Document Type


Publication Date

January 2002


Marriage is obligatory. This is not to say, of course, that bachelorhood must be avoided or that everyone ought to get married. The point, rather, is that those who do wed form a relationship which embraces obligation as a fundamental component ("commitment norms," as Professor Elizabeth Scott has put it). This article aims to show why this is a good thing, and fundamentally so.

Marriage and other affiliations, it seems, may involve obligation in two basic ways. The first way is instrumentally. The projects of married life require long-term commitment and fixity of purpose: raising children and paying off the mortgage take a long time and a steady hand. This article is not aimed primarily at establishing this obvious point.

The second kind of involvement is not instrumental: commitment, steadiness, loyalty, and fidelity to obligation are good in a basic way and a part of the basic good of marriage. This may be controversial and is the major thesis of this article. Obligation, it is here maintained, is sometimes a final good. Precepts such as those mandating sexual fidelity, requiring commitment to the raising of children, and enforcing a scrupulous commemoration of birthdays and anniversaries are fundamental to marriage. Marriage would not be fully marriage without obligation. Marriage comes into its own as man and wife embrace obligation to one another. Marriage seeks obligation, fosters it, and even rejoices in it. Marriage involves obligation just as fundamentally as it involves respect, mutual knowledge, and love. It is the purpose of this article to explain and defend this thesis (and to shed some light on related subjects such as the cultural deterioration of close affiliation).

This article approaches the matter from the point of view of secular philosophy, with special attention to Aristotle. It does not proceed on the basis of the extensive Catholic moral theology of marriage (brilliantly expounded by Professor Germain Grisez in his book Living a Christian Life).

Odysseus' fidelity to Penelope illustrates several points, as does her loyalty to him. The Odyssey is the great epic of marital loyalty and is referred to from time to time herein.