't bring a blush to any cheek today - except in some cases of pathological prudishness. Many of these views were far ahead of their time. Some still are. Others have been realised, but I am immensely curious what would have been Lord Russell's opinion of them if he could see the results.

To take few random examples, he advocated a much greater respect for nudity both inside the family and outside the house; the former, I believe, is common today, and the latter is by no means uncommon on the beach. Bertrand Russell appears to have been an aficionado of nude beaches, but I wonder what would have been his opinion about several thousand stark naked people on the street - for a photo.

Lord Russell was convinced that sexual education should not be denied to children, even at quite early stages of their development; this is the only way, he claimed, to remove any false mystery or indecency that is often associated with sex and later has most undesirable psychological effects. That sounds reasonable to me, but I am not sure it is very often applied nowadays. On the other hand, I should love to know Lord Russell's opinion about the common practice of ten-year-old boys having access to Internet and a huge amount of porn movies, including some of its most scatological and utterly disgusting forms.

As far as prostitution is concerned, Lord Russell demonstrates, yet again, a very sober judgment which is all too rare among so fickle a race as mankind. He is by no means a supporter of prostitution, but he is quite aware that, no matter how restricted or improved, it can never be eradicated. Moreover, he is convinced that even at its best prostitution is still harmful, at least for men who frequently seek its services: they are more inclined to treat their wives or girlfriends as a mere source of sexual gratification. It is worth noting that Bertrand Russell is not against an occasional visit to the brothel, if certain circumstances arise, and he does have a genuine sympathy with the prostitute as a social outcast; the former is a tribute to his understanding of human nature, the latter to his compassion. Summing up the matter, Lord Russell is positive that the best weapon against prostitution is a new, less severe morality, which is by no means the same as lack of any morality:

Whenever the older morality has decayed, prostitution also has decayed. The young man who would formerly have been driven to occasional visits to prostitutes is now able to enter upon relations with girls of his own kind, relations which are on both sides free, which have a psychological element quite as important as the purely physical, and which involve often a considerable degree of passionate love on both sides. From the point of view of any genuine morality, this is an immense advance upon the older system.

It is fascinating to put this passage in the context of our own times. Today sex is no longer ''that thing which everybody does but nobody talks about''. We all talk about it, myself obviously included. But I am afraid the quantity is inversely proportional to the quality. The interesting thing is that, despite this outstanding sexual freedom, prostitution still flourishes. Lord Russell would have been amused by the paradox. Indeed, he sensed something of it in the American way of life of his times which he considered more dissolute than the European one. Whether he was right or wrong in that is irrelevant. He certainly was aware that the new morality must also be better than the old one, that is more reasonable and designed to increase human happiness. He rejoiced at the changes in morals that were happening at the time, for he was sure that they would lead to a happier mankind. Would he have rejoiced today?

It goes without saying that Marriage and Morals is a very serious book. But if I have given the impression that it is a kind of dull stuff, I have done it a great injustice. As always, Bertrand Russell's wit is inexhaustible and makes for a really great fun, not the least of which are such dystopian visions as I have quoted in my review of Bertrand Russell's Best. The main source of amusement is the historical part of the book which is quite prominent in the first seven chapters; the last fourteen are mostly concerned with contemporary issues and hopes/fears for the future.

Since Bertrand Russell does not particularly like incomplete things, he discusses briefly marriage and morals through the centuries: from primitive societies, through the ancient world and the Middle Ages, until the Renaissance and more recent times. One may learn about the Melanesians among whom, incredible as it may seem, the concept of paternity does not seem to exist at all; or about the Maori for whom the father of all children was - the moon; or about the Tasmanians who are reported never to have committed an adultery - which is apparently the reason for their extinction*. The most hilarious part, however, is the one dedicated to the Middle Ages, where Lord Russell describes with his inimitable sense of humour the obsession of the age with the notion of romantic love - that is one which is impossible without inaccessibility of the princess in question.

