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The Seventh Commandment Post by :smg04 Category :Essays Author :William Cowper Brann Date :July 2011 Read :2033

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The Seventh Commandment

A correspondent wants to know what I think of "the Single Standard of Morals, which assumes that tampering with the Seventh Commandment is as demoralizing to men as to women."

The single standard of morals, like the single standard of money, would be a magnificent thing were there at least double the present amount of raw material for it to measure. I hope to see the day when the libertine will be relegated to the social level of the prostitute where he logically belongs; but we are not dealing now with theories, but with actual conditions. I trust that I may speak plainly on this delicate subject without offending the unco' guid or giving the priorient pulpiteers a pain. I believe the sexes should be equally pure--when I make a world all my women shall be paragons of virtue, and all my men he-virgins. I'll construct no Messalinas nor Cleopatras, no Lovelaces or Sir Launcelots. I'll people the world with St. Anthonys and Penelopes, Josephs and Rebecca Merlindy Johnsings. I'll apply the soft pedal to the fierce scream of passion and pull all the barbs from the arrows that whiz from the Love God's bow. Life will not then be quite so exhilarating, but it will be much better worth the living. Meantime a little spraining of the Seventh Commandment is by no means so demoralizing to man as to woman, despite the frantic protests of those who would drag the millennium in by the ears by forcing upon society, willy nilly, the single standard of morals. Man is the grosser animal, has not so far to fall; the shock to his sensibilities is not so serious--he is not so amenable to shame. A coat of black paint ruins a marble Diana, but has little appreciable effect on an iron Hercules. Illicit intercourse is not so demoralizing to man as to woman, for the further reason that it is not considered so great a crime. An act is demoralizing or degrading in proportion as the perpetrator thereof considers it criminal, as it lowers his self-respect; and men regard their crinolinic peccancy as a venial fault, while women consider such lapses on the part of their sex as grievous sin; hence the lightning of lust scarce blackens the pillar while it shatters the vase. The moral effect of an act is determined by the prevailing standard of ethics. Were polyandry the general practice, a woman could have a multiplicity of husbands and be considered pure; where polygamy is the rule, a man may have a multitude of wives and be regarded as moral. Ethical codes ever adapt themselves to conditions. Solomon was one of the most honorable men of his age, but were he alive to-day he would be branded as a shameless lecher, a contumacious criminal. There have been religions, existing through long ages and extending over vast empires, in which the organs of generation were considered as sacred symbols and prostitution in the purlieus of the temple regarded as pleasing to the gods. It is easy enough for bigoted ignorance to brand those people as barbarians; but in many provinces of art and science they have ever remained our masters. "The tents of the maidens" were simply places where fair religious enthusiasts sold themselves to the first stranger who offered them a piece of silver, and laid their gains upon the altar of the gods. The robber barons of old-time Germany, the diplomatic liars of medieval Italy, the thieves of ancient Lacedaemon and the polygamists of biblical Palestine considered themselves as respectable people, and as they were so regarded by their compatriots, they were not morally degraded by their deeds. But the robber and the liar, the thief and the polygamist of this age are cattle of quite another color--there has been a radical change in the moral code, the peccadillos of the past have become the crimes of the present. The cross, once an obscene pagan symbol, has been transformed from an emblem of reproduction into one of destruction; the "tents of the maidens" are struck; Corinth no longer implores the gods to increase the number and enhance the beauty of its courtesans; Venus Pandemos has given place to Our Lady of Pain, and the obscene Dionysius fled before a crucified Christ. No more does the fair religious postulant play the bacchante in flower-strewn palaces while naked Cupids crown the brimming cup and sandaled feet beat time on polished cedar floors to music that is the cry of brute passion in the blood--kneeling in the cold gray dawn upon the stones she clasps a marble cross. The wanton worship of the flesh has passed with the world's youth; but though much of man's crassness has been purged away in Time's great crucible, he is still of the earth earthy and clings tenaciously to his ancient prerogative of polygamy. When he marries, society does not really expect him to respect his oath to "forsake all others"--regards it as a formal bow to the convenances, a promise with a mental reservation annex; but it considers a woman's vow as sacred and the breaking thereof as rankest blasphemy. He is allowed but one wife, but he may have a score of mistresses and society will placidly wink the other eye--until some tearful maiden requires him to share the shame she can no longer conceal or an "injured husband" goes a-gunning. This should not be so, but so it is. There be fools, both male and female, who will rise up to exclaim that this is false; but that it is Gospel truth is proven every day in the year in every community on the American continent. Men with reputations for licentiousness that would shame old Silenus are cordially received in the most exclusive society. They are found at every high-falutin' "function," bending over the white hands of the most accomplished ladies in the land; on every ballroom floor, encircling the waists of debutantes; in the parlors of our best people, paying court to their young daughters. The noblest women in this world become their wives--fondly undertake their "reformation" while indignantly drawing their skirts aside lest they come in contact with the tawdry finery of females whom these lawless satyrs have debauched. Of course when a woman learns that her reformatory work has proven a failure, drear and dismal, she complains bitterly, may even demand a divorce; yet she could count upon the fingers of one hand the hubbies whom she would trust behind a sheet of paper with a wayward daughter. She doesn't believe a little bit in the virtue of the genus male, yet insists that her own husband be a saint--assumes that her own charms should cause him to regard all other women with indifference, and when she learns of his polygamous practices suffers all the pangs of wounded pride.

