How Enlightened was the Enlightenment?

Week 10

Part 1: problematic issues for the Enlightenment.

(Part 2 is a concluding discussion of criticisms of enlightenment values and ideas)


Links: Imagining Other Index Page   


Political ideas part 1 (week 8)


Political ideas part 2 (week 9)



Introduction – tensions, ambiguities and polarities:           #introduction

1. Exploration and cross-cultural contacts, race, colonialism          #exploration

2. American Indians (the race issue) – the American Enlightenment, Different Attitudes. #America

3. Slavery  - freedom ‘a long time coming.’ #slavery

Ambivalence and tensions. Christianity Divided. Obstacles to Emancipation. Different Attitudes. Liberty vs Human Rights. Race and Difference. The Ending of Slavery.


4. Women – #women  Prominent Women.  #prominent women    Salons.  #salons  Philosophes.  #philosophes Nature of women, science etc.  #nature of women

Enlightenment Ambiguities and Tensions.  #inconsistencies

5. Key Female figures: (i) Olympe de Gouges, women and slavery: #Olympe de Gouges

                                       (ii) Mary Wollstonecraft, women and gender #Mary Wollstonecraft

6. The radical minority: William Godwin and Anarchism. Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley #Mary Shelley, Wordsworth et al.  #William Godwin

Footnote on Haiti. #Haiti




Introduction – tensions, ambiguities and polarities:


This section deals with Enlightenment thinking about such issues as race, slavery, and the position of women. I will only give a summary of the actual position regarding these issues – since my main concern is with what the ‘philosophes’ and others thought.


Fundamentally, there seem to me to have been a number of tensions/polarities in enlightenment thinking, reflecting perhaps the fact that this was clearly a period of transition between old and new views of the world. An important question to ask is: how far were these tensions resolved?


- universal and particular/’different’

- reason and feeling (for Himmelfarb the ‘politics of liberty’, where freedom is a rational requirement, and the ‘sociology of virtue’ based on ethical sentiments)

- nature and civilisation (a basic question since women were mainly seen as closer to nature)

- public and private (which especially applied to the notion of separate spheres for women)


1. Exploration, cross-cultural contacts, and race:


- while exploration, especially of the Pacific, was for knowledge, not primarily for conquest and trade, there were extreme difficulties in cross-cultural contact, given the lack of mutual understanding, unknown languages, and the widely differing cultures


- as Outram puts it (see chapter 4): natural man, as encountered in newly ‘discovered’ countries, was the ‘ultimate other:’


- in France, the conflict between the royal government and the ‘privileged law courts, [was] widely interpreted as a struggle between royal despotism and personal liberties’ – Tahitians were ‘closer to the origin of the world’ – with a simple, natural culture like the heroic age of Greece and Rome.


- there was a large audience for books on voyages (e.g. Cook, Bougainville), and the public seemed to need to believe that these were utopias – peaceful, natural and pure, without intrusive government, and with no great distinctions of wealth or social status – in other words a ‘projection space’ for European hopes, frustrations and desires


- there was a tendency, then, to idealise native people: they showed: ‘civic spirit, self-control, self-sacrifice and stoicism in the face of pain and danger’… though this is more reminiscent of Rousseau, than of e.g. Condorcet who believed that history showed the progressive advancement of humanity


- for such as Rousseau, ‘natural man’ had qualities that had been lost in an over-artificial civilisation


- so, these societies were like a replication of Europe’s origins


- the beauty of the Pacific islands was also appreciated, at the same time as when beauty was being sought in European landscapes - this can be seen in the popularity of travel literature (as mentioned), and in the popularity of stage plays, artists traveling to Tahiti etc, images of plants, engravings… (Outram p 52)


- Porter: (p 56) also shows this idealising: in 1768 Louis Bougainville (French naval commander) landed on Tahiti, and he wrote an account saying it was like the Isle of the Blessed as evoked by writers of antiquity – there was ease, peace and plenty, no private property and no sexual taboos…


- Diderot added in his ‘Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville’, circa 1770, that here was ‘no king, no magistrate, no priest, no laws, no ‘mine’ and ‘thine’ – all held in common including women (i.e. free love) – he tried to show that this was not what Christian writers would have predicted, and how the lack of prohibitions produced ‘noble savages’…


- according to Outram, however, the explorer Captain Cook tried hard to get real ‘knowledge’ of the Tahitians and others. He was angry when he asked a writer named Hawkesworth to turn his notes into a book, and he introduced sexual scenes to titillate his readers, and portrayed the Tahitians as simple and virtuous (p 51).


