Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Mary Astell on Malebranche's Vision-in-God Thesis

From her masterwork, The Christian Religion, as Profess'd by a Daughter of the Church of England (1705) pp. 83-85:

"I will not Conjecture what makes some People so warm against the Hypothesis of seeing all things in GOD, nor why after so much discourse about Ideas, they are so hard to be reconcil'd to an Ideal World. But this I may say with due submission to better Judgments, that that Hypothesis and what is built on it, gives a better answer than any Hypothesis I have met with to the trifling and unreasonable Objections, for so I will presume to call them, tho' they are the strongest that can be made by the greatest pretenders to Reason, against the Divinity of the Son of GOD. Some have told us that the chiefest good of Man is the best Design of God [Ladies Religion, p. 5]; I cannot answer for the Thoughts they seem to have of GOD and of themselves: But this I know, That those who are conversant in that Hypothesis, have too aweful a sense of the Divine Majesty to endure so presumptuous a Supposition. They know that GOD is His own Design and End, and that there is no other Worthy of Him. For since there neither is nor can be, any comparison between the Creator and His Creatures, far be it from us to think so unworthily of GOD, and so arrogantly of our selves, as to suppose that His Wisdom contriv'd all things for our Use, or supports them for our satisfaction, who are before Him as nothing, who are counted to Him as less than nothing and vanity [Esay. 40.17.], who are not worthy of His notice but in and thro' His Son our Lord, by whom, and for whom, were all things Created, and by whom all things consist [Colos. 1.16, &c.]. The Relation we bear to the Wisdom of the Father, the Son of His Love, gives us indeed a dignity which otherwise we have no pretence to. It makes us something, something considerable even in GOD's Eyes. And in this respect and upon this account, the Creation and chiefest Good of Man is a design worthy of God, I know not how we shall be able to prove it so upon any other."

I have put the marginal notes in brackets. "Esay", of course, is Isaiah. There is, I think, more going on this passage than might be entirely obvious from the selection alone (a problem with philosophical selections in general). Astell is currently in the midst of a critique of Lockean positions, of which the Ladies Religion is an example (she calls it, rather scathingly, "little else but an Abstract of the Reasonableness of Christianity, with all those disadvantages that usually attend Abridgments"). There is, I think, something of an ad hominem here; this abstract of Locke's Reasonableness of Christianity does not support the reasonableness of Christianity so well as this hypothesis Lockeans are constantly treating as unreasonable. This little passage, though, gives a bit of the flavor of Astell at her best: in particular, she has a flair for polemic rhetoric. The crack about having difficulty with an Ideal World after so much talk about Ideas is exquisite; it definitely will get a footnote in my thesis. Later, when she is criticizing Locke's view that God might "superadd" thought to matter, thus making a thinking material thing, she says after some criticisms:

So that, in fine, I utterly despaire of meeting with a Triangle equal to a Square, and that can Eat and Discourse, and I find it equally impossible for Body to Think. (p. 259)

This allows for all sorts of jokes about discoursing over breakfast with an equilateral triangle, against anyone who thinks that an extension-only view of matter (which was the most common view in the early modern period) allows for the possibility of thinking matter.

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