The Infinite Dynamic Stairway: Exploring Anne Conway’s Philosophy

A Woman Philosopher

A sole treatise is all that the world has inherited of the philosophical thought of Lady Anne Finch, Viscountess of Conway, yet aspects of her unique system and cosmology can be traced in quiet echoes through the work of several of the great names that came after her, from Leibniz, Blake, and Goethe, to Bergson and Whitehead, to contemporary feminist and ecological thinkers. Her legacy is obscured, it seems, primarily by her gender, for she lived in a time when a university education was denied to women and her name was not even included on the title page of her only publication.[1] Except in rare cases, such as in the work of Leibniz, Anne Conway’s influence on subsequent thinkers can only be traced by a shadowy similarity of content, rather than directly by name. Yet she has been called “the profoundest and most learned of the female metaphysical writers of England”[2] by James Crossley, and “the most important woman philosopher in seventeenth century England” by Sarah Hutton.[3]

Jacob's Ladder

Conway was the “Heroine pupil”[4] of the Cambridge Platonist Henry More, who said in his dedication to her of Antidote Against Atheisme that she is one “whose Genius I know to be so speculative, and Wit so penetrant, that in the knowledge of things as well Natural as Divine, you have not onely out-gone all of your own Sex, but even of that other also, whose ages have not given them over-much the start of you.”[5] In his letters to Conway, More addresses her as, in Hutton’s words, an “exceptional woman: a kind of secular saint, remarkable for her virtue and piety, not the equal of men but their superior.”[6] What can we find of this ‘exceptional woman’ in the single manuscript we have of her own words? What was Conway articulating that More, along with the other men of Conway’s intellectual circle, held her in such admiration? Conway was a truly independent mind, drawing from such diverse sources as Plato and Origen, Behmenism and Quakerism, and the Lurianic Kabbalah,[7] to craft a critique of the early modern philosophies of Descartes, Hobbes, and Spinoza, and even aspects of More’s work as well.[8] To quote Carol Wayne White at length, Conway’s The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy

may be viewed as an invaluable cultural artifact of the early modern period, depicting Conway as a high Renaissance thinker who keenly integrated occult knowledge, alchemy, ancient wisdom, and the new mode of organizing reason, or “science” represented by the mechanists. In it, she introduced a conceptualization of “processional nature” that is measured and authorized by the worth of ancient and marginalized wisdoms. The result is a unique Christian cosmology or mystical naturalism that affirms a continuum of “life-affirming impulses” stretching from God through the most inconspicuous minutiae of perceived materiality.[9]

In the Principles we are presented with a “cross-fertilisation of Cartesianism and Platonism”[10] planted in the rich soils of ancient esotericism and watered generously with Conway’s own original thought. Although brief, it is the fullest philosophical system written in English by a woman in the seventeenth century.[11]

The Three Species of Existence

Conway presents a vision of the continuum of all existence, argued as a rationally deducible religious truth.[12] Conway’s treatise opens with a rewriting of the Trinity and a delineation of the three substances or species of existence: God, Christ, and Creation. Conway writes, “In God there is no time, change, arrangement, or division of parts.”[13] She describes the Trinity not as “three distinct persons”[14] but rather as a “triune deity,” with distinct powers rather than parts: “a triplicity of God, divine wisdom, and divine will.”[15] Conway goes on to say of God that “He is also in a true and real sense an essence distinct from his creatures, although not divided or separate from them but present in everything most closely and intimately in the highest degree.”[16] She differentiates God from God’s creatures not dualistically but rather as one end of an infinite continuum is differentiated from its other end, like an infinite spectrum of light fading towards dimness.[17] God is simultaneously distinct and above Creation, while “intimately present” in all created beings as well.[18]

Drawing on Kabbalistic influences, Conway describes God diminishing God’s own brilliant light for the sake of God’s creatures.[19] In the space of diminished light arises the second species or substance, the Middle Nature between God and creation: the Messiah, the Logos, Christ.[20] Conway maintains the divinity of Christ not as a person of a triune God ontologically separate from Creation, but rather as the Mediator between God and Creation.[21] “The first concept,” Conway writes on the Trinity, “is the infinite God himself, considered above and beyond his creation; the second is the same God insofar as he is the Messiah; the third is the same God insofar as he is with the Messiah in creatures.”[22] These three substances, the only three substances as Conway clearly emphasizes, share spirit as a universal characteristic. “Deity was present in everything,” White comments, “most closely and intimately, and in the highest degree.”[23] Yet for all that God, Christ, and Creation hold in common they remain infinitely differentiated, not in essence but in expression with relation to mutability, and therefore also in relation to time.