If a woman be homely as a bois d'arc hedge she may suppose the world supercharged with St. Anthonys, for she has not been much sought; but if she be beautiful and has mingled much with men she realizes all too well that the story of Joseph is a foolish romance or that Mrs. Potiphar was quite passe. And though she be pure as a vestal virgin of Rome's best days she secretly despises the man with whom she does not have to stand just a little bit on the defensive. Of course she demands that her male acquaintances shall be gentlemen and treat her with due courtesy and respect; but it nettles her not a little to learn that her charms are altogether ignored. She likes to feel her power, to know that she is good in the eyes of men, something desired--that her virtue is a priceless jewel over which she must ever keep close guard; hence she likes best the male she is compelled to watch, while a man has absolutely no use for wife or mistress upon whose fealty he would not lay his life. The result is that when a woman commits one sexual sin she puts hope behind her, her feet take hold on Hell, she sinks lower and lower until she becomes the shameless associate of bummers and bawds. She is made to feel that she has murdered her womanhood, that the red cross of Cain blazes upon her brow. Realizing that she is a social outcast, a moral pariah, she becomes reckless, defiant, and finally glories in betraying the fool who trusts her. No matter how fair the mountain upon which she has leave to feed, she will batten on the moor. Love was her excuse when first she went astray, and she hugs the delusion to her heart that Cupid can sanctify a crime; but where honor spreads not its wings of snow love perishes in the fierce simoon of lust. The man with whom she enters the primrose path feels that he is as good as his fellows. He may watch with a sigh her descent to the noisome regions of the damned; but comforts himself with the reflection that she would have found her way to hades without his help--that

"Virtue as it never will be moved,
Though lewdness court it in a shape of heaven,
So lust, though to a radiant angel linked,
Will sate itself in a celestial bed,
And prey on garbage"--

that had he played the prude she would have found another and perhaps a baser paramour. He knows that the stain of lechery is on his soul but draws comfort from the fact that such is the common heritage of his sex, forgets his victim and struggles toward the stars. He is financially honest, generous, and guards the honor of wife and daughters as God's best gift. His amorous dalliance with others instead of weaning him from his wife, causes him to regard her with greater veneration, to contrast her purity with his own pollution, her virtue with another's vice. Paradoxical as it may appear, there are no men in this world who so reverence good women as those who are notorious for their illicit amours. I am not, of course, speaking of the consorts of common courtesans, of human hogs; but of the men who people the red-light district with their cast-off mistresses.

Pitiful as it may appear, it hurts a man more to trifle with the Eighth Commandment once than to break the Seventh a thousand times--he is worse demoralized by stealing a mangy mule than by ruining a maid. The male lecher may be in all things else a lord; the thief is considered altogether and irremediably corrupt. Society will tolerate the one if his offense be not too flagrant, but to the other it refuses even the shadow of forgiveness. For three centuries the world has been trying to explain away Shakespeare's poaching, but has not thought it worth while to even apologize for his sexual perversity. Washington caught his death while keeping an assignation with a neighbor's wife; but there's little said about it--he's still the "father of his country," including seventy million people of all classes and colors. Had the "slight exposure which brought on a fatal sickness," been the result of prowling in his neighbor's barn instead of his boudoir his name would be anathema forevermore. The world forgives him for debauching another man's wife, but would never have forgiven him had he raided the same man's henroost. It does not mean by this that a scrawny pullet is of more importance than family honor; it simply means that the man who steals a pullet is a cowardly thief, while the one who ignores the advances of a pretty woman is an incorrigible idiot. Ben Franklin could have mistresses scattered all over the City of Brotherly Love, and Dan Webster consort with all the light women of Washington, and still be men of genius beneath whose imperial feet Columbia was proud to lay her shining hair; but had either been caught sneaking from a neighbor's woodpile with a two-cent bundle of fagots, the world would have rung with his infamy. The complaint against Demosthenes is not that he was a libertine--a man before whose honeyed eloquence maiden modesty and wifely virtue were as wax; but that he threw away sword and shield and fled like a mule-eared rabbit before the spears of Macedon. I digress long enough to say that I have patiently investigated the story of the great orator's flight, and am fully convinced that it was a foul political falsehood, just as the current story of Col. Ingersoll's cowardice and capture is a religious lie.

