The Christian Religion
- Author: Choi Julie
- Publish: Feminist Studies in English Literature Volume 22, Issue1, p5~41, Apr 2014
Mary Astell’s writing reveals the existence of a remarkable modern feminism before the liberal feminism we term the first wave that celebrates the free-born woman on equal terms with the freeborn man.
The Christian Religion, As professed by a Daughter of the Church of England(1705), Astell’s greatest work, proclaims an ascetic feminism that decries the liberal pieties and the concomitant commitment to such rightsas life, liberty, and happiness—all correlates of worldly estate or property. Astell allows us to reinvestigate the valences of each term of the newly holy trinity to see how difficult it must have been for a thinking and religious modern woman of her time to endorse what no one could then know would become the predominant model for modern freedom. Some may hesitate to call Astell a feminist, but no other term will suffice for one who so strongly voiced her objections to customary rights that debased the equality of women and who so strongly affirmed a vision in which women were the equals of men in their ability to rise above the narrow constraints of property in defining the principle values of human life.
Astell , Locke , feminism , liberalism , freedom , duty , Church of England
Mary Astell (1666-1731), daughter of a Newcastle coal merchant, is celebrated by George Ballard as the “great ornament of her sex and country” in his pioneering early study of female authors,
Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain(1752). Already by midcentury the details regarding Astell’s life were sparse, perhaps indicating that she was no longer much remembered despite her early reputation. And despite Ballard’s efforts to publicize learned women, Astell herself remained relatively obscure till the twentieth century. Florence Smith’s monograph, Mary Astell, appeared in 1916, but it was not until Ruth Perry’s The Celebrated Mary Astell: An Early English Feminist(1986), that the entire breadth and range of Astell’s oeuvre came to be known. Perry’s invaluable work of scholarship has given rise to a veritable renaissance in Astell studies, further fueled by growing interest in early modern political thought as it impacted the plight of women.1 Astell can be characterized as philosopher, feminist and political pamphleteer, but she was first and foremost a Christian theologian whose passionate involvement in her religion led her to become a writer on such a wide range of topics as the history of the Civil War, religious toleration, marriage, women’s education, and modern liberal thought. As Michal Michelson has recently stated, “Political, personal and spiritual ‘Liberty’ and ‘Integrity’ conflate in Astell’s thought in her vision of a state, a world, of untainted reason ruled by Godly virtue” (133).
Though widely recognized as her major work, Mary Astell’s
The Christian Religion, As professed by a Daughter of the Church of England(1705)2 has not received much critical attention, perhaps because it is her most overtly Christiantext. The book’s credo is that true life, liberty, and happiness are spiritual, not worldly goods. Mortification of the body is a key tenet for Astell, and the dichotomy between the glorious realm of the spirit and the corruptible realm of the body is absolute. Her rejection of the realm of the senses sets her on a very different track from the leading thinkers of her time, and especially John Locke, whose remarks regarding “thinking matter” become cause for particular refutation. The strictness of Astell’s antimaterialist religious fervor is demonstrated on virtually every page of her text. A typical assertion such as, “To live a Sensual Life, by which I mean not only those gross Liberties and Intemperances of any kind, which every one owns to be Sins, but even an Indulgence to the Innocent Pleasures of Sense as we call them is to be alienated from the Life of GOD” ( CR246), reveals how strongly she stands against all bodily pleasures. Astell charts out an ascetic feminism that decries the liberal pieties and the concomitant commitment to such rights as life, liberty, and happiness—all correlates of worldly estate or property. Astell allows us to re-investigate the valences of each term of the newly holy trinity to see how difficult it must have been for a thinking woman of her time to endorse what no one could then know would become the predominant model for modern freedom. Patricia Springborg has claimed that Astell embarked upon the first serious political critique of Lockean liberalism. Mark Goldie has countered that Astell’s engagement with the political ideas of her time reveal her primarily theological and philosophical interests more than her political ones.3 Sharon Achinstein comments that the “surprising correlation between theology and the rise of modern political ideologies” (23) has not received much attention in relation to early modern women’s writings. I hope to show through this reading of The Christian Religionthat Astell voices a religious faith in a millennial revocation of worldly laws and traditions and that her adoption of the Pauline call to mortification is at once religious and political.
