Ancient History & Civilisation

The Moral Elements of Civilization

SINCE no society can exist without order, and no order without regulation, we may take it as a rule of history that the power of custom varies inversely as the multiplicity of laws, much as the power of instinct varies inversely as the multiplicity of thoughts. Some rules are necessary for the game of life; they may differ in different groups, but within the group they must be essentially the same. These rules may be conventions, customs, morals, or laws. Conventions are forms of behavior found expedient by a people; customs are conventions accepted by successive generations, after natural selection through trial and error and elimination; morals are such customs as the group considers vital to its welfare and development. In primitive societies, where there is no written law, these vital customs or morals regulate every sphere of human existence, and give stability and continuity to the social order. Through the slow magic of time such customs, by long repetition, become a second nature in the individual; if he violates them he feels a certain fear, discomfort or shame; this is the origin of that conscience, or moral sense, which Darwin chose as the most impressive distinction between animals and men.1 In its higher development conscience is social consciousness—the feeling of the individual that he belongs to a group, and owes it some measure of loyalty and consideration. Morality is the cooperation of the part with the whole, and of each group with some larger whole. Civilization, of course, would be impossible without it.


The meaning of marriage—Its biological origins—Sexual communism—Trial marriage—Group marriage—Individual marriage—Polygamy—Its eugenic value—Exogamy—Marriage by service—By capture—By purchase—Primitive love—The economic function of marriage

The first task of those customs that constitute the moral code of a group is to regulate the relations of the sexes, for these are a perennial source of discord, violence, and possible degeneration. The basic form of this sexual regulation is marriage, which may be defined as the association of mates for the care of offspring. It is a variable and fluctuating institution, which has passed through almost every conceivable form and experiment in the course of its history, from the primitive care of offspring without the association of mates to the modern association of mates without the care of offspring.

Our animal forefathers invented it. Some birds seem to live as reproducing mates in a divorceless monogamy. Among gorillas and orangutans the association of the parents continues to the end of the breeding season, and has many human features. Any approach to loose behavior on the part of the female is severely punished by the male.2 The orangs of Borneo, says De Crespigny, “live in families: the male, the female, and a young one”; and Dr. Savage reports of the gorillas that “it is not unusual to see the ‘old folks’ sitting under a tree regaling themselves with fruit and friendly chat, while their children are leaping around them and swinging from branch to branch in boisterous merriment.”3 Marriage is older than man.

Societies without marriage are rare, but the sedulous inquirer can find enough of them to form a respectable transition from the promiscuity of the lower mammals to the marriages of primitive men. In Futuna and Hawaii the majority of the people did not marry at all;4 the Lubus mated freely and indiscriminately, and had no conception of marriage; certain tribes of Borneo lived in marriageless association, freer than the birds; and among some peoples of primitive Russia “the men utilized the women without distinction, so that no woman had her appointed husband.” African pygmies have been described as having no marriage institutions, but as following “their animal instincts wholly without restraint.”5 This primitive “nationalization of women,” corresponding to primitive communism in land and food, passed away at so early a stage that few traces of it remain. Some memory of it, however, lingered on in divers forms: in the feeling of many nature peoples that monogamy—which they would define as the monopoly of a woman by one man—is unnatural and immoral;6 in periodic festivals of license (still surviving faintly in our Mardi Gras), when sexual restraints were temporarily abandoned; in the demand that a woman should give herself—as at the Temple of Mylitta in Babylon—to any man that solicited her, before she would be allowed to marry;* in the custom of wife-lending, so essential to many primitive codes of hospitality; and in the jus primœ noctis, or right of the first night, by which, in early feudal Europe, the lord of the manor, perhaps representing the ancient rights of the tribe, occasionally deflowered the bride before the bridegroom was allowed to consummate the marriage.6a

