George Bernard Shaw
TRANSCRIBER'S NOTE: In the printed version of this text, all
apostrophes for contractions such as "can't", "wouldn't" and "he'd" were
omitted, to read as "cant", "wouldnt" and "hed". This etext restores the
omitted apostrophes.
This piece is not an argument for or against polygamy. It is a clinical
study of how the thing actually occurs among quite ordinary people,
innocent of all unconventional views concerning it. The enormous
majority of cases in real life are those of people in that position. Those
who deliberately and conscientiously profess what are oddly called
advanced views by those others who believe them to be retrograde, are
often, and indeed mostly, the last people in the world to engage in
unconventional adventures of any kind, not only because they have
neither time nor disposition for them, but because the friction set up
between the individual and the community by the expression of unusual
views of any sort is quite enough hindrance to the heretic without being
complicated by personal scandals. Thus the theoretic libertine is usually
a person of blameless family life, whilst the practical libertine is
mercilessly severe on all other libertines, and excessively conventional
in professions of social principle.
What is more, these professions are not hypocritical: they are for the
most part quite sincere. The common libertine, like the drunkard,
succumbs to a temptation which he does not defend, and against which

he warns others with an earnestness proportionate to the intensity of his
own remorse. He (or she) may be a liar and a humbug, pretending to be
better than the detected libertines, and clamoring for their condign
punishment; but this is mere self-defence. No reasonable person
expects the burglar to confess his pursuits, or to refrain from joining in
the cry of Stop Thief when the police get on the track of another
burglar. If society chooses to penalize candor, it has itself to thank if its
attack is countered by falsehood. The clamorous virtue of the libertine
is therefore no more hypocritical than the plea of Not Guilty which is
allowed to every criminal. But one result is that the theorists who write
most sincerely and favorably about polygamy know least about it; and
the practitioners who know most about it keep their knowledge very
jealously to themselves. Which is hardly fair to the practice.
Also it is impossible to estimate its prevalence. A practice to which
nobody confesses may be both universal and unsuspected, just as a
virtue which everybody is expected, under heavy penalties, to claim,
may have no existence. It is often assumed-- indeed it is the official
assumption of the Churches and the divorce courts that a gentleman
and a lady cannot be alone together innocently. And that is manifest
blazing nonsense, though many women have been stoned to death in
the east, and divorced in the west, on the strength of it. On the other
hand, the innocent and conventional people who regard the gallant
adventures as crimes of so horrible a nature that only the most depraved
and desperate characters engage in them or would listen to advances in
that direction without raising an alarm with the noisiest indignation, are
clearly examples of the fact that most sections of society do not know
how the other sections live. Industry is the most effective check on
gallantry. Women may, as Napoleon said, be the occupation of the idle
man just as men are the preoccupation of the idle woman; but the mass
of mankind is too busy and too poor for the long and expensive sieges
which the professed libertine lays to virtue. Still, wherever there is
idleness or even a reasonable supply of elegant leisure there is a good
deal of coquetry and philandering. It is so much pleasanter to dance on
the edge of a precipice than to go over it that leisured society is full of

people who spend a great part of their lives in flirtation, and conceal
nothing but the humiliating secret that they have never gone any further.
For there is no pleasing people in the matter of reputation in this
department: every insult is a flattery; every testimonial is a
disparagement: Joseph is despised and promoted, Potiphar's wife
admired and condemned: in short, you are never on solid ground until
you get away from the subject altogether. There is a continual and
irreconcilable conflict between the natural and conventional sides of the
case, between spontaneous human relations between independent men
and women on the one hand and the property relation between husband
and wife on the other, not to mention the confusion under the common
name of love of a generous natural attraction and interest with the
murderous jealousy that fastens on and
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