Things Could Be Better

04 27 mary wollstonecraftToday is the birthday of Mary Wollstonecraft who was born on this day in 1759 in Spitalfields, London. She was an English writer, philosopher and advocate of women’s rights. Her belief that women are not naturally inferior to men was unusual at the time. Mary knew from childhood what it was like to be part of a family that was ruled by a domineering and sometimes violent man. Her father was not a good person. When Mary was in her teens she used sometimes to sleep in front of her mother’s bedroom door, to prevent her father getting in and beating her in a drunken rage.

She sought refuge at the houses of friends, where she began to read and attend philosophical lectures. She definitely didn’t want to end up in the same situation as her mother and she thought the way out would be to educate herself and find work that would allow her to be independent. At nineteen, she found a job as a ladies companion, but didn’t get on very well with her employer. She later set up a school with her sisters and her friend Fanny Blood, but it failed to thrive and collapsed completely after Fanny died of tuberculosis. After that she went to work as a governess for an aristocratic Irish family, but although she got on well with the children, she did not like their mother. Mary found out what the upper class was really like and she didn’t care for what she saw.

Her experiences led her to reflect on the sorts of opportunities open to single women of her social standing, and the sort of education they received. These thoughts would lead her to write her first book: ‘Thoughts on the Education of Daughters’ in 1787. Women of the emerging middle class were generally taught things like how to dance, draw, play cards, look pretty. These were not things that were particularly useful if you found yourself having to make your own way in the world. She didn’t think they were much good for anyone else either. Mary really felt that women should be given the same sort of education as men. That they should be taught to be reasonable and rational human beings instead of being raised to spend all their time thinking about pretty frocks and going to the theatre.

The lot of women in the eighteenth century was generally to become a wife and mother. This meant that they would be largely responsible for caring for and educating the next generation. Mary thought they could probably do this a lot better if they were themselves better educated. For those who did not marry, the sort of employment women such as herself could find: ladies companion, governess, teacher, left you in a sort of limbo between your employer and other servants and disliked by both. It was not a recipe for happiness.

Mary decided that what she really wanted, was to be a writer. At that time, very few women could support themselves by writing. But Mary learned French and German and found work translating texts. She also wrote book reviews for a magazine run by a liberal publisher called Joseph Johnson. Through him she met intellectuals like radical pamphleteer, Thomas Paine and philosopher, William Godwin. Her writing career spanned the years of the French Revolution when there was much debate on both sides of the channel about the future of the monarchy. A lot was written about it by both the pro-aristocracy and the pro-republican camps and there was a huge pamphlet war. Mary became heavily engaged in the political debate.

In 1790 she wrote ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Men’, in response to a pamphlet published by a man named Edmund Burke, who defended the aristocracy, government, paternalism and chivalry. His argument was; a government was a result of political consensus and that citizens did not have the right to overthrow it. Traditions should not be challenged or the result would be anarchy. Mary countered that everyone should be judged on their merit and not on their birthright. That rights should be conferred because they are just and reasonable, not because they are traditional. She criticised the political elite for their opulence, corruption, and inhumane treatment of the poor. Also she accused the liberals of hypocrisy because they talked about equality but bowed and scraped before the old hierarchy.

In 1792 she wrote ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ which is regarded as one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy. It was written in response to a treatise read out in the French parliament which suggested that “The paternal home is better for the education of women; they have less need to learn to deal with the interests of others, than to accustom themselves to a calm and secluded life.” She was further infuriated by the comments of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who said that women should be educated for the pleasure of men. And who wouldn’t be?

The idea that women were weak, frivolous and unable to think clearly was a common one. Mary argued that women only seemed that way because they were not taught to reason clearly and were encouraged by men to be frivolous. This is what she has to say:

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.”

She also pointed out a massive double standard men had as regards morality. They expected women to be virtuous but did not apply the same standards to themselves. She believed that the sanctity of marriage should be respected by both partners.

Mary didn’t have a great time with relationships herself. She was extremely fond of the painter Henry Fuseli and tried to move in with him and his wife. When that didn’t work out, she went to France in 1792, just when it was all turning very nasty. She arrived just a month before Louis XVI was guillotined. There, she met and fell in love with American ambassador Gilbert Imlay. She got pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, who she named Fanny after her friend. Things never worked out with Gilbert and she wound up abandoned with a baby in the middle of the French Revolution. She returned to London, made a couple of attempts to win him back and her failure led to two suicide attempts. But gradually she returned to her literary life and she and William Godwin fell in love. When she became pregnant for a second time, they decided to marry, simply so their children would be legitimate.

Six months later, their daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born. You may her know better as Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. Sadly, Mary died eleven days after her daughter was born. William was devastated . A few months later, he published a book about her life: ‘Memoirs of the Author of the Vindication of the Rights of Women’. He thought it was a sincere and compassionate portrait of the woman he had grown to love. Those who read it were shocked to learn of her love affairs, her illegitimate child, her suicide attempts. The book blackened her reputation for almost a century.

