John Milton’s “Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce” argued that the most valid reason for divorce was that of incompatibility and his prophetic vision of this reason for divorce is the one now primarily relied on to end marriage in our modern culture. His view contrasted with the social and religious laws of the time and he was both criticized for advocating such a radical change in the marriage laws and accused of having selfish motivations for his position since his own marriage was proving to be problematic at the time he wrote “Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce”.
If John Milton was alive today I think he would be both elated and impressed that the lawmakers had finally seen the issue of divorce through his eyes, although he would have serious issues with the basis and sometimes flimsy reasons on which incompatibility is established and possibly have some objections to the fact that that women have as much right to pursue this path to freedom as men do. Whatever his motivations were in writing the “DDD” he backed his position up solidly with logical thinking and authoritative support from the bible and in the end it is a farsighted and amazing work or its time. The current Alberta Divorce Act allows divorce on the basis of marriage breakdown due to incompatibility. Incompatibility, at it applies to the divorce act, is not as simple as a couple simply declaring that they are no longer compatible and therefore should be divorced.
Before incompatibility causing marriage break down can be established at least one of three criteria must be met: “(a) the spouses have lived separate and apart for at least one year immediately before the divorce judgment (b) one spouse has committed adultery or (c) one spouse has committed physical or mental cruelty”. 7) The divorce applicant needs to provide proof that validates one of these criteria before the courts accept any one of them as the basis for divorce; however, the proof is relatively easy to establish and promotes certain ease in obtaining a divorce today, an ease that Milton would not condone. Either the husband or the wife has the right to apply for a divorce, something that I do not think Milton had in mind when he wrote his divorce tracts.
The Divorce Act recognizes incompatibility based on voluntary separation as the first reason for divorce just as Milton recognizes incompatibility in the “Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce”; however, his definition of incompatibility is very much different from that of our modern day criteria. For the purposes of this paper it is the first criteria for divorce that I am going to set against Milton. According to modern day requirements a couple may establish incompatibility on the basis of a one-year separation.
The separation must have been voluntary and at least one of the spouses must have the intention of living separate and apart from the other. ” (7) To make it even easier the courts will not “consider the period of separation interrupted if the spouses resume living together for a period or periods totaling not more than 90 days, as long as the primary purpose is to reconcile. ” (7) For Milton the problem with this would be that there is no real definition of compatibility.
In other words in order to divorce someone today all one has to do is decide that they are incompatible with their spouse and move out for a year in order to gain a divorce, a situation which Milton would find deplorable since he had a definite notion of what caused incompatibility in a marriage. Milton had a strong belief that compatibility between a married couple was a spiritual matter, and therefore directly related to love of God. If there was no spiritual meeting and love between a couple it directly affected the ability to love and honor God, something that Milton felt was the primary object of marriage.
An unhappy mind resulting from lack of a spiritual connection with one’s wife, made it difficult to attain spiritual oneness with God and live in peace and harmony as God originally intended that a man and wife should. For Milton marriage seems to be a reflection of one’s relationship with God and therefore to remain in a marriage where there was no real love, understanding and companionship was not what God intended when he introduced marriage to Adam and Eve.
In the “Doctrine of Discipline and Divorce” Milton states his belief that compatibility is the primary purpose for a marriage when he states that: God’s chief end of creating woman was to be join’d with Man, his own instituting words declare, and are infallible to inform us what is Marriage, and what is no Marriage; unless we think them set there to no purpose: It is not good, saith he, that man should be alone, I will make a help-meet for him. From which words so plain, less cannot be concluded, nor is by any learned Interpreter, than that in God’s intention a meet and happy conversation is the chiefest and the noblest end of Marriage” (12). What then does Milton interpret a “meet and happy conversation” to be?
