The Infinite Dynamic Stairway: A Presentation on Anne Conway

 

The essay “The Infinite Dynamic Stairway: Exploring Anne Conway’s Philosophy,” which is the foundation of this presentation, is available here.

Mary Wollstonecraft: Voice of Women’s Liberation

“For if it be allowed that women were destined by Providence to acquire human virtues, and by the exercise of their understandings, that stability of character which is the firmest ground to rest our future hopes upon, they must be permitted to turn to the fountain of light, and not forced to shape their course by the twinkling of a mere satellite.”[1]

– Mary Wollstonecraft

 The role of women in 18th century England was constrained almost solely to the realm of marriage and motherhood, and few women had the means to raise their voices in protection of their rights. Yet one woman, Mary Wollstonecraft, had a voice so powerful that she is considered by many to have been the first feminist to rise out of Europe. In her emphatic treatise Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft speaks out with little restraint about her thoughts on women’s education, women’s duties as mothers and wives, and women’s roles and rights in society. She opens her book with a letter bearing her primary argument:

Contending for the rights of women, my main argument is built on this simple principle, that if she be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge, for truth must be common to all, or it will be inefficacious with respect to its influence on general practice. And how can woman be expected to co-operate, unless she know why she ought to be virtuous?[2]

Mary WollstonecraftWollstonecraft’s writing carries tremendous force and is often punctuated by words and phrases penned entirely in capital letters, driving her point and opinion home. “The rights of woman may be respected, if it be fully proved that reason calls for this respect, and loudly demands justice for one half of the human race.”[3] She steps out of her era’s convention of using the term “Man” to refer to “Humanity,” instead emphasizing that there is a half of the human race who has been made invisible by the very language that describes their species. As Janet Bukovinsky Teacher writes, “No English-speaking woman had ever been so audacious as to question the validity of marriage as she did, or to suggest that men might be preventing women from pursuing their rightful place in society.”[4] Wollstonecraft held radical views not only on women’s rights, but also on divorce and even abortion. Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published during the period of the French Revolution, and in many ways Wollstonecraft is carrying much of the revolutionary energy of the times and channeling it into the transformative power of her words.

The primary focus of Wollstonecraft’s treatise on women’s rights is the manner in which women were educated in her time. Women’s education consisted almost exclusively of learning the arts to acquire a husband, and did little to develop women’s reason, understanding, sense of virtue, and physical strength. The prime target of her rebuttal is Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who argued in his treatise Emile, or On Education that men and women ought to be educated in entirely different manners because of their fundamentally different natures. Rousseau writes of women and men, saying,

In what they have in common, they are equal. Where they differ, they are not comparable. A perfect woman and a perfect man ought not to resemble each other in mind any more than in looks, and perfection is not susceptible of more or less. In the union of the sexes each contributes equally to the common aim, but not in the same way. From this diversity arises the first assignable difference in the moral relations of the two sexes.[5]

While Rousseau does not go on the unfold what he means by “In what they have in common, they are equal,” he does argue that women should be “passive and weak,” and should “put up little resistance” because they are “made specially to please man.”[6] In Wollstonecraft’s paraphrase of Rousseau’s argument, he goes on to say

that a woman should never, for a moment feel herself independent, that she should be governed by fear to exercise her natural cunning, and made a coquettish slave in order to render her a more alluring object of desire, a sweeter companion to man, whenever he chooses to relax himself.[7]

Wollstonecraft brings forward the many ways this limited and constraining view on women’s education and capabilities is detrimental not only to women but to the society as a whole. If a woman is kept ignorant by her education of all subjects except how to adorn herself to attract a husband, how will she be able to educate her children? Her ignorance will then pass on to her children who will comprise the next generation of individuals structuring society.

