A few centuries ago, humankind added a novel component to their politics–the idea that all people are created equal. This concept of equality proved to be very successful in advancing the common good. It helped to modify and remove distinctions between peasant and lord, slave and master, and so forth–distinctions that were frequently abused and worked against justice by allowing those in power to escape its reach when it came to offenses against those under their authority. In short, equality became an extremely useful political tool that helps protect people from each other. We should be thankful for it.
But good things are often corrupted, and equality is no exception. Based on equality’s great success, many wished to apply it to every area of life–not just the establishment of earthly justice. In short, equality was idolized and became enshrined as Equality. It was treated as something valuable for its own sake and made into a god which claims authority over our lives. Much could be said about Equality’s successes and failures. There is one area, however, in which Equality has done and still does exceptionally deep and abiding harm to many. C. S. Lewis took up this line of thought in his novel, That Hideous Strength. He addresses it by means of a conversation between a young woman in a difficult marriage and Ransom (the “director”):
‘Ah, equality!’ said the director. ‘We must talk of that some other time. Yes, we must all be guarded by equal rights from one another’s greed, because we are fallen. Just as we must all wear clothes for the same reason. But the naked body should be there underneath the clothes, ripening for the day when we shall need them no longer. Equality is not the deepest thing, you know.’
‘I always thought that was just what is was. I thought it was in their souls that people were equal.’
‘You were mistaken.,’ said he gravely. ‘That is the last place where they are equal. Equality before the law, equality of incomes—that is very well. Equality guards life; it doesn’t make it. It is medicine, not food.’
‘But surely in marriage…?’
‘Worse and worse,’ said the Director. ‘Courtship knows nothing of it; nor does fruition. … It’s not your fault. They never warned you. No one has ever told you that obedience — humility — is an erotic necessity. You are putting equality just where it ought not to be.’”
Like Jane, most of us were never warned. On the contrary, we have been taught from childhood that a wife’s submission to her husband’s authority is a horrible crime against women–a concept that is not merely old fashioned, but destructive. Some very real abuses of this authority are laid out and Equality is offered as a woman’s shield against such harm ever befalling her. But in this case, the “cure” is worse than the disease. As we look out over the ruins of marriage’s collapse in the West–the extent of which has lead many to believe that an institution that has been with humans for millennia isn’t even realistic–we can’t help but find ways in which Equality has abused the authority we granted to it.
In terms of marital decision-making, Equality introduces more conflict than it resolves. One reason for its success in the political realm is the move towards democracy. But democracy is of no value in a two-person system, for in the event of conflict, there is never a majority. So how does each spouse receive equal say? Most decisions are required in the context of a particular time and place–simply waiting for agreement means only that the most obstinate people always get their way. A couple cannot take turns on important decisions without already having perfect agreement on how important each decision is. They cannot turn it over to the most qualified individual without perfect agreement on who is most qualified. Even if one could create a complex logical flowchart in which importance and qualifications are given values that are kept in balance, that would describe the relationship between two computers rather than between a man and woman. Equality simply does not exist in a marriage. Couples must often act as one, but Equality has no capacity for it in this context. What an incoherent obligation like Equality does create, however, is a strong sense of entitlement in both parties. If fairness is simultaneously expected and impossible, who is one more likely to blame for unfairness In the heat of the moment, oneself or one’s spouse? Equality only creates a situation in which the other is always in the wrong and commands us to store up resentment.
Equality likewise kills romance. As Lewis pointed out, obedience is an erotic necessity. Even our standard romantic metaphors like “falling head-over-heels in love” or “being swept off you feet” imply being under the power of another. When one offers one’s spouse a surprise gift and asks them to close their eyes, nothing would kill the romance faster than refusing until adequate justification is provided. The veto which many count on equality to provide is poisonous to romance. There is no English word less sexy than “no,” and there is no equality to be found in being literally swept off one’s feet. Neither is there any help in abstracting this submission so that each spouse submits equally overall. The moment one begins calculating whether their spouse has lived up to their own efforts at romance, the seeds of suspicion and entitlement are sown. Equality is of no use when it comes to giving as much as one can to one’s spouse (to loving them)–it is entirely a non-issue. Equality is only relevant to the task of policing one’s spouse to make sure they’re holding up their end of the bargain. A couple cannot relax and enjoy one-another when they’re too busy measuring and regulating.
Equality is powerless to provide an escape from our society’s marriage problem; all it can do is transform or discard marriage in the blind hope that maybe that will do some good. Our only recourse is to remove it from its temple and to recover the natural complementarity between men and women that Equality commanded us to reject. Not every distinction between individuals is harmful. A wife submitting to her husband as unto the Lord and a husband sacrificing himself for his wife in imitation of Christ have no room for Equality. This arrangement is not safe for either person, but when has romance ever been safe? Far better that we discard the dead weight of the useless shield of Equality and learn and prepare once again to be husbands and wives rather than spouses.