- it has also been said (I’ve lost the source of this...) that Cook took issue with the widespread view of native peoples, and said it was an insult to the Tahitians to portray them as so primitive – they did, for example, have property such as trees; he also challenged the idea that Tahitians/Polynesians were sexually any different from Europeans


- but Cook’s views were still part of another enlightenment belief, which he shared with Hume, and Voltaire: human nature and behaviour are fundamentally the same – but this led to the question: how could they be so different in different parts of the world?


- the best explanation enlightenment thinkers came up with was that all societies pass through similar stages of development, and the native peoples must therefore represent a ‘less developed’ stage – thus justifying the bringing of a ‘superior’ way of life to the

colonised peoples (this view is still held by some modern writers, unfortunately)


- for Cook, if there were differences of culture etc this did not make them inferior (Cook would have agreed with Terence: homo sum et nihil humanum alienum a me puto) – Cook’s approach was similar to Montesquieu: we need to consider the social and historical contexts of different cultures… (again, I’ve forgotten my source for this suggestion)


- Outram also says that Cook (like Rousseau) was aware of how the Europeans affected the peoples of the New World (Outram p 53): corrupting them with new wants (‘inauthentic desires’ which also propelled European economies) & causing the wish for luxury…



- all this led to debates on the nature of race: Buffon argued that the human race is a unity, and it is environment and climate that change people’s appearance


- but Linnaeus divided man into four groups – white Europeans, red American Indians, black Africans, brown Asians (1740) – and he later added other groups (pygmies and giants); each group had different levels of intelligence and development


- while on the other hand Lord Monboddo (Scottish jurist) argued orang-outans were human because they used tools and seemed to have a language


- i.e. the Enlightenment was confused about race, and could not answer the question of how differences appear – and so only some of the arguments used at the time led to opposition to slavery



- likewise, there were arguments both ways about colonialism, with Cook saying that the natives gained little, and Rousseau opposing both slavery and colonialism, while others argued it was our duty to exploit the earth, and that commerce (including the slave trade) was beneficial


- Raynal and Diderot (1770) wrote on commerce in the West Indies (Outram p 57 quote) questioning whether change was for the better or whether it would simply lead to more and more change


- but ideas are confused: the peoples were seen as simpler, happier and more moral etc, but it was still believed that European culture was beneficial to them, and importing European culture was justified by their innocence


- the same ambivalence existed over slavery – although by end of 18th c there were organisations opposing it (see below): the French Society for the Friends of Black People, and the British Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade –these organisations still had ‘primitivist’ views of native peoples

- in other words, there is a danger in believing that all humanity is the same and that everyone progresses through the same kind of development: this can lead to not recognizing difference, and then to legitimizing exploitation… (native peoples were, Outram argues, ‘called on to solve European problems’)


- note that by the end of the century attitudes were changing: Cook was murdered in 1779 on Hawaii, the French were in crisis over economic problems and the South Seas were no longer seen as utopia: European diseases were destroying them


2. American Indians (what Washington actually called an ‘unenlightened race’ and the American Enlightenment


The American Enlightenment – more conservative, less compassionate?


- Himmelfarb (p 217) notes that the American Enlightenment lacked the scepticism and anti-religious sentiment of the French – i.e. it was more conservative than the French enlightenment - and the American thinkers were more influenced by British moralists. However, because of immediate practical/political concerns, there was more concern with what Himmelfarb calls the ‘politics of liberty’ rather than the ‘sociology of virtue.’


- also America was not a poor country, she argues, so there was not so much concern over poverty - in fact some thought luxury more of a social problem than poverty… So there wasn’t so much philanthropy etc as in Britain


- for example, John Adams (Letter to Jefferson, 1813 – quoted in Himmelfarb p 216) disliked the call for equality and the belief in perfectibility of Rousseau and Helvetius… “It is a fine observation of yours that ‘Whig and Torey [Tory] belong to Natural History.’ Inequalities of mind and body are so established by God almighty in his constitution of human nature that no art or policy can ever plain them down to a level. I have never read reasoning more absurd, sophistry more gross… than the subtle labours of Helvetius and Rousseau to demonstrate the natural equality of mankind. Jus cuique, the golden rule, do as you would be done by, is all the equality that can be supported or defended by reason or reconciled to common sense”. [In the Corpus Juris Civilis from which the phrase jus cuique comes it is clear that it means ‘to each as they deserve’... ]


The intractable problem of the Indians:


- but (Himmelfarb argues) America did have two problems other countries did not have: the Indians and slavery, and both were ‘very nearly intractable’. After all, fundamentally, ‘the displacement of the Indians was the precondition for the very existence of the settlers.’ (219)


- subsistence farming, she says, was not compatible with ‘more sophisticated agricultural economy, to say nothing of industry and commerce…’


Different attitudes to the problem:

- Americans regarded themselves as superior  the Declaration of Independence includes the description: “the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions”


- it was, then, commonly believed that settlers were entitled to take native land – especially because the settlers had superior agricultural techniques etc,


- some saw the horrors of the impact on the Indians, but blamed it on others. Thus Jefferson blamed the British for “seducing” the Indians to massacre the whites, and for the consequent “brutalization if not extermination of this (the Indian) race in America


- John Jay however, was concerned that the treatment of the Indians was reducing his countrymen to ‘white savages’ – and urged the more gradual extension of settlers’ land.