The patriarchal logic behind keeping women ignorant was in part based upon the idea that if women were ignorant they might remain innocent of the world’s hardships, and therefore be virtuous. But Wollstonecraft argues that pure innocence is only to be valued in children, not adult women, and that “Women are not allowed to have sufficient strength of mind to acquire what really deserves the name of virtue.”[8]  It is the faculty of reason that allows human beings to move toward virtue. She goes on to say “In fact, it is a farce to call any being virtuous whose virtues do not result from the exercise of its own reason.”[9] Later in the treatise Wollstonecraft returns to the relationship of reason to virtue when she writes,

But it is vain to attempt to keep the heart pure, unless the head is furnished with ideas, and set to work to compare them, in order, to acquire judgment, by generalizing simple ones; and modesty by making the understanding damp the sensibility.[10]

In Wollstonecraft’s time an unmarried woman’s honor was based not upon her ability to think, to engage in intelligent conversation, or on her personal accomplishments, but almost solely upon her chastity. Wollstonecraft addresses this notion with disgust, saying, “Nay the honour of a woman is not made even to depend on her will.”[11] Yet she argues that if a woman’s education is focused so exclusively on the arts that will win her a husband, then how can she help but be promiscuous once she is married? She will have been prepared for nothing but a fanciful notion of romance that will soon fade as her husband realizes she can do little else but be the coquettish slave of Rousseau’s fantasies. And to men like Rousseau she says,

The man who can be contented to live with a pretty useful companion without a mind, has lost in voluptuous gratifications a taste for more refined enjoyments; he has never felt the calm satisfaction that refreshes the parched heart, like the silent dew of heaven—of being beloved by one who could understand him.[12]

It is not surprising that much of the backlash against Vindication of the Rights of Woman came not from men but from women who saw themselves targeted by Wollstonecraft’s harsh criticisms. Women adept at the arts to which their curtailed education disposed them would have found Wollstonecraft’s arguments disturbing, insulting, and even threatening. Yet Wollstonecraft insists that it is not the nature of woman that confines her to such narrow forms of expression but rather the conditioning impressed upon her from childhood.Vindication of the Rights of Woman

In a woman’s education “Strength and usefulness are sacrificed to beauty.”[13] An interest in beauty and ways of dress are not inherent to women but rather the only interests that have been cultivated by their education. Wollstonecraft argues that it is no more natural for a woman to be exclusively interested in her own beauty than “false ambition” is natural to men. Rather, both are driven by a love for power. For women the only means to gain power is through marriage, therefore physical beauty becomes their only fully developed faculty. “Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and, roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.”[14] Wollstonecraft goes on to describe how a woman’s education saps her character until she is reduced to the physically and mentally weakened dependent creature men tell her she is.

Every thing that [women] see or hear serves to fix impressions, call forth emotions, and associate ideas, that give a sexual character to the mind. False notions of beauty and delicacy stop the growth of their limbs and produce a sickly soreness, rather than a delicacy of organs; and thus weakened by being employed in unfolding instead of examining the first associations, forced on them by every surrounding object, how can they attain the vigour necessary to enable them to throw off their factitious character?—where find strength to recur to reason and rise superior to a system of oppression, that blasts the fair promises of spring?[15]

Wollstonecraft eventually makes clear that it is the collective oppression by men that has kept women so constrained for countless centuries. The general assumption of her era was that women’s overall inferiority to men was a fact, an issue which Wollstonecraft challenges vigorously. She writes that if women indeed are inferior to men, which she does not concede then, in her words,

I shall only insist, that men have increased that inferiority till women are almost sunk below the standard of rational creatures. Let their faculties have room to unfold, and their virtues to gain strength, and then determine where the whole sex must stand in the intellectual scale.[16]

Only tyrants and sensualists, Wollstonecraft insists, would want women to be oppressed to the level of blindly obedient slaves.

Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it, and there will be an end to blind obedience; but, as blind obedience is ever sought for by power, tyrants and sensualists are in the right when they endeavour to keep women in the dark, because the former only want slaves, and the latter a plaything.[17]

Wollstonecraft goes on to ask why men would want blind obedience when rationally developed principles would ensure a more just and virtuous society. She even likens the oppression of women to that of enslaved Africans, seeming to call for revolutionary reform on both fronts in society.