The first of the three kinds of being, God, is altogether immutable. “God was always a creator and will always be a creator because otherwise he would change.”[24] Conway goes on to say that “while he is in time, he is not bound by time.”[25] Because God is absolutely perfect God does not move toward greater perfection, and without movement or change there is perforce no time in God; God is eternally at eternity.

God’s creatures are both within time and bound by it, and therefore mutable and susceptible to change. Such mutability arises from what Conway calls the “indifference of will,” which “is the basis for all mutability and corruptibility in creatures, so that there would be no evil in creatures if they were not mutable.”[26] This indifference of the will Conway believes is something God does not have because of God’s divine goodness:

For this reason God is both a most free agent and a most necessary one, so that he must do whatever he does to and for his creatures since his infinite wisdom, goodness, and justice are a law to him which cannot be superceded.[27]

God is immutable, bound by goodness but free from time, while creatures are mutable toward goodness or evil and are subject to the motion of time. It is interesting to note that the indifference, or freedom, of the will of which Conway writes is not only a property of human beings, but of all creatures. In this particular sense she does not give humans a privileged position in Creation.

Christ, as the Middle Nature, the soul generated by God’s partially diminished light[28]—the space the Kabbalah calls tsimtsum[29]—shares in both the nature of God and the nature of Creation. Christ, unlike God, is mutable, but only toward an ever-increasing perfection of goodness; unlike creatures, Christ cannot change toward evil. Conway writes, “Christ cannot become evil but he can become good and consequently he partakes both of divinity and creatureliness as well as eternity and time.”[30] Like the Cambridge Platonists Henry More and Ralph Cudworth, Conway articulated the existence of a “fluid intermediary” between spirit and matter, but in Conway’s system, as Jacqueline Broad writes, Conway differed from her contemporaries by “advocating a monistic theory of created substances.”[31] Conway is clear, in an unnamed refutation of Spinoza, that her system is not pantheism because if all were one substance “sin and devils would be nothing but parts or the slightest modification of this divine being.”[32] Nor is it dualism because Christ is the Mediator between God and Creation, a being that participates in both divine and created substance, permeating both and uniting them through love.

In Conway’s system Christ seems to play a role differing from the orthodox Christian views of her time. Later in her life Conway converted to Quakerism, and it was through some of her Quaker ties, as well as her reading of the Kabbalah and other ancient texts, that allowed her to question the universality of Christian doctrine. Her treatise shows sympathies for other religious perspectives: for example, when she is rewriting the Trinity as three distinct powers instead of persons, she notes how the reference to distinct persons may be “a stumbling block and offense to Jews, Turks, and other people.”[33] In White’s words, Conway also questioned, “How could Christianity be a universal religion if Christian soteriology required a belief in the historical figure of Jesus Christ?”[34] The Christ of Conway’s philosophical system is a mediating being called by many names, not only Christ and the “soul of the Messiah,” but also the Kabbalistic Adam Kadmon, [35] the Middle Nature not made or created by God, but generated by God.[36] “Such a mediator is necessary by the very nature of things,” writes Conway, “because otherwise a gap would remain and one extreme would have been united with the other extreme without a mediator, which is impossible and against the nature of things.”[37] The Middle Nature unites “the creator with his creatures, in which union their happiness lay.”[38] The Christ of Conway’s philosophy, as the loving mediator, is not dissimilar to Plato’s realm of metaxy, in which daemons, such as Eros and Logos, carry prayers and blessings between mortals and gods.

Continuum of Spirit and Matter

Anne Conway was introduced to Henry More by her brother John Finch who was studying under More at Cambridge University.[39] Conway had not always held all the views she expressed in her posthumously published treatise, and came to More with several questions regarding God’s goodness and justice, as well as the nature of the soul.[40] In a letter dated 1652 Conway writes, “Upon the Reading of your Poem of the Prae-existence of the Soul, and serious thinking of it, I desir’d to be satisfied in Four Particulars, which are these.”

