William Cowper On Polygamy (1780)

Impromptu On Reading The Chapter On Polygamy In Mr Madan’s “Thelyphtora”

“If John marries Mary, and Mary alone,
T’is a very good match between Mary and John.
Should John wed a score, oh the claws and the scratches!
It can’t be a match- T’is a bundle of matches.”

There really is nothing new under the sun. Shall have to track down a copy of the essay and see what arguments Mr Madan actually made. This is one of quite a few responses Cowper made to the essay which he came to know about via his friendship with former slave trader turned priest John Newton.

One of the disturbing trends I have noticed in the current excitement over the issue in the U.S. is the number of people trying to put it on the same ethical level as gay marriage. Nothing could be further from the truth and it will not do the gay marriage cause any favors by being seen as a stepping stone towards it.

There is a libertarian principle here, no doubt, about the state’s right to interfere in matters of personal relationships which kind of obscures the real reason same sex partners want to get together: they actually love each other. Politics be hung, this is not a theoretically derived position here.

Polygamy must needs involve a power imbalance, unless everybody involved has the same number of wives/husbands and are able to keep jealousy at bay of course. In which case you would probably need a village to cater for everybody’s various liasons.

I have never really been a free love kind of soul and the people who have been (like Bertrand Russell, for example) seem to have been rather heartless and unsympathetic characters anyway. I recall reading about Edward Carpenter and George Merrill’s relationship being put under strain by their own attempts to put the ideal into practice. People do get hurt by such things. Besides, in a post AIDS society, this kind of sexual behavior seems inexcusably risky.

Although I do look forward to how the holy ones will respond to the obvious pointer that polygamy is wholly sanctioned by the bible, I also have to point out that slavery also enjoys the same kind of positive sanction biblically. Not everything the Bible states to be good and holy should be taken as such. It is now considered bad manners, for example, to slaughter whole towns if one person there does not worship your God, despite what the lord commands. Though I do realize that such a fall from grace is hard for some Christians to take on board, I think society, as a whole, has been seen to benefit from it.

My thoughts then: Gay marriage yes. Polygamy no.


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