- Washington thought the Indians’ land should be bought from them rather than driving them off it, describing them as an ‘unenlightened race’. Later, in a speech to the Cherokees before he retired form public life, Washington said the Indians should retire as a nation and assimilate.


3. Slavery: Freedom ‘a long time coming’:


Slavery update/summary:


There were lots of articles on slavery in the newspapers on the 200th anniversary of Parliament’s passing the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807.


A few statistics of note, from The Observer 25.03.07 (by Rowan Walker), and from Andrew Marr’s History of the World, p 374:


- slavery lasted 300 years

- 12.4 million West Africans were captured and taken abroad, in ships where each man had 9 inches width to lie in, in a ship’s hold, and 2’ 7” headroom.

- nearly 2 million West Africans died on the voyages from Africa to the Caribbean

- ‘add to this the huge death rate caused by the African wars, when the different tribes realised they could make money from capturing others for the slave trade, then the mortality rates in the holding-pens on the coast, ‘and the total death rate was probably higher than the number of slaves crossing the Atlantic – some 16 million.’ (Marr)

- this means, I presume, that nearly 30 million Africans were either enslaved or died...(*)

- 27 million people are estimated to be still enslaved around the world (Walker)

- £20 million compensation was paid to slave owners when slavery was abolished in the Caribbean. Slaves received nothing.

- Walker also recommends: Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome by Dr Joy DeGruy Leary – the effects of slavery in the long term are still with us.


From ‘Empire of Things’ (how we all bought into the material world...) by Frank Trenmann (Allen Lane, 2016): first half of the book [reviewed Observer 07.02.16 by Ian Thomson] charts the ‘global advance of goods’ from 15th century to today. Slavery takes up much of the story:

-         from 1700 to 1808 Bristol and Liverpool developed as a result of the trade in sugar (i.e. goods such as beads, rifles, and gunpowder went to Africa; slaves from there to the Caribbean; sugar, coffee, rice and rum went back to England.


Ambivalence and tensions:


A lamentable but necessary evil:

- many believed slavery was a ‘lamentable evil’ but that it was impractical (inconvenient!?) to abolish it


Racial inferiority:

- and in America [allegedly more influenced by the British moral school] there was a deeply held conviction that blacks were inferior (Himmelfarb p223). So, in America the problem of slavery was ‘even more formidable’ than that of the Indians (Himmelfarb p 221) – since assimilation was not seen as possible, and the only other solution was abolition (which Quakers and Methodists supported).


So, the new American state was founded on a contradiction which would not be removed until the civil war more than 70 years later (Outram).


Christianity was divided on the issue:


- Methodist congregations included many blacks (because the Methodists worked with the poor). Note, as Outram points out, that this had produced an inconsistency: can Christians be held as slaves? And this led to Methodism opposing slavery. (There is a link here with the question of equality for women: if women are equal members of the congregation, are they not equal in society?)


- Methodists in 1780: slavery is ‘contrary to the laws of God, man, and nature, and hurtful to society, contrary to the dictate of conscience and pure religion.’ (Himmelfarb p 222) Methodist preachers freed their own slaves and called on their parishioners to do so (presumably Quakers never had any!) In 1784 they banned slave-owners from congregations.


- William Wilberforce, who is remembered as a significant campaigner against slavery, was an Evangelical, and a friend of the Wesleys, (see Himmelfarb p 129, and there is more here on Methodism…)


- however, when Quakers petitioned Congress after the adoption of the Constitution, it didn’t have any effect, and the only name that had impact was Benjamin Franklin [then aged and ailing] - Quakers were suspect because they had not fought in the war


- on the ‘other side’: the Old Testament had many examples of patriarchs having slaves, and there is no discussion of the issue in the New Testament. Thus (says Outram) although the Methodists used Christianity to oppose slavery, the Virginia slave owners used the Bible against them (p 66)


- Outram says that against slavery were: Methodism and Quakers, and Protestant ‘witnessing’ churches (Moravians and Quakers) – but in favour were: the established churches - Dutch Calvinists, French Catholics, Protestant Southern states of North America.


Obstacles to the removal of slavery:



- Outram: there were difficulties for many in opposing slavery because it was so essential to an increasingly integrated world economy, and so impossible to remove slavery without (it seemed) dismantling the whole economic system. The profits from commerce based on slavery were enabling governments to grow (ch 3) which ‘primed the economic pump’ enabling the industrial revolution.