Much more sober and restrained in tone than in the
Reflections on Marriage(1700) or the political pamphlets,4 Astell manages to present herself in The Christian Religionin a style that partially redeems her in the minds of her male admirers.5 Nonetheless, the work openly launches itself as a critique of a rather condescending new publication that had recently received much attention, The Ladies Religion(1704). Many readers including Astell herself thought that Locke might have been the author of that work, especially since it seemed to offer itself as a simplified version of Locke’s notorious The Reasonableness of Christianity(1695) repackaged for the fair sex.6 Much as Mary Wollstonecraft would assert that there could be no sex in virtue almost a century after her, Astell declares that there can be no sex in religion. Astell claims that the market for printed commodities is responsible for religious works addressed to separate segments of the market: “For tho’ the Press has help’d us to the Religion of a Physician, A Layman, A Gentleman, and a Lady, yet in my poor opinion, they have all of them but one Religion if they are Christians” ( CR2). She claims that her patroness, the lady to whom she addresses her letter, shares the same “Primitive Piety,” “neither more nor less than what was formerly Taught and Practis’d by St. Peter and St. Paul” ( CR2). Lady Catherine Jones is at once placed on a par with the twin pillars of the catholic and universal church. Astell sets out her program by stating that “If God had not intended that Women shou’d use their Reason, He wou’d not have given them any, for He does nothing in vain. If they are to use their Reason, certainly it ought to be employ’d about the noblest Objects and in business of the Greatest Consequence, therefore in Religion” ( CR5).
Women are not invested with any great authority on earth, but they have God-given reason that makes them more than equal spiritual counterparts of men. Women are at an advantage in this realm because they are not encumbered by worldly property:
This passage demonstrates how different Astell’s thinking is on the subject of private property from Locke’s. Astell does not endorse unlimited personal wealth, but strongly supports “a secret and cheerful distribution of our Goods to our Necessitous Neighbour, for GOD’s sake, and with no other prospect but of a Reward from Him” (
CR254). Locke theorizes freedom as title to unlimited personal property and his civil society is set up to guarantee this fundamental right. As C. B. Macpherson notes in his introduction to the Second Treatise of Civil Government, “Locke’s case for the limited constitutional state is largely designed to support his argument for an individual natural right to unlimited private property” (vii) made possible by the invention of money that overcomes the spoilage limitation inherent in nature.
Locke’s famous definition of individual property as life, liberty, and estate appears in Chapter 7 of the
For Locke, the proper function of a political society is to guarantee the preservation of private property. The freedom of each individual in the state of nature is given up to the community that establishes and enforces the laws that guarantee and preserve the property of each man who is bound together in civil society by a common obligation to uphold the political compact. Where such a compact, punishable by death, does not hold, man remains in the “perfect
state of nature” (47). It is only in the context of the Second Treatisethat we can properly gauge Astell’s disdain for liberal male property owners who define “perfect freedom” as the uncontrolled pursuit of “ laying House to House, and Land to Land.” For Astell, any idea of right as absolute ownership is “suppos’d and imaginary” because “we are not Proprietors, but Stewards of the manifold Gifts of God” ( CR253).
The Christian Religioncannot be read outside the context of the impassioned philosophical, religious, and political exchanges of the turn of the century. Her most immediate interlocutors were the Reverend John Norris, Lady Damaris Masham, and John Locke. Norris was a well-known Cambridge Platonist who had served to popularize Malebranche in England. Masham, more famous for being the long-term companion of John Locke and his hostess at Oates, was also the daughter of the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth. Astell’s correspondence with Norris, Rector of Bemerton, on the topic of Malebranche and Occasionalism7 was published as Letters Concerning the Love of God(1695), after Norris persuaded her to co-publish as the author of A Serious Proposalof the previous year. As the subtitle of Lettersstated, Astell and Norris believed that the love of God “ ought to be intire and exclusive of all other Loves.” Masham followed with A Discourse Concerning the Love of God(1696), a strong rebuttal of Malebranche and Occasionalism, which she argued celebrated a solipsistic turning away from a sociable and useful life. It was published anonymously, but the strongly Lockean impetus of Masham’s work led Astell to believe that Locke himself had entered into battle with her. Masham’s contribution to the debate is important because she helped to establish what would come to represent the tolerant and polite stance of the Latitudinarians who placed a premium on sociability as the glue of humane society. Society could not benefit from rigid fanaticism, and after all the turmoil caused by religious difference in their times, moderation seemed to offer the only viable way forward for many liberal minded Whigs of the end of the century. Toleration even came to be viewed as an English national trait by such cosmopolitan observers as Voltaire.8 The dispute between Masham/Locke and Astell/Norris can thus be read in terms of their differences regarding the Ciceronian ideal of the inherent sociability of man, an ideal to which Natural Law theory is inextricably bound.9 Whereas Astell and Norris view the love of God as the only true object of man, and benevolence towards one’s neighbors as only a corollary to the love of God, Masham and Locke regard such single-mindedness as intolerance and unchristian in its disavowal of the central tenet that one should love one’s neighbor as oneself. If all “occasional” causes are overridden by the single “efficient” cause of our perception of the world solely through the mind of God, then Nature, God’s creation itself, is rendered frivolous, redundant and senseless (Springborg “Astell” 118).10
