I've been thinking for some time that Hannah Arendt, to be consistent, should have made much more room for marriage in her political theory.
Here's how I see it: Arendt says that action takes place wherever there is a web of human relations, which means “wherever men live together,” but she tends, in practice, to treat it as what happens in the formal public sphere or at least closely involves the government. This is because she sees the private realm as, more than anything else, the quintessential place of Labor (or “metabolism”), that is of biological and economic cycles, of necessity, incompatible with freedom and action. The most odious development of modern society is, for her, “socialization” of public life, that is, the exclusive interest in production and distribution of wealth. She interprets this as the cancerous expansion of a metabolic mentality from its proper place in the household.
Alright, certainly, there is an important truth here. The family is a place of wholly unchosen relations, of secrecy and confinement, of dependency, of reproduction and consumption, animal passion and instinct, and often of automatic obedience and bald coercion. To the extent that a state is modeled on a household in those respects, it is liable to fall into paternalist despotism.
But it is a glaring fact that, at least in the West, and at least since Christian Rome, family life has been based on marriage, conceived of unmistakably as action. That is to say, it has been seen as a public, recorded covenant between free agents. It is initiated by the marriage vow (the act that serves as Beginning, to use Arendt's terminology) but is considered degenerate unless continuously protected through free maintenance of sexual exclusivity and actualized by the free mutual rendering of rights and services (marital intercourse being the most obvious but by no means the only one) and the joint, creative cultivation of domestic life fit for rearing children. Aquinas, one of the clearest expositors of the traditional view, wraps all such duties of marriage into the single word fides, literally “fidelity” or “faith,” but better translated as “adherence” or “cleaving.”
Spouses are held responsible, by one another and by third parties, for maintaining the fides they vow, and marriages are naturally presented narratively, in terms of their stages, episodes, crises, achievements. In short, though marriage is some respects a settled state, and although much of married life is “metabolic,” it is nonetheless also a venture that depends on the choices of two free persons and implicates their reputations.
This view of marriage has been historically obscured by (i) the tendency, especially among high elites, to view marriage as an economic or political transaction (ii) exaggeration of the traditional norm, bolstered by Christian theology and classical conceptions, of male headship. The core understanding has always remained, however, and in recent centuries the “companionate” aspect of this understanding (the “sharing of a domestic life,” which Aquinas pairs with procreation as the dual point of marriage) has come so fully into its own as to have distorted the nature of marriage as a whole.
Why does this matter? For this reason: A good community will culturally and institutionally encourage individual responsiveness to events, and with it a sense of responsibility. But an emphasis on individual freedom in judgment and action will tend to destroy the unity in which community consists, unless that unity is a felt imperative perpetually addressed to its members. A strong community should be seen primarily not as a contract, a negotiation, a machine, or a physical body, but as a covenant requiring active fidelity. Marriage teaches, by experience and example, the generic attitudes and habits proper to the citizen or free subject.
It follows that those who would revitalize politics should not pay exclusive attention to the formal arrangements and culture of public life, but should also see to the health of private covenantal corporations, especially marriages. Public life will and should always differ from private life in ways obvious and subtle, but there is between them a significant analogy and each supports the other.
Fidelity, in a rich and positive sense, is the chief virtue of joint projects, and as a general rule the more it abounds in one sphere, the easier it is to transfer to another. Conversely, the more it is lacking in one sphere, the harder it will be to sustain in another. It is plain that traitors, adulterers, shirkers, defeatists, cowards, culpable ignoramuses, and time-servers are only partly overlapping sets of people, but being one generally disposes a person to be all the others. The good society will oppose them all.