Of course society has to make an occasional example and its moral maleficence, like death, loved a shining mark. It damned Breckinridge for getting tangled up with a desiring maid in a closed carriage, and relegated him to the political wilderness, yet twice elevated to the presidency the most disreputable old Falstaff that ever vibrated between cheap beer joints and ham-fatted old washerwomen who smelled of stale soap-suds and undeodorized diapers. Cleveland "told the truth"--when he had to--and was made a little tin Jesus of by the moral jabberwocks; Breckinridge, an infinitely better and brainier man, 'fessed up--and couldn't go to Congress from the studhorse district of Kentucky. When society goes hunting for scapegoats it usually manages to get a gnat lodged in its esophagus while relegating a mangy dromedary to its internal economy.

Such are the conditions which prevail to-day; but I am far from agreeing with the dictum of Pope that "whatever is, is right." Had the world ever proceeded on that principle we would still be honoring robbers and liars, thieves and polygamists. The wider license accorded man harmonizes neither with divine law, decency nor the canons of common sense. We place womanly virtue on a pedestal and worship it while tacitly encouraging men to destroy it. We overlook the fact that a man cannot fracture the Seventh Commandment without considerable assistance. We should adopt a loftier standard of morality, nobler ideals for men. Because he is more earthly than woman it does not follow that he should be made altogether of muck. He has made some little progress since the days of Judah and Tamar, David and Bathsheba. He no longer consorts with courtesans on the public highway, nor pens up half a hundred wives in a harem, then goes broke buying concubines. He has learned that there is such a thing as shame, assumes a virtue though he has it not, seeks to conceal his concupiscence. What in one age society drives to a semblance of concealment in the next it brands as criminal, hence we may hope that at no distant day the single standard of morals will become more than an irridescent dream--that Josephs will not be confined altogether to gum-chewing members of the Y.M.C.A. We may eventually reach that moral plain where the male debauchee will be considered a moral outcast; but the time is not yet, and until its advent illicit commerce will continue to be more demoralizing to women than to men.

Of course there are exceptions to the rule--there are women who rise superior to the social law. George Eliot, Queen Elizabeth, Sarah Bernhardt and others have trampled the social edict beneath their feet and refused to consider themselves sinners--have laughed an outraged world to scorn and stood defiant, sufficient unto themselves. Those women were intellectual amazons whom naught but the writhen bolts of God could humble, whose genius flamed with a white light even through the dun clouds of lechery; but we cannot measure the workaday woman by the few "whose minds might, like the elements, furnish forth creation." A Bernhardt is great, not because of her social sin, but despite thereof. With her art is the all-in-all, sex but an incident. She is strong enough to mount the empyrean despite the lernean serpent-coil which drags others to perdition--to compel the world to tolerate if not forgive the black stain in her heart because of the divine radiance which encircles her head. Occasionally there is a woman who can sacrifice her purity without sinking to the slums through loss of self-respect--can still maintain the fierce battle for fame, can be grand after she has ceased to be good. Mrs. Grundy can rave, and every orthodox goose stretch forth its rubberneck to express its disapproval; but instead of bending beneath the weight of scorn, instead of sinking into the mire of the slough upon which she has set her feet she seems like old Antaeus, to gather fresh strength from the earth with which to write her name among the immortals. Queen Elizabeth is to this good day the pride of orthodox England--she had more brains than all its other monarchs combined; yet by solemn act of parliament it was decreed that the first bastard born to the "Virgin Queen" should ascend the throne of Britain. Thus was the highest possible premium placed upon female lechery, and it was placed there after due deliberation by a "God- fearing," Catholic-hating Episcopalian parliament! Fortunately for Mrs. Wettin, the present governmental figure-head, jolly old Liz either availed herself of some of the "preventatives" so extensively advertised in "great family newspapers," or neglected to own her illegitimate offspring. I cannot help but think that a love-child by Elizabeth and the courtly Raleigh would have been a great improvement on any of the soggy-headed things spawned by the House of Hanover. I do not apologize for nor condone the sexual frailties of distinguished females; the noblest career to which any woman can aspire is that of honest wifehood, and if she attains to that she is, though of mediocre mind, infinitely superior to the most famous wanton.

