An Ontology of Marriage


Over the past decade, the arguments against homosexuals’ desire to have their unions be sanctioned as marriage by the state have revolved principally around defining marriage based on Scriptural premises. And while some proponents of homosexuality have gone to extreme strains and exegeses to show that Scriptural condemnation of homosexuality is an illusion, the Biblical argument largely has become irrelevant.

We no longer live in a time in which accepting Sacred Scripture as an objective standard of morality is de rigueur.  To assert as much has not only lost its quaintness — it has become rather offensive. Therefore, to argue theologically to defend a political or social position has in many ways lost its relevance. That does not mean revealed truths or Sacred Tradition or theology is any less right; however, it does mean that we as its defendants must take great pains to illustrate points of relevance and contact between the natural and supernatural, the secular and theological. This is a feat that too many have, unfortunately, since the late 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant considered impossible.

It was Kant, whose insistence that there was an impenetrable wall between the phenomenal (the earthly observable, that which can be demonstrated a posteriori via our senses) and the noumenal (the transcendent unobservable, that which can be demonstrated a priori). In short, things as they appear vs. things as they really are.  If I asked Kant how one could come to know God, he would have said “You can’t get there from here,” primarily because our senses, while they can apprehend the phenomenal world as it appears, cannot comprehend the totality of being.

For it’s time, Kantian epistemology rescued Western concepts of knowledge from the twin grips of Cartesian rationalism and Humean skepticism.  Yet this Kantian brass wall of absolute separation between God and Earth eventually became an absolute separation between God’s servants (the Church) and the earth’s servants (the State). Thus, for today’s theist, any argument that invokes God must first appeal to a non-theistic point of relevance and contact between God and man.

Enter ontology.

Ontology is a 17th century word (though a concept fleshed out by St. Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle long before) that deals with the Greek ontos (being) — not just a simple fleeting existence, as existentialism posits, but being as a model.


For instance, what is “is” as a word? The Latin word for “to be” is the infinitive “esse,” whence we derive our modern “essence.” The essence of something is of absolute necessity to its beingit.” Without “its” essence, “it” would not be “it.”  Essence is “being as being” or the effective essence and existence of an object — the two terms truly being distinct (essence being a definition predicated on existence, or what truly exists).

Confused?  Then try this: Ontology shows what is essential to the existence of a thing; the manifestation or definition of existence. The “what-ness” of what being, and the “how-ness” of how that being became what. The essence of a thing defines its very core.

A triangle has three sides and three angles. But having three sides and three angles is not the essence of a triangle. A square has three sides, as does a pentagon, a hexagon, and everything geometrically above them. But only a triangle has “on a two-dimensional plane only three sides and three angles.” This is the essence of a triangle — not its size, obliqueness or acuteness, or even whether the sum of its angles add up to halve a quadrangle. The “triangleness” of a triangle is that its three lines close to form three sides and three angles — and three sides and three angles only.

Ontology, it follows, is abstract enough to be noumenal, but understandable and observable enough to be phenomenal. Ontology is the pair of saloon doors that swings between the impenetrable walls of the secular and spiritual realms.  As Aquinas posits himself (and perhaps in anticipation of a Kantian objection to the idea of metaphysics), being and essence and not causal relationships that occur within space and time, but rather a natural consequence of the cosmological argument — one that Kant and Aquinas both embrace as a starting point.

* * *

So what does this have to do with so-called gay marriage?  Absolutely everything.

Each side of the argument has sought to answer, manipulate, or cheat the question “What is marriage?”  The import contains that two-letter word: “is”?

Snow is white — but does that mean that the essence of snow is its whiteness, that snow cannot be snow unless its whiteness is evident? Or does it simply mean the snow I observe and have historically observed happens to appear white to my senses?

Empirically, the latter explanation rules (as evidenced by the Vienna Circle’s logical positivism and the example of a “black swan” in the 1920s — one counterfactual devolves the argument, as Popper’s theory of falsification demonstrates).  Yet in theoretical thought, however, the former explanation shows its superiority.

In the question of marriage, we are now arguably at an ontological crisis. What is marriage?

Supposing the definition: “Marriage is between a husband and a wife” — but does that mean that the essence of marriage is the participation and union of husbandness and wifeness? or does it simply mean the marriages I observe and have historically observed happen to have appeared between the participation and union of husbandness and wifeness?