Astell’s High Church Tory stance remains strongly wary of such latitudinous open-mindedness as a dangerous form of ungodliness. Astell herself was accused by contemporaries of harboring a suspiciously papist investment in the monastic life upon the publication of her first work,
A Serious Proposal to the Ladies(1694), advocating a religious academic community for women, and her opponents were not so wrong in sensing that moderation was not a virtue Astell particularly prized.11 “Fasting is a Duty” ( CR248) for her, and “contentment is properly an acquiescence in our present condition without further desires” ( CR252). Her strongly ascetic bent is visible throughout her entire oeuvre. Improvement is not a worldly goal, and only has value in the spiritual sense of aspiring to come closer to God. Little surprise then, that Astell should not be concerned about personal wealth or estate, and improvement of private property, so central to the political agenda of the liberal thinkers of her time.12
Little is known about Mary Astell’s own education, but it is widely assumed that she must have been influenced by her uncle, the clergyman Ralph Astell, who had been educated at Cambridge in the 1650s and was directly under Lady Masham’s father, Ralph Cudworth, at Emmanuel in 1653. Karen O’Brien remarks that, “[t]he clash between Cambridge Platonist and Lockean ideas formed one of the main axes of theological debate in the early eighteenth century” (36). The divide between Cartesians and materialists in the period also tended to overlap with the division between Tory and Whig politics. Springborg notes that “if English materialists from the late Hobbes on tended to be Whiggish, the Cartesians tended to be Tory” (
Mary Astell13). The Platonists were invested in the epistemological idealism that reason allows us to apprehend truth, while Lockean empiricism stressed the primacy of the body’s sense impressions in apprehending the world. Locke’s suggestion that matter might think was therefore cause for special scandal for the Platonists.
The philosophical and political differences stem from the shifting definition of reason itself in the period. The older Cartesian model of the philosophical system as “starting from a highest being and from a highest, intuitively grasped certainty,” rigorously traced through proof and inference to piece together the whole chain of possible knowledge, was ceding to the “model and pattern of contemporary natural science” (Cassirer 6). “The status of Reason was well and truly up for grabs in the 1690s,” writes theological historian Sara Apatrei. Whereas the Cambridge Platonists viewed Reason as an innate divine faculty of the human mind, strongly anchored in revealed truth, the “Socinians disputed core Christian doctrines on the basis of their congruency with Reason and plain Scripture: most notoriously Christ’s divinity and pre-existence, and the Trinity” (97). The new scientific and philosophical ideas of the seventeenth century promoted an empirical approach to religion, whereas the older rationalism, or
recta ratio, was viewed as “a divine faculty in the soul which mystically linked human Reason with the transcendent mind of God” (99). Key English theologians including Richard Hooker, Benjamin Whichcote, Ralph Cudworth, and Jeremy Taylor remained faithful to this Platonic rationalism which they combined with the Christian story of salvation:
Astell’s faith in Reason must be understood within this theological tradition. She could not sympathize with the scientific rationalism of the anti-Trinitarians who were abandoning revealed religion, yet she also wished to maintain a moderate distance from the enthusiastic sects. Non-conformists presented a greater danger for her than latitudinarians. Both Platonic rationalism and the more “modern” rationalism that sought truth in evidence strove to keep at arm’s distance the radical pessimism of Calvinism of the more radical sects.
Irrationalenthusiasm of all religious shades was viewed with great suspicion in the aftermath of the civil war. As Jon Mee notes, “Enthusiasm was the very anti-self of enlightenment notions of civility, partly because in order to prevent a recurrence of the violence of the seventeenth-century, it was deemed necessary to discipline spiritual agency” (24).
Astell’s Platonism is evident right from the opening manifesto in which she declares that “Reason is that light which GOD himself has set up in my mind to lead me to Him, I will therefore follow it so far as it can conduct me” (
CR6). She echoes Descartes when she asserts that she can sooner question her own Being as the Being of God, because “when I think of GOD I can’t possibly think Him to be any other than the most Perfect Being; a Being Infinite in all Perfections” ( CR6-7).13 Astell claims that even without education, even in the state of nature, “had [she] been shut up in a Den from [her] Infancy,” Reason would have informed her that she was not created by her equals but by “a Self-existing Being: And this Being which is so liberal in its communications, must needs possess in the utmost Perfection all that good which it bestows” ( CR8-9). Swiftly, Astell’s “natural” train of reason leads her to the central subject of her work, happiness:
Life, liberty, and estate, in Locke’s version--or life, liberty and
individualhappiness in the Declaration of American Independence--are terms configured entirely differently in the vocabulary of this daughter of the Church of England. “Exorbitant Affections” cannot be the basis for a Christian life, “tho’ we may call these Reason, Libertyand the Rights of Nature“( CR19). Happiness is achieved only through the freesubjection to God’s will, woman’s sole duty on earth.
