It has been said that the present time is the best of all because it is the present and, as such, it is superior to the past. This is as true in philosophical matters as it is in any other sphere. In the old days, one had to work in order to gain divine wisdom, whether it was waiting for the Opet festival in Egypt, traveling to the oracle of Delphi in Greece, or divining intestines from the right animal in Rome. Today, gods and philosophers no longer need to be sought but walk boldly above us and sometimes besides us.
This past St. Valentine’s Day was one such occasion. Scarlet Johansson, probably best known for her part in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, gave an interview for Playboy in which she said that monogamy was unnatural. Her proof for her statement was that it is very hard for a lot of people to actually do.
To be fair to Scarlet, she did say that the idea of marriage was “beautiful” and, unlike so many people today, she did acknowledge that marriage was a responsibility. But, despite these pearls of truth, her matter-of-fact declaration that monogamy is unnatural leaves much to be admired.
In a sense, it’s not so much that Scarlet was wrong (which she was) as it is the reasons for why she is wrong. Anyone can have a flaw in their reasoning since, as Aristotle said, of the three different ways to reason, there is only one correct way—from correct premises to correct conclusions. With that in mind, it is quite easy to see how people can be wrong and to make room for their error. The problem with Scarlet’s method, however, is that is that there seems to be no method besides a vague and hazy inductive method by which, from the fact that “[monogamy] is such work for so many people,” she reasons to the conclusion that it is not natural. But couldn’t this all be, in a sense, circumstantial and cultural evidence rather than objective facts? Our grandparents and great-grandparents were much better at monogamy than their spoiled grandchildren and great-grandchildren; many times, combing through obituaries in the local papers, you will see that the deceased who are seventy-eight years old and older, were married for anything between thirty and sixty years. There were still exceptions, of course—human nature, by any other word, remains the same indifferent to time and space—but the fact remains that monogamy was much better practiced in the past then here in the present. Perhaps then, rather than monogamy being unnatural in essence, it is the culture that has made it seem unnatural. With the sexual revolution of the late Sixties and Seventies, faithfulness and monogamy were laughed to the curb and now, so called “sex experts” such as Dan Savage can say flatly that monogamy is “sexual death” and no one—at least no one in a position of cultural power—bats an eye. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, when we laugh at monogamy, we should not be surprised that people find it hard to practice.
Another problem, however, is the fact that if Scarlet’s conclusion is true, then many other habits which the world still declares to be good are equally unnatural and, implicitly, wrong. Many people struggle with weight, many struggle with alcohol, many struggle to control their anger, many people struggle with kindness; are we really, in this time of absolute skepticism, ready to say that a healthy weight, patience, sobriety, and kindness are all unnatural?
There is a scene in The African Queen where Katherine Hepburn tells Humphrey Bogart that nature is what we are set on earth to overcome. We hear a great deal of overcoming nature from technocrats and libertines but, here, Hepburn was speaking of overcoming nature in the right context; not so that it leads to the abolition of man but so that the dignity of man will not be corroded by giving in to every whim and baser instinct.
That leads, in a round-about-way to the question of what is romance. We have an idea that romance is a feeling which involves candle light dinners and long walks by moonlight, preferably along a beach. But keeping romance there does not so much dirty it as cheapen it by leaving it incomplete. Romance is not just a sensation that we feel but an adventure to be lived. The real romantic is one who is so in love with the subject of his affections that he can never know enough about it nor spend enough time with it. The real romantic knows that his subject is not a shallow but a well that can never be exhausted. In this way, his subject is like a rich book which he cannot put down and which he must start reading again after he has finished it because a single reading cannot do it justice. Why is this an adventure? Because like with any rich book or anything which one devotes oneself to, you never know where it will lead, and that is the very definition of adventure—to set out without knowing what exactly will happen. Trips planned in minute detail—even to foreign countries—are not adventures in and of themselves because the planning gets in the way of the spontaneity. It is only when our love and our enthusiasm and our faith allows us to pursue the end of the journey without a map that we can say that we are on an adventure. And, added to that, is the fact that when the romantic’s adventure is with another, that is the most spectacular adventure of all. Unlike an adventure simply to a place, an adventure with another means that the uncertainty—and the adventure—is increased, since we are not just adventuring on our own but with another with their own mind, will, emotions, likes, dislikes and story. The clash of these elements in the two people leads to more adventure than being alone much as a chemical reaction is more interesting than a pure chemical sitting by itself. And this, coming full circle, is what deepens the romance of the romantic for even with the clash of the different elements, there is no one else that he would rather be with or to know than his love. It is much like how riding a horse is much more interesting and romantic than driving a car which is why knights always ride them.
Why does romance have to be this way? If it is not, we are simply dead leaves, flitting by each other with the wind with no aim and no purpose to our lives. You can only really be romantic with someone that you love, otherwise, you are not being a romantic but a con-man, running through the steps simply in order to get what you want. As soon as you get it or as soon as you become bored, you are off the next victim to repeat the process all over again making one not a romantic but a vampire. Love, on the other hand, requires monogamy—how can one really say that you love someone if you are willing to leave them, cheat on them, or to treat them no differently than anyone else? For the real romantic, the real lover, monogamy is the most natural thing in the world since there is nowhere else he would rather be than with his love.
Although she more than likely did not mean to, the world which Scarlet implied is a cold one, where we are enslaved by sexual licentiousness. It is unfortunately arguable that such a world is already born; a recent article in Men’s Health stated that the percentage of “open” relationships and other such arrangements are on the rise. For all of that, it does not seem that our world or our society in particular has grown better with that rise. Our society—or at least those parts that are still honest enough—are searching for something more. What they are searching for is romance and adventure. And they will be unable to find either in polyamory.