This is the question neither side can adequately answer. That is, without appealing to ontology.

In ontology, one must distinguish between a “substance” and “accident.” The substance of a thing is that which would not allow the thing’s existence without its participation. The substance of a triangle is not its third side and angle — it is its third, culminating, closed, and contiguous side to form a third and final angle.

St_Thomas_AquinasThe accidents, on the other hand, are those properties that are not essential to the existence of the thing. In the case of the triangle, this would be its acuteness, obliqueness, or dimensions.  Aquinas identified these concepts as quiddities (peculiarities) — and tackles them outright in On Being and Essence (Ch. IV):

Although substances of this kind (separate intelligences or angels) are simple forms without matter, nonetheless they are not in every way simple as pure acts are. They do have an admixture of potency, which is evident in the following way. Whatever is extraneous to the concept of an essence or quiddity comes to it from beyond itself, and forms a compsition with the essence since no essence can be understood without those things which are its parts. On the other hand, every essence or quiddity can be understood without its act of existing being undersood. I can understand what a man or phoenix is, and yet not know whether or not it exists in reality. Therefore, it is evident that the act of existing is other than essence or quiddity.

This is true, unless, perhaps, there is something whose quiddity is its very act of existing. This thing would have to be unique and primary, since it would be impossible for anything to be multiplied except by the addition of some difference, as the nature genus is multiplied into species; or by a form being received in diverse matters, as the nature species is multiplied in dfferent individuals; or by one being absolute, and the other being received in something. For example, if there were a certain “separated” heat it would be distinct, in virtue of its very separation, from the heat which is not separated.

If, however, something is posited which is simply its own act of existing, such that it would be subsistent existence itself, this existence cannot recieve the addition of a difference, because then it would not be simply an act of existing, but an act of existing plus this certain form. Even less would it receive the addition of matter, because then it would not be subsistent existence but material existence. Hence, there remains only one such thing that is its own act of existing. Accordingly, in anything other than it, the act of existing must necessarily be other than its quiddity or nature or form. Hence among the intelligences (angels), their acts of existing must be other that their forms. Therefore, it is said that intelligences are (composed as) forms and acts of existing.

Whatever belongs to something is either caused by the principles of its nature, like risibility in man, or accrues to it from some extrinsic principle, like the light in the air which is caused by the sun. It is impossible that the act of existing itself be caused by the form or quiddity — and by “caused” I mean as by an efficient cause — for then something would be the cause of itself and produce itself in existence which is impossible. It is therefore necessary that everything whose act of existing is other than its nature have its act of existing from another.  (emphasis added)

The actual substance and accident of a thing causes great debate, but few have argued that to distinguish between the two is unnecessary, and even fewer have argued that the concept of substance and accident is non-existent.  Indeed, such accidents are they very things that sharpen the distinctions between esse and existence.

In classical and traditional thought, the substance of Marriage has been that the participation and union of husbandness and wifeness — that is, of maleness and femaleness: the prospect of generation. Secular and religious history universally confirms this. The accidents of Marriage have been the pre-existing relationships, the manifest affection (or disaffection), the age-difference, or even resulting generation. Thus, ontologically, marriage — traditionally — is between a husband and a wife. To remove husbandness or wifeness from this equation makes the statement false.

7+5 = 12, says Kant. But seven-ness is not the essence of twelve; nor is five-ness. But the seven-plus-five-ness is.[1] Remove any part of the equation – the seven, five, plus or equal sign – and it not only becomes false, it becomes nonsense.

Thus in ontology, that “marriage is between a husband and wife” is an analytical truth — that is, nothing new on either side of the “is” is learned from the other.

A bachelor is an unmarried man: no accident is learned about the bachelor, or an unmarried man — only the substance.

A triangle is a three-sided, enclosed shape on a two-dimensional plane: Without sides, enclosure, or the proper plane, this equation becomes nonsense.

While states have taken great pains to define recognized marriage as being “between a man and a woman,” they would have done much better to define marriage as being between a husband and wife — for this is closer to a tautology and analytically true.