- Outram: the 18th century was the peak time for slavery in the Caribbean – slaves were taken from West Africa to Brazil (by Portugal), and to the English colonies in North America… Sugar, tobacco, coffee, and indigo were all very profitable, demand seemed insatiable, and there was a seemingly inexhaustible supply of cheap labour.



- there could be no movement on the issue of slavery during the war of independence since it would have been divisive


- though the constitution declared all men are created equal, it also had clauses that perpetuated slavery: five slaves were counted as equivalent to three white men for the purposes of taxation (I have seen this defended as simply acknowledging that slaves were more poor…); it allowed the importation of slaves for 20 more years (defended by Madison as better than not putting a time limit); and it required the return of escaped slaves to their owners…


- note how the Constitution avoids the word ‘slave’ (rather it refers to: ‘other persons’ than free people; a fugitive slave was a ‘person held in service’)


- so, how could everyone be given equal and universal rights in face of these institutions, the economic and political forces and needs, and in face of the ‘facts’ of ‘difference’? (Outram)


Different attitudes on the question of slavery and its abolition:


Reason or compassion?

- Himmelfarb (p 234) argues that the movement against slavery, in Britain, was based not on reason but compassion and humanitarian zeal – thus casting doubt on the ‘enlightened’ nature of the Enlightenment emphasis on ‘reason’


- however, in France the philosophes vigorously opposed slavery and the slave trade, and most called for the immediate emancipation of slaves, others for gradual abolition of slavery (as Himmelfarb points out, p 169)  [does it matter what the grounds were? And isn’t Himmelfarb in this instance contradicting the general drift of her book, viz that the best examples in the Enlightenment are those who based their views on social feeling rather than abstract reasoning?]


- opponents of the slave trade were not using really distinct ideas to those used by the supporters of the trade – there was moral ambiguity e.g. Jefferson (Outram p 70) saw blacks as inferior, while trying to get slavery banished. He proposed that whites should be induced to migrate into America to replace blacks, who should be sent away because: there were prejudices against blacks, and because of the ‘physical and moral’ qualities of blacks which would always divide the races and ‘produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race’. (He repeated this in his Autobiography 40 yrs later, see Himmelfarb p 224).  In other words he opposed slavery because of its bad effects on the owners, rather than for the sake of the slaves… He made use of what he thought was ‘science’ to make a case, but this can go either way (as with Bible!)… He also argued that once freed they should be deported, and not allowed to mix (whereas slaves in Roman times had not been of a different race, so they could mix). He also continued to own slaves.


- Madison also supported transportation, and opposed the slave trade, without being clearly against slavery.


Other conflicts in enlightenment thinking on the issue:

Liberty versus human rights:


- so, the ‘politics of liberty clashed with the sociology of virtue’ over this issue – (Himmelfarb p 225) maybe the founders hoped that by establishing liberty the problem of slavery would eventually be solved – but it was a long time coming, and the Civil War was bloody and traumatic ‘the most cataclysmic event in American history’ – Lincoln fought to preserve the union, it might be said, in order to abolish slavery


Race and difference:

- Outram: a central concern in the Enlightenment was the ‘meaning and manipulation of difference’ (p 74) – which was at the heart of the problem of slavery


- towards the end of the century race came to be used more in the argument (black slaves were seen as a different race) – see Montesquieu’s ironical comment (Outram p 67). There was clearly a problem of taxonomy: where to draw line between humans and animals etc?


- Descartes et al: God created (‘pre-formed’) different races – superceded by Montesquieu and Buffon who argued man had a single origin (though white!), and climate etc changed races – at end of century anatomists found differences in skeleton and cranium – this linked to women (smaller cranial cavities…)


- ‘natural’ emerged as moral category, and so easy to move from is to ought – natural (as in Aristotle) = naturally barbarian/naturally slaves


Slavery and property (Outram p 72):


- Property holding and liberty were connected in the Enlightenment. (Rousseau was an exception in his argument against property). So the attack on slavery was seen as undermining property.


- The opposition to slavery was consequently seen as strengthening government: the attack on property was an attack on property-holders; and, because only government (which was expanding and taxing more during the Enlightenment because of international competition…) can order and organise the emancipation of slaves, this meant giving more power to government – which was argued to be an attack on the rights and liberties of subjects.


The ending of slavery:


Although attitudes changed during the Enlightenment, actual emancipation was a long time coming:


- Outram points out that Montesquieu attacked the institution in Esprit de Lois 1748


- from the 1770s the ‘elite’ (Outram p 58) French Societe des Amis des Noirs was established, and a British Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade which petitioned Parliament. But these still had a ‘primitivist’ view of black people. ‘Abolitionism had no necessary links with seeing Africans as they really are.’


