The Argument for Polygamy

by Maggie Gallagher

In The Public Discourse, political scientist Russell Nielli digs up David Hume’s prescient critique of both polygamy and liberal divorce laws, which he argues make marriages less happy:

There is a paradox here, Hume acknowledges, in that “the heart of man naturally delights in liberty,” and the liberty to marry the person of one’s affection is acknowledged as an important ingredient in marital happiness. But once married, the liberty of easy divorce has the opposite effect on a couple’s happiness, Hume says, and he gives as an historical example the decline in marital happiness that followed Rome’s abandonment of its ancient proscription of divorce. Under the older dispensation, says Hume (citing the Roman historian and orator Dionysius Halicarnassus), marriages were generally harmonious and satisfying, as couples “considered the inevitable necessity by which they were linked together and abandoned all prospect of any other choice or establishment.”

“The heart of man naturally submits to necessity,” Hume explains, and it will soon lose “an inclination when there appears an absolute impossibility of gratifying it.” The secret to happy marriages thus involves principles of both freedom and constraint, principles Hume readily acknowledges that seem to contradict one another. “But what is man,” he muses, “but a heap of contradictions!”

Interesting stuff, but I became somewhat more transfixed by the argument for polygamy to which Hume is in part responding:

Having multiple wives, says the polygamy defender, is “the only effectual remedy for the disorder of love and the only expedient for freeing men from that slavery to the females which the natural violence of our passion has imposed upon us.” It is by multiple partners alone — partners who can be used at will and played off one against the other — that “[we men] regain our right of sovereignty, and sating our appetite, reestablish the authority of reason in our minds, and, of consequence, our own authority in our families.”

Essentially, The tyranny of lust disorders men’s reason and gives women too much power over men: That’s polygamy as misogyny.

But who today seeks to limit the power of lust to disorder reason? That 3,000-year-old tradition of thought — from the Roman stoics to the Christian fathers to the polygamy defenders in Hume’s day — appears to have been replaced by a desire to experience the sweet disorder of lust as often as possible. Strange.

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