1Carol Pateman’s The Sexual Contract (1988) was seminal in this regard. Patricia Springborg’s modern editions of A Serious Proposal (2002) (hereafter cited as SR) and Political Writings (1996) (hereafter cited as PW), were followed by D. Derek Tayor and Melvyn New’s 2005 edition of Letters Concerning the Love of God, coauthored with John Norris. Springborg’s book-length study, Mary Astell: Theorist of Freedom from Domination (2005), and William Kolbrenner and Michal Michelson’s collection of critical essays, Mary Astell: Reason, Gender, Faith (2007), reflect the growing expansion of interest in Astell in the twenty-firstcentury. 2No modern edition existed until Jacqueline Broad’s 2013 edition was published by the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies and ITER. All references to The Christian Religion in this article are to the 1717 edition with Appendix (London: printed by W. B. for R. Wilkin), made available through Gale ECCO Print Editions. All page references are to this edition, hereafter cited as CR. 3See Springborg, introductions to PW and SR and Goldie, “Mary Astell and John Locke.” 4In 1704 alone, Astell published Moderation Truly Stated: Or a Review of a Late Pamphlet entitul’d Moderation a Vertue, A Fair Way with the Dissenters and their Patrons, An Impartial Enquiry into the Causes of Rebellion and Civil War in this Kingdom. Her last published work was Bart’lemy Fair or an Enquiry after Wit in which due Respect is had to a Letter Concerning Enthusiasm republished in 1722 as An Enquiry after Wit wherein the Trifling Arguing and Impious Raillery of the Late Earl of Shaftesbury in his Letter Concerning Enthusiasm and Other Profane Writers are Fully Answered, and Justly Exposed. As this list shows, Astell was never afraid to address the major issues and to attack the most famous men of her times. 5Francis Atterbury, Bishop of Rochester, in a letter to Hoadley, complained that Astell was “a little offensive and shocking in her expressions.” Ballard who quotes from the letter writes, “But this I will venture to say in Mrs. Astell’s behalf; that I believe those who have perused her book of the Christian Religion and read with attention what she has there written upon decency and decorum (which was printed and published long before she had this conversation with the Bishop) will not very easily fall into his way of thinking” (387-88). 6The publication of this work drew Locke firmly into the ranks of deist Socinians like John Toland in the minds of his critics. Astell comments in the Appendix, added in the second edition (1717) to collate all the attacks on Locke, that “the Ladies Religion seems to be little else but an Abstract of the Reasonableness of Christianity, with all those disadvantages that usually attend Abridgments” (309). 7For Malebranche, all events either physical or mental, are merely “occasions” of the manifestation of God’s will. For a good overview, see the excellent introduction to the modern edition of Letters by E. Derek Taylor and Melvyn New, in particular 14-15. 8“An Englishman, as one to whom liberty is natural, may go to heaven in his own way,” Voltaire remarks in Letter 5 “On the Church of England” of Letters Concerning the English Nation (1726-8), 26. 9For an excellent overview of Natural Law theory, see Charles Taylor, A Secular Age: “God made man rational, and he made him sociable, and with an instinct to his own conservation. It is plain from this what norms he held binding on his creatures. Plainly they must respect each other’s life, liberty and estate. . . . The aim of Natural Law theory was to provide a rational terrain d’entente replacing not only the ex parte theories of extremist religious partisans, but later on, in its Lockean variant, also setting aside other, dangerously flawed reactions to the religious strife, such as theories of sovereignty unbound by any law” (126-27). 10Springborg (1998) provides an excellent summary of Masham’s critique. There is no modern edition of this work. 11See Springborg introduction to SP, in particular 14-15. 12See Ruth Perry’s “Mary Asell and the Feminist Critique of Possessive Individualism” for a good overview of Astell’s critique of Lockean liberalism. 13In Part Four of the Discourse on Method where he arrives at the famous Cogito, Descartes ties his certitude in the truth of his reason with his belief in the existence of a supreme and perfect God: “The very principle which I took as a rule to start with, namely, that all those things which we conceived very clearly and very distinctly are true, is known to be true only because God exists, and because he is a supreme and perfect Being, and because everything in us necessarily comes from him” (29).