- American Quakers – gradual emancipation began in Pennsylvania 1780, some other states in 1788 banned participation in slave trade.


- first large-scale liberation: St Domingue (now Haiti) in Caribbean, 1792 – 1804. (See footnote).


- there was legislation in 1794 in France ending slavery, but it was soon revoked (1803) and slavery was restored in the colonies e.g. Guadeloupe.


- 1807: trade legally banned in England, 1834 banned from English possessions in Caribbean


- US: 13th amendment 1865, - Brazil: 1888.

- Outram notes that the anti-slavery issue came later than other issues in the Enlightenment such as opposition to torture, tax inequality, and for civil rights for Protestants in Catholic countries, for the end of villeinage, and against the power of the Catholic Church…


- she asks: did it end because of the Enlightenment, or because slavery had become so widespread it forced intolerable paradoxes into the open?


- what were the  causes of the change in opinion that occurred: Christianity? But it was split on the issue(as above).


- were ideologies of sentiment, humanity and benevolence - as Himmelfarb suggests - more important than religious or economic motives?




Article by Cecily Jones, Guardian Mon 17th March 2014


4. Women:


Roy Porter says that the enlightenment left an ambiguous legacy for women – it valued reason, but it helped to launch a cult of idealized motherhood, where mothers should exhibit private virtue, modesty, and domesticity, and be responsible for child-rearing. In the 19th century this view was argued as the need for ‘separate spheres’ for men and women. However, there were women who played a part in the movement.


- Outram also points out that women played important roles in the Enlightenment: they were more independent as ‘free intellectuals’ (Mary Wollstonecraft – see below), painters etc - in fact many attacks on women could be due to men fearing they were being displaced (or turned into ‘women’!) - Rousseau’s attitude was echoed by the philosophes, who feared women meddling in public affairs


Prominent women Porter gives as examples:

- the Marquise de Chatelet, Voltaire’s companion (well versed in Newtonian science)

- Sophie Volland, Diderot’s mistress (highly intelligent, cultured and articulate)

- Mme de Charriere (Belle de Zuylen) a talented literary lady who rejected the sexual double standards of the time

- Elizabeth Montague and Mrs. Chapone ‘held court’ in London

- the grandes dames who ran the salons (see below) – salons were key sites for exchange of enlightenment views

- but no women of ‘front-rank’ emerged before Mary Wollstonecraft, and Mme de Stael (later)

- in addition, the Church had female saints and mystics

- and there were prominent royal and noble women: Maria Theresa, Catherine the Great… (Diderot visited her and argued that Russia needed artisans and craftsmen…)


Women also ran salons:

- the origins of salons can be found in 17th c France: aristocratic women hosted gatherings, to discuss culture etc. – they met the costs, chose the participants, largely controlled the intellectual agendas – shaping an elite culture


- in the 18th c salons moved out of court society, becoming more middle class


- hostesses were e.g. Mme du Tencin, d’Alembert’s mother (novelist), and Mme du Deffand, wife of a financier. Diderot joined a salon


- salons gave writers an audience for their work, and helped them move into the social and intellectual elite


- this was a way for women to play their role as ‘agents and bearers of the civilised state’ (see below) – like the muses


- the salons also enabled more women to become writers


- Rousseau was against them! He saw feminine dominance as wrong, and saw salons as still having links with court culture which he thought was corrupting. Note: Rousseau’s attitude fed into the antipathy towards Marie Antoinette… Louis was seen as being corrupted by women…


- finally, whilst women themselves complained against prejudice and injustice, hardly any thought in terms of enfranchisement or political participation, or professional jobs for women


The philosophes (apart from Rousseau):

- on the other hand, Voltaire, Montesquieu and Diderot commented on the discrepancy between the existing legal codes (which deprived women of power) and the power women (presumably aristocratic women) could (in practice) actually wield


- Mary Wollstonecraft challenged the role the philosophes gave themselves: what right did they have to criticise society if they did not include women in their role as social critics?


Women, science, industrialisation, and what is ‘natural’?