A variety of tentative unions gradually took the place of indiscriminate relations. Among the Orang Sakai of Malacca a girl remained for a time with each man of the tribe, passing from one to another until she had made the rounds; then she began again.7 Among the Yakuts of Siberia, the Botocudos of South Africa, the lower classes of Tibet, and many other peoples, marriage was quite experimental, and could be ended at the will of either party, with no reasons given or required. Among the Bushmen “any disagreement sufficed to end a union, and new connections could immediately be found for both.” Among the Damaras, according to Sir Francis Galton, “the spouse was changed almost weekly, and I seldom knew without inquiry who the pro tempore husband of each lady was at any particular time.” Among the Baila “women are bandied about from man to man, and of their own accord leave one husband for another. Young women scarcely out of their teens often have had four or five husbands, all still living.”8 The original word for marriage, in Hawaii, meant to try.9 Among the Tahitians, a century ago, unions were free and dissoluble at will, so long as there were no children; if a child came the parents might destroy it without social reproach, or the couple might rear the child and enter into a more permanent relation; the man pledged his support to the woman in return for the burden of parental care that she now assumed.10

Marco Polo writes of a Central Asiatic tribe, inhabiting Peyn (now Keriya) in the thirteenth century: “If a married man goes to a distance from home to be absent twenty days, his wife has a right, if she is so inclined, to take another husband; and the men, on the same principle, marry wherever they happen to reside.”11 So old are the latest innovations in marriage and morals.

Letourneau said of marriage that “every possible experiment compatible with the duration of savage or barbarian societies has been tried, or is still practised, amongst various races, without the least thought of the moral ideas generally prevailing in Europe.”12 In addition to experiments in permanence there were experiments in relationship. In a few cases we find “group marriage,” by which a number of men belonging to one group married collectively a number of women belonging to another group.13 In Tibet, for example, it was the custom for a group of brothers to marry a group of sisters, and for the two groups to practise sexual communism between them, each of the men cohabiting with each of the women.14 Caesar reported a similar custom in ancient Britain.15Survivals of it appear in the “levirate,” a custom existing among the early Jews and other ancient peoples, by which a man was obligated to marry his brother’s widow;16 this was the rule that so irked Onan.

What was it that led men to replace the semi-promiscuity of primitive society with individual marriage? Since, in a great majority of nature peoples, there are few, if any, restraints on premarital relations, it is obvious that physical desire does not give rise to the institution of marriage. For marriage, with its restrictions and psychological irritations, could not possibly compete with sexual communism as a mode of satisfying the erotic propensities of men. Nor could the individual establishment offer at the outset any mode of rearing children that would be obviously superior to their rearing by the mother, her family, and the clan. Some powerful economic motives must have favored the evolution of marriage. In all probability (for again we must remind ourselves how little we really know of origins) these motives were connected with the rising institution of property.

Individual marriage came through the desire of the male to have cheap slaves, and to avoid bequeathing his property to other men’s children. Polygamy, or the marriage of one person to several mates, appears here and there in the form of polyandry—the marriage of one woman to several men—as among the Todas and some tribes of Tibet;17 the custom may still be found where males outnumber females considerably.18 But this custom soon falls prey to the conquering male, and polygamy has come to mean for us, usually, what would more strictly be called polygyny—the possession of several wives by one man. Medieval theologians thought that Mohammed had invented polygamy, but it antedated Islam by some years, being the prevailing mode of marriage in the primitive world.19 Many causes conspired to make it general. In early society, because of hunting and war, the life of the male is more violent and dangerous, and the death rate of men is higher, than that of women. The consequent excess of women compels a choice between polygamy and the barren celibacy of a minority of women; but such celibacy is intolerable to peoples who require a high birth rate to make up for a high death rate, and who therefore scorn the mateless and childless woman. Again, men like variety; as the Negroes of Angola expressed it, they were “not able to eat always of the same dish.” Also, men like youth in their mates, and women age rapidly in primitive communities. The women themselves often favored polygamy; it permitted them to nurse their children longer, and therefore to reduce the frequency of motherhood without interfering with the erotic and philoprogenitive inclinations of the male. Sometimes the first wife, burdened with toil, helped her husband to secure an additional wife, so that her burden might be shared, and additional children might raise the productive power and the wealth of the family.20 Children were economic assets, and men invested in wives in order to draw children from them like interest. In the patriarchal system wives and children were in effect the slaves of the man; the more a man had of them, the richer he was. The poor man practised monogamy, but he looked upon it as a shameful condition, from which some day he would rise to the respected position of a polygamous male.21