Not only does history universally confirm this, but it is confirmed in the etymology of the terms. “Marriage” derives, of course from “marry,” which derives from the Latin terms maritus (a husband) and marita (a wife). The English term “husband” comes from Old English meaning “a house (hus)-owning yeoman (buondi). Similarly, “wife” is derived ultimately from the Old English term “wif” meaning, simply, “woman.”

cicero_3Cicero urged,  ut et tu maritus sis quam optime [mulier] — “that thou be, as well, a husband to the best possible [woman,]” with [woman] being clearly implied by the context.[2]  To be a husband requires there be a wife, and to be a wife requires there be a husband — just as to be a mother requires there be a child, and to be a daughter requires there be a parent.

Just as for there to be an effect requires there be a cause, for there to be a marriage requires there be both a husband and wife.

A husband without a wife is a contradiction — it is ontological nonsense.
A wife without a husband is impossible — an ontological absurdity.
A marriage without a husband or a wife is a contravention — an ontological irrationality.

A female husband or a male wife, likewise, falls into the category of the absurd. And we are left with the conclusion that the essence of marriage not only requires both husbandness and wifeness, but both of these terms require in ontology maleness and femaleness respectively.

“Same-sex marriage” therefore becomes a mathematical surd, an epistemological ridicule, a cipher, an ontological nothingness.

The empiricist might perhaps argue against the substance of marriage necessarily involving the participation and union of both maleness and femaleness — choosing rather the latter explanation, that the participation and union is simply what is currently, and has historically been observed. The empiricist, like Hume, would deny that marriage is an effect of two causal agents — one being male and the other female — instead insisting that the cause of marriage cannot truly be known, only the observed effect.

Similarly, the positivists might argue that we work progressively toward a better understanding of the substance of marriage, and that our metaphysical understanding of marriage will be superseded by a natural understanding of marriage.

To compound matters, our relativist friends will perhaps deny the existence of any marriage having any analytical truth, and our existentialists friends would perhaps take that concept of relativism and make the only relevant analytical truth of any marriage becoming what each individual makes it through their own experience.

But NONE of these modern and post-modern objections deny the ontology — the ideal, the model, the essence, the whatness and howness — of marriage, and in fact in grappling with the ontos they accept implicity the esse  of what exists as fact.

There is a theoretical essence in each of these mindsets — but each is more dangerous to society than its former, not simply because of a potential slippery slope, but because of the ultimate loss of meaning among relationships.  It is the very “dictatorship of relativism” that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) so vividly warned against.


Webster in 2004 attempted to include same-sex partnerships in its modern definition of marriage by including this: Marriage – (a) the relationship that exists between a husband and a wife; (b) The state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage.

This exercise in circular reasoning — a modern marriage is like a traditional marriage, even though it does not involve husband and wife; therefore marriage does not require husband and wife; therefore, modern marriage is similar to traditional marriage; therefore, traditional marriage is like modern marriage, even though it requires a husband and wife — was quickly abandoned. Instead the second definition now reads: “a similar relationship between people of the same sex.”

This is still a patent absurdity. There is no ontological similarity in marriage between a union of wife and wife and a union of husband and wife.[3] In fact, the former violates the law of non-contradiction. The latter definition says “a bachelor is an unmarried man;” the former says “a bachelor is both an unmarried and married man (or woman) at the same time and in the same relationship.”

So-called same sex marriage argues that an individual may be both husband and non-husband at the same time and in the same relationship — a logical impossibility and an androgynous complexity at best.  Nothing is more absurd than this.

The modern denotation of marriage struggles to attain this definition:  a “loving, committed relationship between two consenting adults.” They have abandoned husbandness and wifeness as the substance of marriage and transferred it to the accidents or quiddities. The substance — so it is argued — now necessarily involves only love, commitment, two, consent, and adults.

The immediate question arises from this modern forced re-definition essence: does this include brother and sister; mother and son; father and daughter; mother and daughter? If not, why not?

One is naturally forced to ask: why two?  Why loving?  Why committed?  Why consenting?  Why adults?

These are all very real and serious questions for proponents of reversing an historical infinity of ontology.  To have anything more substantive apart from a nihilistic “this is how I feel, and I can do as I please” predication — effectively a moral compass aimed at oneself — they must and ought to answer them.

If they insist on loving, they deny happiness to those who marry for individual and societal convenience — health care, inheritance, adopting orphans, etc.If they insist on two, they implicitly insist on denying mutually agreeable polygynous, polymorous,  or polyandrous marriages (which are actually not even contradictory to the classical definition of marriage); and they deny the same status to those who have chosen, or were predestined through genetics, to remain celibate and unjoined to a partner.