Why subject [woman] to propriety—blind propriety, if she be capable of acting from a nobler spring, if she be an heir of immortality? Is sugar always to be produced by vital blood? Is one half of the human species, like the poor African slaves, to be subject to prejudices that brutalize them, when principles would be a surer guard only to sweeten the cup of man?[18]

Finally, Wollstonecraft calls upon God, the creator of the universe, to answer for the condition of women:

Gracious creator of the whole human race! hast thou created such a being as woman, who can trace thy wisdom in thy works, and feel that thou alone art by thy nature, exalted above her—for no better purpose? Can she believe that she was only made to submit to man her equal; a being, who, like her, was sent into the world to acquire virtue? Can she consent to be occupied merely to please him; merely to adorn the earth, when her soul is capable of rising to thee? And can she rest supinely dependent on man for reason, when she ought to mount with him the arduous steps of knowledge?[19]

Wollstonecraft had fully extricated herself from the false webs of deceit that continuously told women that their inferior position in society was based upon man’s God-given right for domination.

Much of Vindication of the Rights of Woman is dedicated to looking at the affect of women’s rights and education upon marriage and family. Wollstonecraft held the opinion that a marriage should be based not on passionate love, which she saw as transitory and fickle, but rather upon mutual respect and friendship. She believes that “a master and mistress of a family ought not to continue to love each other with passion.”[20] Marriage, in Wollstonecraft’s opinion, is primarily in service of raising a family and educating children to enter the world, an idea that seems very much at odds with contemporary liberal views on marriage. For Wollstonecraft, “Love is. . . an arbitrary passion.”[21] Yet she also goes on to say that “Supposing, however, for a moment, that women were, in some future revolution of time, to become, what I sincerely wish them to be, even love would acquire more serious dignity, and be purified in its own fires.”[22] Love can only be pure and dignified if first both parties can approach each other as equals.

Mary Wollstonecraft Birth ChartI would like to briefly touch upon some aspects of Mary Wollstonecraft’s astrological chart that can further illuminate her character and writings. Wollstonecraft was born at the new moon and therefore has a Sun-Moon conjunction in her natal chart. Simply put, the archetypal energy of the Sun relates to one’s central identity and focus, the areas in which one shines in one’s lifetime. The archetype of the Moon, on the other hand, carries the aspects of one’s emotions and feelings, and one’s ability to nurture, care for, and nourish in relationship. The Moon is particularly connected to the mother-child relationship, as well as the physical body. In the patriarchal West, especially during Wollstonecraft’s lifetime, the solar principle was strongly appropriated by the cultural role held by men, while women were usually dominant in the lunar home realm with little room to step into a solar identity in the world. Wollstonecraft’s Sun-Moon conjunction seems to express itself through her impulse to shine a light on the rights of women who have been operating almost exclusively in the realm of the home in the primary role of motherhood. Wollstonecraft is bringing the solar focus of her inquiry into the lunar realm, and encouraging women to step out into their individual solar power.

Wollstonecraft is also born with Uranus square Pluto in her natal chart; the archetypal expression of Uranus relates to the revolutionary impulse for creative breakthrough, liberation, and change, while the archetype of Pluto is connected to power, evolution, and transformation, to what is oppressed and repressed, and to massive scale and tectonic movement. Interestingly, Wollstonecraft published Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, at the same time the French Revolution was raging across the Channel, when Uranus was opposing Pluto in the world transits. She is expressing this powerful revolutionary energy in the tremendous force of her words which are explicitly calling for mass liberation of women from the oppression of patriarchy. She writes, “It is time to effect a revolution in female manners, time to restore to them their lost dignity, and make them, as a part of the human species, labour by reforming themselves to reform the world.”[23] The Uranus-Pluto opposition of the late 18th century—the next axial alignment of those two planets after the square in the sky when Wollstonecraft was born—was in a transiting T-square to Wollstonecraft’s natal Moon. This transit perfectly correlates with her bringing mass revolutionary energy into the lunar realms of home and motherhood and calling for women to transform their relationships with their minds, bodies, children, and husbands. She writes that a woman’s first duty is to herself and her second is to her children, a reversal of what most women in her time were raised to believe: “Speaking of women at large, their first duty is to themselves as rational creatures, and the next, in point of importance, as citizens, is that, which includes so many, of a mother.”[24]

