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.

John Locke – “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” (the end)

Locke apologizes for his text, which some readers may find too long or too short. If it’s too short, he says, I hope it inspires the reader to do some thinking on their own. If it’s too long, it’s because it was composed in fits and starts, so whenever he put pen to paper, he had some new observations to write down, and what he initially thought could be fit on one sheet of paper grew into this long text. He says also modestly that he does not intend to compete with some giants of thought – he name-checks Newton and Boyle, among others – but just to clear the field for them so that science can develop unimpeded by obscure and and out-of-date language. In the last fragment, added to the fourth edition, he explains why he chose to use the word “determined” or “determinate” ideas instead of “clear and distinct”. First of all, everybody uses “clear and distinct” while not knowing really what they mean. Locke chooses to use the word “determinate”/”determined” (he seems to use them interchangeably) to illustrate better what he means: the simple ideas perceived by human minds and connected with the words corresponding to them. As for complex ideas, he defines them as a collection of simple ideas combined together. He is really keen on the thought that language of academic discourse should be clear and I guess he would not take kindly to much of the jargon which plagues postmodern critical theory and philosophy.

John Locke – “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” (fragments)

Today I’ve got some serious philosophy, although the editors of the NAEL picked probably the most literary part of Locke’s Essay, that is “The Epistle to the Readers”. In this introduction Locke notices courteously that he hopes his readers are going to have at least half as much fun in reading it as he had in writing it. It’s not because he is so puffed up about its value, but because he really thinks the hunt for truth is a lot of fun, much more than the real hunting or hawking and much more profitable. He addresses his book to those who like to think for themselves and not to rely on the thoughts of others, but he also notices modestly that this book is not addressed  to those who already mastered the subject. He explains the origins of this project, which was apparently started by a discussion with a few friends on an unrelated subject and which was brought to a standstill. Locke and his nameless friends decide that before they discuss the subject, they have to “examine [their] own abilities, and see what objects [their[ understandings were or were not fitted to deal with.” He noted down some hasty thoughts before their next meeting and worked on them on and off for many years before creating the final version of this test.

John Milton – “The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates”

So now a writer from the opposite end of the political spectrum to Robert Filmer – John Milton. People who want to succumb to tyranny are vicious, he argues, and tyrants will always prefer bad men, who are naturally servile, than honest men. Some of these bad men may even join for some time good ones, when it is financially profitable for them, but will hesitate to remove the cause of tyranny, notwithstanding the fact that the tyrant in reversed circumstances would not hesitate to kill them. So off with Charles’s head! He does not write that explicitly, but that’s his general drift. In the second excerpt  The second excerpt is Milton’s theory of government: man was born free, but because of Adam’s fall we cannot do as we please, so the need for the government, either that of a king or magistrates arose. They in turn, being also fallible men, had to be bound by laws and oaths they took to upkeep the laws, and if the king or the magistrate is unfaithful to the laws, the people are entitled not to obey him anymore.

Robert Filmer – “Patriarcha” (excerpts)

The texts which follow in this section are a selection of political writings of the period. They all start with the same book – the Bible – but they reach very different conclusions. Robert Filmer in his book wordily titled Patriarcha, or the Natural Power of Kings Defended Against the Unnatural Liberty of the People traces all the origins of earthly power to Adam and argues that all the Papist and Reformed theologians who said that the earthly power was the result of a democratic contract of some kind, were dead wrong. It’s interesting, as the editors of the NAEL observe in the introduction to this section, that in the 17th c. it is the Catholic church which takes the pro-liberty stance, mainly through Robert Bellarmin. Of course you could argue Catholics didn’r practise what they preached because Bellarmin argued for the freedom of religion for the Catholic subjects of the British monarchy, but would he have argued the same for Protestants in predominantly Catholic countries? Anyway, Filmer is having none of it: OF COURSE fathers have power to rule their children (not just until they are eighteen but until they die, at which point the eldest brother takes over the part of the father). The Old Testament patriarchs passed sentences, led wars and engaged in peace talks, which shows they were pretty much the kings over their family and kin. And even though contemporary kings are not literally the fathers and grandfathers of their people, OF COURSE  they have the right to exercise as much power over them as Abraham had over his family. The king, like the father of his family, takes care to “preserve, clothe, feed, instruct” his people. The excerpt does not explain what about the kings who fail to fulfill their end of the contract – are their subjects as much obligated to be subservient to them? But as we can see, Filmer’s reasoning is based on taking a lot of things for granted.

Thomas Hobbes – “Leviathan”,”Of the Causes, Generation, and Definition of a Commonwealth”

So, people, selfish and mean as they are, are willing to give up some of their liberty to the sovereign so as to avoid killing one another. Without the civil power which keeps all the nasty instincts in check, we descend into chaos. Hobbes proves it by giving as the example the sparsely populated lands where only small families live – there robbery is considered no dishonour, but on the contrary, the more you rob your neighbours, the more famous you are and the only thing that keeps people in check is the code of honour which makes them let the robbed men live and leave them the tools they need for their survival. (I think Hobbes contradicts himself here – the code of honour is apparently something people follow out of their own volition, otherwise why shouldn’t they murder and plunder?) Joining together in confederacies is not an answer because, first, the enemy can always muster a bigger force, and secondly, once the danger is past and people are not united against the common enemy, they are bound to fight with one another, because as Hobbes has already made abundantly clear, people ain’t no good.

But why can ants and bees live in complex societies without a sovereign? (I’m not sure how aware Hobbes was of it, but of course the so-called queens are in these societies just breeding machines.) Hobbes answers this in points, and I think with a note of dry humour. 1. men compete with one another, while insects don’t. 2. there is no difference for these creatures between the common good and the private one. 3. they have no reason and so they don’t find fault with their administration, like men do. 4. they can communicate by some sounds but they can’t speak, and thus they can’t lie to one another, presenting bad things as good and the other way round. 5. it is enough for their happiness to be physically comfortable, while “man is then most troublesome when he is most at ease”, because when they have it too good, they love to show off their wisdom and find fault with others. 6. the agreement of these creatures is in their nature, while any covenant, or social contract, is an artificial construct imposed on human nature.

Summing up, people in order to move past the eternal state of war, agree to give a part of their liberty to a man or an assembly of men who represent them politically. Thus the Leviathan is formed, the beast consisting of multiple people who subject all their individual wills to the will of one man or one government, and he who carries the power is called the sovereign. This ends my readings of Thomas Hobbes, not the most optimistic of philosophers, but a very clear-sighted man.