- Outram says that former stereotypes of women (shrews, harlots, amazons) were replaced by attempts to explain scientifically the difference between the sexes – note there was no attempt by the (male) philosophes to deny difference, although Diderot and Voltaire also played down the difference between men and women, by seeing maternity as a temporary stage rather than as marking women for life


- the philosophes argued women were rational (after Locke, because mind is tabula rasa and hence had no sex) but did not support equality, especially because:


- women were seen (especially by Rousseau) as having a different ‘nature’:


- but the word ‘natural’ or ‘by nature’ means many things: (e.g. not socially defined, or not artificial, or based on the external physical world), so women could be: closer to nature, or determined by nature (physiologically), or analogous to the external world and (?) to be manipulated by man


- in fact, the Enlightenment’s assumptions about what is natural were challenged when it came to defining the ‘natural’ female


- so the word could be used loosely to legitimise social arrangements; so, being ‘natural’ did not bring equality and women were seen as by nature, because of their physical make-up: ‘emotional, credulous incapable of objective reasoning’ - almost a separate species, defined by reproduction, and their sexuality often denied or repressed – or as with Isaac Newton (perhaps our greatest scientist) a threat to men and to reason through sexual temptation (Easlea 1981)… 


- in their family role (especially for Rousseau) mothers were carriers of a new morality through which the unnaturalness of civilisation could be brought back (or on) to a natural order (transcendence) – see the Magic Flute, Paul et Virginie (Outram p 81). They were custodians of morality and religion in the home.


- in her social role as consumer: this definition was (Outram argues) a result of industrialisation, which needed a sexual division of labour – women (middle-class women) were important in consuming what men produced. Nancy Armstrong says the first truly modern economic person was a female, because first to have their role described in terms purely of economic function.


- however, note how working women were not seen as physically distinct (not soft, and frail!)


- in other words, the attitude to women was not new, but the means of supporting the argument that women are different was new i.e. by science viz.. biology and medicine (rather than divinely ordained hierarchies etc) – where biology was seen as making woman what she is


Enlightenment inconsistencies/ambiguities:


- when it came to gender: there were demands for rights and autonomy for men, but dependency for women – Mary Wollstonecraft (see below) pointed out these inconsistencies: if reason was innate, why is it not present in women?


- she also pointed out the different meaning of ‘virtue’ used at the time: she argued that if ‘virtue’ has a different meaning for men and for women (if you ‘give a sex to morals’) you are moving towards moral relativism: ‘virtue has one eternal standard’ and (even) if women are inferior to men their virtue should still be the same – and for both sexes derived from reason. If God is one, eternal and rational, then virtue (which grows from God) must be the same for all humans


- the Enlightenment project aimed to bring emancipation through universal value systems based on reason and virtue - but it had difficulty incorporating groups such as women, lower social classes, other races… It also created ‘fractures’ in the ‘republic of letters’ and ‘public opinion’ by problematising the position of women


- finally, if it was argued (as did some philosophes) that society has made everything artificial then femininity became something that ‘has to be defined’ – an ‘otherness’ - and this challenged Enlightenment assumptions about what is natural. Nowadays this is an argument about ‘essence’ or ‘identity’ – is there a ‘female identity or essence’ or do women (as de Beauvoir said) ‘become’ women?


5. Key female figures (i) Olympe de Gouges and the anti-slavery movement:


- in the 17th and 18th centuries, women played important roles in revolts against slavery in Caribbean. Olympe de Gouges wrote a Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen in 1791.


- written after the revolution of 1789, it expresses the disillusion that was growing among women with the male-oriented new regime – despite its dedication to ‘liberty equality and fraternity’. The Declaration includes the view that: “ignorance, omission or scorn for the rights of woman are the only causes of public misfortunes and of the corruption of governments…”


- Article 10 states that “woman has the right to mount the scaffold [i.e. to be guillotined!], she must equally have the right to mount the rostrum…” – women should have the same share of jobs, official positions etc as men.


- Article 11 declares that women should have the right to identify the father of their child, and not be forced to hide the truth – clearly the latter must have been a common practice at the time.


- Article 17: “Property belongs to both sexes…” and no-one can be deprived of it without due legal process.


For the full text go to:


See also: 


Kate Millett notes that the first female anti-slavery convention in America took place in 1837 and says that the Abolition Movement gave women their first taste of political organisation, and it provided the methods women would use for the rest of the 19th century: petitions, and agitation to educate the public ((Sexual Politics p 66, 80).


- she also notes that not all Abolitionists were in favour of women’s emancipation – and in London at the World Anti-Slavery Convention, 1840, two women were excluded, including Lucretia Mott (a Nantucket Quaker) who went on to found the first women’s Anti-Slave Society.


- but, she asks, did the fact that women first joined together to fight a cause other than their own simply indicate that they were still operating under the ‘service ethic’ of women?



5. Key female figures (ii) Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797):


- (Outram) – Wollstonecraft first worked as a teacher and then was a headmistress. She realised that girls were being educated to an inferior position, and wrote Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, 1787 – she argued that Enlightenment ideals demanded that women be given a decent education


- she became a governess to Lord Kingsborough, then went to France to observe and write about political upheaval there


- back in England she joined a radical group along with Godwin, Paine, Fuseli and Priestley


- wrote Vindication of the Rights of Men, 1790, attacking Burke (wrote it in few weeks after Burke’s Reflections) – (Himmelfarb p 110) though four years later, in a history of the French Revolution she criticised the ‘rabble’ and their ‘barbarity’ – especially the women – a position close to Burke’s!!


