Sunday, December 05, 2004

Mary Astell on the Rudiments of Knowledge

...there are certain Notices which we may call the Rudiments of Knowledge, which none who are Rational are without however they come by them. It may happen indeed that a habit of Vice or a long disuse has so obscur'd them that they seem to be extinguish'd but it does only seem so, for were they really extinguish'd the person would be no longer Rational, and no better than the Shade and Picture of a Man. Because as Irrational Creatures act only by the Will of him who made them, and according to the Power of that Mechanisme by which they are form'd, so every one who pretends to Reason, who is a Voluntary Agent and therefore Worthy of Praise or Blame, Reward or Punishment, must Chuse his Actions and determine his Will to that Coice by some Reasonings or Principles either true or false, and in proportion to the Principles and the Consequences he deduces from them he is to be accounted, if they are Right and Conclusive a Wise Man, if Evil, Rash, and Injudicious a Fool. If then it be the property of Rational Creatures and Essential to their very Natures to Chuse their Actions, and to determine their Wills to that Choice by such Principles and Reasonings as their Understandings are furnish'd with, they who are desirous to be rank'd in that Order of Beings must conduct their Lives by these Measures, being with their Intellectuals, inform themselves what are the plain and first Principles of Action and Act accordingly.

By which it appears that there are some degrees of Knowledge necessary before there can be any Human Acts, for till we are capable of Chusing our own Actions and directing them by some Principle, tho we Move and Speak and so many such like things, we live not the Life of a Rational Creature but ony of an Animal. If it be farther demanded what these Principles are? Not to dispute the Number of 'em here, no body I suppose will deny us one, which is, That we ought as much as we can to endeavour the Perfecting of our Beings, and that we be as happy as possibly we may. For this we see is Natural to every Creature of what sort soever, which endeavours to be in as good Condition as its Nature and Circumsntaces will permit. And now we have got a Principle which one would think were sufficent for the Conduct of our Actions thro' the whole Course of our Lives; and so indeed it were, cou'd we as easily discern, wherein our Happiness consists as 'tis natural to wish and desire it.

Mary Astell, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies Part II, chapter 1.

Astell, in addition to devoting herself to defending Tory politics and Anglican religion, had a strong interest in improving the educational situation of women. A Serious Proposal to the Ladies Part II (1697) is the sequel to A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694). The latter was a proposal intended to give women an alternative to marriage, by creating a sort of Ladies' Academy, in which women could forego marriage in order to pursue knowledge and piety. Part II is a rather impressive little manual on how to reason clearly and rationally, and can in a sense be said to be the proposal of a sort of 'curriculum' for the proposed retreat for women.

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