James Boswell – “Boswell interviews Voltaire”

And now for the man whose name is forever connected with that of Dr Johnson, his first biographer James Boswell. But before that, we get an excerpt from a letter from his Grand Tour to his best friend William Temple, describing his visit to Voltaire. He got a letter of introduction from a Swiss colonel he met in the Hague, and I still find it fascinating that he could obtain a meeting with almost certainly the most famous literary man living in Europe at that time on such a flimsy premise. It was certainly easier to live in the world when it was not so crowded. He is not entirely satisfied with that first meeting, because Voltaire does not join them for dinner, only speaks briefly with him before dinner, and generally seems out of sorts. After dinner Boswell had to leave for Geneva, so he wrote a letter to Voltaire’s niece and housekeeper (and apparently also his lover) begging to let him spend a night at Ferney, promising that they can put him up even on two chairs in her maid’s room, which carries more connotations than just the fact that Boswell declares himself to be ready for any inconvenience. (The editors of the NAEL call him rather primly “sexually skittish”, but the fact is, Boswell, possibly due to his bipolar disorder, a compulsive womanizer and shagged pretty much everything with pulse in it.) But Voltaire finds it very amusing and writes himself to Boswell, pretending to be Marie-Louise, and saying that they have few beds but they may find some for him. So Boswell comes and loves the conversation. He gets Voltaire to speak in English, which the old man learnt quite well during his exile in England, and is amused to observe that in English Voltaire swears a lot, because apparently it was the fashion over forty years before. They engage in discussion about religion and stay in the room after everybody else leaves for supper. The way Boswell describes Voltaire’s rant is quite close to erotic, especially when after a climactic point in his speech Voltaire collapses onto an armchair. Boswell sticks to his (religious) guns, begs Voltaire for his true sentiments and gets him to admit to a sort of deistic position, i.e. there is the Supreme Being, Voltaire wants to be good himself because the Supreme Being is good, but he doesn’t particularly believe in the immortality of the soul, although he doesn’t rule that completely out. He ends with “I suffer with patience and resignation – not as a Christian, but as a man”.


Alexander Pope – “An Essay on Man” (the end)

Pope argues that everyone should accept their natural place in the hierarchy of the universe, just like the foot should accept it’s a foot and not an eye. The Helpful Footnote informs us that it’s an allusion to this passage from 1 Corinthians, although I couldn’t help but notice the similarity to Tilda Swintons’ tirade from Snowpiercer.  Was it the French Revolution which changed our thinking on the subject so completely, I wonder? Returning to Pope’s argument, there is no point in criticizing the organization of the universe, because if something is wrong, it’s just because we don’t get the whole picture, and “whatever is, is right”. The excerpt ends with the initial stanza of Epistle 2, which encourages man to “know thyself”. The knowledge is constituted by the admission of our existence “on this isthmus of a middle state”, between the world of spirits and of animals, possessing some knowledge, but not all, constantly in doubt. The poem has some value as a cultural document, but few people nowadays would find it easy to agree with Pope’s philosophy. But I have to admit it’s remarkable for a man who, I think, didn’t have a day when he felt completely ill since he contracted Pott’s disease as a teenager. Did he manage to convince himself that his stunted, suffering body was a part of a wonderful divine plan?

Alexander Pope – “An Essay on Man” (ctd.)

Man is constantly dissatisfied with his status, complaining that he is neither as wise as angels nor as strong as animals. But if we had some of animals’ superpowers, what would their use be to us? For instance, if we had a fly’s microscopic vision, what would be the point of being able to see the mites if we couldn’t see the sky? Or having the sense of smell so keen that the smell of a rose would kill us? The rest of the poem is the praise of the wonderful order of nature, where every capability is distributed in nice gradation between the species, from those least equipped with it to those equipped with it the most. Any change or modification of the great Chain of Being would result in the total destruction of the universe.

Alexander Pope – “An Essay on Man” (ctd.)

