Editor’s Note: This is not a list of feminist tracts—which, obviously, has been done—albeit some of the authors listed wrote other works significant to the history of feminist literature. Nor, pace George Eliot, is this a list of “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,”—no, only sturdy non-fiction may apply. Rather this list of free public-domain philosophical works by women writers shows how women from the 17th to the early 20th century wrote philosophical works about subjects of a more general character, i.e. not directly pertaining to the rights of women.
The Duchess of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne was a very prolific writer. This list could have featured her Philosophical Letters or her Social Letters, or even her (tedious, I found) fantasy novel The Blazing World, but none of these are as amusing as these mock orations for various fictitious occasions.
An Oration for Warr
Be not Offended, Noble Citizens, if I labour to perswade my Country, to make Heroick Warrs, since it is neither safe, profitable, nor honourable for it, to live in sluggish Peace: for in Peace you become ignorant of the Arts in War, and living sluggishly, you lose the courage of men, and become Effeminate, and having neither skil nor courage, you cannot expect safety: for should you chance to have Enemies, you would not have abilities to help your selves, having neither Experience by practice, nor Courage by use and custom; for custom and use work much upon the natures of men. And as for Arms, in times of Peace they lie like Garments out of fashion, never worn, but despised and laught at as ridiculous things, and men of action like as arms, they jear and make a mock of. Thus Martial men and arms in time of Peace are scor∣ned, although in time of Warrs they only are a Kingdomes safety, to guard it from their Enemies. Indeed, Peace spoils both youth and age, it makes the one sort Covetous, the other Wan∣ton: for aged men study only to get Wealth; the young men how to spend it. Besides, it makes the Poor men Richmen’s Asses, and Rich men Poor men’s Burdens. Also peace makes old men Fools, and young men Cowards: for in long times of Peace grave Counsels are meer gossiping meetings, rather idely to talk, than wisely to advise, they propound many things, but re∣solve not any, debate not, but conclude, and sometimes find faults, but never help to mend them. The truth is, for the most part, they rather make errors, than help to rectifie defects, and in Warrs they had rather suffer calamity, than stir for necessity; Neither will they be∣lieve they are in danger, untill their Enemies be at their Gates. And as for youth, Peace quenches out their Heroick spirits and noble ambitions: for their only ambition is their Mi∣stresses favours, and they will go to no other Warrs, but Venus, where Cupid is General, where they only make Love-skirmishes, and are shot through their hearts with glances from their Mistresses eyes. Thus Peace makes men like Beasts: for in peace they feed like Swine, sport like Apes, live like Goats, and may be brought to the Shambles like silly Sheep.
An Oration for Peace
Noble Citizens, the Oration that was last spoken unto you, hath stirr’d your spirits and incumber’d your thoughts with Warrs, and your desire for Warr is such, that you will not only seek for Enemies, but make Enemies to fight with, which is neither Heroick nor Just, to fight with those that have done you no injury or wrong; and what can be a more unworthy Act, than to assault peaceable Neighbours? it cannot be call’d an honourable Warr, but a base Outrage; like as Pirats at Sea, so you will be Robbers at Land, taking that from others, which you have no right to. But say you have some slight injuries done you, If you were wise, you had better wink at small faults than make Warrs, which will ex∣haust your Treasures, wast your Strength, de∣populate your Nation, and leave your Lands un∣manured. Besides, Warrs corrupt all good manners, nay, even good natures, making the one rude, and the other cruel; and though long Warrs may make men Martial, Skilfull, and may highten their courage, yet neither skil nor courage can alwayes bear away Victory, especially from a powerfull Enemy, unless Fortune be on their side. The truth is, Fortune is the chief Actor and decider in Warrs; and who that are wise, will trust their Goods, Lives and Liberties to Fortunes disposal, if they may choose? Wherefore they are either fools or mad, that will make Warr, when they may live in Peace. And give me leave to tell you, that it is not the way to keep our Country safe, to make Warrs abroad, but to make our Country strong with Forts on the Frontiers, and Ships on the Seas that beat on our shores, and to practise our men with training, not fighting; and it is easier to keep out an Enemy, than to Conquer an enemies Kingdome: for at home we have all Provisions needfull and near at hand, when in a forein Country we shall be to seek. But say, good fortune may inrich us, yet ill fortune will absolutely ruine us: I answer, Warr inriches few, for it makes spoil of all; the truth is, War is a great devourer, for it consumes almost all that is consumable, wheresoever it comes, and is like a Glutton, that eats much, and yet is very lean; for most commonly the under Souldiers are very poor, and the Commanders only rich in fame, yet not, unless they have good fortune, otherwise if they have ill fortune, they are usually scorn’d, at least but pittied, but never praised.