Early feminists were in a tough quandary when it came to the question of female liberty. Legally dispossessed, they fell, if not in the same category, a neighboring category to those who were prohibited from owning property because they were themselves chattel, namely slaves. Hence the frequent rhetorical invocation of slavery by women as in Mary Astell’s most-quoted moment in the 1706 Preface to
Reflections upon Marriage:14 “If all Men are born free, how is it that all Women are born slaves?” ( RM18). Sarcasm is her forte in this famous Preface where she refers to herself as “Reflector” hoping it is “not bad English, now Governor is happily of the Feminine Gender” ( RM8), alluding to the ascension of Anne to the throne (1702). The usurpation of the term Nature by “freeborn” Englishmen is lampooned again and again in such passages as:
Astell gives short shrift to the so-called Masters who so naturally assume the “
Natural Inferiority” of the female sex. The existence of a female sovereign to whom the faithful subject swears allegiance demonstrates for her the absurdity of the notion of natural dominion of man over woman. Indeed, the false assumptions of custom are the object of her most indignant and colorful comments throughout.
The question that remains then is what freedom could have meant for Astell. Philip Pettit argues in
Republicanismthat Isaiah Berlin’s influential theses concerning positive and negative freedom15 have made it difficult for us to foster alternative models for imagining freedom, and he seeks to establish through his own definition of the republican ideal of freedom “a third conception: liberty as non-domination” (21). Distinct from both the conception of self-mastery in positive liberty and freedom from interference in negative liberty, Pettit claims that classic republican thought is freedom from domination, a category quite different from mere interference:
Freedom from a
dominus, or one who is in a position of influencing my decisions as an agent, is essentially a moral freedom also in the view of Skinner who views domination as more than merely coercive threat:
Defined this way, Astell clearly believes in the moral freedom of any woman who bases her actions solely on her Reason without paying regard to custom or worldly standards. But this does not make her a de facto proto-republican. As Springborg explains, in Roman law, as in Natural Law theory, “the jurists’ concept of rights was still, despite the rhetoric, objective rather than subjective. . . . Deprived of the right to own property until the various married women’s property acts of the 1880s, European and transatlantic married women lacked Defined this way, Astell clearly believes in the moral freedom of any woman who bases her actions solely on her Reason without paying regard to custom or worldly standards. But this does not make her a de facto proto-republican. As Springborg explains, in Roman law, as in Natural Law theory, “the jurists’ concept of rights was still, despite the rhetoric, objective rather than subjective. . . . Deprived of the right to own property until the various married women’s property acts of the 1880s, European and transatlantic married women lacked legal personality because of the terms in which this was defined” (
Mary Astell230). This tight connection between property and the positive rights and duties that attend such property is shared by republicans and liberals alike, and such rights accrue only to free men who are property holders.
Nonetheless, Astell’s forthrightness on the topic of liberty is such that she is described as a proto-Republican by Skinner and Pettit. Republican freedom posited as a moral freedom from domination, rather than a negative freedom conditioned by property and law, is identified as informing Astell’s impassioned “If all Men are born Free” cry cited above.16 However, just as Astell spurns the pieties of the Natural Law theorists, she equally scorns republicans in the mold of Milton: “how much soever Arbitrary Power may be dislik’d on a Throne, not Milton himself wou’d cry up Liberty to poor Female Slaves” (
RM46-47).17 Astell was a fervent Royalist, openly siding with the nonjurors who refused to pledge allegiance to William in 1688.18 As a female royalist, Astell was not unaware that kingship was based on a strongly patriarchal model. The title of Robert Filmer’s key text supporting the divine lineage of kingship tells all: Patriarcha. Not only male liberals were at fault for being blind to the rights of the female population who were excluded from the natural order of freedom and equality in a state of nature in the civil arrangement of mutual protection of private property afforded by social contract. Happily for Astell, however, some of the malecentered ideals of kingship seemed to be resolved under a female monarch to whom she was more than willing to swear allegiance. Queen Anne was a daughter of the Church of England like herself and one who seemed much more sympathetic to the High Church cause than William, a Calvinist foreigner.
Hilda Smith notes that women in Astell’s time relied heavily on Descartes because Cartesian rationalism “provided the crucial ingredient for these feminists’ proof of women’s essential equality and gave incentive to work for a society where women could employ their powers to the fullest to understand truth, both godly and secular” (6). Women and men were equal in Reason, and “a woman should follow the same path to salvation as a man” (Smith 119). The title of Astell’s work emphasizes that hers is the Christian religion of the Church of England. The emphasis on reason is one of the key characteristics of the Anglican Church as it distanced itself from the Calvinist doctrine of the Reformed Church that emphasized human depravity and the absolute power of grace to redeem fallen man through election. Astell’s rationalism thus stems not only from the Cartesian
cogito, but also the developing Anglican orthodoxy and its Arminian stance that chose to emphasize reason and free will over the Calvinist tenets of election and grace. The strong emphasis on duty is a religious issue as much as it will become an ethical issue once morality is divorced from theological debate. Isabel Rivers summarizes the years 1660-1780 as follows:
Rivers describes the tension that arises between the competing “languages of reason and grace,” before the language of sentiment eventually overtakes both in the course of the eighteenth century. Too much emphasis on rationality leads to Socinianism. Latitudinarians sympathized with this approach and hence were frequently charged with Socinianism. Too little emphasis leads to enthusiasm and non-conformity, and so Astell is careful to tread the middle path of a spiritually endorsed reason that enables the human subject to fulfill her duty on earth.
