“I think that on this question,” writes Louis de Bonald regarding divorce, “the government should concern itself not with religious beliefs, but with reasonable actions.”
Another liberal disguising with smooth talk a ploy to subvert Western civilization’s Christian foundations? Hardly. In fact, the aforementioned French Catholic philosopher was emphasizing a point essential to natural law theory: far from contradicting reason, the Church’s divinely-inspired teachings on controversial topics often lead to conclusions similar to those of clear-headed human reflection. Per Bonald, we should not really need spelled out for us in ten-foot tall letters of revelatory fire the fact that divorce harms children, that it undermines the social fabric, that it is a plague to be combatted rather than a legitimate choice to be endorsed. Trapped in a culture that has forgotten not only the Gospel but common sense to boot, Catholics would do well to acquaint themselves with Bonald’s On Divorce.
Born in 1754 to a family of provincial nobility, Viscomte Louis Gabriel Ambroise de Bonald remained always proud to be a native of Rouergue. a hard, rocky region inhabited by self-reliant, pious peasants and characterized by one of Bonald’s biographers as “the Appalachia of France.” A King’s Musketeer in his youth and then mayor of his hometown, Bonald was a devoted husband as well as the affectionate father of four.
He was also for some time a wanted man. Once it became clear that the new Jacobin government intended to subordinate and disempower the Church, Bonald’s initial naïve support for the French Revolution turned into fervent opposition, and he was forced to flee his homeland. He joined a counter-revolutionary army; after attempts to dislodge the Jacobins by military means proved futile he slipped back into the country, to Paris, where he lived, studied, and wrote while in hiding. Following the fall of the Jacobins he was pardoned by Napoleon and re-entered public life, and then under the Bourbon monarchy he obtained a seat in the Chamber of Deputies. With that seat came a chance to translate some of his reactionary ideas into policy. Foremost on his agenda was the abolition of divorce.
Upon seizing power the Jacobins had taken great pains to liberalize French marriage laws, declaring the marriage bond soluble; Bonald saw this action as nothing less than a direct assault upon civilization as such. To the extent that divorce is a real possibility, he argued, the state permits a sword of Damocles to hover over the head of every child. Through divorce Christian monogamy gets replaced by a practice much inferior to Old Testament polygamy (which Bonald regarded as a rough approximation of the marriage ideal, which at least provided for stable natural families).
Furthermore, he warned, any people which permits the public repudiation of the matrimonial covenant is doomed to become trite, shallow, and silly, for as the ability to conceive of the immutable marriage pledge fades, so too goes the ability to conceive of life as anything other than a pursuit of immediate gratification. Bonald predicted that in the juvenile-minded divorce culture of the future serious art, literature, and theater would go into decline: “[S]ince this childish people must have spectacles, its idleness will be entertained by lackeys’ antics, harlequin farces, and ghost and crime stories.”
Firmly convinced that individualistic Enlightenment anthropology was to blame for the violence and totalitarianism of the Revolution, the philosopher-statesman from Rouergue rejected this anthropology, holding instead that “there is no individual apart from a family.” A decidedly holistic thinker, Bonald likewise held that seemingly distinct social problems are inevitably connected to each other:
It is a fertile source of error, when treating a question relative to society, to consider it by itself, with no relationship to other questions, because society itself is only a group of relationships. In the social body as in every organized body – that is to say, one in which the parts are arranged in certain relationships to each other relative to a given end – the cessation of vital functions does not come from the annihilation of the parts, but from their displacement and the disturbance of the relationships.
Man is a being defined by his relationships, then, and economic, social, religious, and moral matters are necessarily linked. If we truly care about the poor, we must recognize that liberal divorce laws and “tolerant” morals exacerbate the problem of poverty no less than poverty plays a role in high divorce rates. Experimenting with the family is reckless madness, insisted Bonald, for it is through the family that everyone—rich and poor alike—learns how to speak, feel, and act. It is the family which is the incubator of human personhood.
To be frank, though, I must point out that what Bonald would have understood a family to be would today be called a “patriarchal” family, just as what he might in his day have called an apple must now be called an “organic” apple. That is, normal isn’t “normal” anymore: even in many Catholic minds the Christianized paterfamilias has made way for an unnatural, dysfunctional fantasy wherein children know best and mothers wear combat boots.
Yet we can’t blame this situation on Bonald, for he fought the good fight. In a dramatic 1815 speech from the floor of the Chamber of Deputies he drew from On Divorce to summarize his case, employing words that Augustine Institute professor Christopher Olaf Blum describes as “haunting”:
When society has come to the point where the headstrong loves of youth—that inextinguishable nourishment for the arts—have become in myriad ways the concern of all ages; when marital authority is the butt of jokes, and paternal authority thought tyrannical; when obscene books, displayed everywhere, sold or loaned at so low a price that you might thought them to be given away, and teach the child things that nature does not reveal to the grown man; when human nudity, the distinctive characteristic of extreme barbarism, offers itself everywhere to our eyes in public places, and when the woman clothes herself without being covered, has discovered the art of insulting modesty without offending good taste; when religion has lost all its terrors, and when enlightened spouses see in their reciprocal infidelities only a secret to keep from one another, or perhaps a secret to share; in times such as these, to tolerate divorce is to legalize adultery, it is to conspire with man’s passions against his reason, and with man himself against society.
Bonald and his fellow counter-revolutionaries carried the day. Divorce was indeed abolished in France, and for the next sixty years the French state recognized marriage for what it is. A little victory, perhaps, but one that compares favorably with the recent accomplishments—or rather lack thereof—of the American “conservative” establishment. As for Bonald himself, upon the ascension of Louis Philippe to the throne he retired from public life. In his later years he labored to heal the damage revolution had wrought upon his family’s land, which had been confiscated and despoiled during his exile.