Percy Bysshe Shelley, a leading figure in the 19th-century English Romantic movement, once described poets like himself as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” And indeed, despite living a comparatively short life (he died before age 30), his influence has endured to the present day, most notably in his emphasis on sex as the central element of individual authenticity.
Shelley, together with contemporaries like the poet William Blake, was known for his attacks on organized Christianity and his understanding that sexual liberation is central to political liberation. For Shelley, as for many in our own day, these concerns are closely linked because one of the most obvious ways religion historically exerted its power was through the policing of sexual behavior and sexual relationships.
To better understand the roots of the sexual revolution gripping the contemporary West, it pays to consider an era well before the 1960s, when many of its “unacknowledged legislators,” like Shelley, were preparing the ground for the upheavals to come.
‘The most odious of all monopolies’
Shelley’s disdain for religion, or, more specifically, Christianity and Judaism, is evident from his earliest writings, indeed, from the moment when, as an undergraduate, he and his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg authored the pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism and were expelled from Oxford for their pains. In his early poem Queen Mab, the fairy guide launches a powerful attack on the Jews as they howl “hideous praises to their Demon-God.”
For Shelley, religion is a means of manipulation by which the powerful keep others subjugated. God himself is the very prototype of human tyranny, a willful, arbitrary, unaccountable despot. But most importantly, there is a clear connection in Shelley’s mind between religion, political oppression, and norms restricting sexual activity. Queen Mab includes a vision of the future in which men and women return to a state of nature. The happy denizens of this poetic Eden behave in a manner that he characterizes as follows:
Unchecked by dull and selfish chastity,
That virtue of the cheaply virtuous,
Who pride themselves in senselessness and frost.
The contempt for traditional sexual mores is obvious. And far from being unique in this, Shelley is somewhat representative of radical thought at the start of the 19th century. Traditional moral thought and practice regarding sex had undergone dramatic transformation in the previous decades.
In The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution, Faramerz Dabhoiwala summarizes this shift by pointing to three significant and closely related developments in the 1700s: (1) the increasing importance ascribed to conscience (basically understood as natural instinct) as a reliable guide to moral behavior, (2) a growing public distaste for judicial punishment of consenting heterosexual transgressors (such as adulterers), and (3) the rising view that the moral laws based on external authorities such as the Bible might in fact be social constructs that conflict with human nature.
In its most radical forms, the emerging critique of traditional sexual mores involved vigorous attacks on the institution of marriage, and thus on the institutions which constructed and maintained it: Christianity and the church.
Shelley’s father-in-law, William Godwin, is a fine example of this tendency. In book 8 of his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, he dismisses marriage as an evil that checks the independent progress of the mind, that is inconsistent with the natural propensities of human beings, and that dooms people to a lifetime of unnecessary misery. For Godwin, “the abolition of marriage will be attended with no evils” because the institution represents the unreasonable bondage and oppression of the individuals involved.
To grasp the depth of Godwin’s abhorrence, note that at the climax of his argument, he declares marriage nothing less than “the most odious of all monopolies” because by making one woman the exclusive property of one man, it creates the context for jealousy, subterfuge, and general social corruption. In his proposed utopia, no man would be joined exclusively to one woman, but all would share in each other in one sexual community.
There are obvious parallels with the philosophy of marriage—or perhaps better, the philosophical objections to traditional marriage—of our present day. Monogamous, chaste marriage is a social construct that runs against the grain of natural human instincts. Therefore, it serves to promote problems rather than solve them. Indeed, it is worse than that: It actually creates the problems that it then purports to solve. Therefore it should be abolished.
Shelley’s own work stands within this tradition of sexual iconoclasm, connecting aesthetics, freedom, and sex in a manner that foreshadows much of our current world. In Queen Mab he builds on Godwin’s thought to present a view of humanity’s coming of age in which all the inequities and injustices created by social conventions will be solved over time as those conventions themselves dissolve. Liberty will never be achieved, he suggests, while human love is shackled by traditional Christian views of marriage and forced into the confines of lifelong, monogamous relationships.
Shelley attached notes to Queen Mab, just in case his readers did not quite understand his message. One comment offers a concise but pungently phrased summary of his general view of conventional marriage and the role of religion. “Love withers under constraint,” he declares; “its very essence is liberty.”
Thus, at the very heart of Shelley’s political program of liberation lies the matter of sexual love, for it is love that equates to happiness and freedom. As happiness is the foundation of morality, so the liberating of love is a moral and political imperative. And as love lies at the core of what it means to be human, unnatural constraints on love effectively prevent human beings from being truly human.
Shelley goes further, applying the imperative of happiness to the purpose of marriage as a means of pointing toward how it might be restructured:
If happiness be the object of morality, of all human unions and disunions; if the worthiness of every action is to be estimated by the quantity of pleasurable sensation it is calculated to produce, then the connection of the sexes is so long sacred as it contributes to the comfort of the parties, and is naturally dissolved when its evils are greater than its benefits. There is nothing immoral in this separation.
