9 Marriage Tips From Ancient Philosophers
You can get marriage and relationship advice in magazines, books, and from well-meaning friends and family members. But what did ancient Greek and Roman philosophers have to say about the topic? Read on for nine tips for wedded bliss from the first century CE philosophers Plutarch and Gaius Musonius Rufus. While some might still be useful, others prove these men were very much a product of their (sexist) times:
1. BE CONSIDERATE OF YOUR SPOUSE'S PET PEEVES.
In Plutarch’s Moralia, a collection of his speeches and essays, he gives marriage advice to his newlywed friends, Pollianus and Eurydice. The equivalent of a wedding speech to the new bride and groom, Plutarch’s “Advice to the Bride and Groom, and A Consolation to His Wife” gives newlyweds tips for the rest of their lives together. According to Plutarch, some men (like animals) are annoyed or angered by seemingly trivial things such as certain colors or sounds; therefore, their wives should make the minor effort to not irritate their husbands:
“Those who have to go near elephants do not put on bright clothes, nor do those who go near bulls put on red; for the animals are made especially furious by these colors; and tigers, they say, when surrounded by the noise of beaten drums go completely mad and tear themselves to pieces. Since, then, this is also the case with men, that some cannot well endure the sight of scarlet and purple clothes, while others are annoyed by cymbals and drums, what terrible hardship is it for women to refrain from such things, and not disquiet or irritate their husbands, but live with them in constant gentleness?"
2. COMPETE WITH YOUR SPOUSE TO SEE WHICH PERSON IS MORE DEVOTED TO THE OTHER.
Rufus, a Roman Stoic philosopher, gave a series of lectures about the purpose of marriage and how marriage relates to philosophy. He describes an ideal marriage as one in which the two partners strive to outdo the other in devotion. If two people compete with each other to show how much each person cares for the other, they’ll have a beautiful union. On the flip side, though, if each person in a couple only thinks of himself or herself, the couple will be doomed to separate or be lonely. From “On the Chief End of Marriage”:
“Where, then, this love for each other is perfect and the two share it completely, each striving to outdo the other in devotion, the marriage is ideal and worthy of envy, for such a union is beautiful. But where each looks only to his own interests and neglects the other … then the union is doomed to disaster and though they live together, yet their common interests fare badly; eventually they separate entirely or they remain together and suffer what is worse than loneliness.”
3. DON’T USE LOVE SPELLS TO SNAG A HUSBAND.
If you play games to try to trap a man into marrying you, you might get a husband—but do you really want a man who would fall for those tricks? Plutarch makes an analogy between fishing and catching a husband, explaining that women who use love potions and cast magic spells to snatch a mate end up spending their lives with fools. From “Advice to the Bride and Groom”:
“Fishing with poison is a quick way to catch fish and an easy method of taking them, but it makes the fish inedible and bad. In the same way women who artfully employ love-potions and magic spells upon their husbands, and gain the mastery over them through pleasure, find themselves consorts of dull-witted, degenerate fools.”
4. HAVE FUN WITH YOUR WIFE, OR SHE’LL LOOK FOR FUN WITHOUT YOU.
For Plutarch, marriage is all about two people joining as one. Accordingly, husbands should spend time with their wives, having fun and laughing with them. Otherwise, wives will look for fun elsewhere. As Plutarch explains in “Advice to the Bride and Groom”:
“Men who do not like to see their wives eat in their company are thus teaching them to stuff themselves when alone. So those who are not cheerful in the company of their wives, nor join with them in sportiveness and laughter, are thus teaching them to seek their own pleasures apart from their husbands.”
5. REALIZE THAT YOUR MOTHER-IN-LAW WILL PROBABLY BE JEALOUS.
Conflict between a wife and her mother-in-law is not a modern phenomenon. Plutarch addressed the inevitability of this conflict by telling a story about an African marriage custom. The day after a bride’s wedding in the African city of Leptis, she asks the groom’s mother for a pot. The groom’s mother refuses, which is meant to set the tone for their future relationship. Plutarch’s advice for brides? Realize that your mother-in-law is hostile because she envies you, and tread carefully when dealing with the relationship between your husband and his mother. From “Advice to the Bride and Groom”:
“A wife ought to take cognizance of this hostility, and try to cure the cause of it, which is the mother's jealousy of the bride as the object of her son's affection. The one way at once cure this trouble is to create an affection for herself personally on the part of her husband, and at the same time not to divert or lessen his affection for his mother.”
6. FOR THE MARRIAGE TO WORK, BOTH PARTIES NEED TO BE GOOD PEOPLE.
As Rufus explains, both husband and wife should be virtuous in order to attain a good partnership. Marriage simply won’t work if both people are bad, or if one is bad and one is good. It takes two, as Rufus says in “On the Chief End of Marriage”:
“With respect to character or soul one should expect that it be habituated to self-control and justice, and in a word, naturally disposed to virtue. These qualities should be present in both man and wife. For without sympathy of mind and character between husband and wife, what marriage can be good, what partnership advantageous? How could two human beings who are base have sympathy of spirit one with the other? Or how could one that is good be in harmony with one that is bad?”
7. DON’T COMMIT ADULTERY.
Rufus condemns adultery, arguing that it goes against nature and is shameful. Although he acknowledges that some of his contemporaries didn’t have a moral problem with a man committing adultery with his slave-maid, Rufus states that this is wrong, too. Challenging husbands to imagine if their wives had relations with slaves, Rufus points out the troubling double standard. From his lecture “On Sexual Indulgence”:
“If it seems neither shameful nor out of place for a master to have relations with his own slave, particularly if she happens to be unmarried, let him consider how he would like it if his wife had relations with a male slave. Would it not seem completely intolerable not only if the woman who had a lawful husband had relations with a slave, but even if a woman without a husband should have?”
8. … BUT IF YOUR HUSBAND CHEATS WITH A MAID, IT’S BECAUSE HE RESPECTS YOU TOO MUCH.
Plutarch explains that Persian kings eat dinner with their wives, but the kings send their wives away when they want to get drunk and wild with concubines. According to Plutarch, Persian kings are doing their wives a favor by partying with concubines because the men don’t want to subject their wives to such debauchery. Wives, then, shouldn’t be angry when their husbands cheat on them with maids. As he writes in “Advice to the Bride and Groom”:
“The lawful wives of the Persian kings sit beside them at dinner, and eat with them. But when the kings wish to be merry and get drunk, they send their wives away, and send for their music-girls and concubines. In so far they are right in what they do, because they do not concede any share in their licentiousness and debauchery to their wedded wives. If therefore a man in private life … commit some peccadillo with a paramour or a maidservant, his wedded wife ought not to be indignant or angry, but she should reason that it is respect for her which leads him to share his debauchery, licentiousness, and wantonness with another woman.”
9. TIME WILL MAKE YOUR RELATIONSHIP STRONGER.
As Plutarch states, marriage gets stronger as the years go by. Newlyweds, then, should take good care to settle disagreements and tackle arguments because their relationship is inchoate and fragile. People who have been married a long time can withstand a lot, as Plutarch writes in “Advice to the Bride and Groom”:
“In the beginning, especially, married people ought to be on their guard against disagreements and clashes, for they see that such household vessels as are made of sections joined together are at the outset easily pulled apart by any fortuitous cause, but after a time, when their joints have become set, they can hardly be separated by fire and steel.”
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