Doubtless polygamy was well adapted to the marital needs of a primitive society in which women outnumbered men. It had a eugenic value superior to that of contemporary monogamy; for whereas in modern society the most able and prudent men marry latest and have least children, under polygamy the most able men, presumably, secured the bests mates and had most children. Hence polygamy has survived among practically all nature peoples, even among the majority of civilized mankind; only in our day has it begun to die in the Orient. Certain conditions, however, militated against it. The decrease in danger and violence, consequent upon a settled agricultural life, brought the sexes towards an approximate numerical equality; and under these circumstances open polygamy, even in primitive societies, became the privilege of the prosperous minority.22The mass of the people practised a monogamy tempered with adultery, while another minority, of willing or regretful celibates, balanced the polygamy of the rich. Jealousy in the male, and possessiveness in the female, entered into the situation more effectively as the sexes approximated in number; for where the strong could not have a multiplicity of wives except by taking the actual or potential wives of other men and by (in some cases) offending their own, polygamy became a difficult matter, which only the cleverest could manage. As property accumulated, and men were loath to scatter it in small bequests, it became desirable to differentiate wives into “chief wife” and concubines, so that only the children of the former should share the legacy; this remained the status of marriage in Asia until our own generation. Gradually the chief wife became the only wife, the concubines became kept women in secret and apart, or they disappeared; and as Christianity entered upon the scene, monogamy, in Europe, took the place of polygamy as the lawful and outward form of sexual association. But monogamy, like letters and the state, is artificial, and belongs to the history, not to the origins, of civilization.

Whatever form the union might take, marriage was obligatory among nearly all primitive peoples. The unmarried male had no standing in the community, or was considered only half a man.23 Exogamy, too, was compulsory: that is to say, a man was expected to secure his wife from another clan than his own. Whether this custom arose because the primitive mind suspected the evil effects of close inbreeding, or because such intergroup marriages created or cemented useful political alliances, promoted social organization, and lessened the danger of war, or because the capture of a wife from another tribe had become a fashionable mark of male maturity, or because familiarity breeds contempt and distance lends enchantment to the view—we do not know. In any case the restriction was well-nigh universal in early society; and though it was successfully violated by the Pharaohs, the Ptolemies and the Incas, who all favored the marriage of brother and sister, it survived into Roman and modern law and consciously or unconsciously moulds our behavior to this day.

How did the male secure his wife from another tribe? Where the matriarchal organization was strong he was often required to go and live with the clan of the girl whom he sought. As the patriarchal system developed, the suitor was allowed, after a term of service to the father, to take his bride back to his own clan; so Jacob served Laban for Leah and Rachel.24 Sometimes the suitor shortened the matter with plain, blunt force. It was an advantage as well as a distinction to have stolen a wife; not only would she be a cheap slave, but new slaves could be begotten of her, and these children would chain her to her slavery. Such marriage by capture, though not the rule, occurred sporadically in the primitive world. Among the North American Indians the women were included in the spoils of war, and this happened so frequently that in some tribes the husbands and their wives spoke mutually unintelligible languages. The Slavs of Russia and Serbia practised occasional marriage by capture until the last century.*25 Vestiges of it remain in the custom of simulating the capture of the bride by the groom in certain wedding ceremonies.27 All in all it was a logical aspect of the almost incessant war of the tribes, and a logical starting-point for that eternal war of the sexes whose only truces are brief nocturnes and dreamless sleep.

As wealth grew it became more convenient to offer the father a substantial present—or a sum of money—for his daughter, rather than serve for her in an alien clan, or risk the violence and feuds that might come of marriage by capture. Consequently marriage by purchase and parental arrangement was the rule in early societies.28 Transition forms occur; the Melanesians sometimes stole their wives, but made the theft legal by a later payment to her family. Among some natives of New Guinea the man abducted the girl, and then, while he and she were in hiding, commissioned his friends to bargain with her father over a purchase price.29 The ease with which moral indignation in these matters might be financially appeased is illuminating. A Maori mother, wailing loudly, bitterly cursed the youth who had eloped with her daughter, until he presented her with a blanket. “That was all I wanted,” she said; “I only wanted to get a blanket, and therefore made this noise.”30 Usually the bride cost more than a blanket: among the Hottentots her price was an ox or a cow; among the Croo three cows and a sheep; among the Kaffirs six to thirty head of cattle, depending upon the rank of the girl’s family; and among the Togos sixteen dollars cash and six dollars in goods.31

