St. Jerome (AD 347 – AD 420) was one of the most prolific of the early Christian theologists. His main accomplishment was the translation of the Bible into Latin, an important part of the crumbling Roman Empire’s conversion to Christianity. He is frequently ranked among the likes of Augustine, Ambrose, and Gregory the Great as one of the original Doctors of the Church.
Although Christianity has a long history of supporting holy matrimony, St. Jerome was vehemently opposed to the idea of marriage. In my opinion, his condemnation goes too far; he claims furthermore that all sexual contact is inherently sinful and unclean, and urges chastity for all people. It is worth noting that he engaged in much sexual hedonism and debauchery as a young student in Rome, so he at least speaks with experience, if only to reject that lifestyle. Nevertheless, his dissection and critique of marriage and male-female relations remain supremely insightful.
(His advice could be applied to softer relationships too, for the same dynamics and drawbacks are present, albeit in lesser form. Where he says “marriage,” one could easily replace it with “LTR,” and “wife” with “girlfriend.”)
He lays down his reasoning in a book written in 393 AD, Against Jovinianus. An extremely well-learned man, Jerome brings up many quotes, anecdotes, and famous figures from the Classical world. Here are the original sources for these excerpts if you want the whole picture.
Theophrastus' Golden Book of Marriage
I feel that . . . I have said far more than is customary in illustrating a point, and that I might be justly censured by my learned reader. But what am I to do when the women of our time press me with apostolic authority, and before the first husband is buried, repeat from morning to night the precepts which allow a second marriage? Seeing they despise the fidelity which Christian purity dictates, let them at least learn chastity from the heathen.
Even back then, women were quick to move on with their (love) lives, and marriage vows held little sway.
A book - On Marriage - worth its weight in gold, passes under the name of Theophrastus. In it the author asks whether a wise man marries. And after laying down the conditions that the wife must be fair, of good character and honest parentage, the husband in good health and of ample means, and after saying that under these circumstances a wise man sometimes enters the state of matrimony, he immediately proceeds thus:
"But all these conditions are seldom satisfied in marriage. A wise man therefore must not take a wife. For in the first place his study of philosophy will be hindered, and it is impossible for anyone to attend to his books and his wife. Matrons want many things: costly dresses, gold, jewels, great outlay, maid-servants, all kinds of furniture, litters and gilded coaches. Then come curtain-lectures the livelong night: she complains that one lady goes out better dressed than she; that another is looked up to by all; 'I am a poor despised nobody at the ladies assemblies.' 'Why did you ogle that creature next door?' 'Why were you talking to the maid?' 'What did you bring from the market?' 'I am not allowed to have a single friend, or companion.' She suspects that her husband's love goes the same way as her hate.
God, those complaints sound word-for-word like what you’d hear today. Things just don’t change.
There may be in some neighbouring city the wisest of teachers; but if we have a wife we can neither leave her behind, nor take the burden with us. To support a poor wife, is hard; to put up with a rich one, is torture.
Notice, too, that in the case of a wife you cannot pick and choose; you must take her as you find her. If she has a bad temper, or is a fool, if she has a blemish, or is proud, or has bad breath, whatever her fault may be -- all this we learn after marriage. Horses, asses, cattle, even slaves of the smallest worth, clothes, kettles, wooden seats, cups, and earthenware pitchers, are first tried and then bought; a wife is the only thing that is not shown before she is married, for fear she may not give satisfaction.
I’ll admit that it is now easier than ever to “try before you buy,” but even so, a woman has incentive to hide her flaws and stay on her best behavior until you’re invested and committed. In any case, you’d still have to do a lot of sifting to find one without any major faults.
Our gaze must always be directed to her face, and we must always praise her beauty: if you look at another woman, she thinks that she is out of favour. She must be called ‘my lady,’ her birth-day must be kept, we must swear by her health and wish that she may survive us, respect must be paid to the nurse, to the nursemaid, to the father's slave, to the foster-child, to the handsome hanger-on, to the curled darling who manages her affairs, and to the eunuch who ministers to the safe indulgence of her lust; *names which are only a cloak for adultery.* Upon whomsoever she sets her heart, they must have her love though they want her not.
But she say he just a friend!
If you give her the management of the whole house, you must yourself be her slave. If you reserve something for yourself, she will not think you are loyal to her; but she will turn to strife and hatred, and unless you quickly take care, she will have the poison ready.