Man is not to be alone; his wife is to be his comfort and companion in all things. Milton seems to be saying that a marriage will be a “meet and happy conversation” if the man and wife are joined spiritually and mentally. It then follows that if the mind and spirit are one the physical act of procreation will also be a joyful union fulfilling God’s wish for peace, harmony and continence in all aspects of a marriage. A marriage lacking in peace and harmony will result in a troubled mind for one or both partners and a troubled mind makes it difficult to live a good Christian life and concentrate on an intimate relationship with God.
A marriage that exists without any conflict that can distract one from their relationship with God becomes “a meet and happy conversation”. Gladys Willis says that Milton believes “that man should love God before all things and in all things, including matrimony” and further claims that he bases the “Doctrine of Discipline and Divorce on the “rule of charity” which “gives man the freedom to sever himself from whatever thing or being that hinders his obedience of the commandment of love. (45) If one supports this view it is logical to sever a relationship which damages an individual’s spiritual well being.
Milton includes the sacrament of marriage as an important aspect of a man’s religious and spiritual life and as long as the state of the marriage enhances that life Milton sees no reason to end it. Although Milton is a firm supporter of divorce on the basis of incompatibility he also puts forth a rigid criteria of what constitutes incompatibility. These criteria do not allow the ease of divorce that the modern divorce act does.
Milton would be shocked at the number of divorces granted today on grounds of incompatibility that have absolutely nothing to do with a man’s spiritual well being and relationship with God. It would distress him to realize that a man or women had the ability to end a marriage for the sole reason that they did not want to be married anymore and had no real problems hindering the continuation of their marriage. In this modern day a woman has as much right to divorce her husband as he does her and I am unsure how Milton would regard this right.
It would be logical to assume that he would disagree with it given the attitude towards women in his time; however, given his position on divorce itself it is possible that he would extend them this right if he could. Matthew Biberman maintains that “in Milton’s interpretation of marriage law, women possess the right to divorce. ” (1) If Milton used the concepts of the Jewish marriage laws as they are set forth in John Selden’s Uxor Herbraica he must condone women’s right to initiate divorce since the Jewish marriage laws quite clearly do. In his translation of Selden’s work Ziskind states that according to the law of the sons of Noah or Natural Law spouses by mutual consent may couple and unite and so by similar consent could disunite, and so a marriage could be broken off. Second: by the same law, whereby each party, either man or wife, in whatever way, could renounce their marital association at will and thus, in turn lawfully separate. ” (433)
These passages clearly give wives the same rights as men regarding divorce and perhaps by omitting to say that wives do not have the right to set their husbands aside Milton is admitting that they do have the right to do so.
As Biberman points out if Milton had any hope of getting the authorities “to pass a more liberal divorce law” (4) he certainly couldn’t advocate that women should have the same rights as men in this regard as that would have ensured that he would have had no chance of success in his endeavors given the patriarchal view held regarding woman. Although it is possible to grant that Biberman is correct in his theory that Milton recognized that wives should be able to divorce their husbands it seems more likely that he thought a man should initiate the proceedings.
Throughout the “Discipline and Doctrine of Divorce” it is clear that Milton sees the wife as an extension of her husband in the ideal marriage. Her purpose was to alleviate his loneliness and aid him in a spiritual journey towards God. If she failed in this purpose and dissention in the marriage resulted Milton felt that a husband should divorce his wife in order to regain the peace God wished for all good Christians to have in their lives.
However, If Biberman is correct in his theory it would seem that Milton would not have a problem with a wife divorcing her husband as the current divorce act says they can, providing they met his criteria for incompatibility. Despite the wide differences between Milton’s definition of what entails incompatibility and what the current divorce laws allow to pass for incompatibility I think he would be pleased that mankind has recognized that it is pointless to remain in a marriage where the parties are not happy and content to be with each other.
He lived in such a marriage and had first hand experience of how disheartening it can be both in the worldly and spiritual areas of one’s life. Although he would be disappointed to know that today it seems to be the worldly part of life that is more important than the spiritual he would appreciate that his prophetic vision of incompatibility as the first reason for divorce was a least a reality.