There has been a turn away in recent scholarship from a unilateral view of the Enlightenment as an age of paganism, or the happy fall from religious to secular thought. This is especially true of the English Enlightenment, which has been characterized as a "conservative" Enlightenment, especially in the aftermath of the civil war and the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688.1 The Anglican Church-state sought to establish a theological foundation that could counter the religious enthusiasm that was viewed as the cause of so much barbaric violence that had threatened the very fabric of national life. This paper seeks to contextualize the religious and philosophical writing of Mary Astell (1666-1731) in terms of the enlightenment project of establishing political and religious order through universal propagation of knowledge. The rigid modern division between public and private spheres cannot adequately account for the religio-political public discourse of the period in which pious women often felt compelled to participate, even while espousing deeply Christian ideals regarding traditionally female virtues such as chastity, obedience and humility. These very ideals in turn, made them greater moral forces to be reckoned with when they did choose to speak out. According to Diane Willen, piety “provided women of various ranks with a platform on which to emerge on a public stage, especially in the mid-seventeenth century during the sectarian radicalism of the Civil War and Revolution” (23). This trend followed into the Restoration and the years following the settlement of 1688.
The political disputes of the early modern period in English history revolved very largely around issues of religious belief, and as Sharon Achinstein remarks, “Only recently, in studies of contemporary epistemology have intellectual historians been coming to see the surprising correlation between theology and the rise of modern political ideologies. The link has yet to bear fruit in the study of early modern women’s ideas” (18-19). In the words of Rachel Weil, “Astell’s strongest political commitment was to the Church of England, which she saw as being endangered by latitudinarians, dissenters, freethinkers, Socinians and atheists” (146). Astell’s quarrel with all the rest can be explained by the Tory principle of passive obedience as both a religious and a political position. Piety demanded obedience to established authority, and any resistance was a selfish and dangerous act because it threatened the stability of a divinely ordained order:
For Astell, the homology between the state and the family in liberal conceptions of subjecthood and nation reveal the weakness of the ideal of “universal” freedom when viewed from the point of view of the female subject.2 Astell can be read as directly addressing John Locke in her famous and passionate rhetorical question of the 1706 Preface to
In the wake of Carol Pateman’s influential critique of liberal contractual theory as a pact among male subjects leading to exclusion of women from the political realm in
Consequently, there have been more sustained and historically grounded attempts to come to terms with the deeprooted Royalism of many of the early women writers. From this revisionary perspective, it has seemed all the more remarkable that so many female poets, playwrights, and philosophers of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century were so overwhelmingly Tory. “The alienation of Tory and Jacobite women lent them an angle of vision that enabled them to see through the cant of the Whig Revolution,” (66) is how Mark Goldie characterizes this new appreciation of conservative feminism.3 Women were indeed among the earliest to publish sustained critiques of “the Achilles heel for the marriage contract-social contract analogue as first made by Hobbes and Locke, which is the resort to customary right to explain how those who enter the contract as free and equal beings exit it as radically unequal” (Springborg 25). Indeed, a very large number of women who publish in this period including Margaret Cavendish, Aphra Behn, Delariviere Manley, as well as Mary Astell, are firmly royalist and Tory. Michael McKeon addresses the curious paradox of “Tory feminism”:
Springborg explains that the idea of a Tory feminism is only now a paradox as the consequence of the overwhelming triumph of the Whig account of historical progress: “this is a problem falsely posed—and bespeaks progressivist assumptions about a ‘proper’ feminism that are anachronistic when applied to seventeenth-century women” (3). She argues that we must learn to re-figure how such seemingly un-enlightened religious and political positions too constitute properly feminist positions alongside more liberal notions of female equality and right:
Fredric Jameson has commented that religion was not “a mere private hobby” in the period, but “the master-code in which issues are conceived and debated. . . . Religious and theological debate is the form, in precapitalist societies, in which groups become aware of their political differences and fight them out.”4 Religious debate was not an issue of private belief, but at the very core of the public sphere discourse of politics and letters, and as Paula McDowell notes, “The heated religio-political debate-in-print of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries was a prime forum for English women’s public expression . . . a profound sense of religious calling made public expression, both oral and printed, appear a ‘duty’ to women of diverse ideological allegiances and socioeconomic backgrounds” (122). Accordingly, the overall share of religious and religio-political publications far outran that of any other category in the period, resulting in about a third of all publications, and correspondingly, “the overwhelming majority of women’s published writings before 1730 were also religious or religio-political in nature” (122-23).
