Bachelorhood And Its Discontents

by Christopher Orlet (July 2008)

Leibniz never married. He had considered it at the age of fifty; but the person he had in mind asked for time to reflect. This gave Leibniz time to reflect, too, and so he never married. Bernard Fontenelle

In a 1994 New Yorker piece commenting on a report that the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser had strangled his wife to death, the pseudoprofound literary critic George Steiner pondered why it should have taken the Marxist philosopher so long to do the old biddy in. “Perhaps philosophers should strangle their wives,” wrote Steiner. “The name of Socrates’ wife has passed into the language as that of an ignorant shrew. Philosophy is an unworldly, abstruse, often egomaniacal obsession. The body is an enemy to absolute logic or metaphysical speculation. The thinker inhabits fictions of purity, of reasoned propositions as sharp as white light. Marriage is about roughage, bills, garbage disposal, and noise. There is something vulgar, almost absurd, in the notion of a Mrs. Plato or a Mme. Descartes, or of Wittgenstein on a honeymoon.” A judge agreed, and rather than receiving a jury trial, Althusser was committed to fewer than three years in a psychiatric hospital.

Steiner was no doubt speaking with his tongue placed firmly in his cheek, but like all effective satire there was more than a grain of truth in it. Marriage, the philosophical bachelor holds, will not only deprive one of his liberty, lighten his wallet and suck the romance from life, but it will prove an exacting hindrance, as lifelong bachelor Robert Burton noted in his Anatomy of Melancholy (1621): 

“In sober sadness, marriage is a bondage, a thraldom, a hindrance to all good enterprises. ‘He hath married a wife, and therefore cannot come’; a rock on which many are saved, many are cast away. Not that the thing is evil in itself, or troublesome, but full of happiness and a thing which pleases God; but to indiscreet, sensual persons, it is a feral plague, many times an hell itself…. Since, then, there is such hazard in the married state, keep thyself as thou art; ‘tis good to match, much better to be free. Consider withal how free, how happy, how secure, how heavenly, in respect, a single man is.”

Dr. Burton was neither the first nor the last to comment that marriage is a hindrance to “all good enterprises.” “Woman inspires us to great things,” remarked Alexandre Dumas, “and prevents us from achieving them.” The bitter Friedrich Nietzsche believed marriage (if not women, in general) a distraction from philosophical pursuits. It is a commonplace that most important writers, artists and philosophers have been bachelors, or in the least effectively single in the way Abelard, Franklin, Rousseau, Milton, Thomas Paine and Shakespeare remained. “Certainly the best works, and of greatest merit for the public, have proceeded from the unmarried or childless men,” wrote Sir Francis Bacon (not a bachelor, but perhaps wishing he were). H.L. Mencken, who once suggested bringing back the dollar-a-day bachelor tax (it was worth that much to be single) likewise commented on the superiority of the bacheloronly to Mencken it was the bachelor’s great intellect and creativity that kept him single, not the other way round. “The bachelor’s very capacity to avoid marriage is no more than a proof of his relative freedom from the ordinary sentimentalism of his sex, in other words, of his greater approximation to the clearheadedness of the enemy sex. He is able to defeat the enterprise of women because he brings to the business an equipment almost comparable to their own.” Who can argue that a brief catalog of famous bachelors reads like a roll call of the architects of Western Civilization?:

Pierre Bayle
Robert Boyle
Johannes Brahms
Samuel Butler
Robert Burton
Ludwig van Beethoven
Johannes Brahms
Giacomo Casanova

Frederic Chopin
Nicolaus Copernicus
Eugène Delacroix

Rene Descartes  
Gustave Flaubert

Galileo Galilei
Edward Gibbon
Vincent van Gogh

Oliver Goldsmith

Thomas Hobbes
David Hume
Washington Irving

Henry James
Franz Kafka
Immanuel Kant
Soren Kierkegaard

Charles Lamb
T. E. Lawrence
Meriwether Lewis
Philip Larkin
Gottfried Leibniz
John Locke

Friedrich Nietzsche

Sir Isaac Newton
Blaise Pascal
Alexander Pope
Marcel Proust
Maurice Ravel
George Santayana
Jean Paul Sartre
Franz Schubert

Benedict de Spinoza
Arthur Schopenhauer
Herbert Spencer
Adam Smith
Jonathon Swift
Nikola Tesla
Henry David Thoreau
Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec
Leonardo da Vinci
Ludwig Wittgenstein

Similarly the contributions of the many (ostensibly) celibate medieval monks and theologians (Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, Desiderius Erasmus, Michael Servetus) were essential in dragging Europe out of the dark Age of Faith and paving the way for the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.