Finally, Wollstonecraft also calls on women to respect the female body into which they were born, acknowledging their ability to grow as individuals and move toward virtue, rationality, and goodness. “She who can discern the dawn of immortality, in the streaks that shoot athwart the misty night of ignorance, promising a clearer day, will respect, as a sacred temple, the body that enshrines such an improvable soul.” For women today, Wollstonecraft’s words have opened up many doorways that were long closed to those of female gender. Yet I cannot help but wonder, now that we are once again in a period when Uranus and Pluto are in axial alignment, what greater revolutions on behalf of women would a Mary Wollstonecraft of today call upon us to enact?

 

To read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman the kindle edition is free and available here.

For further reading on Mary Wollstonecraft an interesting blog entitled Vindications of the Rights of Mary is available here.

 

Works Cited

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Emile or On Education. Translated by Allan Bloom. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1979.

Teacher, Janet Bukovinsky. Women of Words: A Personal Introduction to Thirty-Five Important Writers. Philadelphia, PA: Courage Books, 1994.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. Vindication of the Rights of Woman (Kindle Edition), 1792.

 


[1] Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman (Kindle Edition), 1792, Ch 2.

[2] Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Section: “To M. Talleyrand Perigord, Late Bishop of Autun.”

[3] Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Section: “To M. Talleyrand Perigord, Late Bishop of Autun.”

[4] Janet Bukovinsky Teacher, Women of Words: A Personal Introduction to Thirty-Five Important Writers (Philadelphia, PA: Courage Books, 1994), 7.

[5] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile or On Education, trans. Allan Bloom (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1979), 358.

[6] Rousseau, Emile or On Education, 358.

[7] Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Ch. 2.

[8] Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Ch. 2.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, Ch. 7.

[11] Ibid, Ch. 4.

[12] Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Ch. 5.

[13] Ibid, Ch. 2.

[14] Ibid, Ch. 3.

[15] Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Ch. 6.

[16] Ibid, Ch. 2.

[17] Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Ch. 2.

[18] Ibid, Ch. 9.

[19] Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Ch. 4.

[20] Ibid, Ch. 2.

[21] Ibid, Ch. 6.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Ch. 3.

[24] Ibid, Ch. 9.

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.

Of Books and Empowered Women

It is hard to capture fully in words the sense of elation at returning to one’s alma mater and recognizing how much the place shaped the way you think about the world. Stepping onto the Mount Holyoke campus was like going back in time to a place with roots deeply grounded in almost two centuries of empowering learning, welcoming tradition, and liberating fun. I was amazed by how excited I was to be back here, squirming in my car seat like a little child with the promise of ice cream and swimming in her future.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

Matt and I left Bennington in the late morning and took a lovely winding route through the Green Mountain State, definitely feeling the new weight in the car of all my possessions. The trees were so numerous there seemed to be more green to the state than mountains, although plenty of plunging cliffs and rocky streams paralleled our road offering the most varied topography of the trip so far. The road wove between little coffee roasteries, garden shops, and other businesses with such quaint names as Amaranth Gardens, Bodhi Books, Strawberry Fields, and we even saw a Vipassana Meditation Center. Between the apple orchards and horse farms the occasional ancient graveyard stood with faded, moss-enshrouded stones, a clear indication that this is the longest settled portion of the country by European settlers.

The roads began to look more and more familiar until I was able to take over from the map directions and point out the way to Matt myself. Near Northampton we crossed the Connecticut River, and cut diagonally toward South Hadley while passing old haunts I once knew: Food Bank Farm, the road to Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke itself––the mountain for which the school is named, that we would climb once a year on Mountain Day. At last we turned left onto College Street and drove under the black iron and brick gates, that were bad luck to pass under until one had graduated, and onto the college campus.