Poisoning is harder to get away with these days, so they use divorce papers instead.
If you introduce old women, and soothsayers, and prophets, and vendors of jewels and silken clothing, you imperil her chastity; if you shut the door upon them, she is injured and fancies you suspect her. But what is the good of even a careful guardian, when an unchaste wife cannot be watched, and a chaste one ought not to be? For necessity is but a faithless keeper of chastity, and *she alone really deserves to be called pure, who is free to sin if she chooses.*
In other words, mate-guarding is useless, and a woman who is faithful only out of fear of consequences or of losing you is not truly pure at heart. She can still mentally undress anybody she wants.
If a woman be fair, she soon finds lovers; if she be ugly, it is easy to be wanton [i.e. promiscuous] It is difficult to guard what many long for. It is annoying to have what no one thinks worth possessing.
If nobody’s buying her goods, then the price of entry goes down. But since most men value sexual exclusivity as much as sexual attractiveness, then so does the value. It’s a vicious cycle, but what’s a plain woman to do to snatch a high-value mate?
But the misery of having an ugly wife is less than that of watching a comely one. Nothing is safe, for which a whole people sighs and longs. One man entices with his figure, another with his brains, another with his wit, another with his open hand. Somehow, or sometime, the fortress is captured which is attacked on all sides.
Jerome notices that there are many ways to stimulate a woman’s lust. Wealthy noblemen, lanky musicians, sly conmen, brutish warriors, and stern rulers all enjoy sexual success in exchange for what their lifestyles have to offer.
Men marry, indeed, so as to get a manager for the house, to solace weariness, to banish solitude; but a faithful slave is a far better manager, more submissive to the master, more observant of his ways, than a wife who thinks she proves herself mistress if she acts in opposition to her husband, that is, if she does what pleases her, not what she is commanded.
Then, as now, men had the same fears and faulty reasoning in pursuing relationships with women.
But friends, and servants who are under the obligation of benefits received, are better able to wait upon us in sickness than a wife who makes us responsible for her tears (she will sell you enough to make a deluge for the hope of a legacy), boasts of her anxiety, but drives her sick husband to the distraction of despair. But if she herself is poorly, we must fall sick with her and never leave her bedside.
Notice he uses the word “sell” to describe the woman’s crying and pleading for children (i.e. a legacy). Jerome had enough experience with women to see through the long con.
Or if she be a good and agreeable wife (how rare a bird she is!), we have to share her groans in childbirth, and suffer torture when she is in danger.
Even if she does her best to make your life easy, a good woman still needs much support, protection, and care. Proceed at your own risk.
Then again, to marry for the sake of children, so that our name may not perish, or that we may have support in old age and leave our property without dispute, *is the height of stupidity.* For what is it to us when we are leaving the world if another bears our name, when even a son does not all at once take his father's title, and there are countless others who are called by the same name. Or what support in old age is he whom you bring up, and who may die before you, or turn out a reprobate? Or at all events when he reaches mature age, you may seem to him long in dying.
Many of my grandfather’s friends raised incompetent sons, despite being hardworking and conscientious themselves. As a result, they’ve had no support from their offspring in their old age. It is always a gamble, even if you do right by your family.
Friends and relatives whom you can judiciously love are better and safer heirs than those whom you must make your heirs whether you like it or not. Indeed, the surest way of having a good heir is to ruin your fortune in a good cause while you live, not to leave the fruit of your labour to be used you know not how.
This is probably a big, big factor in how the children of good men become spoiled. They know a great inheritance is in the works, plus they’ve had every want and need fulfilled since their parents were so successful at providing, so where’s the children’s incentive to work hard themselves and pay back the favor? For those same reasons, a wife can be spoiled the same way your children can.
Examples Showing Why Men Should Not Marry
When Cicero - after divorcing Terentia - was requested by Hirtius to marry his sister, he set the matter altogether on one side, and said that he could not possibly devote himself to a wife and to philosophy. Meanwhile that excellent partner, who had herself drunk wisdom at Tully's fountains, married Sallust his enemy, and took for her third husband Messala Corvinus, and thus, as it were, passed through three degrees of eloquence.
Socrates had two wives, Xantippe and Myron, grand-daughter of Aristides. They frequently quarreled, and he was accustomed to banter them for disagreeing about him, he being the ugliest of men, with snub nose, bald forehead, rough-haired, and bandylegged. At last they planned an attack upon him, and having punished him severely and put him to flight, vexed him for a long time.