Some years ago a noted Japanese researcher analyzed the biographical data of some 280 famous mathematicians, physicists, chemists, and biologists and discovered that all peaked professionally in their twenties, at which point their careers spiraled downward. Married scientists suffered the worst decline in productivity. However, those who never married remained highly productive well into their fifties. “Scientists tend to ‘desist’ from scientific research upon marriage,” the researcher told an interviewer, “just like criminals desist from crime upon marriage.” One theory suggests married men lack an evolutionary reason to continue working hard (i.e., to attract females). Though it likely they similarly lack the prerequisite time and solitude.

THE SINGLE LIFE MAY BE all well and good for a Copernicus or a Pope, but isn’t there some truth in the old Puritan notion that the bachelor is a menace to society? Essayist George Gilder thinks so. “The single man in general, compared to others in the population, is poor and neurotic,” writes Gilder in his book Naked Nomads. “He is disposed to criminality, drugs, and violence. He is irresponsible about his debts, alcoholic, accident prone, and venerally diseased. Unless he can marry, he is often destined to a Hobbsean life–solitary, nasty, brutish and short.” (Gilder apparently had never seen Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)  Yet the idea that bachelors were bad news was common among both conservatives and feminists. In Sex and Destiny: The Politics of Human Fertility, Germaine Greer notes that “the most threatened group in human society, as in animal societies, is the unmated male: the unmated male is more likely to wind up in prison or in an asylum or dead than his mated counterpart. He is less likely to be promoted at work, and he is considered a poor credit risk.” Further, researcher Stephanie Coontz found that more men than women describe being married as their ideal state, and men who remain single fare far worse emotionally than do their female counterparts.

Throughout history the bachelor was regarded as a destabilizing influence on society, a “threat against the established social order,” (Phillip Lopate’s phrase), a rogue elephant, a misfit and pariah. The presumption of guilt attached to every single man beyond the age of thirty,” noted George Ade, the author of “The Joys of Single Blessedness.” In puritan New England, according to Howard P. Chudacoff’s The Age of the Bachelor, those who indulged in the “selfish luxury of solitary living” were forced under penalty of law to live in “well-ordered households” as boarders and made to pay the despised bachelor tax.

It wasn’t just that the bachelor was untrustworthy, wrote Ade, he was also a “draft dodger” and a “slacker,” one who had exchanged the traditional male role of provider for that of refusenik. Or, as another wag put it, “The bachelor is a selfish, undeserving guy who has cheated some woman out of a divorce.” Until quite recently the office bachelor was seen as a serious liability, and earned considerably less than his married counterpart. Vance Packard, in his 1962 book The Pyramid Climbers, noted that, “In general the bachelor is viewed with circumspection, especially if he is not well known to the people appraising him…[However] the worst status of all is that of a bachelor beyond the age of 36. The investigators wonder why he isn’t married. Is it because he isn’t virile? Is he old-maidish? Can’t he get along with people?” By contrast, the married man was the steady one, the stable lot, not least because, in Tallyrand’s memorable phrase, “a married man with a family will do anything for money.”

Times have changed, but not quite to the bachelor’s advantage. These days with most senior management working on his or her second or third divorce, it is the married guy who is considered the liability. Old dad is unable to work overtime because he has promised to run Sissy to her soccer game and Junior to his ballet class. He is reluctant to leave town because the Mrs. has been tetchy about his too-frequent travel, and likes to remind him that she too works, and how does he expect her to do it all? The bachelor, by contrast, is believed to have few responsibilities (except, perhaps, as party host) and can work as many hours as needed or cover for his married colleagues, particularly the much maligned mothers on staff.

ONE ENDURING MYTH holds that the bachelor is an expert on the female sex, a legend encouraged by Mencken when he said that “Bachelors know more about women than married men; if they didn’t they’d be married too.” To my knowledge there has never been a study that sought to determine why men remain bachelors, though the most reluctant among them seem to possess one common trait: a deep and abiding cynicism toward the fairer sex. Not that the bachelor is completely immune to female charms and wiles; he simply has a greater resistance than the average guy, combined perhaps with a more profound dread of connubial bliss. It is a cynicism borne of endless reports of ruined marriages and bitter dissolutions. Of the 50 percent of couples that successfully weather the storms of holy matrimony, a mere 38 percent allow that their marriages are happy ones. Yet for all this doom and gloom the happily unmarried man is not opposed to love. Far from it. More likely he idealizes love more than his married counterpart. “Love is an ideal thing, marriage a real thing,” notes Goethe. “A confusion of the real with the ideal never goes unpunished.” Today’s relationship gurus warn that marriage must be treated not unlike a job. “When you bring the work strategies that you use in the workplace at home, you can be really successful,” says one marriage expert, which brings to mind the words of Robert Burton—that marriage is the last and best cure of romantic love.

And why shouldn’t the bachelor be as cynical as a roomful of reporters? His male friends are forever praising his great fortune. “Is it generally known that bachelors privately receive encouragement and approbation from married men?” asks Ade. Much, however, remains unsaid. The bachelor’s married friends seldom speak of their troubles, though their eyes betray a deep-rooted sorrow and a tragic lonesomeness, not least due to an unfilled desire for male companionship. “If you are afraid of loneliness,” warned Chekhov, “don’t marry.”

IT IS WIDELY believed that the female adapts to single life more readily than the male. In high school—and to a lesser extent college—life without a boyfriend can be devastating to a girl’s social status. For some, however, the stigma fades after college as she takes on the persona of a career woman too busy and too important for relationships and children. Today, as many educated women are expected to place independence—financial and sexual—before marriage, the single guy feels the effects too. Where once the bachelor’s best girl might pressure her beau for a commitment, today climbing corporate ladders, thinking outside boxes and shattering glass ceilings take precidence. Marriage? Children? Who has time for that? Besides when Ms. Vice President for Corporate Marketing and Public Affairs wakes up one morning and realizes she is forty-five she can always adopt an Ethiopian. New research further suggests that females are more suited to the single life because they tend to develop deeper, more authentic relationships, and often spend their free time constructively—not haunting discothèques in a vain attempt to hook up with 19-year-old bimbos, but in furthering their education, in volunteering, and filling the role of care-giver. (Such studies typically ignore the many important charitable contributions of men—married and single—who have always been great volunteers. Who does one imagine makes up the ranks of the local volunteer fire department? Who volunteers to fight the overseas wars, or to don a fez and drive the minicars in the Memorial Day parade?)

If today’s gal proudly proclaims her independence, the bachelor remains hopelessly reliant on the fairer sex. “Single men are not in general very good at life,” maintains Gilder. “The key to the singles failure is the profound biological dependence of men on women—deeper than any feminist or male chauvinist understands.” Men, he argues, need marriage for psychological stability. Marriage/monogamy increases your chances of surviving and reproducing, which is what our genes demand of us. And he commonly lives a happier and longer life. Without women men revert to packs, and spend summer nights chawing tobacco, swilling moonshine, and baying at the moon. Above all men need to feel useful. And that can only mean one thing.

When, over a period of two decades, pollsters asked men what masculinity meant to them, the normal response was that it meant being a good provider for one’s family. Feminists may cackle at such quaint, patriarchic notions, but the female’s refusal to take the male’s self-concept seriously is a major cause of distrust between the sexes. The successful wife—by which I mean one more economically successful than her husband—plays hell with a man and a woman’s idea of masculinity. Whether she admits it or not, a woman who brings home more than her spouse thinks less of him, at least subconsciously. Even feminists are grudgingly beginning to accept this truth. One influential relationship therapist told a British newspaper that today’s women are tired of being in the role of money maker, but they do not dare confess that they want a man who earns more because that takes them back three decades in the workplace. “Secretly she longs to be taken care of,” said the therapist. Gilder concurs: “In general, the successful woman demands that her man be even more successful than she is. The increasing difficulty of finding such extraordinary creatures means that career girls are marrying later and divorcing more. (The real successes lead the league in divorces.) Thus the demands placed on men, insidiously tacit but inescapable, are greater than ever.”

If marriage is indeed a high-risk gamble with little payoff, is it little wonder more young couples are foregoing the ritual altogether? Today’s 20 and 30-somethings cohabitate casually reconciled that their relationship is as temporary as Achilles; it cannot last, so why make a big deal of it? And when things inevitably go sour they can bail without recourse to ceremony or hard feelings. This profound attitudinal change is mirrored in the numerous neologisms that describe modern relationships, expressions like “starter marriage,” and its diminutive “starter wife/husband.” It is now taken for granted that the first marriage is but a warm up, a little infield practice before the big game. Older, successful men have long traded in last year’s model for a new trophy wife. And while that phenomenon persists, today’s woman is no more reluctant to jettison her partner, and shows far less inclination to compromise or adjust unrealistic romantic expectations as might women in early times. The male, meanwhile, has accepted that he no longer need submit to matrimony to pass on his genes. Or, with no-fault divorce, today’s “baby daddy” may spread his seed and move on well before he hits the midlife crisis. None of this has been lost on the enlightened bachelor, who views it all with a jaundiced eye and a keen sense of the absurd.

IT WAS ONCE held that the female—in her dual tasks as mother and wife—played a vital role in tempering the testosterone-fueled excesses of the young male. “Women have always been the carriers of morality and the shapers of the next generation, which seems to me to be far more important than working 60 hours a week in a law firm,” says Robert Bork. Sinclair Lewis, in 1922, drew this memorable portrait of the civilizing influence of women in his novel Babbitt: “Mother corrected Father’s vulgarisms by means of a rolling-pin.” Sir Francis Bacon maintained that, “wife and children are a kind of discipline of humanity; and single men…are more cruel and hardhearted (good to make severe inquisitors), because their tenderness is not so oft called upon.” And George Gilder likewise notes that “Men need durable ties to women to discipline them for civilized life, or they become a menace to society and themselves… and tend to live short and destructive lives.” Well, that depends on the women, I should think. I doubt the ambiguous state of civilization attained by the average coed featured in a typical Girls Gone Wild video has much influence on today’s young man, save to make him hot and bothered. Indeed it would not be difficult to make the case that contemporary women are more in need of the good old civilizing influence than are men.

George Jean Nathan, the theatre critic and author of The Bachelor Life, would have been amused at the notion that the bachelor—like some modern, post-adolescent Huck Finn—requires a female to “civilize him,” even if by the 1950s the erudite and elegant bachelor of Nathan’s Manhattan was a thing of the past. With a few notable exceptions the male created Western Civilization as we know it, notably the arts and sciences. Men have always made the best soldiers, inventors, scientists, and composers. Uncivilized behavior, observed most notably in gangs, is more often the result of the absence of fathers and father figures, than a lack of the females’ civilizing influence. The truth is the young male despises his mother’s clinginess; he seeks to cut the apron strings at the first opportunity, and revel in his masculinity, and in this he needs and seeks out a man’s direction.

It is easy to adopt an iconic view of the bachelor—a resigned cynic or hopeless romantic, a man of infinite sorrow and sophistication or the misanthropic barroom brawler of story and song—but when it comes to bachelors no single image prevails. “Some will find [bachelorhood] enviable, others pathetic, and both may be right; for it would seem that a bachelor’s way of being in the world is both rich and arid, exciting and static,” concludes Lopate. And what could be more bittersweet than the memories of unrequited love nursed by an old bachelor? Washington Irving was one well acquainted with this sentiment: “With married men their amorous romance is apt to decline after marriage…but with a bachelor, though it may slumber, it never dies. It is always liable to break out again in transient flashes, and never so much as on a spring morning in the country; or on a winter evening, when seated in his solitary chamber, stirring up the fire and talking of matrimony.”

Save for a few famous men or women all are doomed to oblivion, but to the lonely, childless bachelor obscurity comes soonest of all, perhaps even in his own lifetime. Such is the price one pays for the joys of single blessedness. In the final passages of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Irving comments on the aftermath of the schoolmaster Ichabod Crane’s strange disappearance: “As he was a bachelor, and in nobody’s debt, nobody troubled his head any more about him.” The moral of this story, it seems to me, is this: Bachelors, if you wish to be remembered, borrow irresponsibly.


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