To choose duty, or obedience to God’s law is the only freedom worthy of the true Christian for Astell. The Word of God is the only true law, the “Divine Law promulg’d to Mankind, to which GOD requires their obedience under the highest Penalties” (13-14). Astell realizes others may have different ideas about the role of reason and the meaning of liberty: “Whatever Doctrine or Precept tends to the humbling of our proud Understandings, the subduing of our stubborn Wills, and the restraining of our exorbitant Affections, (tho’ we may call these
Reason, Liberty, and the Rights of human Nature) does indeed proceed from GOD Who as He may do this in His own Right, and by that Authority He has over us, so He kindly vouchsafes to do it for our own advantage” (19-20). Divine domination is extended for our benefit whereas “Reason, Liberty, and the Rights of human Nature,” are merely marks of “our stubborn Wills” and “our exorbitant Affections.” To fulfill one’s duty is to exercise one’s Godgiven freedom to achieve true happiness. Section I of Christian Religionends aptly on the topic of happiness. He who chooses to willfully persevere in sin, despite his or her God-given reason, is guilty of “a contempt and hatred of God. A Temper so utterly uncapable of Happiness, that (as must be acknowledg’d by the greatest Libertine) unless GOD shou’d give him a new Nature, he cannot possibly be Happy” (65-66). And were God to take away from such an unenviable person the freedom to choose disobedience, she would thereby lose her humanity. God could not take away freedom from human beings, because that would reduce men to “necessary Agents, that is, make them other Creatures and not Men” (66). Freedom defines the human condition.
Sections II, III, and IV are all devoted to the topic of Duty, first to God, then to our neighbors, and finally to ourselves. Duty is a major concern for all serious female writers in the English tradition, and Astell allows us to see that “duty” is the correlate of “freedom” and not its antithesis in Anglican thought. The influence of this theological development is crucial in defining the future of the English
nationalcharacter. Section II opens with fighting words:
A veteran of the pamphlet wars, Astell is no stranger to low attacks, especially when it comes to her favorite subject of derision, the state of nature of the contractarians. In her own version of the state of nature, all men are religious creatures born not free from God’s will, but with the desire to conform to that will. Those who do not fall into this model are “Monsters rather than Men.” The freewill choice to subject oneself to God’s will is the rational freedom that lies at the heart of Astell’s logic. Duty as the freedom to choose subjection is perhaps the most extreme example of a positive freedom. Here we can see how the peculiar combination of rationalism and freedom results in the strong emphasis on duty over grace in the Anglican psyche.
The final section on our duty to ourselves is by far the longest and reveals how wary Astell is of the liberal modern ideals of sociable and worldly conviviality. Astell’s conception of freedom follows the Pauline model, which celebrates freedom from the world, or death to the world—mortification—which renders any discussion of her understanding of freedom related to material possession moot. Endless happiness can only be achieved through endless mortification. Astell adopts the Pauline standard absolutely:
Lest her readers think that such deprivation be the inverse of happiness, she specifically emphasizes, “Nor is the subjecting of the Body to the Mind in reality a Pain, on the contrary it is a Pleasure, as being most agreeable to the Nature and Reason of things” (
CR246). Astell’s contempt for worldly customs that perpetuate the wrongs of woman constitutes the main body of her earlier works on the status of women.19 Mortification, or death to individual self and body, is the only way to be liberated from the “Evil Manners and Customs” of the world.
Mortification may hardly seem a model for liberation, but the libratory potential of Pauline thought is explored by Giorgio Agamben in
The Time that Remains: A commentary on the Letter to the Romans. Agamben is not interested in the resurrected Christ but rather the potential of the messianic event to dissolve established law. He devotes his entire commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans to the full exegesis of the ten words of the first verse, “PAULOS DOULOS CHRISTOU IESOU, KLETOS APOSTOLOS APHORISMENOS EIS EUAGGELION THEOU,”20 “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God” (King James Version). Agamben notes that the emphasis falls on the boastful claim to the title of slave by the free man whose calling transforms him into “the slave ( doulos) of the Messiah.” The enaming of Saul as Paul emphasizes his smallness, because “Paul simply means ‘little’” (11). Since slaves did not have any juridical status in classical antiquity, they did not have veritable names and could be given names only by their owners, according to the owners’ whim” (10-11). Agamben notes that the term doulosis repeated 47 times in the text of Romans alone, indicating how central the concept is to Paul’s sense of his own identity. Christ, not a proper name, is translated throughout Agamben’s text as “Messiah.” Since “Christou” signifies the messianic event, the calling to become an apostle cancels the status of the freeman called to a new identity as doulos:
The Pauline call to freedom/mortification is reiterated in Galatians 2:20: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” To profess oneself a Christian is to claim a new identity forged through a new calling as slave to Christ.