       First, Whether God did create the Matter for the Enjoyment of Souls, since they fell by it?

Secondly, Whether the Soul could Enjoy the Matter without being Clothed in Corporeity; and if it could not, how it can be the Fall of the Soul that makes it Assume a Body?

Thirdly, Upon Supposition most of the Souls fell; Why did not all Assume Bodies together: And how Adam can be said to be the first Man, and all Men to Fall in him, since they Fell before: And how the Souls of Beasts and Plants came into Bodies?

Fourthly, How Man can be Restor’d, to what he Fell from; And why the Devils that Fell; cannot? Why Christ’s Death should Extend more to One than to the Other?[41]

As Terryl Givens comments on these questions, such genuine inquiry into the preexistence of the soul without dismissal had “little precedent or parallel” in the history of philosophy, especially during the early modern period.[42] Conway continued in her pursuit of these and other related questions in her philosophical studies and intellectual salons, and finally offered her own answers to some of them in the Principles. Her understanding of the relation of spirit to matter, which arguably is the primary subject of her treatise, reconciles many of the questions she posed to More in the aforementioned letter, from how the soul relates to the human body, to the souls of other species, and finally to the restoration of all who have fallen away from God.

Conway argues that all of Creation, as the third substance of being next to Christ and God, is a single substance. All of creation is one spiritual substance, a continuum from body to soul, from spirit to matter. For Conway, the unity of created substance explains how the soul and body can relate to each other, the causal connection between mind and body that Descartes saw as completely incompatible and distinct.[43] In the same language that she uses to describe the continuum of God through Christ to Creation as a gradual diminution of God’s light, she writes of body as only the darkened form of spiritual light. “Truly,” she writes, “every body is a spirit and nothing else, and it differs from a spirit only insofar as it is darker. . . Consequently, the distinction between spirit and body is only modal and incremental, not essential and substantial.”[44] Conway’s primary influence on her belief in a spirit-matter continuum is her reading of the Lurianic Kabbalah,[45] a version of the Kabbalah drawn from the teachings of Isaac Luria, a Jewish zaddik from the sixteenth century whose writings carry strains of Plotinus’ and Origen’s thought.[46]

Illustrating her point further Conway writes, “spirit and body are of one original nature and substance, and that body is nothing but fixed and condensed spirit, and spirit nothing but volatile body or body made subtle.”[47] Both spirit and matter, according to Conway, can be located in time and space and have mutual influence upon each other.[48] In this latter respect, Conway holds a position contrary to More and the other Cambridge Platonists, who believe that the body is impenetrable and divisible, while spirit is penetrable and indivisible.[49] Carolyn Merchant, who sees great value in Conway’s philosophy overall, nevertheless charges that Conway’s system is “simply a reduction of all reality to the idealist category of spirit.”[50] Broad points out that “one might be led to believe that when Conway collapses the distinction between soul and body, she is more concerned to emphasise the spirituality of matter, rather than the other way around.”[51] But as Broad goes on to emphasize, “Conway’s spiritual particles are not quite ‘spiritual’ in the orthodox sense, because they are always extended and (potentially) divisible and impenetrable.”[52] Furthermore, unlike the Platonic and Cartesian views, Conway has “unorthodox conceptions of bodies, as alive, self-moving, perceptive, and penetrable,” and she has “materialistic views of the soul, as extended, divisible, and capable of being penetrable.”[53] Rather than merely collapsing all of reality into the category of spirit as Merchant suggests, Conway seems to be emphasizing the similarity of spirit and matter and their affinity as gradations of a single substance that is neither spirit nor matter essentially, but characterized simultaneously by material and spiritual properties. That spirit and matter are the same substance explains how they are able to relate to each other, but it is their distinction that allows them to be in relationship, which is required for their evolution and movement toward perfection. Both difference and similarity, as Conway understands it, are required for the purposeful motion of Creation to exist.