- she wrote her Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792


- Himmelfarb says this is mostly an attack on Rousseau, and although not systematic or cohesive it criticised women for allowing themselves to be placed in a subservient (domestic, family) role – she wanted women to become like (the best kind of) men – rational, independent, and above all educated.


- she also attacked Francis Bacon who wrote: He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or of mischief. 

Certainly the best works, and of greatest for the public, have proceeded from the unmarried or childless men."  Bacon  - Quoted by Mary Wollstonecraft, see Ball and Dagger 1991 p 342.  Mary adds "I say the same of women".


- she argued that women (a) have the ability to reason but (b) have been prevented from developing and using it by being expected to be merely "beautiful": they are told their main value is in their beauty – they are praised for this to ‘compensate’ for their treatment as inferior beings


- "the distinction of sex (i.e. gender) [should be] confounded in society, unless where love animates the behaviour" – her perspective was a ‘liberal’ one, i.e. social attitudes needed to change (not a radical/socialist perspective), and she minimises the difference between men and women (other feminists acknowledge there are differences, but re-write them/reverse the value-judgments that go with them)


- "Pleasure is the business of woman's life, according to the present modification of society; and while it continues to be so, little can be expected from such weak beings.  Inheriting ... the sovereignty of beauty - they have, to maintain their power, resigned the natural rights which the exercise of reason might have procured them, and chosen rather to be short-lived queens than labour to obtain the sober pleasures that arise from equality. Exalted by their inferiority... they constantly demand homage as women...


Why do they not discover that they are treated like queens only to be deluded by hollow respect, till they are led to resign, or not assume, their natural prerogatives?... It is true they are provided with food and raiment, for which they neither toil nor spin; but health, liberty and virtue are given in exchange.


            I lament that women are systematically degraded by receiving the trivial attentions which men think it manly to pay the sex, when in fact, they are insultingly supporting their own superiority."


Bee Rowlatt:

‘In Search of Mary’ by Bee Rowlatt, Oct 2015.


More: – campaign for a statue in Stoke Newington’where she lived, worked, and founded a school’.


6. Other members of the radical minority: William Godwin, Mary Shelley and anarchism:


William Godwin and Anarchism


Godwin is best known for his ‘Political Justice’ 1793, and also for ‘Caleb Williams’ 1794 which argues for ‘a well conceived form of society without government.’


- ‘Political Justice’ argues for the abolition of government, law, property and political economy, and for a reformed humanity… i.e. the Enlightenment idea of the perfectibility of human beings. (It was published at an ‘inauspicious time’ when France had just declared war on Britain, and Paine had fled to Paris after being indicted for his book.)


- it sold 3,000 copies at 3 guineas a time (Prime Minister Pitt thought it could do no harm to those who didn’t have enough money to buy it, and so didn’t proscribe it)


- Wordsworth, Southey and Coleridge declared their support for Godwin’s views


- Godwin was not happy with the term ‘anarchy’ though he said it had ‘the likeness, a distorted and tremendous likeness, of true liberty’ 


- a society without government, even ‘anarchy’, was better than despotism, as at least in anarchy people can think for themselves, whilst under despotism “mind is trampled into an equality of the most odious sort”


- the following year 1794 he published Caleb Williams, portraying similar ideas – it was also enthusiastically received.


- a few years later (because of his private life as well as the situation with France) ‘the tide turned’ against him.


- as with Richard Price (Review of the Principle Questions in Morals, 1757) and Joseph Priestley, Godwin was taking up an extreme position on the supremacy of reason, that was (Himmelfarb p 93) ‘far removed from’  the Scottish writer Francis Hutcheson’s idea of a moral sense


- Price: ‘reason alone, did we possess it in a higher degree’ was the basis for human relations. “There would be no need of the parental affection were all parents sufficiently acquainted with the reasons for taking upon them the guidance and support of those whom nature has placed under their care, and were they virtuous enough to be always determined by those reasons.”


- cf. Paine: “society is produced by our wants and government by our wickedness”


- also: that emotions and sexuality were irrational and immoral (Condorcet wrote a similar book: Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Human Mind – also advocating that men will ‘overcome their sensuality’)


[note Himmelfarb puts this account of Godwin’s ideas after the story, below, of his personal life saying it may distract attention from the true drama of Political Justice’ – but that surely was her intention!]


– but when Godwin met Mary Wollstonecraft he wrote her sentimental love letters; and he married her when she became pregnant – she died when she gave birth.


