Table-talk "Marriage Is Nothing But A Civil Contract"

"Marriage Is Nothing But A Civil Contract"

Context: Contemporaries of tall John Selden, of the gray eyes and long nose in a thin, oval face, believed him a bachelor jurist who lived alone without servants, among his books, except for visits to widowed Lady Kent in Bedfordshire and London, to console her for the death of the Earl of Kent, in 1639. Not till after her death, in 1651, leaving him her heir and executor, was it discovered that all the time they had been married secretly, "upon some law account." After his graduation from Oxford, in 1602, Selden had been admitted to the bar, imprisoned briefly for political activities, elected member of Parliament in 1623, and then imprisoned again for five years for his activities against the crown. Later he served in the Long Parliament as representative of his Alma Mater, then retired to private life to devote himself to writing. John Selden was considered one of the most learned men of his time, a writer who displayed his knowledge in abstruse books written in a harsh style and archaic vocabulary that dealt with topics such as British and rabbinical law, and England's rights of sovereignty over the waters of the English Channel. However, there was another side to him. As a young man, Selden had been part of a brilliant conversational group at the Mermaid Tavern that included Sir Walter Raleigh, Drayton, Ben Jonson, and Shakespeare. Later, with money left him by Lady Kent, he set a bounteous table for his intellectual friends. His amanuensis, the Reverend Richard Milward (1609–1680), carefully set down his comments and quips; and after his employer's death, the secretary published his accumulation as Table Talk, sorted into 125 headings, from "Abbeys and Priories" to "Zealots." Samuel Johnson, though on the other side of the fence politically, spurned a French book of aphorisms with the comment: "A few in it are good, but we have one book of that kind better than any of them, Selden's Table Talk." Coleridge declared: "There is more weighty bullion sense in this book than I ever found in the same number of pages of any uninspired writer." Selden's views on marriage run counter to the often-repeated lines of John Lyly, "Marriage is Destiny, made in Heaven," and Tennyson's "Marriages are made in heaven." They are nearer to Southerne's cynical "If marriages are made in heaven, they should be happier." Perhaps the difficulties of Selden's own secret marriage motivated his views on the subject that fill one page of his small book.

1. Of all actions of a man's life, his marriage does least concern other people, yet of all actions of our life 't is most meddled with by other people.
2. Marriage is nothing but a civil contract. 'T is true, 't is an ordinance of God; so is every other contract; God commands me to keep it when I make it.
3. Marriage is a desperate thing. The frogs in Aesop were extreme wise; they had a great mind to some water, but they would not leap into the well, because they could not get out again.
4. We single out particulars, and apply God's Providence to them. Thus when two are married and have undone one another, they cry it was God's Providence we should come together, when God's Providence does equally concur to every thing.