One of the most underappreciated authors in our language; a blinding nova of wit.
In a paper entitled The Nonsense of Common Sense
Men that have not sense enough to shew any superiority in their arguments, hope to be yielded to by a faith, that, as they are men, all the reason that has been allotted to human kind has fallen to their share. I am seriously of another opinion. As much greatness of mind may be shewn in submission as in command, and some women have suffered a life of hardships with as much philosophy as Cato traversed the deserts of Africa, and without that support, the view of glory offered him; which is enough for the human mind that is touched with it, to go through any toil or danger. But this is not the situation of a woman whose virtue must only shine to her own recollection, and loses that name when it is ostentatiously exposed to the world. A lady who has performed her duty as a daughter, a wife, and a mother, raises in me as much veneration as Socrates or Xenophon: and much more than I would pay either to Julius Caesar or Cardinal Mazarine, though the first was the most famous enslaver of his country, and the last the most successful plunderer of his master.
Hester Chapone is known as a writer of “Conduct Books” for young women, but as the below fragment shows, these letters were as much concerned with intellectual improvement as seeming agreeable in society.
On Reading History
The want of memory is a great discouragement in historical pursuits, and is what every body complains of. Many artificial helps have been invented, of which, those who have tried them can best tell you the effects: but the most natural and pleasant expedient is that of conversation with a friend, who is acquainted with the history which you are reading. By such conversations, you will find out how much is usually retained of what is read, and you will learn to select those characters and facts which are best worth preserving; for it is by trying to remember every thing without distinction, that young people are so apt to lose every trace of what they read.
Catherine Macaulay is only the second-most famous historian named Macaulay to write a History of England From the Accession of James II. (Damn you, Thomas Babington!) But that doesn’t mean she wasn’t a weighty contender in one of the great philosophical scrums of her time, over Burke’s Reflections.
Mr. Burke seems to adopt prejudice, opinion, and the powers of the imagination, as the safest grounds on which wise and good statesmen can establish or continue the happiness of societies. These have always been imputed by philosophers (a tribe of men whom indeed Mr. Burke affects much to despise) as causes which have produced all that is vicious and foolish in man, and consequently have been the fruitful source of human misery. . . . Though a false opinion of the rights and powers of citizens may enslave the ductile mind into a state of passive obedience, and thus secure the peace of government; yet in the same degree does it inflate the pride and arrogance of princes, until all considerations of rectitude give way to will, the barriers of personal security are flung down, and thence arises that tremendous necessity which must be followed by a state of violence and anarchy, which Mr. Burke so justly dreads. That this is the case, the experience of all societies of men who acknowledge a power in their princes paramount to all resistance, fully evinces. These societies are obliged often to have recourse to violence and massacre; not indeed to establish any popular rights, but in the way of force, to wreck their vengeance on their tyrants.
The influence of Madame de Staël on subsequent French writers is inescapable. And why not? She was an eloquent travel writer, but also an author of considerable philosophical works like this one on the passions.
Why then will truth, the truth impressed by experience, fail to convince the world of our sincerity? What! can it fail to be ultimately recognized? The innumerable proofs which from every quarter conspire to establish its reality, must at length triumph over the fabrications of calumny. Our words, our accents, the air we breathe, all seem to bear the impression of what we really are; and we deem it impossible to be long exposed to erroneous interpretations. It is with a feeling of unlimited confidence like this, that we launch with flying sails into the ocean of life.