It is in this context that we must figure the extraordinary writing of Mary Astell (1668-1731), a deeply religious, and deeply conservative English woman who was both a true royalist and a true promoter of freedom for women. A rather impoverished and single gentlewoman, originally from Newcastle, Astell was able to establish the life of a woman of letters in London, perhaps the very first, with the patronage of wealthy female friends such as Lady Catherine Jones as well as the important assistance of religious men like the former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Sancroft.5 Astell's first published work was
1Peter Gay’s influential work privileged the view of the Enlightenment as “The Rise of Modern Paganism,” the title of Vol. 1 of The Enlightenment: an Interpretation (1967). J. G. A. Pocock has been central to launching the idea of a conservative Enlightenment in Britain, where “the Magisterial Enlightenment was a surprisingly clerical affair, owing quite as much to prelates as to philosophes” (220). For a fruitful overview, see Knud Haakonssen, “Enlightened Dissent: an introduction”: “The central suggestion in this interpretation is that the Enlightenment was first and foremost a movement to preserve civilized society against any resurgence of religious enthusiasm and superstition, that is to say, of evangelical Protestantism and Counter-Reformation Catholicism. . . . Conservation and modernization were thus one and the same thing, namely the Enlightenment” (2). 2See Springborg (2005), Perry (1990), Smith (2007), and Choi (2010). 3Goldie, however, is critical of an overly stark opposition of these politically conservative writers and the liberalism propounded by Locke and his Whig followers. He is specifically addressing Patricia Springborg who has been the strongest proponent of Astell as the first serious critic of Locke’s political and religious ideas. 4Fredric Jameson, “Religion and Ideology,“ as cited in McDowell (121). 5The first biography of Astell was published by George Ballard in Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain in 1752. The current renaissance in Astell studies owes much to Ruth Perry’s outstanding biography, The Celebrated Mary Astell, published in 1986.
II . Female Monastery for Knowledge and True Religion
At the end of
Astell speaks in ecstatic terms of such a religious retirement where minds will be directed both inwards towards greater self-knowledge, and outwards towards the only true love, the “Love of GOD”:
There is a mystical quality to the religiosity of a passage such as this that reveals an enthusiasm that we do not ordinarily associate with the rationalist and Cartesian aspect of Astell. Although Tories were as suspicious of enthusiasm as the latitudinarians, there seems to have been a strain of mysticism that was to exert a powerful appeal to conservatives such as Astell and even the later Samuel Johnson, rooted in their rejection of a human-centered liberalism too deeply invested in exclusive faith in human reason.7
Astell's enthusiasm for her own proposal for an Edenic seclusion, “a Type and ante-past of Heav’n” (76) where women can focus exclusively on devoting their lives to the love of God, may at least partly be explained by the fact of female poverty, especially her own. As a bookish young woman who could only rely on the generosity of others, and as a portionless female with no prospect of a splendid worldly match that would allow her to become the mistress of a family, a safe haven for single women was a practical as well as an idealistic solution. It would be interesting to pursue whether Virginia Woolf’s five hundred pounds a year to secure a room of one’s own had anything to do with the sum that Astell proposes for admission—500 pounds. Astell is confident that an investment of 500 pounds to enter a community of female religious and philosophical retirement would be a bargain compared to a dowry that could lead women into a life of bondage, prey to wasted time on physical adornment and frivolous entertainment at best, and often even mental and physical enslavement.
A woman who is endowed with the knowledge gained from this ideal community can only benefit society if she eventually enters into marriage and educates children in a truly enlightened manner. She will be especially beneficial to her husband who, if "he be a natural Blockhead . . . will need a wise Woman to govern him . . . and at once both cover and supply his defects" (106). In the spirit of such active civic responsibility, Astell issues the following challenge: "Why shou'd not we assert our Liberty, and not suffer every Trifler to impose a Yoke of Impertinent Customs on us?" (120). For women, to remain ignorant is to accept the tyranny of men who would keep them in ignorance and folly. She exhorts: "it is in your Power to regain your Freedom, if you please but t'endeavour it" (121). Customs of this world have nothing to do with the true reality that is entirely spiritual and of the higher order of the kingdom of God. Freedom in this world is freedom from it, entirely in the Pauline sense of death to the world and new life through Christ. This is the ethos underlying Astel's vision of liberty that has proved difficult to face head on in the pervasively liberal and secular climate of much modern academic feminism. This central religious impetus is firmly linked with the acquisition of knowledge, which for Astell is the only way women can overcome the tyranny of custom and ignorance that have combined to enslave them.