Bertrand Russell being what he is, he never misses an opportunity for some severe criticism of Christianity. The Middle Ages provide him with an excellent opportunity; at one place he quotes at length one of his fellow writers who is very keen on exposing the virtuous nature of clergy and laity alike: Pope John XXIII was condemned for incest and adultery; one abbot in Canterbury was found to have 17 illegitimate children; another in Spain kept no fewer than 70 concubines (what a harem indeed!); not to mention the Bishop of Liege who was deposed in 1274 for having 65(!!!) illegitimate children. When he comes to the foundations of Christianity, Lord Russell makes no bones about the many terrible faults of the Christian dogma with regard to morals: the wickedness of sex, a horrible thing to be endured only for propagation of species; the whole highly irrational conception of sin; the deplorable persecution of adultery; and, perhaps above all, the disastrous view of marriage that started with St Paul himself, not as an institution designed to bring and rear children, but as a legalised form of lust. It is ironic that it was indeed the institution of marriage that led to adultery, which is otherwise hardly possible, and to a great deal of additional persecution - together with the idiotic notion about its sacred character of course.

In conclusion, I dare claim that Bertrand Russell's Marriage and Morals is an indispensable book for everybody who has still remained at least a little bit human. On the one hand, it is a fascinating historical document, anticipating the sexual revolution and the hippies by well over three decades. Quite unlike many a modern discourses on sex, Lord Russell's book is entirely devoid of obscenity but full of common sense and reason. On the other hand, and more importantly, not only does it go much farther than the mere sexual aspect, discussing love, marriage, children, education, society, religion and many other important unknowns in the ultimate equation, but it does contain a thorough, sensible and wise analysis of human nature. Limited, to be sure, but limited to one devilishly important aspect of life. Within its limitations it is perfect.


* By way of a little joke, I think I have just caught Somerset Maugham plagiarising. A very similar line occurs in his play The Bread-Winner (1930), which was published, produced and almost certainly written on the next year after Marriage and Morals appeared:

You know that the Tasmanians, who never committed adultery, are now extinct.

P.S. An Open Letter to the Publisher

Ladies and Gentlemen in Routledge,

It is high time to improve your copyright pages. Not only have you got John G. Slater's name wrong ('Slator'), but the prophesied 1995 introduction by him does not even exist between the pages.

We appreciate your imaginative, if ugly, covers, but we also wish you would take the publishing history of the contents more seriously.

Your faithful readers. ( )
3 vote Waldstein | Sep 12, 2010 |
I picked this one up in hopes that my favorite philosopher might have some good I ideas on what marriage ought to be. I'm largely unsatisfied with the institution of marriage and knew Russell was as well. The first several chapters dealing with the history of marriage and the evolution of marriage in various cultures were fascinating (though a student of anthropology will recognize some things as dated).

His observations on sexual education and the general unhealthiness of Victorian stigmatizing of sex was similarly interesting and frequently scathingly sarcastic. I copied a few quotes I liked:

"It would be wise to subject all unmarried women once a month to medical examination by police doctors, and to send to a penitentiary all such as were found to be not virgins...in order to avoid the risk of certain abuses, it would be necessary that all policemen and all medical men should be castrated." --on maintaining virtue at any cost--

"The first essential is that the education of girls should be such as to make them stupid and superstitious and ignorant; this requisite is already fulfilled in schools over which the churches have any control." --on maintaining virtue through ignorance--

"Sex outside of marriage is sin; sex within marriage is not sin... but is a disagreeable duty imposed on man as punishment for the Fall, and to be undertaken in the same spirit in which one submits to a surgical operation. Unfortunately, unless great pains are taken, the sexual act tends to be associated with pleasure, but by sufficient moral care this can be prevented, at any rate in the female."

However when it came to his actual views on what marriage ought to be I found him more reactionary than reasonable in several aspects. He did however explain the system of companionate marriage proposed in the 1920's and I found that suitable for my own future-hypothetical marriage.

I'd recommend this book to people interested in the history of marriage, but also in the idea that the marriage institution is a human invention and one that may better serve us with a bit of reworking and personalization. ( )
2 vote fundevogel | Mar 15, 2010 |
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Russell, Bertrandprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Hollo, J. A.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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In characterizing a society, whether ancient or modern, there are two elements, rather closely interconnected, which are of prime importance:  one is the economic system, the other the family system.
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