The passage has a remarkably contemporary logic to it. Shelley believes that the purpose of life is personal happiness, which he defines as “a pleasurable sensation,” or, as we might put it, an inner sense of psychological well-being. Marriage is therefore not to be understood as a lifelong monogamous relationship for the purposes of procreation, mutual companionship, and exclusive sexual union. Rather, it is for the mutual pleasure and satisfaction of the consenting parties, and that is all. It is, one might say, a sentimental union, and once the pleasurable sentiments that it stimulates have dissipated, it should be dissolved at the will of the contracting parties.
This is the essential rationale of our modern thinking on marriage, defined as it is by the logic of no-fault divorce. We should therefore take note: Today’s understanding of marriage is clearly not a recent innovation; it was explicitly advocated by the likes of Shelley over two centuries ago.
‘A practical code of misery and servitude’
Shelley likens vows taken to lifelong marriage to those taken to religious creeds. To make such vows is to bind oneself in a manner that prevents personal inquiry, precludes improvement, and preempts any possibility of escape if the marriage ceases to be a source of happiness.
We might recast his objection and say that the problem with both marriage and creeds is that in each case the individual must acknowledge the existence of an external authority beyond that of immediate, personal desires. By submitting to such an external authority, individuals plunge themselves into inauthentic existence.
To make this point more sharply, Shelley then argues that marriage forces people to be hypocrites and even fosters prostitution. In doing so, he breaks with the dominant view of the time—that prostitutes originated as hapless victims of male seduction. Instead, it is the impact of monogamy on the sexual marketplace and the repression of natural sexual instincts that leads women to become prostitutes. Society then choosing to punish women for doing that to which society itself has driven them is for Shelley the height of hypocrisy.
Echoing Godwin, he states that the abolition of marriage is the only way sexual relations can be reconstructed in accordance with nature. Then, in a dramatic rhetorical flourish, he leaves no doubt about what he blames for perpetuating the vile institution of marriage:
In fact, religion and morality, as they now stand, compose a practical code of misery and servitude: the genius of human happiness must tear every leaf from the accursed book of God ere man can read the inscription on his heart. How would morality, dressed up in stiff stays and finery, start from her own disgusting image should she look in the mirror of nature!
For Shelley, then, organized Christianity, with its imposition on humanity of the law code contained in the Bible, is that which has alienated human beings from each other and destroyed true liberty. As a consequence, he argues, Christianity must be destroyed, and marriage must be abolished (or at least dramatically redefined), if human beings are to be truly free and truly happy.
We should note the rhetorical strategy Shelley employs here. He presents Christian morality not as wrongheaded or benign but as essentially evil. In this way of thinking, Christian morality is really immorality dressed up as righteousness. And thus the battle with Christianity is actually a battle with evil.
Again, this is a characteristic of our present age, when Christian moral codes are seen as positively immoral. Calls for chastity are an unrealistic response to promiscuity and lead to cruel sexual repression, an irresponsible lack of proper sex education in schools, and the demonizing of unmarried teenage mothers. Opposition to homosexuality stirs up prejudice, forces gay people to live a lie, and can even lead to mental illness and suicide.
The list could be extended, but it is not really a new one. The idea that Christian sexual codes prevent people from living free and happy lives—from being true to themselves—is not of recent vintage.
The garden and the chapel
A similar perspective is evident in the work of William Blake. In his Songs of Innocence and Experience, Blake considers human nature against the backdrop of England’s Industrial Revolution and its impact on (to borrow a phrase from another of his poems) “England’s green and pleasant land.”
While Blake’s symbolism often makes interpreting his poems a tricky enterprise, there is no debate about the meaning of a poem such as “The Garden of Love,” quoted here in full:
I went to the Garden of Love.
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.
And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And ‘Thou shalt not’ writ over the door;
So I turn’d to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.
And I saw it was filled with graves
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars, my joys and desires.
This a powerful poetic testimony to Blake’s philosophy of life. The chapel is a manmade intrusion into the garden of what was once innocence. Its presence is both alien and oppressive, with Blake picking up on the Decalogue’s refrain of “Thou shalt not” as a means of conveying the negative, life-denying nature of Christian morality.
The message is abundantly clear: External, socially constructed constraints are bad and deny us our real humanity. The garden symbolizes a state of childlike innocence, while the chapel represents the alien intrusion of institutional religion.
For Blake, religion is oppressive. Indeed, it is equated with death—hence the gravestones of the last verse that have taken the place of beautiful, vital, natural flowers. Liberty and personal authenticity are to be found, therefore, in eschewing such things as institutional Christianity and thereby returning to the childlike and carefree innocence of the natural state where “joys and desires” are unhindered by cruel “Thou shalt nots.”
From the perspective of today, Shelley and Blake represent fascinating and significant developments in discussions of sex, freedom, religion, and what it means to be human. In their view, external, socially constructed constraints militate against this authenticity, curtailing personal freedom and causing various problems in society. And of all socially repressive phenomena, Shelley and Blake consider organized religion, specifically traditional Christianity, to be the worst offender.
For both poets, the attack on religion and the attack on the sexual morality that underpins marriage are closely related. Each sees the question of sexual behavior as among the central questions of political freedom.
It is therefore clear that the historical connection between expressive individualism, sex, and politics, so typical of our own day, was already emerging in the early 19th century among Romantic writers like Shelley and Blake. That particular aspect of our current culture is not a recent innovation brought about by the ’60s.
Content adapted from The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Trueman, ©2020. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
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