Anti-Cartesianism

Conway was introduced to philosophy through Cartesianism, taught to her by More through their correspondence.[54] She was not taught to take Descartes’ system as dogma, however, and in the end her own philosophy became a refutation of the Cartesian mind-body dualism: she even went so far as to call her treatise “anti-Cartesianism.”[55] The primary question she puts to Descartes, More, and others who hold similar views, is the interaction problem: if bodies are impenetrable and divisible and souls are penetrable and indivisible, how can they possibly interact? She argues that impenetrability is the mode of matter rather than its essence, and that matter can be penetrated by substance when in a subtler, more spiritual form.[56] She offers the metaphor of iron, which cannot be penetrated by another “equally course body” but can be penetrated by a body more subtle than it: “namely, by fire, which enters it and penetrates all its parts.”[57] So it is also with the soul and its body that they are able to be intimately present in one another as fire is to iron.

The soul has an affinity for its body because they are alike; they are one substance expressing itself in opposite modalities. Conway draws an analogy between, on the one hand, the body-soul relationship and, on the other hand, the relationship, love, and cooperation of a wife and husband.[58] But unlike other philosophies that use gendered metaphor for the soul and body, Conway emphasizes the similarity between women and men rather than how they differentiate to explain their love for each other. As Broad writes, “Her argument relies upon the supposition that men and women love one another because they have the same nature.”[59] Furthermore, Conway writes of the need the soul has for the body to be complete; the body retains the image of the spirit so that it might exist as a being:

Spirit is light or the eye looking at its own proper image, and the body is the darkness which receives this image. And when the spirit beholds it, it is as if someone sees himself in a mirror. But he cannot see himself reflected in the same way in clear air or in any diaphanous body, since the reflection of an image requires a certain opacity, which we call body. . . Just as every spirit needs a body to receive and reflect its image, it also needs a body to retain the image.[60]

In order for a person to have memory her spirit must have a body, for the body is what retains the image of the spirit. “Every spirit has its own body and every body its own spirit,” Conway writes.[61]

Seemingly in response to the first two of her own questions to More about the soul, Conway speaks of the “great love and desire which spirits or souls have for bodies, and especially those bodies with which they are united and in which they dwell.”[62] Not only this, but it is the goodness of the body that moves the soul to love it, a goodness which is shared by the nature of the soul—a view starkly contrasted with both the Platonic and Cartesian conceptions of the body.[63]

One position from which Conway argues for the unity of the soul with the body is from the experience of pain—something with which Conway was deeply familiar. From a young age Conway suffered chronic ill health and severe pain, primarily in the form of incapacitating headaches that left her bedridden for long periods of time.[64] She was often so weak she took to conducting her philosophical salons in her own bedroom—a practice tremendously uncommon for the time.[65] It is interesting to note that she wrote the Principles during her last two years of life, when her health and physical pain were at their worst.[66] In reference to the concept of soul-body dualism she writes,

Why does the spirit or soul suffer so with bodily pain? For if when united to the body it has no corporeality or bodily nature, why is it wounded or grieved when the body is wounded, whose nature is so different? . . . If one says that only the body feels pain but not the soul, this contradicts the principle of those who affirm that the body has no life or perception.[67]

It is on this subject of the ontological status of matter with which Conway most strongly disagrees with Descartes, Hobbes, More, and other like-minded dualists: is matter dead and inert, or is it vital and perceptive?[68] Based on her initial arguments for the continuum of all reality and the intimate presence of God in God’s creatures, she asks, “Since every creature shares certain attributes with God, I ask what attribute produces dead matter, or body, which is incapable of life and sense for eternity?”[69] In White’s words, Conway “asserted that all substances have some element, or at least potential possession, of thought or mentality.”[70] From this position Conway argues further that animals are not soulless automatons as Descartes declared, but rather they too, like human beings, “have some kind of spirit which possesses thought, sense, love, and various other properties.”[71]

An Ecological Ethic

The vitality Conway saw running through all of Creation, and the unity of nature, led her to perceive “a certain universal love in all creatures for each other.”[72] It is this perspective held by Conway that led such ecologically oriented thinkers as Merchant and White to draw on her philosophy for an ecological ethic. Merchant writes on Conway’s philosophical system:

Its emphasis on the life of all things as gradations of soul, its lack of a separate distinction between matter and spirit, its principle of an immanent activity permeating nature, and its reverence for the nurturing power of the earth endowed it with an ethic of the inherent worth of everything alive.[73]

Meanwhile, from White’s perspective: “Conway’s religious philosophy placed emphasis on the life of all things and compelled its adherents to adopt an ethic of care for the inherent worth of everything alive.” White goes on to say, “She offers a religious cosmology resonating with ethical force regarding proper relations among all forms of nature.”[74] Conway is articulating an utterly different approach to the cosmos—a “mystical naturalism” as White calls it—from the mechanistic world view that so powerfully captivated the modern mind and subsequently shaped the very face of the Earth through industrialization.