Pope argues that it’s actually beneficial that we can’t see “the whole picture”. If the lamb knew it was going to be slaughtered, would it skip so happily or lick the hand of the man who came to kill it? It’s really a touching description and it’s not the only time when Pope showed real sensitivity to animals’ welfare – he wrote an essay “Against Barbarity to Animals”. But on the other hand, it’s a metaphor that makes me really uneasy: if we, humans, are like these lambs playing in the meadow, then is God the butcher? Especially since in the next lines Pope describes God as someone who sees with equal indifference “a hero perish, or a sparrow fall”. What is then our refuge? “Hope springs eternal in the human breast”. Even a “poor Indian”, who worships clouds and wind, has an idea of a better afterlife, where he is not going to be persecuted by Christians thirsting for gold, and he hopes he can go there with his faithful dog. Our main problem is pride and anthropocentrism: we doubt the justness of God just because we, humans, feel unhappy. We assume that the whole universe was created for our pleasure and so we take natural catastrophes as a personal slight against us. But it’s as unreasonable to expect the world to be always calm and happy as it is unreasonable to expect people to be the same. Natural disasters are like bad people: God just lets them be because they are the result of the general laws of the universe. Winds in nature are like passions in people: they are the natural elements of life.

Joseph Addison – Essays from “The Spectator”

In the last essay in the selection Addison muses on the wide variety of living beings on earth. Quoting de Fontenelle, he argues that since on earth you can hardly find a piece of matter which is not full of animals, bigger or smaller, it is quite possible that other planets support life too, because he believes God didn’t create matter just to let it lie waste. He is also amazed by how gradually animals progress in their capacity for perception and intellect from the lowest mussels to man. He argues, using a long quote from Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, that since all the steps between lowest animals and man are filled with all sorts of creatures, similarly all the space between man and God, which is far bigger than that between man and the lowest insect, must be filled in the similar manner. I assume he means some kind of angels, but he really doesn’t specify.

Mary Astell – “Some Reflections upon Marriage” (the end)

Unfortunately, both sexes believe that husband is the best thing that can happen to a woman and any man who can “keep himself clean and make a bow” is entitled to propose to any woman, no matter how out of his league she is. SO. TRUE. If women were properly educated, many imprudent marriages could be avoided. Men who argue that women who are educated will be “too wise and too good for men” may be right, but this should be only an argument for men to improve themselves even more. If they are really naturally more intellectually capable than women, better education for women should be an impulse for them not to waste their intellect on sensual pleasures. Somebody might say that if marriage is so terrible for women, it means women shouldn’t marry at all and that would be the end of human race. On the contrary, argues Astell, she only means that marriage is not such a wonderful career for women as it is commonly believed to be, but rather only the job of a glorified upper servant. It is not a benefit for a woman in this world, but may be for her in the next, because a woman who marries for the right reasons: “to do good, to educate souls for heaven” and in order to do so she has to submit to the will of a man sometimes much inferior to her, is really a greater hero than all the heroes from epic poems. It’s a small wonder that women marry in haste, because if they took some time to consider it, perhaps they rarely would

Mary Astell – “Some Reflections upon Marriage” (fragments)

Mary Astell was a 17th/18th c. feminist writer and one of early forerunners of the movement. In her text Some Reflections upon Marriage she analyzes the way marriage worked in her times. She argues that both sexes enter it mostly for the wrong reasons. For men, the first thing they ask about is money. Astell prudently notices that of course it is an important consideration but it should not be the only one. But on the other hand, those who marry for love, marry just for beauty which passes. Some may argue that they love their brides for their wit, but what passes for wit in our times, writes Astell, is just “a bitter and ill-natured raillery, a pert repartee” or just the ability to talk fast and talk a lot, and then in the mass of the words produced you can find something which is surprising, but it doesn’t mean yet it is beautiful  This kind of wit, when they both get older and the husband falls out of love, may just turn into her venting her spleen on him. Do women always choose well, then? Well, first of all, you have to take into account the fact that they have no real power of choosing, they can just accept or refuse the proposal. Some gallant men will insist that ladies are always right, but Astell says she won’t flatter them in this way, because it doesn’t give them a chance to improve.