- Godwin remarried, ‘acquiring a family and considerable financial obligations that involved him in several unsuccessful publishing ventures…


- he doted on his and Mary’s daughter Mary (who became Mary Shelley), and was angry when she ran off with Shelley (who was an admirer of Godwin) even though the latter was acting on Godwin’s professed principles, against marriage and for freedom of the individual (Shelley left his pregnant wife for Mary)


- Shelley and Mary had three children, but Godwin refused to see his grandson (? sic, according to Himmelfarb) until Shelley married Mary


- when Shelley’s wife committed suicide he agreed to marry Mary; Godwin declared that he was happy that she was now ‘respectable, virtuous, and contented.’ 


- Godwin also wrote a four-volume history of England. Here he said that while it was easy to imagine a world where men were no longer ruled by passions and prejudices, ‘Unfortunately, men in all ages are the creatures of passion’


Godwin represents for Himmelfarb (p 114) ‘the romance of reason’ – along with Wordsworth, Southey and Coleridge who romanticized the French Revolution. For Wordsworth Reason was the “prime enchantress” liberating mankind from “the meagre, stale, forbidding ways / Of custom, law and statute.” 


For Himmelfarb the moral philosophers wanted reform, the humanising of Britain, and an age of Enlightenment that was “an age of benevolence” (she refers in a note to: M.G. Jones – The Charity School Movement – 18th c Puritanism in action, 1938) whilst the radicals wanted to transform and rationalize (an age of reason).


(Note: Himmelfaarb makes no mention of Blake…) 


O’Hara (p112):


- Godwin blends Lockean empiricism with utilitarianism – all government is bad because founded on opinion, and valued by people only in so far as they were weak and ignorant; evil is basically ignorance, caused by faulty education, perpetuated by tyranny and greed


- a moral code should be based on reason not on subjective feelings: one should save e.g. the poet and theologian Fenelon from a fire before one saved one’s own mother, because Fenelon was more use to mankind.


- Godwin didn’t accept Rousseau’s idea of the general will, or society as a moral individual. He only defended representative republican democracy in so far as it might prevent some evils – however, he said that the truth of a matter cannot be arrived at by a vote… A public vote could be subverted, and a private/secret vote facilitated hypocrisy. Communication was the essence of liberty


- a number of other commentators note that Godwin wrote against the institution of marriage, only to marry Mary Wollstonecraft, and also that he insisted that Shelley should not just cohabit with their daughter Mary but marry her (e.g. Porter p 23) – is this, though, an ad hominem argument?


Footnote on Haiti:


Haiti recent comments: Guardian 18.01.10, after the earthquake - which probably killed over 150,000 people:


(i) Letter from Selma James; Haiti extended the 1789 revolution, the Black Jacobins ended slavery. But western governments imposed debt, occupied the country and supported dictators there. In 1986 a mass movement kicked out Duvalier, and in 1990 elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a liberation theologist, who raised the minimum wage, prioritized food security, health and education, and encouraged agricultural co-operation. He was removed a few months later by a US-backed coup – and then returned in 2000 with 90% of the vote, but he was again removed in 2004 by US marines…


(ii) Letter from Wade Mansell, professor of International Law, University of Kent: Toussaint L’Ouverture led the revolt that culminated in Haiti’s independence, but Haiti was not recognised by France until 1825, and then with a financial indemnity which was demanded for the loss of French plantations and slaves. This ($90m) was not paid off till 1947… It has been estimated that the total paid to France (including interest) was $23.6 billion… The Haiti Support Group argues that the rural sector has not received the support recommended repeatedly by progressive organisations over several decades.


(iii) (Naomi Klein, Guardian 12.02.10:) – Should have its debts (to the west) cancelled? Or should it be seen as a creditor, as we owe it, from slavery, through the US occupation, dictatorship, climate change… Klein cites the Haitian economist Camille Chalmers:


- when Haiti won independence from France, in 1804, it could have claimed reparations – but France was angry at the loss of ‘property’ i.e. slave labour, and in 1825 King Charles X came to collect 90m gold francs (10 times Haiti’s annual revenue). This led to a debt that would take 122 years to pay off.


- from 1957 to 1986 the Duvalier dictatorship ran Haiti. He was later sued for siphoning off money – a Miami court found him guilty, but the money was never returned. Surely Duvalier’s debts to IMF, World Bank ($844 m) were an ‘odious debt’ since Haiti had never benefited from Duvalier’s borrowings.


- Aristide in 2003 tried to sue the French (there was an economic embargo in force at time) – but he was toppled.


The 2010 earthquake: The UN estimates that Haiti will need £338 million after the earthquake – how does this compare with what the banks have recently been given, or their bonuses? Climate change has also affected Haiti – surely developed countries should pay for damage to underdeveloped countries that have not caused the problem. Haiti’s emissions are 1% of US’s. and