The Dynamic Stairway

Merchant draws on Conway for her vitalist, organicist perspective, saying “Conway based her system of creation not on the machine but on the great, hierarchical chain of being, modified to incorporate an evolution or transmutation to higher forms, based on the acquisition of goodness and perfection.”[75] Conway maintains the Platonic view that Creation continually and infinitely moves toward the Good.[76] Indeed, as Broad points out, Conway agrees with the Cambridge Platonists in emphasizing the spiritual purpose behind Creation, which is to move to greater and greater spiritual perfection and goodness.[77] Because all of Creation is a single substance, it is not the essence of Creation that changes toward the Good but rather its mode, or expression.[78] Yet, as previously mentioned, what differentiates Creation from God is its mutability, and what differentiates Creation from Christ is its mutability not only toward goodness but toward evil as well—a difference made possible by creatures’ ability to have indifference or freedom of the will.

Between created beings—humans, plants, animals, water, minerals, and so forth—only a finite difference exists, making it possible for creatures to perfect themselves through the ‘hierarchical chain of being.’[79] This chain of being Conway compares to an infinite staircase, in which the steps extend infinitely yet the distance between each step remains finite.[80] Such is the finite distance between created species. Animals can become human, plants can become animals and so on, but also vice versa. Conway seems to have two different perspectives on how such mutation occurs. For one, she seems literally to hold that one species can become another, an idea she likely adopted from her close friend and fellow Quaker convert Francis Mercury van Helmont.[81] She writes of such mutation saying,

daily experience teaches us that various species can change into each other: earth changes into water, water into air, air into fire and ether and, vice versa, fire into air, air into water, etc., and these are nevertheless distinct species.[82]

She also goes on to describe more unusual transmutations of species, such as wheat into barley, worms into flies, and other aspects of the still widely believed theory of spontaneous generation that would not be disproved until the nineteenth century by Louis Pasteur.

In addition to Conway’s conception of the changeability of species into each other at a material level, she also has an alternate perspective on how a member of one species becomes that of another: echoing the Kabbalah,[83] and even aspects of More and Cudworth’s thought that was influenced by ancient sources,[84] Conway presents the idea of metempsychosis, a transmigration of souls after death from one species to another depending on how the life of that soul was lived.[85] The character of the soul will give shape to the body with which it is united—whether it be animal, vegetable, human, angel, or demon—an idea not dissimilar to Aristotle’s, and later Aquinas’s, conception of the soul as the form of the body.[86] The transmigration of souls is an expression of God’s justice in Conway’s cosmology, souls ascending or descending the infinite stairway according to their behavior not only towards fellow humans but in the treatment of animals and other species also.[87] For this perspective Conway seems to be drawing on the work of Origen, introduced to her by More, who “proposes a principle of change running through all created things,” change that is both moral and ontological.[88]

In continued agreement with Origen, who had been dismissed by the Catholic Church as a heretic centuries prior to the Renaissance revival of his thought, Conway asserts that God’s goodness would not allow God to punish souls eternally for their wrongdoings.[89] In a refutation of the Calvinist system still dominant in England during her lifetime, Conway believed punishment not to be eternal damnation but rather part of the continual movement of Creation towards goodness.[90] The benevolence and love of God would not allow God to act as a tyrant eternally punishing God’s own creations. Echoing Origen’s concept of apokatastasis[91] and the Kabbalistic notion of tikkun,[92] Conway believed in, as Givens defines it, “the eventual salvation and restoration of all spirits—even that of Satan himself.”[93]

Creatures can ascend or descend the hierarchical stairway infinitely, but Conway is clear they will never ascend to the point of equaling God in God’s perfection. “For the highest excellence of a creature,” she writes, “is to be infinite only in potentiality, not in actuality. That is, it is always able to become more perfect and more excellent to infinity, although it never reaches this infinity.”[94] God is infinitely greater than the infinite potential of God’s creatures in the way that “one infinity is greater than another.”[95] God is like a perfect sphere that no other geometrical shape can approach: even if a geometrical shape has an infinite number of sides it will never become the smooth curve of a sphere.[96]