Astell was to remain a firmly Cartesian rationalist throughout her career, and this is important for her feminism. Whereas she was not to buy into the idea of a state of nature in which all men were equal, she firmly adhered to the idea that women like men were endowed by God with intelligent souls:
Although recent feminist philosophers like Susan Bordo have argued that Cartesian dualism greatly fortified the binary opposition of male reason and female body, leading to exclusion of women from rational enquiry,8 a closer examination of early women philosophers like Astell reveals that the matter is not quite so simple. As Jacqueline Broad notes, “historians highlight the fact that an egalitarian conception of reason formulated and promoted by Descartes and his followers was the catalyst for a female intellectual awakening in the seventeenth century” (7). Springborg points to the “growing body of work suggesting the reception of Descartes as the common philosophical ground that unites seventeenth-century women philosophers, most of whom were conservative and anti-materialist” (13). The connection between anti-materialism and conservatism is an important one, because “the divide between Cartesians and materialists was as profound in philosophy as the divide between Tories and Whigs in politics. . . . So, for instance, if English materialists from the late Hobbes on tended to be Whiggish, the Cartesians tended to be Tory” (13). The Cartesian mind-body dualism actually supported the Tory feminist credo that “As long as women had souls, however they might be disqualified as bodies, they had the same right to self-improvement and the same duty to salvation as men” (14). The ideal of a spiritual equality before God is the central tenet of Astell’s creed, and any historical circumstance that would counter this “truth” constitutes for her the tyranny of custom.
Astell does not employ the term “College” for her “monastery,” “religious retirement,” or in another paraphrase, “Seminary” (76), but whatever this institution of her proposal is to be, the grand aim is to free the souls of women from the twin enemies of “Ignorance” and “Custom”:
Astell terms her seminarians the “religious,” almost justifying the charge that what she was plotting was indeed an Anglican nunnery. We cannot overemphasize how closely interlinked Astell’s project of religion is with that of knowledge for women who have suffered from “that cloud of Ignorance, that Custom has involv’d us in.”
In Part I Astell fiercely opposes a frivolous course of female accomplishments or voguish learning, and endorses a course of studies based on “Christianity as profess’d by the
Anticipating male criticism of her serious proposal, Astell employs the arch tone which she was to perfect in her later
Astell ironically celebrates the “fatal” fruit of the tree of knowledge as that which can make women more equal to men in the image of their Creator. In this re-writing of the fable, women will retire to Eden expressly to partake of the fruit, here banned by men who have tasted first and have set up an enclosure to bar women from tasting “of that Tree of Knowledge they have so long unjustly monopoliz’d.” In a rather snide aside to Milton, she speaks disparagingly of the “profane noisy Nonsense of men, whose Fore-heads are better than their Brains,”(65) referring to the infamous first portrayal of Adam in
For Astell then, “custom” is the burden of a benighted history, underwritten by male political radicals and conservatives alike. In Springborg’s words, what held women “in thrall was an entrenched distribution of power that excluded women from public life but enabled men to translate their public power into private leverage, allowing them to rule their families as tyrants. And it was precisely for condoning this arrangement that Astell pilloried Milton and Locke, republican and liberal alike” (231). Though she is a conservative polemicist in religio-political terms, a die-hard High Church Anglican Tory who was to be a leading figure in the pamphlet wars of the first decade of the eighteenth-century, she is quite revolutionary when it comes to throwing off the yoke of custom to liberate women from the bonds of ignorance:
The reward of knowledge and religion is the regaining of “Freedom” and “Vertue”—twin terms in Astell’s thought that lead the rational female subject above the vanity and folly of the world, and ultimately direct her soul to its only proper purpose, the love of God. This will be her topic in her magnum opus,
6Critics like Bishop Burnet would counsel Queen Anne, to whom Part II was addressed, to deny support for a proposal that “would look like preparing a way for popish orders, that it would be reputed a nunnery, etc.” Originally predisposed to fund such a project, the Queen was soon dissuaded and the proposal was to remain unfulfilled. See Ballard, Memoirs (383). 7See B. W. Young, Chapter 4, “The Way to Divine Knowledge: The Mystical Critique of Rational Religion.” 8Bordo describes a “‘super-masculinized’ model of knowledge in which detachment, clarity, and transcendence of the body are all key requirements” (8) and how the association of the body and nature with the feminine leads to a seventeenth-century Cartesian “masculinization of thought”—a flight from the feminine to objectivity in The Flight to Objectivity: Essays on Cartesianism and Culture. 9Malebranche was the highly influential Occasionalist who popularized the idea that all human action is initiated by the occasion of God’s will, rather than by the will of the human subject. Astell was a serious reader of Malebranche and it was this interest that involved her in a series of letters with the Reverend Norris of Bemerton published by that same gentleman under the title, Letters Concerning the Love of God (1695).