If they insist on committed, they deny legal rights to those who do not accept sexual or emotional exclusivity.

If they insist on consenting, they not only presuppose all sorts of emotional and philosophical baggage associated with consent, they deny marriage to two (or more) parties engaged nemine contradicente.

If they insist on adults, they not only presuppose an objective definition of adult as “18,” but they deny those predestined through genetics to find unattractive those over 18.


Modern humanity — ever so tolerant, accepting, and understanding — would insist that there exists such a thing as a four-sided triangle; that an effect exists without cause; that a bachelor may indeed be married.

Modern humanity insists that we recognize A as non-A, provided that A makes an impassioned plea for its emotional state of non-A-ness.

We live in absurd times, and if we are to accept that our ontology of marriage has shifted fundamentally, then there are millions of questions to be answered regarding the ontology, not only of a redefined marriage, but of all existing relationships.

What does it mean to be husband and wife? Father and son? Mother and daughter? Patron and client? Lessee and lessor? Contractor and contracted? Buyer and seller? Govern and governed?  If we may remove the essence of one relationship, we must accept the possibility that we can remove the essence of all relationships. Who dares then to attempt that task?

The alternative explanation is much more forthcoming and consistent.  The ontology of marriage has a long-standing tradition in the West, one that is predicated not on faith or superstition or some sort of genetic predisposition to propagate other human beings, but one that successfully grapples with and contends with human beings in full appreciation of their sexuality both in being and in essence as predicated on their existence as we are.  The Kantian (and perhaps, Cartesian) distinction between what we can rationalize and what we are is a false distinction that manifests itself in all forms of logical absurdities.  These absurdities — rather than society contending to grapple with the problems they present as equals — ought to be forced to contend with the very real contradictions they present.  Society qua marriage has very little to apologize for in the face of such ontological absurdities.

[1] Thus, 7+5=12 is truly shorthand — and is now universally understood as such — for (7+5)=12, which is what Kant did not understand when he denied the analyticity of the formula. That the essence of 12 can also be expressed as the sum of a sixness and a sixness is not a contradiction — for both 7+5 and 6+6 are short-hand symbols of differing sums of one-ness, [(1+1+1+1+1+1+1)+(1+1+1+1+1)] and [(1+1+1+1+1+1)+(1+1+1+1+1+1)] respectively.

[2] Cicero in fact was exceedingly clear on the expectations that traditional Roman norms would have upon marriages within Roman society, namely that “Aspasia began a discourse with Xenophon himself. “I ask you, O Xenophon,” says she, “if your neighbour has a better horse than yours is, whether you would prefer your own horse or his?” ” His,” says he. ” Suppose he has a better farm than you have, which farm, I should like to know, would you prefer to possess?” “Beyond all doubt,” says he, “that which is the best.” “Suppose he has a better wife than you have, would you prefer his wife?” And on this Xenophon himself was silent. Then spake Aspasia,– ” Since each of you avoids answering me that question alone which was the only one which I wished to have answered, I will tell you what each of you are thinking of; for both you, O woman, wish to have the best husband, and you, O Xenophon, most exceedingly desire to have the most excellent wife. Wherefore, unless you both so contrive matters that there shall not be on the whole earth a more excellent man or a more admirable woman, then in truth you will at all times desire above all things that which you think to be the best thing in the world, namely, that you, O Xenophon, may be the husband of the best possible wife; and you, O woman, that you may be married to the most excellent husband possible.” After they had declared their assent to these far from doubtful propositions, it followed, on account of the resemblance of the cases, that if any one had separately asked them about some doubtful point, that also would have been admitted as certain, on account of the method employed in putting the question.” (see Cicero’s De Inventione, Book 1, XXXI, emphasis added)

[3] The archetypal dictionary Oxford English Dictionary still maintains some orthodoxy, by defining marriage as ” The condition of being a husband or wife; the relation between persons married to each other; matrimony.” Though it has added a footnote that nods “The term [marriage] is now sometimes used with reference to long-term relationships between partners of the same sex.” Oxford does not address the validity of its footnote, it only acknowledges it. Even its definition of “gay marriage” avoids circularity and the reductio ad absurdum by stating in the passive voice “a relationship or bond between partners of the same sex which is likened to that between a married man and woman.”


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