Souls As Ruling Spirits

Some disagreement exists between interpreters of Conway’s text on whether she believed in the preexistence of souls as her teacher More did. After all, it was his poem “Prae-existence of the Soul” that inspired her series of questions regarding the nature of souls. Hutton argues that Conway did not share More’s belief in the Origenist doctrine of preexistence, although she did agree with other aspects of Origen’s thought as has been previously mentioned.[97] Givens, on the other hand, clearly asserts that Conway did agree with More on preexistence,[98] which he draws from her text when she writes, “Creatures, although they are not coeternal with God, nevertheless have existed for an infinite time from the beginning.”[99] Yet Conway also goes on to say, “In different senses, creatures have existed and not existed from eternity.”[100] How one interprets this depends on what one understands souls to be: are they individual personalities that have existed from the beginning? Or rather is the single substance constituting all of Creation what has existed from eternity, and souls are constituted later by the process of eternal motion toward goodness?

Just as Creation is a multitude within the unity of a single substance, and the Trinity a triune within a single Spirit, Conway has a similar conception of all creatures. Not only are God’s creatures “infinite and created in an infinity of ways”[101] but also that “in every creature, whether spirit or body, there is an infinity of creatures, each of which contains an infinity in itself, and so on to infinity.”[102] This idea, drawn by Conway from the Kabbalah,[103] gives rise to the conception that not only is every body composed of a multitude of bodies, but furthermore so is every spirit.[104] How then is one to understand where the concept of personhood arises? If all of the spirit-matter continuum is perceptive and vital, albeit to varying degrees, what part of myself can assert “I am”? Conway writes that just as the parts that make up a body are arranged in a certain order so too are spirits arranged, to be governed by a principle ruling spirit[105]—not unlike Emerson’s conception of the Over-Soul, or Whitehead’s dominant monad. There is not a single ruling spirit, but rather a hierarchy of ruling spirits, “such that one is the principle ruler, another has second place, and a third commands others below itself. . . Thus every human being, indeed every creature whatsoever, contains many spirits and bodies.”[106] These ruling spirits are organized along the continuum from matter to God, who is the ultimate leader of the multitude of spirits.

The dynamic multiplicity of Creation’s unity is another aspect that differentiates the spiritual being of creatures from the spiritual being of God: Creation is composed at the primary level of spiritual monads—a concept that greatly inspired Leibniz[107]—whereas God is not.[108] While creatures, as previously mentioned, can be divided to infinity, Conway writes that this is only a mathematical possibility, but not one that God, bound by goodness, would allow to occur physically. For if divided to the smallest mathematical monad, instead of merely the smallest physical monad, a creature would cease its vital motion and thus no longer have the ability to move toward perfection and goodness.[109] Something in which the motion has ceased would be dead matter, which Conway has already deemed to not exist due to the goodness of God.

Finally, Conway asserts that the infinite multiplicity of creatures is actually what allows them to have the capacity for motion and the ability to strive for perfection. “A creature,” she writes, “because it needs the help of its fellow creatures, must be multiple in order to receive this help.”[110] All creatures need their fellow creatures; despite their multiplicity no creature can ever be separated from Creation because they are all ultimately of one nature, one being.[111] Referring back to the principle ruling spirit that organizes the multiplicity of spirits to compose the soul and body of a creature, Conway clarifies that even this ruling spirit itself is multiple:

It is called central because all the other spirits come together in it, just as lines from every part of the circumference meet in the center and go forth from this center. Indeed, the unity of spirits composing this central predominant spirit is firmer and more tenacious than that of other spirits    . . . This unity is so great that nothing can dissolve it.[112]

Because it is God’s nature to be immutable, God has been a creator from eternity; as such, creatures also have existed from eternity because God has always created.[113] From this position Conway concludes to the Christian doctrine of the eternal existence of the soul, while simultaneously maintaining the multiplicity of that soul. She writes, “Thus it happens that the soul of every human being will remain a whole soul for eternity and endure without end, so that it may receive proper rewards for its labor.”[114] Conway affirms the eternal existence of the soul not only forward in time but backward, while also affirming the evolution of Creation, in which creatures learn from embodied action and morally guided metempsychosis.