Agamben’s second chapter explicates the meaning of
klēsisor calling in great detail: “The term klētos, which comes from the verb kaleo, to call, means “calling” (Jerome translates it as vocatus)” (19). But this calling is a calling into a situation of revocation that undoes every condition: “Vocation calls for nothing and to no place. For this reason it may coincide with the factical condition in which each person finds himself called, but for this very reason, it also revokes the condition from top to bottom. The messianic vocation is the revocation of every vocation” (23). “To be messianic, to live in the Messiah, signifies the expropriation of each and every juridicalfactical property (circumcised/uncircumcised; free/slave; man/woman)” (26). As Paul writes in the letter to the Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Agamben claims that the uncoupling of worldly situation to self by the messianic vocation underlies “Benjamin’s thesis, that the Marxian concept of a “classless society” is a secularization of the idea of messianic time” (30).21 Klēsis represents the divorce between the self and its juridical condition in the law, just as class represents the divorce between self and rank or lineage.
We can read Astell as fully participating in Paul’s messianic vision whereby we are “but one Body in Christ, and every one Members one of another.” Membership in the Church of Christ, or
ekklēsia, “inasmuch as it is a community of messianic klēsis” (Agamben 31), is a call to a community of no class, no estate, no sex, no calling, but the calling to participate in the gospel of Christ. “To be a Christian is a greater thing, and a more honourable Character than most of us imagine,” Astell writes:
In this new body of the church, or
ekklēsia, there is neither male nor female, master nor slave. The martial language reflects the metaphor of warfare in which the fully equal member engages in spiritual battle to advance “the great Design of Christianity.” To live as the slave of Christ is to be reborn into a new identity that overrides temporal law and custom.
Astell reserves her most serious accusation of Locke for last when she charges “the great man,” of perverting the Christian religion in
The Reasonableness of the Christian Religionby remaining silent on the topic of the messianic event and the Holy Trinity:
This is a major critique. The Trinity lies at the heart of the raging religious controversy in late seventeenth-century England as “the beleaguered Trinity came to symbolize the assault of a dangerously forensic rationalism on the transcendent and mystical aspects of Christian religion” (Apetrei 117). Overly literal rationalist interpretations are carried out at the expense of the “secret mysteries of a Divine Life, of a New Nature, of Christ formed in our hearts”22 in the words of Ralph Cudworth, leading Cambridge Platonist and father of Damaris Masham. The investment in a mystical Platonist illuminism curiously akin to the direct illumination of the Quakers within High Church theology continues into the eighteenth century in a certain strand of Tory pietism, especially under the influence of William Law, mentor to Samuel Johnson amongst others. This strand can be also linked backwards to the religious sensibility of Blaise Pascal, who refused to cede religion solely to theological rationalization. Jonathan Israel comments that Pascal presciently introduced to theology “what might be termed an anti-philosophical philosophy: ‘se moquer de la philosophie, c’est vraiment philosopher’” (
Radical474). We can also link this with the anti-philosophestrain of Rousseau’s thought that bridles against mere human reason.23 The rational Christian religion would go on to flourish and have a long and illustrious intellectual career as a Unitarian church that inherited the Socinian refusal to acknowledge the divinity of Christ. Leading intellectuals including Joseph Priestley, Mary Wollstonecraft, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, and Ralph Waldo Emerson were Unitarians.
Astell condemns Locke’s
reasonableChristian religion, because it refuses to confess “the Holy Trinity, the Catholick Church, and Communion of Saints” ( CR302). In the long paragraph 366 of the Appendix, Astell comments on the theological importance of proclaiming Christ the Son of God:
The finale of Astell’s work is a lengthy apostrophe to the Messiah, Son of God, whose death permits “the Comforter or
Paraclete” (306) to be poured into his disciples as the Holy Spirit in a re-birth, now dead to the world and born again in Christ. The Holy Ghost comes as our inner light, Reason itself, only once we have crucified ourselves to the world. We participate in divine reason through the messianic event. It is only through the Holy Spirit that we can see all things through God, a central tenet of Malebranchian Occasionalism. It is also only through the help of the Holy Spirit that we can hope to succeed in obeying the ultimate injunction of loving one’s enemies as well as one’s neighbors.24 What is not pleasurable to the fallible senses can only be achieved through death to the body, “By which is meant, if we will allow the Scripture to explain itself, the using the World as tho’ we us’d it not, being very indifferent, even mortify’d, dead to it, that the Life of Jesus may be manifested in us” (322). This is the vocation that revokes, undoes all the distinctions so fundamental to the world, granting the freedom of spirit over the slavery of law.