It is worthy of remark that most distinguished women since the days of Sappho and Semiramis have been impure, while not a few great men have been remarkable for their continency. Woman has been called "the weaker vessel," and certain it is that men stand the glamor of greatness, the temptations that come with riches, the white light that beats upon a throne, much better than do Eve's fair daughters. As a man becomes great, he respects more and more the cumulative wisdom of the world, becomes obedient; as a woman becomes great she grows disdainful and rebellious. Thus it is that while in the common walks of life woman is infinitely purer than man, as we ascend into the higher realms, whether in art, letters or statecraft, we discover a tendency to reverse this law until we often find great men anchorites and great women trampling on the moral code.

There be some who explain man's larger sexual liberty on physiological grounds, excuse it on the hypothesis of necessity. Physicians of the ultra-progressive school have even gone so far as to assert that continence in man is the chief cause of impotency--have pointed out that it is usually the wives of good men who go wrong, and insisted that to the former hypothesis must be attributed the latter fact. I am unable to find any reason in physiology why such a rule should not work both ways. I have said somewhere that man is naturally polygamous, and I might have added with equal truth that woman is naturally polyandrous. The difference is that woman's sexual education began earlier and she has progressed somewhat further from "a state of nature" wherein free love is the law. Man early began to defend his prerogatives, to strengthen the moral concept of his mate with a club, to frame laws for the protection of his female property. The infraction of established custom soon came to be considered a social crime, an offense of which even the gods took cognizance. Woman's polyandrous instinct yielded somewhat to education--she was compelled to make this sacrifice upon the altar of society. Thus was female continence not a thing decreed by Heaven or "natural law," but was begotten of brute force. We see a survival of the old animalistic instinct in prostitution and the all too frequent illicit intercourse prevailing in the higher walks of life. Unquestionably the Seventh Commandment is violative of natural law as applied to either sex; but most natural laws must be amended somewhat ere we can have even a semblance of civilization; hence we cannot excuse man's peccadillos on that broad plea that it's "the nature of the brute." Joseph and St. Anthony, Gautama and Sir Galahad are ideals toward which man must ever strive with all his strength if he would purge the subsoil out of his system-- would mount above the gutter where wallow the dumb beasts and take his place among the gods. The custom of thousands of years to the contrary notwithstanding, it is damnable that a wife should be compelled to share a husband's caresses with lewd women. Tennyson assures us that "as the husband is the wife is." Fortunately for society this is false; still there are thorns in the bed and rebellion in the heart of the woman who must play wife to a Lovelace or a Launcelot. It is not true that it is the wives of good men who go astray; it is the wives who are naturally corrupt or morally weak. A talented lady contributor to the ICONOCLAST once asserted that 'tis not for good women that men have done great deeds. Perchance this is true, for men who do great deeds are goaded thereto, not by the swish of crinoline, but by the immortal gods. Such acts are bred in the bone, are born in the blood and brain. It certainly is not for bad women that men soar at the sun, for every man worth the killing despises corruption in womankind. He worships on bended knee and with uncovered head at the shrines of Minerva and Dian, and but amuses himself by stealth at that of the Pandemian Venus. When Antony deserted his Roman wife for Egypt's sensuous queen, he quickly became an enervated ass and his name thenceforth was Ichabod. Great Caesar dallied with the same dusky wanton, but ever in his intrepid heart ruled that "woman above reproach." Alexander of Macedon refrained from making the wife of Persia's conquered king his mistress. Napoleon found time even among the thunders of war to write daily to his wife, and when he finally turned from her it was not to seek a fairer flame but to place a son upon the throne of France. Grant stood forth in an era of unbridled license unsullied as a god. Great men have been unfaithful to their marital vows, but it has been those of mediocre minds and india-rubber morals who have cowered at the feet of mistresses--who have thrown their world away for reechy kisses shared by others. While it is true that the world's intellectual titans have seldom been he-virgins or feathered saints, they did not draw godlike inspiration from their own dishonor.

(The end)
William Cowper Brann's essay: Seventh Commandment

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