Sacred Relationality

Conway’s religious philosophy holds that the role of Creation is ultimately to recognize and move toward its own divine nature, a belief that draws on the diverse influences of Platonic, Kabbalistic, Gnostic, Neoplatonic, and alchemical sources.[115] Her system of natural mysticism, which might also be characterized as an early modern form of process panentheism, can be seen quietly reflected in aspects of the monadology of Leibniz,[116] the organicism of Blake,[117] the morphology of Goethe,[118] the vitalism of Bergson,[119] and the process philosophy of Whitehead.[120] Her protest against a mechanical world view[121] and the Cartesian soul-body dualism has been picked up by contemporary feminists and ecological thinkers alike as they find a voice in solidarity hailing from the pivotal time of the early modern period.[122] As White notes,

Her early modern perspectives thus provide a remarkable antecedent for new naturalistic impulses in religious studies, particularly current reconstructions of nature that challenge “dominion-over-nature” ideologies derived from early scientific and modern conceptions.[123]

Yet Conway’s name is rarely included in major histories of philosophy, despite the brilliance of her thought that was recognized by her colleagues. The patriarchal tide of Western history swept her under its strong current to become a name infrequently retrieved. Nevertheless, the ocean of history is wide and the tides of the world are changing. Conway’s brief treatise may yet resurface in a significant way as humanity searches for answers within our historical lineages, answers from thinkers who present a cosmology that can remind us of our connection not only to each other but to the divinity of the planet on which we live and the cosmos through which we travel. Her emphasis on multiplicity within unity brings awareness to the relationality of the entire cosmos, to the love inspired by the simultaneous affinity and difference of all beings held together in dynamic union. In the picture White paints of Conway’s vision she says, “For Conway, the love among all creation constitutes a sacral universe where the shared love among all entities is based on a processional view of natural phenomena participating in the divine life.”[124] Conway’s may be one of the voices we need to hear in order to learn how to remain afloat upon the changing tides of a universe woven of sacred, multiplicitous unity.

References

Broad, Jacqueline. Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Conway, Anne. The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy. Edited and translated by Allison P. Coudert and Taylor Course. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Givens, Terryl L. When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Hutton, Sarah. Anne Conway: A Woman Philosopher. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Merchant, Carolyn. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution. San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco, 1990.

More, Henry. “The Epistle Dedicatory.” In An Antidote Against Atheisme: or an Appeale      to the Natural Faculties of the Minds of Man, whether there be not a God. London, England, 1653.

Ward, Richard. The Life of the Pious and Learned Henry More. Edited by Sarah Hutton et al. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer, 2000.

White, Carol Wayne. The Legacy of Anne Conway: Reverberations from a Mystical Naturalism. New York, NY: State University of New York Press, 2008.

Worthington, John. The Diary and Correspondence of Dr. John Worthington. Edited by James Crossley. Manchester, England: The Chetham Society, 1847.


[1] Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution (San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco, 1990), 254.

[2] John Worthington, The Diary and Correspondence of Dr. John Worthington, ed. James Crossley (Manchester, England: The Chetham Society, 1847), 142, note 1.

[3] Sarah Hutton, qtd. in Jacqueline Broad, Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 65.

[4] Richard Ward, The Life of the Pious and Learned Henry More, ed. Sarah Hutton et al. (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer, 2000), 123.

[5] Henry More, “The Epistle Dedicatory” in An Antidote Against Atheisme: or an Appeale to the Natural Faculties of the Minds of Man, whether there be not a God (London, England, 1653).

[6] Sarah Hutton, Anne Conway: A Woman Philosopher (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 29.

[7] Merchant, The Death of Nature, 255.

[8] Hutton, Anne Conway: A Woman Philosopher, 2, 49.

[9] Carol Wayne White, The Legacy of Anne Conway: Reverberations from a Mystical Naturalism (New York, NY: State University of New York Press, 2008), 48.

[10] Hutton, Anne Conway: A Woman Philosopher, 3.

[11] Ibid, 5-6.

[12] Ibid, 55.

[13]Anne Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, ed. and trans. Allison P. Coudert and Taylor Course (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 9.

[14] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 10.

[15] Hutton, Anne Conway: A Woman Philosopher, 65.

[16] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 9.

[17] Ibid, 10-11.

[18] Ibid, 50.