III. Female Monastery for Freedom and Virtue
The tenor of her argument, which flies in the face of Lockean empiricism, is a clear echo of the Pauline credo: “We live by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). Again, in Hebrews 11:4 Paul defines faith as “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” The sensationalist empiricism that is gaining ground in her own time is denied by Astell as the only legitimate path to science or true knowledge. Astell counters Locke on philosophical and religious grounds as on political ones. If science depends on a reliance upon our own observations “upon Clear and Evident Principles; Faith is a Dependance on the Credit of another, in matters as are out of our View” (151). The limitations of the individual human subject for knowledge are acknowledged as prohibiting a view of the whole, and hence our reliance on faith in revealed knowledge for that which we cannot see.
The most famous section of the entire work is Chapter III10 of Part II delineating the detailed curriculum of the proposed “monastery,” including the strict rules of logic taken from Antoine Arnauld’s
Comments on proper speaking, writing, and grammar follow this exposition of rules for thinking. Concluding the chapter is an important section on the end of all this knowledge. First and foremost, knowledge here on earth is the best way to prepare for salvation and entrance into the higher kingdom of God:
To choose to be content with ignorance in a careless pursuit of worldly pleasures is morally out of the question for Astell, because it would only shew “our Disesteem of our Souls, our Contempt of GOD and the Talents he has given us”—the consequences of which would probably be eternal punishment. But there are also more practical and worldly uses to which knowledge can be put to good use by women:
The practical use of female knowledge has great consequences for the domestic economy of both the home and the nation. This line of thinking has often been categorized as Republican motherhood, but here we see the Christian roots of the ideal that informs the “modern” culture of domesticity in the increasingly gendered separation of spheres. Astell believes that the foundation of education “shou’d be laid by the Mother, for Fathers find other Business, they will not be confin’d to such a laborious work, they have not such opportunities of observing a Childs Temper, nor are the greatest part of ’em like to do much good, since Precepts contradicted by Example seldom prove effectual” (202-03). The ideology of a Jane Austen has more to do with this kind of Christian feminism than her modern readers have been willing to credit. The ideology of a Mary Wollstonecraft too would be better comprehended in light of Astell’s thinking. Although Wollstonecraft was to be the political antithesis in arguing for female rights, she too was at heart a Christian theorist invested in an idea of virtue that transcended worldly values and feminine frivolity.12 Astell’s belief in a universal reason and a spiritual parity was to find voice in both Austen and Wollstonecraft at the end of the next century at the height of a new revolutionary fervor.
Astell has been a problematic figure for liberal feminists because of her staunchly conservative political views. But as we have been arguing, contract theorists reserved freedom for the public sphere created by a contract between male subjects. This freedom ironically translated into tyranny within the private sphere of the family, an injustice so excellently expressed in Astell’s most-quoted epigram: “If all men are born free, how is it that all women are born slaves?” Springborg has claimed that Astell was the first philosopher to openly and systematically critique the work of John Locke and although this has been challenged by others such as Goldie, the claim is an arresting one. That Astell was deeply familiar with Locke’s work has been well established by the recent scholarly research into her work. 13 The Appendix of
Locke’s ideal of freedom was rooted in the institution of private property. For married women who were barred from right to property, the idea of a legal personality was only academic at best. 15 Political participation and representation were not the goals Astell had in mind when she spoke about freedom. Rather, she espouses a more subjective ideal of a positive freedom that invests in the individual the free will to fulfill one's ethical and moral duty, especially if this involves obedience to a higher authority. Without accepting this aspect of her thought, it is impossible to fully comprehend her brand of feminism, a title that many have increasingly been more willing to concede to her, despite her at times devastatingly traditional ideas: "We pretend not that Women shou'd teach in the Church, or usurp Authority where it is not allow'd them; permit us only to understand our own duty, and not be forc'd to take it upon trust from others" (81). Duty and freedom are not contradictory terms in Astell’s vocabulary which can be traced back most directly to Pauline theology. The Apostle Paul challenges all Christians to throw off the yoke of slavery, because “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. . . . But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love” (Gal. 5: 1,13). Astell is following this precept in her call for freedom from tyranny and the duty that is also the freedom to serve.
