The Story of Civilization: Moral Elements – Marriage

“Marriage was a profitable partnership, not a private debauch; it was a way whereby a man and a woman, working together, might be more prosperous than if each worked alone. Wherever, in the history of civilization, woman has ceased to be an economic asset in marriage, marriage has decayed; and sometimes civilization has decayed with it.”
Will Durant, “Our Oriental Heritage”, page 44.
(A family composed of the father, the mother, and their children: a rare institution today.)

SUMMARY: Civilization needs morals as well as marriage, an institution that went a long way from the nationalization of women and the prevailing property-motivated polygamy, up to our current fashion of romantic monogamy.


Civilization would be impossible without morality. Morality is the cooperation of the parts with the whole through moral sense and social consciousness. These, in turn, arise after time has worked its magic to introduce both morals and customs into the very constitution of man, making them a second nature in the individual. Morals are customs that the group considers vital for their well-being and development; customs are conventions selected after generations of trial and error; conventions are forms of behavior considered expedient by a people.

The first task of the customs that constitute a moral code was to regulate the relations of the sexes. The basic form of such regulation was marriage — the association of partners for the care of children — which was as variable in history as it is today.

Societies without marriage were rare, and a primitive “nationalization of women” existed for a time, but quickly passed. It continued to be seen, however, in customs like periodic festivals of sexual abandonment, wife-lending and the jus prima noctis.

A variety of temporary unions gradually took the place of indiscriminate relationships. In fact, the original word for marriage in Hawaii meant “to try.” Marriage was more often than not a temporary institution, easily ended by either wife or husband. Many women could marry a single man and vice-versa, and even group marriage was practiced.

The replacement of this primitive semi-promiscuity was probably linked to the growing institution of property. Individual marriage came because man wanted cheap slaves and to avoid leaving his property to the children of other men. But polygamy (more correctly, polygyny, or the possession of several wives by one man) was the rule. Men lived a more dangerous and violent life, so they died more; the celibacy of women was intolerable for a population that needed to increase, so they had to accept polygamy; man likes variety and young wives, and the wives themselves wanted a less frequent motherhood, as well as sharing their toil. The richer the man, the more slaves he had, that is, wives and children.

The reduction of danger and violence with the advent of a sedentary agricultural life led the sexes to approximate numerical equality. And as man’s cupidity increased, it became desirable to share his legacy with only the “chief wife” and leave the others as mere concubines. Gradually the main wife became the only wife, concubines were kept secret or disappeared, and with Christianity in Europe, monogamy became the legal and outward form of sexual association.

Marriage was obligatory among almost all primitive peoples, as well as exogamy, or the obtaining by man of a wife of a clan other than his own. For this, the male was often obliged to spend a period of service living with the woman’s clan, but marriage by capture also occurred. With increasing wealth, it became more convenient to offer the father a substantial gift or a sum of money. Consequently, marriage by acquisition and parental agreement became the rule. On the other hand, it was also common for the father to pay in exchange a gift that grew over time as rich parents tried to make it easier for their daughters. Finally, the institution of the dowry took shape and the purchase of the husband by the father replaced or accompanied the purchase of the wife by the suitor.

In all these forms and varieties of marriage, there was hardly a trace of romantic love. In those simple days, men married for cheap labor, profitable parentage, and regular meals — primitive peoples were too poor to be romantic. They were practical men, and indeed would require of us “some explanation of our custom of binding a man and a woman together almost for life because sexual desire has chained them for a moment with its lightning.


  1. What are conventions, customs, morals, morality?
  2. What is the first task of customs?
  3. What was it that led men to replace the semi-promiscuity of primitive society with individual marriage?
  4. Why was polygamy preferred?
  5. What was the path to monogamy?
  6. What is the dowry? And how did it originate?

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