[19] Terryl L. Givens, When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012), 163.

[20] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 10-11.

[21] Hutton, Anne Conway: A Woman Philosopher, 65.

[22] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 11.

[23] White, The Legacy of Anne Conway, 49.

[24] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 13.

[25] Ibid, 14.

[26] Ibid, 15.

[27] Ibid, 16.

[28] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 24.

[29] White, The Legacy of Anne Conway, 53.

[30] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 23.

[31] Broad, Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century, 70.

[32] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 31.

[33] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 10.

[34] White, The Legacy of Anne Conway, 22.

[35] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 10.

[36] Ibid, 25.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid, 11.

[39] Hutton, Anne Conway: A Woman Philosopher, 17.

[40] Hutton, Anne Conway: A Woman Philosopher, 55.

[41] Ward, The Life of the Pious and Learned Henry More, 169.

[42] Givens, When Souls Had Wings, 158.

[43] White, The Legacy of Anne Conway, 45.

[44] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 39-40.

[45] Broad, Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century, 73.

[46] Givens, When Souls Had Wings, 163.

[47] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 61.

[48] White, The Legacy of Anne Conway, 52.

[49] Hutton, Anne Conway: A Woman Philosopher, 42.

[50] Merchant, The Death of Nature, 263.

[51] Broad, Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century, 72.

[52] Broad, Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century, 78.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Hutton, Anne Conway: A Woman Philosopher, 4.

[55] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 64.

[56] Broad, Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century, 76.

[57] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 50.

[58] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 38.

[59] Broad, Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century, 78.

[60] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 38.

[61] Ibid, 39.

[62] Ibid, 46.

[63] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 48.

[64] Hutton, Anne Conway: A Woman Philosopher, 33-4.

[65] White, The Legacy of Anne Conway, 11.

[66] Hutton, Anne Conway: A Woman Philosopher, 34.

[67] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 58.

[68] Broad, Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century, 69.

[69] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 45.

[70] White, The Legacy of Anne Conway, 3-4.

[71] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 32.

[72] Ibid, 47.

[73] Merchant, The Death of Nature, 254-5.

[74] White, The Legacy of Anne Conway, 4.

[75] Merchant, The Death of Nature, 260.

[76] Broad, Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century, 83.

[77] Ibid, 85.

[78] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 29.

[79] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 33.

[80] Ibid, 34.

[81] Merchant, The Death of Nature, 254-5.

[82] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 34.

[83] White, The Legacy of Anne Conway, 53.

[84] Merchant, The Death of Nature, 260-1.

[85] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 36.

[86] White, The Legacy of Anne Conway, 57.

[87] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 35.

[88] Hutton, Anne Conway: A Woman Philosopher, 70.

[89] Givens, When Souls Had Wings, 163.

[90] White, The Legacy of Anne Conway, 52.

[91] Givens, When Souls Had Wings, 97.

[92] Ibid, 163.

[93] Ibid, 98.

[94] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 33.

[95] Ibid, 17.

[96] Ibid, 67.

[97] Hutton, Anne Conway: A Woman Philosopher, 70.

[98] Givens, When Souls Had Wings, 164.

[99] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 12.

[100] Ibid.

[101] Ibid, 16.

[102] Ibid, 17.

[103] Broad, Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century, 73.

[104] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 39.

[105] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 39.

[106] Ibid, 39.

[107] Merchant, The Death of Nature, 264.

[108] White, The Legacy of Anne Conway, 50.

[109] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 20.

[110] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 54.

[111] Ibid, 52.

[112] Ibid, 55.

[113] Ibid, 13.

[114] Ibid, 55.

[115] White, The Legacy of Anne Conway, 26.

[116] Merchant, The Death of Nature, 257.

[117] White, The Legacy of Anne Conway, 69.

[118] Ibid, 70.

[119] Ibid, 77.

[120] Ibid, 83.

[121] Merchant, The Death of Nature, 268.

[122] Broad, Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century, 80.

[123] White, The Legacy of Anne Conway, ix.

[124] White, The Legacy of Anne Conway, 92.

Advertisements
Leave a comment

2 Comments

  1. this makes beautiful reading… and the photograph behind it is wonderful

    Reply
  1. The Infinite Dynamic Stairway: A Presentation on Anne Conway | Becca Psyche Tarnas

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: