Mary Wollstonecraft would not have liked me. For one thing, she didn’t care much for Catholics. As I describe in my new book, she made a distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural religion’ and disapproved of Catholicism as a form of organised religion – a view confirmed by her visit to Portugal in 1785, undertaken to assist her dearest friend, Fanny Blood, in childbirth. A very sad sojourn – her friend died giving birth – which also confirmed her view of Catholicism leading to superstition and irrationality.
This visceral dislike of Catholicism did not present any personal challenges when writing the book. She was writing at a time of widespread anti-Catholicism in England. I have been working on that period for a long time. Her faith in God, on which she reflected throughout her life, was strong and permeates her views on every subject.
True, I did not like her much either when I began to teach her as part of History of Politi- cal Thought from 1700 to 1890 at Cambridge. I thought her too much of a nay-sayer. That is no longer the case. Editing her now famous Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) led me to her then mostly unread Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) in which she had attacked Edmund Burke for his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) within a few weeks of its publication.
Disjointed though it is, her first Vindication is powerful and original. Among the ad hominem arguments against Burke, she writes of the way in which property, or what we might now refer to as money, distorts human relations, including those between parents and children. She does not come across as a fair, let alone charitable, critic of Burke.
But Wollstonecraft was not seeking tenure or engaged in an idle academic exercise. This was politics in a revolutionary context. . When considering Reflections as well as his earlier work, she is incisive. Critical and dismissive as she might be of him, Burke brought her to reflect on ideas of femininity, love, marriage, and beauty. Her engagement with him was to shape her intellectual life. The diatribe that was her first Vindication was to mellow somewhat into a lifelong conversation with him implicit in her subsequent writings on the merits of the British Constitution, a world dominated by commerce, on women, and the sublime and the beautiful.
The willingness to think, revisit and rethink her views is what most endears her to one, whatever one’s own beliefs. Her intellectual honesty is remarkable. I hope to have done her justice or, at least no grave injustice. One does not want to justify her opinion of Catholics. My next subject will be Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (1689–1755). Montesquieu has been anchored in the literary canon much longer than Wollstonecraft.
Brought up as a Catholic with a classical education in Bordeaux, he was left the office, the wealth and the title of his uncle, the Baron de Montesquieu, who had been President of the Bordeaux Parliament.. His mother – who died when he was 11 – was of English ancestry. He was received in Rome by Benedict XIII in 1728, to whom he referred as the scholars’ pope . His wife, was a Protestant, and this is likely to have made him all the more aware of the need for religious toleration
The quality and volume of the scholarship on Montesquieu is daunting . It is difficult to know where to start.
Like Wollstonecraft, he decried slavery and the disproportionate, cruel, capital punishment. He was acutely aware of the status of women. Indeed, he thought the status of women in any given society to be indicative of its over-all nature. Following him, a number of authors in eighteenth and nineteenth century took it that if one only knew the posi- tion of women in any one society one could from that along deduce every else about it. Montesquieu is most readily identifi ed with the theory of the separation of powers. Yet, his conception of the relative freedom women enjoy under different forms of govern- ments in different parts of the world is far more interesting and relevant to our present concerns.
How one starts a book on such a prolifi c thinker and essayist, I don’t know. Not yet, at any rate. Montesquieu is thought to have launched many a ship: sociology, liberalism, the philosophy of his- tory, and others. It might be safer to publish on someone who does not mean so much to so many.
So what is one to do? To give a sense of her world view, I borrowed from Wollstonecraft’s own style in her fi rst publication, Thoughts on the education of daughters: with refl ec- tions on female conduct, in the more important duties of life (1787), a conduct book of very short essays on a variety of subjects rang- ing from ‘Moral Discipline’ to ‘Card-Playing’. It enabled me, or so I hope, to bring together her disparate thoughts and show what she thought of the world.
Montesquieu wanted readers to take his magnum opus, L’Esprit des lois (1748) as a whole. That is not easy given the range of his comments on almost every aspect of human life throughout the world. Montesquieu garnered his encyclopedic knowledge by modifying the customary typology of governments under three headings: republican, monarchical, and despotic. He also wrote in very unevenly sized chapters and paragraphs.
I am tempted by the latter. He did have a lot to say about a number of countries, England (where he lived for a while, meeting Prime Minister Walpole, Alexander Pope and Swift) Russia, Japan, China, and of course France. Treating each in turn would be a way to present his thoughts in a systematic manner, but it might be dull. on reflection, if he thought women were the key to understanding the nature of a society, then they might also help me to unlock him.
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