Astell’s work reveals the remarkable modern feminism before the liberal feminism we term the first wave that celebrates the free-born woman on equal terms with the free-born man. Some may hesitate to call Astell a feminist, but no other term will suffice for one who so strongly voiced her objections to customary rights that debased the equality of women and who so strongly affirmed a vision in which women were the equals of men in their ability to rise above the narrow constraints of property. Rachel Weil observes that Astell’s “political universe is divided between two kinds of people, the egotistical and the pious: the former try to control the world in accordance with their own desires, the latter restrain their impulses in accordance with their duty” (146). Contemptuous of liberal male claims for freedom from tyranny, Astell strongly denounced their hypocritical and selfish desire to “engross this World.”
Ultimately, Astell can be read in the context of the larger battle between the Ancients and the Moderns. “To be modern is to be self-liberating and self-making, and thus not merely to be in a history or tradition but to make history,” according to Michael Allen Gillespie. The first
moderniwere reformers of the medieval church who believed that the learning of their predecessors had achieved new heights from which they could see “not the way into a shining future of progress and increasing prosperity but the approaching end of time.” Joachim of Fiore preached that in the final age all the world would become a vast monastery. To be modern in this tradition is to “stand at the end of time, on the threshold of eternity” (Gillespie 4). Astell’s vision is modern in this sense when she calls for the female monastery where women can live out time till all the inequities of the world are revoked.
14Reprinted in Springborg Ed. Political Writings. Hereafter cited as RM. 15The key Berlin text on liberty is “Two Concepts of Liberty,” first presented as the Inaugural Lectural for the Chichele chair of Social and Political Theory at Oxford in 1958. 16“Mary Astell’s rhetorical intentions in making this remark are complex and difficult to discern, but the very fact that the passage is so often quoted testifies to the appeal of non-domination as a feminist ideal” (Pettit 139). 17Springborg notes that Royalists “understood republicanism to be a species of heresy. And they immediately saw how academic—and how hollow—the freedom-slavery argument really was in the seventeenth century, a time at which Britain was active in the slave trade abroad and in which indentured servitude annulled the freedom of many at home” (Astell 211) and that “strategies like the melding of Whig purposes to the grand strategies of the Roman Republic—which indulged in just such rhetorical strategies in the name of an aggrandizing oligarchy itself--were not lost on Mary Astell, herself an adept at the rhetoric of the Grub Street gutter press” (Astell 236). 18These nonjurors who included such prominent figures as William Sancroft, Archbishop of Canterbury, viewed the events of 1688 as invasion rather than “glorious” revolution, the Whig version of events that has survived along with the winning side’s story. Although they did not agree with the policies of James II, in particular his attempts to re-establish Catholicism, and were sympathetic to intervention by the Protestant William, nonjurors drew the line at William’s assuming the throne. 19“Immemorial Prescription is on their side in these parts of the World, Antient Tradition and Modern Usage! Our Fathers have all along both Taught and Practis’d Superiority over the weaker Sex, and consequently Women are by Nature inferior to Men” (RM 29). See Choi (2010) and (2011) for closer discussion. 20“This is a modest endeavor, but it depends on a preliminary wager: we will be treating this first verse as though its first ten words recapitulate the meaning of the text in its entirety” (6). 21“Even though modern philologists doubt this etymology, what interests us is that it allows us to relate messianic klēsis to a key concept in Marxian thought. It has often been noted that Marx was the first to substitute the Gallicism Klasse for the more common Stand” (Agamben 29). 22From A Sermon Before the House of Commons (1647), as cited in Apetrei, 121. 23See Israel, Revolutionary Ideas. 24“For the Love of our Enemies is by no means consistent with that account of Love that is given by our great Men. . . . They tell us, that Love is nothing else but that disposition of Mind we find in our selves towards any thing we are pleasd’ with; and that without this Principle of Love to our Neighbour, we can’t discharge what we owe to him. . . . Now if we cannot Love but what we are pleas’d with, and that it is certain, for Reason, as well as the Experience of Mankind, assures us, that we cannot be pleas’d with our Enemies, consequently we cannot Love them” (CR 312.) The passages in italics are quotations from Masham’s Discourse of the Love of God, assumed by Astell to have been authored by Locke himself.