I showed Matt all my favorite buildings, inside the chapel and magnificent library (which was the primary reason I came to the school really, since it had immediately made me think of Hogwarts Castle). Even the four class symbols of a red Pegasus (my own class symbol), a yellow Sphinx, a blue Lyon (spelled like the founder Mary Lyon’s name), and a green Griffin, resonated with the well-known wizarding novels. We toured Clapp, the science building that housed the Environmental Studies Department that I majored in, and I left a little note for Lauret Savoy, the chair of the department and my mentor in my last semester as I wrote my children’s book Autumn, and my two-act play Live Power.

From there Matt and I continued our tour, passing through the greenhouse, to Upper Lake, into the Art Museum, past the amphitheater, Lower Lake, and Pratt Music Hall, to Rooke Theatre, where I once spent so much time I joked that they should set up a cot for me in one of the back rooms to rest between activities. We glimpsed the white house across the street that was my apartment senior year, and Mead and Buckland Halls in which I lived in the first and second semesters of my first year. From there we circled Skinner Green and stopped briefly in Blanchard Campus Center, before passing by Safford Hall, in which I lived the second semester of my junior year once I had returned from my study abroad semester in New Zealand. The only residence hall we didn’t visit was Dickinson, set further off the campus, where I lived for my sophomore year.

Whether in the MHC library, the Odyssey Bookstore across the street, or the Amherst Bookstore near where we had lunch, it was difficult to pull Matt away from the poetry and philosophy books. We did depart with a few new titles in hand, including Eaarth by Bill McKibbon, The Cosmic Blueprint by Paul Davies, and Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanitiesby Martha Nussbaum. We’ll likely read the latter out loud during parts of our return journey.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

As we drove away from Mount Holyoke I didn’t feel too much sadness because I felt for certain I would return here for other visits, and definitely for reunions once more time has passed since my graduation date. What I did feel though was intense gratitude. Two years after graduation, and now currently in a graduate program which I truly love, I can see more clearly what it is this particular school gave to me. This institution is in the business of empowering women, something few women even now in 2012 are given. In a setting where every student position––from teacher’s assistants, to theater directors, radio hosts, technical directors, and class presidents––is held by a woman, students can graduate with an accurate sense of a woman’s true potential. Like men, we are qualified to hold any position of power in the world, including United States president some day, but it sometimes requires a place such as this to open our eyes to that fact.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

In such a state of thought I departed Mount Holyoke, and Matt and I drove to Amherst to have some lunch at one of my former favorite eateries, Fresh Side. The warm day called for an outdoor lunch on the sidewalk in the shade of some ginkgo trees, a lunch of ginger honey ice tea, an assortment of Thai and Vietnamese tea rolls, and a little bean paste mochi for dessert. After a quick stop in another bookstore we recrossed the Connecticut River and entered my favorite town in the Pioneer Valley, Northampton. We settled in to the downstairs of one of the best study cafés in the area, The Haymarket, to do a little reading and writing before meeting up with our hosts for dinner. I relaxed into the chair that I had most likely written at least a couple papers in over the years, and once again gazed around the olive oil colored room with its assortment of tables and tiny votive candle holders. I could almost convince myself I was still in college, on one of those school days in early fall when everything feels fresh and exciting and the desire to learn whispers in one’s ear on the crisp autumn winds.

Come early evening we drove a few miles north to Whately to meet my dear family friends who had gathered together to see us for this one night we could spend in the area. Over stories of how Matt and I met we enjoyed a delicious roast chicken dinner with an abundant salad, Massachusetts’ best sweet corn (we heard that assessment from a well-travelled, corn-tasting expert), and summer fruit salad. The accompanying beverage was kombucha brewed by a man I once knew when I spent a summer at the nearby Sirius ecovillage in Shutesbury.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

We chattered away the evening looking at birth charts and transits, photos from our trip, and sharing stories about our families. I wish we could have one more day here at least, but our travel schedule keeps us moving. Tomorrow we drive to our last stop on the East Coast, a visit to New Jersey to see Matt’s brother, and then we point our noses westward once more, and begin the long journey home.