Single, but not square

My single friend believes that social pressures placed on bachelors are a new phenomenon. I tell him bachelors have suffered social stigmas in many cultures. “Think of severe Roman marriage laws,” I say, “that regarded old bachelors as reprehensible, barring them from advancing in a public career and prohibiting their receiving inheritance.” Yes, he replies, but “Rome was concerned with the decline of its indigenous population and hence was encouraging large families. What’s the excuse in our culture?”

African culture sees matrimony as an inescapable necessity of social existence. Any man who takes too long to enter the institution of marriage becomes suspect; relatives and friends believe he is trying to escape his duty. Hence the traditional strictures on permanent bachelorhood in most African cultures.

In ancient Rome, elderly bachelors were reproved for failing their social duty and forced to pay heavy fines, while in African traditional structures an old bachelor loses the privileges that come with age. Young, married men and women feel justified in being disrespectful to old bachelors. Marriage gains one rights in African social order, perhaps because it’s associated with wealth: unmarried people are suspected of being unable to afford lobola (bride-price).

All cultures, to some extent, make single people feel outré. Magazines and newspapers in modern Western culture are filled with articles about unmarried people trying to justify their single status. It’s a pity, however, that most of these end up as conceited attempts to point to the irrelevance of marriage to modern life, instead of arguing for the rights of singletons to remain single.

A Martian reading these articles would think marriage is nothing more than an anachronistic, sinister, waste-paper basket of emotion, ending only in bitter divorce. Anti-marriage sentiment has become the de facto attitude of the speciously enlightened.

I’m single, but believe that free association makes for unbalanced unions. From my parents’ experience I know that marriage provides structure and a meaningful framework for decision-making, which free association lacks. If marriage, as an institution, was designed to fit instinct into a legal framework, as Bertrand Russell thought, what’s wrong with that? Governments need a robust set of social institutions to function well. Marriage is one of them. Without such institutions the individual is left to face life without formal support.

But I do not believe that marriage is for everyone. People should be allowed the right to become nuns, priests or singletons without feeling the need to explain themselves. The concept of marriage as the only natural state for adult human beings is faulty. It gives mischievous authority to married people to lord themselves over singletons, as though being old and single were some kind of perversion. A single life does not necessarily translate to debauchery and irresponsible sexual behaviour. Nor are all single people square pegs in the round holes of humans’ natural state, or selfish. In fact, the opposite may be true. I’ve seen a lot of kind-hearted, considerate single people. That they do not long for the security of mutual surrender in matrimony does not make them square. In fact, it may give them more time to dedicate to other things that are necessary for the advancement of human progress.

Most people who remain single have imposed rigorous ideals on themselves. Think of 10 of the greatest people of all time: you’ll be surprised at the high number of singletons among them. Even Christ died single — something to ponder for those Christians who think marriage is the only natural state of mankind.

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Mphuthumi Ntabeni
Guest Author

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