McKeon has written of the idea of freedom espoused by early feminists as the negative freedom of the modern ethical subject: “the wholesale deprivation of women in the polity makes it possible to imagine a different kind of subjecthood, one not of the political but of the ethical subject . . . the utter “privacy” customarily experienced by women—the sheer privation of political community and its positive freedom—is the key to the modern ethos of privacy as negative freedom: ‘We are are not bound to state or crown; we are free’” (150). Where this may apply to someone like Margaret Cavendish, whom he is more directly paraphrasing in this context, extending the logic to other Tory feminists such as Astell for whom there is no easy division of the polity and the private realm of ethics, is problematic. The religious life of the pious woman is fully committed to both realms. True freedom for both male and female in the religious realm must be defended by the martial warrior devoted to protecting the sovereign kingdom of God in heaven and on earth.
Classical ideals of republican virtue may seem to color the language of Astell and her contemporaries, but in the case of this female Christian soldier, the language of battle and valor are more powerful because they are invested in the glory of a higher kingdom. Michal Michelson has recently argued that, “Astell addressed the concepts of liberty, virtue, and toleration in expressly theological terms” (124) and offers a powerful summary of Astell’s Christian feminist valor:
It is this primarily religious aspect of early feminist agency that has hitherto been less visible to modern critics and scholars of the period, perhaps not least because of an inability to fathom an agency based on such faith. Where race, class and gender have long been a battle call to greater inclusiveness of sympathetic vision, religion has been a rather tardy addition to the essentially liberal agenda of multiculturalism.
Women have no time to waste on frivolous pleasures, a theme that Austen and Wollstonecraft would eventually come to share. There is an urgency about Astell’s tone that is quite remarkable—strident, almost shrewish in its castigation of the kinds of employments undertaken “customarily” by females:
This plea that comes at the start of Part I has a counterpart towards the close of Part II, where she reserves the grandest role for those women who do not marry and hence do not subjugate themselves to any individual man. If the married woman with knowledge can reform her family, the unmarried woman with knowledge can transform the world:
The woman of knowledge who can escape the enclosure of marriage may yet save “the whole World.” While marriage binds the woman to the individual family, the largest sphere, indeed the whole world, is open to the single lady. We see again in such a passage how unhelpful the division of private and public is for comprehending the scope of Astell’s vision. Freedom in Astell’s thought is “primarily instrumental for duty and virtue as final goods” (Springborg 228). As one of the first English feminists, Astell’s thoughts on female education, religion, and freedom can help us become better readers of the women who followed in her footsteps as writers—Austen and Wollstonecraft, as well as the learned women before them known as the Bluestockings.
Many centuries before Virginia Woolf, Astell notes that rich women have been willing to endow rich men’s colleges:
The title page of Astell’s first published work imparts the passion of a woman who has the good of her entire kind at heart. Under the title, in lieu of the author’s name, we have the rather immodest declaration, “By a lover of her SEX.” As Woolf would confirm three hundred years on, it is not the individual life that matters. In
10This chapter was pirated by George Berkeley, almost in its entirety, in his famous The Ladies Library (1714). 11See Springborg’s “Introduction” to her edition of Serious Proposal for a good overview of the influence of the Port Royal school and of French philosophy in general in forming the philosophical position of Astell, especially as it is different from the thought of Locke, 9-41. This quote is from footnote 2, 20. 12See Barbara Taylor, Chapter 3, “For the Love of God.” 13Perry and Springborg deserve much credit for the biography and the scholarly editions respectively. 14This appendix is reprinted as Appendix 3 of the recent edition of Astell and John Norris’ Letters Concerning the Love of God, 221-50. 15“Getting an Estate indeed is not a Womans business, and therefore for the most part she is free from the Solicitude of laying House to House, and Land to Land, so uncomely in a Christian, who is but a Stranger and Pilgrim upon Earth, who has no abiding City here” (from The Christian Religion cited in Perry (1986),64). 16Cited from Astell’s Christian Religion, here citing Eph. 6:13-17.