The editor of this translation compares Madame Roland favorably to great letter writers like Mdms. Sévigné and Maintenon, saying that unlike them she wrote about substantial philosophical issues. (Okee doke.) Unlike those two, Madame Roland ended up a martyr to the Terror, a victim of the guillotine. She writes with a noble style full of Stoic sentiments, as shown in her “Last Thoughts.”
From “Last Thoughts”
As long as we have a field before us in which we can practise virtue, and give a great examples, it becomes us not to quit it; for courage consistt in continuing our career in spite of misfortune. . . . The time foretold is come, when their cries for bread are appeased with dead bodies: their degraded nature is regaled by the spectacles, and the gratification of this brutal appetite will render the scarcity of bread supportable, until it shall exceed the sufferance of nature. . . . —Do not grieve at a resolution which puts an end to my sufferings: I can bear adversity: you know me, and you will not believe that weakness or fear have prompted my decision. . . . Farewell, thou sun, whose replendent beams used to shed serenity over my soul while they recalled it to the skies. . . . Farewell peaceful retirements, where I enriched my mind with moral truths, and learned in the silence of meditation to govern my passions, and to despise the vanity of the world.
Better known for her pioneering feminist opus, Women in the Nineteenth Century, Margaret Fuller was also an important literary critic who served as the first editor of the transcendentalist journal The Dial.
American Literature; Its Position in the Present Time, and Prospects for the Future
Yet there is, often, between child and parent, a reaction from excessive influence having been exerted, and such an one we have experienced, in behalf of our country, against England. We use her language, and receive, in torrents, the influence of her thought, yet it is, in many respects, uncongenial and injurious to our constitution. What suits Great Britain, with her insular position and consequent need to concentrate and intensify her life, her limited monarchy, and spirit of trade, does not suit a mixed race, continually enriched with new blood from other stocks the most unlike that of our first descent, with ample field and verge enough to range in and leave every impulse free, and abundant opportunity to develop a genius, wide and full as our rivers, flowery, luxuriant and impassioned as our vast prairies, rooted in strength as the rocks on which the Puritan fathers landed.
That such a genius is to rise and work in this hemisphere we are confident; equally so that scarce the first faint streaks of that day’s dawn are yet visible. It is sad for those that foresee, to know they may not live to share its glories, yet it is sweet, too, to know that every act and word, uttered in the light of that foresight, may tend to hasten or ennoble its fulfillment.
That day will not rise till the fusion of races among us is more complete. It will not rise till this nation shall attain sufficient moral and intellectual dignity to prize moral and intellectual, no less highly than political, freedom, not till, the physical resources of the country being explored, all its regions studded with towns, broken by the plow, netted together by railways and telegraph lines, talent shall be left at leisure to turn its energies upon the higher department of man’s existence. Nor then shall it be seen till from the leisurely and yearning soul of that riper time national ideas shall take birth, ideas craving to be clothed in a thousand fresh and original forms.
A philosophical poem written by a German-born feminist poet and novelist in response to Charles Darwin—interesting. The poetry is not faulty either.
Would we but love what will not pass away!
The sun that on each morning shines as clear
As when it rose first on the world’s first year;
The fresh green leaves that rustle on the spray.
The sun will shine, the leaves will be as gay
When graves are full of all our hearts held dear,
When not a soul of those who loved us here,
Not one, is left us—creatures of decay.
Yea, love the Abiding in the Universe
Which was before, and will be after us.
Nor yet for ever hanker and vainly cry
For human love—the beings that change or die;
Die—change—forget: to care so is a curse,
Yet cursed we’ll be rather than not care thus.
Random thought: Besant has a very preacherly manner for an atheist.