I find it interesting that St. Jerome pointed out Socrates’ ugliness as the reason for his wives abusing and disrespecting him. I guess looks do matter.
On one occasion when he opposed Xantippe, who from above was heaping abuse upon him, the termagant soused him with dirty water, but he only wiped his head and said, "I knew that a shower must follow such thunder as that."
Socrates had another quip, something along the lines of “If you marry a good wife you will become happy; if you marry a bad one you will become a philosopher.” At least he had a sense of humor about it all.
Metella, consort of Lucius Sulla the Fortunate (except in the matter of his wife) was openly unchaste. It was the common talk of Athens, as I learnt in my youthful years when we soon pick up what is bad, and yet Sulla was in the dark, and first got to know the secrets of his household through the abuse of his enemies.
To put this in context, Lucius Sulla was one of the most successful generals and leaders of Rome. He sacked Athens, captured Rome to end a civil war, became dictator, and reinstated the Roman Senate. He was declared by none other than Machiavelli as having the prime attributes of an effective leader – cunning like a fox, courageous like a lion. Apparently all this had no bearing on his wife’s fidelity.
Pompey had an impure wife Mucia, who was surrounded by eunuchs from Pontus and troops of the countrymen of Mithridates. Others thought that he knew all and submitted to it; but a comrade told him during the campaign, and the conqueror of the whole world was dismayed at the sad intelligence.
Pompey could be considered a successor of sorts to Sulla. As a young military commander, he was wildly successful, ruthless, and bold. He became consul of Rome at age 35, an unprecedented feat attributed to his popularity. All this was still not enough to inspire his wife to remain true. They divorced after Pompey learned of her frequent adultery during his military campaigns.
Cato, the Censor, had a wife Actoria Paula, a woman of low origin, fond of drink, violent, and (who would believe it?) haughty to Cato. I say this for fear anyone may suppose that in marrying a poor woman he has secured peace.
A poor woman will not be automatically appreciative of your relative wealth, and make only modest demands of you. She will still want everything you have to offer. Just as you want her sexual best – and nothing less – she will want your provisional best – and nothing less.
When Philip, king of Macedon, against whom Demosthenes thundered in his Philippics, was entering his bed-room as usual, his wife in a passion shut him out. Finding himself excluded he held his tongue, and consoled himself for the insult by reading a tragic poem.
Even kings are made to sleep on the couch. Sing it with me: "Who run tha world?"
Gorgias the Rhetorician recited his excellent treatise on Concord to the Greeks, then at variance among themselves, at Olympia. Whereupon Melanthius his enemy observed: "Here is a man who teaches us concord, and yet could not make concord between himself, his wife, and maid-servant, three persons in one house." The truth was that his wife envied the beauty of the girl, and drove the purest of men wild with daily quarrels.
How do you keep multiple girlfriends happy? Make each one secretly believe she’s number one.
Whole tragedies of Euripides are censures on women. Hence Hermione says, "The counsels of evil women have beguiled me."
In the semibarbarous and remote city Leptis it is the custom for a daughter-in-law on the second day to beg the loan of a jar from her mother-in-law. The latter at once denies the request, and we see how true was the remark of Terence, ambiguously expressed on purpose -- "How is this? Do all mothers-in-law hate their daughters-in-law?"
A mother often understands her son’s wife/girlfriend better than he does – that hatred means something.
We read of a certain Roman noble who, when his friends found fault with him for having divorced a wife, beautiful, chaste, and rich, put out his foot and said to them, "And the shoe before you looks new and elegant, yet no one but myself knows where it pinches." Herodotus tells us that a woman puts off her modesty with her clothes. And our own comic poet thinks the man fortunate who has never been married.
In all the bombast of tragedy and the overthrow of houses, cities, and kingdoms, it is the wives and concubines who stir up strife. Parents take up arms against their children; unspeakable banquets are served; and on account of the rape of one wretched woman Europe and Asia are involved in a ten years' war.
I am not sure what war Jerome is referring to here, maybe someone with better history knowledge can chime in.
We read of some who were divorced the day after they were married, and immediately married again. Both husbands are to blame, both he who was so soon dissatisfied, and he who was so soon pleased. Epicurus the patron of pleasure (though Metrodorus his disciple married Leontia) says that a wise man can seldom marry, because marriage has many drawbacks. And as riches, honours, bodily health, and other things which we call indifferent, are neither good nor bad, but stand as it were midway, and become good and bad according to the use and issue, so wives stand on the border line of good and ill. It is, moreover, a serious matter for a wise man to be in doubt whether he is going to marry a good or a bad woman.