Marriage by purchase prevails throughout primitive Africa, and is still a normal institution in China and Japan; it flourished in ancient India and Judea, and in pre-Columbian Central America and Peru; instances of it occur in Europe today.32 It is a natural development of patriarchal institutions; the father owns the daughter, and may dispose of her, within broad limits, as he sees fit. The Orinoco Indians expressed the matter by saying that the suitor should pay the father for rearing the girl for his use.33 Sometimes the girl was exhibited to potential suitors in a bride-show; so among the Somalis the bride, richly caparisoned, was led about on horseback or on foot, in an atmosphere heavily perfumed to stir the suitors to a handsome price.34 There is no record of women objecting to marriage by purchase; on the contrary, they took keen pride in the sums paid for them, and scorned the woman who gave herself in marriage without a price;35 they believed that in a “love-match” the villainous male was getting too much for nothing.36 On the other hand, it was usual for the father to acknowledge the bridegroom’s payment with a return gift which, as time went on, approximated more and more in value to the sum offered for the bride.37 Rich fathers, anxious to smooth the way for their daughters, gradually enlarged these gifts until the institution of the dowry took form; and the purchase of the husband by the father replaced, or accompanied, the purchase of the wife by the suitor.38

In all these forms and varieties of marriage there is hardly a trace of romantic love. We find a few cases of love-marriages among the Papuans of New Guinea; among other primitive peoples we come upon instances of love (in the sense of mutual devotion rather than mutual need), but usually these attachments have nothing to do with marriage. In simple days men married for cheap labor, profitable parentage, and regular meals. “In Yariba,” says Lander, “marriage is celebrated by the natives as unconcernedly as possible; a man thinks as little of taking a wife as of cutting an ear of corn—affection is altogether out of the question.”39 Since premarital relations are abundant in primitive society, passion is not dammed up by denial, and seldom affects the choice of a wife. For the same reason—the absence of delay between desire and fulfilment—no time is given for that brooding introversion of frustrated, and therefore idealizing, passion which is usually the source of youthful romantic love. Such love is reserved for developed civilizations, in which morals have raised barriers against desire, and the growth of wealth has enabled some men to afford, and some women to provide, the luxuries and delicacies of romance; primitive peoples are too poor to be romantic. One rarely finds love poetry in their songs. When the missionaries translated the Bible into the language of the Algonquins they could discover no native equivalent for the wordlove. The Hottentots are described as “cold and indifferent to one another” in marriage. On the Gold Coast “not even the appearance of affection exists between husband and wife”; and it is the same in primitive Australia. “I asked Baba,” said Caillié, speaking of a Senegal Negro, “why he did not sometimes make merry with his wives. He replied that if he did he should not be able to manage them.” An Australian native, asked why he wished to marry, answered honestly that he wanted a wife to secure food, water and wood for him, and to carry his belongings on the march.40 The kiss, which seems so indispensable to America, is quite unknown to primitive peoples, or known only to be scorned.41

In general the “savage” takes his sex philosophically, with hardly more of metaphysical or theological misgiving than the animal; he does not brood over it, or fly into a passion with it; it is as much a matter of course with him as his food. He makes no pretense to idealistic motives. Marriage is never a sacrament with him, and seldom an affair of lavish ceremony; it is frankly a commercial transaction. It never occurs to him to be ashamed that he subordinates emotional to practical considerations in choosing his mate; he would rather be ashamed of the opposite, and would demand of us, if he were as immodest as we are, 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. The primitive male looked upon marriage in terms not of sexual license but of economic cooperation. He expected the woman—and the woman expected herself—to be not so much gracious and beautiful (though he appreciated these qualities in her) as useful and industrious; she was to be an economic asset rather than a total loss; otherwise the matter-of-fact “savage” would never have thought of marriage at all. 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.

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