On Eternal Torture
There are other doctrines which, while degrading in regard to man’s conception of God, and therefore deserving of reprobation, yet enshrine great moral truths and have become bound up with ennobling lessons; such is the doctrine of the Atonement, which enshrines the idea of selfless love and of self-sacrifice for the good of humanity. . . . But there is one dogma of Orthodox Christianity which stands alone in its atrocity, which is thoroughly and essentially bad, which is without one redeeming feature, which is as blasphemous towards God as it is injurious to man; on it therefore should be poured out unsparingly the bitterest scorn and the sharpest indignation. There is no good human emotion enlisted on the side of an Eternal Hell; it is not hallowed by human love or human longings, it does not enshrine human aspirations, nor is it the outcome of human hopes. In support of this no appeal can be made to any feeling of the nobler side of our nature, nor does eternal fire stimulate our higher faculties: it acts only on the lower, baser, part of man; it excites fear, distrust of God, terror of his presence; it may scare from evil occasionally, but can never teach good; it sees God in the lightning-flash that slays, but not in the sunshine which invigorates; in the avalanche which buries a village in its fall, but not in the rich promise of the vineyard and the joyous beauty of the summer day. Hell has driven thousands half-mad with terror, it has driven monks to the solitary deserts, nuns to the sepulchre of the nunnery, but has it ever caused one soul of man to rejoice in the Father of all, and pant, “as the hart panteth after the water-springs, for the presence of God” ?
Phelps is known for her spiritual novels. (Which to a heathen like me means, she’s Christian.) That doesn’t immediately disqualify her work from being interesting, though.
What is a Fact?
I deny your claim, because (you will pardon me) of what seems to me its ignorance. You forget, or you have never learned, that truth is no niggard, and that science is a broad and bounteous term. It i not alone in the hard bosom of the rock that the Eternal rests. It is not only in the fumes of the laboratory that the breath of the devout seeker exhales. There are trained intellects that are not occupied with the germ theory, or with the latest treatist on the parasites of an unfortunate plant. There are students, as there are scholars, of other than material knowledges. You forget that there are to be found other than the physical sciences. You forget that the history of these other sciences commemorates much of the highest order of intellect, the most precise training, the most generous culture, the most candid research, and the purest sacrifice of self in the investigation of truth that human life has known.
Jane Ellen Harrison remains one of the most important figures in the modern scholarship of Greek Religion. Key point: mythology is just theology that noone believes in anymore.
This habit of viewing Greek religion exclusively through the medium of Greek literature has brought with it an initial and fundamental error in method—an error which in England, where scholarship is mainly literary, is likely to die hard. For literature Homer is the beginning, though every scholar is aware that he is nowise primitive; for theology, or—if we prefer so to call it—mythology, Homer presents, not a starting-point, but a culmination, a complete achievement, an almost mechanical accomplishment, with scarcely a hint of origines, an accomplishment moreover, which is essentially literary rather than religious, sceptical and moribund already in its very perfection. The Olympians of Homer are no more primitive than his hexameters.
Much of Paget’s writing is written in an obscure psychologizing mode that students of Freud, Jung, Foucault, etc. will enjoy. I chose an excerpt from one of her more accessible works.
The Use of Beauty
There is a sad confusion in men’s minds on the very essential subject of pleasure. We tend, most of us, to oppose the idea of pleasure to the idea of work, effort, strenuousness, patience; and, therefore, recognise as pleasures only those which cost none of these things, or as little as possible; pleasures which, instead of being produced through our will and act, impose themselves upon us from outside. In all art—for art stands half-way between the sensual and emotional experiences and the experiences of the mere reasoning intellect—in all art there is necessarily an element which thus imposes itself upon us from without, an element which takes and catches us: colour, strangeness of outline, sentimental or terrible quality, rhythm exciting the muscles, or clang which tickles the ear. But the art which thus takes and catches our attention the most easily, asking nothing in return, or next to nothing, is also the poorest art: the oleograph, the pretty woman in the fashion plate, the caricature, the representation of some domestic or harrowing scene, children being put to bed, babes in the wood, railway accidents, etc.; or again, dance or march music, and the equivalents of all this in verse. It catches your attention, instead of your attention conquering it; but it speedily ceases to interest, gives you nothing more, cloys, or comes to a dead stop. It resembles thus far mere sensual pleasure, a savoury dish, a glass of good wine, an excellent cigar, a warm bed, which impose themselves on the nerves without expenditure of attention; with the result, of course, that little or nothing remains, a sensual impression dying, so to speak, childless, a barren, disconnected thing, without place in the memory, unmarried as it is to the memory’s clients, thought and human feeling.