The Snares of Marital Love; Chastity Recommended to Women
Aristotle and Plutarch and our Seneca have written treatises on matrimony, out of which we have already made some extracts and now add a few more:
“The love of beauty is the forgetting of reason and the near neighbour of madness; a foul blot little in keeping with a sound mind. It confuses counsel, breaks high and generous spirits, draws away men from great thoughts to mean ones; it makes men querulous, ill-tempered, foolhardy, cruelly imperious, servile flatterers, good for nothing, at last not even for love itself. For although in the intensity of passion it burns like a raging fire, it wastes much time through suspicions, tears, and complaints: it begets hatred of itself, and at last hates itself."
The course of love is laid bare in Plato's Phaedrus from beginning to end, and Lysias explains all its drawbacks -- how it is led not by reason, but by frenzy, and in particular is a harsh gaoler over lovely wives.
Jerome is talking not only of oneitis, but of pure lust as well. Both can lead to a man’s downfall. In both cases, sexual jealousy can rear its ugly head. But if a woman wants to cheat or branch-swing, there is virtually nothing you can do to stop her from acting on that desire, or from having the desire in the first place. And if a woman does not want to cheat or branch-swing, then jealousy is useless and can only damage your standing in the relationship, perhaps leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy. And all the while, your feelings of rage and inadequacy only cause you psychological harm. That said, I completely understand the natural tendency to become jealous. It is probably an evolved, instinctive response to being cuckolded or losing reproductive opportunity, which would’ve been useful to avoid wasting resources and to keep your genes in the gene pool. But if sex is all you’re after – and the women you sleep with fulfill your sexual desires – then what do her other lovers matter to you? Sure, STDs are a concern, but if it’s your goal to sleep with multiple women, you’re already exposing yourself to considerable risk.
There is nothing blacker than to love a wife as if she were an adulteress. Men who say they have contracted marriage and are bringing up children, for the good of their country and of the race, should at least imitate the brutes, and not destroy their offspring in the womb; nor should they appear in the character of lovers, but of husbands. In some cases marriage has grown out of adultery; and, shameful to relate! men have tried to teach their wives chastity after having taken their chastity away.
I think this speaks to the hypocrisy of men expecting women to enjoy having sex, but only with them and no one else. If a woman likes wine, would she only drink chardonnay? If a woman likes country, would she only listen to Carrie Underwood? Likewise, if a woman genuinely enjoys sex, why would her tastes be limited to just one man?
Marriages of that sort are quickly dissolved when lust is satiated. The first allurement gone, the charm is lost.
Relationships based on attraction alone do not last, simple as that. You actually have to be compatible as people – if that’s possible between a man and woman. You both need enough self-control and motivation to overcome your straying impulses. Men must check their desire for polygamy, and women must check their desire for hypergamy. Otherwise, the relationship will become exploitative on one side or the other, or dissolve entirely.
What shall I say, says Seneca, of the poor men who in numbers are bribed to take the name of husband in order to evade the laws promulgated against bachelors? How can he who is married under such conditions be a guide to morality, teach chastity, and maintain the authority of a husband?
Even then, men were compelled to marry and place themselves under the yoke. Remind me again how Marriage 1.0 was such a good deal? Ain’t a damn thing changed.
Summary: St. Jerome, one of the most influential figures in early Christianity, warned of the follies and dangers of marriage, and advised wholeheartedly against it. Even during Marriage 1.0, women often ruled the relationship. Famous philosophers, powerful rulers, and charming orators were unable to keep their wives in check. Jealousy and mate-guarding are useless to prevent cheating, they can only help a man to walk away from potential cuckoldry and abuse. It is paradoxical to expect a woman who enjoys sex to only desire it with you. Conversely, it is irrational to expect a chaste woman to act like your own personal whore.
Do not marry for sex or love, because the relationship will crumble when mutual attraction fades. Marrying to have kids is also foolish, because you don’t know how they will turn out or whether they will actually support you in your old age. Ultimately, it is impossible to know for certain beforehand if a woman will make a good or bad wife, so it is wisest to avoid the risk altogether. DO NOT MARRY.