Mary Wollstonecraft wouldn’t have called herself a feminist, there was no such thing at the end of the eighteenth century. But she did believe that things could be better for women. Some of her ideas about the way women are expected to be, and the effect that it has on society are very relevant today. If she could see the way that childrens’ toys and clothes are marketed specifically to boys or girls. If she could see the way girls get called ‘little princesses’ and positively encouraged to be frivolous and superficial. If she could see the way that women are forced to judge themselves against the impossible standards of some photo shopped ideal. Well, I think she’d probably cry.

It’s All About Me

02 28 michel de montaigneToday is the birthday of Michel de Montaigne, who was born in 1533 in the Aquitaine region of France. As he was born at the Château de Montaigne, you might gather that he came from a pretty well-to-do family. He is one of the most significant philosophers of the French Renaissance. His work was sometimes regarded as a bit odd because he mingled his philosphical ideas with little anecdotes and stories about himself. He will tell you when he has a headache, what his dog is doing or what he can see out of the window. He set his ideas out in a way that was relatable and easy to read, so his work was very popular. Generation after generation have found something they recognise in his work, from the Enlightenment period through to Romanticism and the Victorians to our own times.

Montaigne had a rather odd upbringing. His father had him fostered out to a peasant family until he was three. The idea was to: “draw the boy close to the people, and to the life conditions of the people, who need our help”. When he came back to the château, his father wanted him to learn Latin. Just to make sure he really learned it, he employed a German tutor who spoke no French, so all his lessons were in Latin. Both his parents spoke to him only in Latin and they hired only servants who spoke the language. At the age of six, Montaigne was fluent in Latin. He was awoken every morning by someone playing a musical instrument and a zither player followed him and his tutor around all day, in case he got bored or tired.

In 1539, he was packed off to boarding school, where he got through the whole curriculum by the time he was thirteen. Then he went to university to study law. All this sounds like it could easily have turned Montaigne into a bit of a pompous twit, but it really didn’t. After University, he went to work in the High Court at Bordeaux, where he met his very good friend Étienne de La Boétie. Michel and Étienne loved each other very much and told each other everything. It was a terrible blow to Michel when Étienne died of the plague in 1563. It may have been the loss of his friend that first led him to write his great work ‘Essias’ (Essays), his readers taking the place of his lost friend.

On this day in 1571, at the age of 38, Montaigne retired from public life, shut himself up in a tower in his castle and began work on his essays. It took him almost ten years. Oddly, he begins like this: “…I myself am the subject of my book. It is not reasonable that you should employ your leisure on a topic so frivolous and so vain, therefore, farewell.” His book has 107 chapters, or essays, on a wide range of subjects and his aim in writing them is to explain what humans are like, and more specifically, what he is like. Some topics are large and serious, others are shorter; he has a chapter where he tells us everything that he knows about thumbs and one where he tells us what he thinks about smells.

His essay ‘of Cannibals’ is an interesting one. In his lifetime, the Americas were still a pretty recent discovery and he wasn’t entirely sure it was a good thing for the people who lived there. He wrote about a tribe in Brazil who ate the bodies of their dead enemies. He didn’t see it as such a terrible thing compared with the way that Europeans routinely tortured their enemies in ways that really hurt them a lot while they were still alive. He actually met and spoke to a tribal chief and asked him what he thought of Europe. The chief replied that he was shocked to see so many poor people begging on the street while there were so many others living in big houses. He didn’t understand how everyone put up with it.

Montaigne had a lot to say about education. He thought everyone should learn at their own pace and that a really good tutor would let his student speak first and always allow time for discussion. He felt that a child’s natural curiosity would lead them to teach themselves Too much was made of the use of books and he didn’t like the way all information was presented as facts. He said that if students were not allowed to question anything, they could never truly learn. Montaigne didn’t think memorising things from books was any kind of education at all. Students who learned this way would grow up to be passive adults who obeyed blindly and questioned nothing. He makes a very good point. Despite being highly educated, he didn’t really like academics at all. He didn’t like the way they saw the ability to reason as a divine gift that put them above, not just animals but often other humans. He thought that they were arrogant and said everyone should remember that even the highest in the land always had to sit on their own bottoms. He also thought they sometimes made things complicated on purpose to make people feel stupid: “…difficulty is a coin the learned conjure with, so as not to reveal the vanity of their studies…” He didn’t think it was beyond anyone to have wise ideas if we could only stop imagining that other people know better. We are all, he says, richer than we think.

Montaigne is also a man who is interested in pursuing the things that make us happiest rather than the things which will bring us glory, which is why he fits in really well here. He tells us a lovely story about a Greek philosopher and a king. The philosopher asks the king what he will do next. The king replies: ‘Conquer Italy’. ‘And after that?’ asks the philosopher. ‘Conquer Africa’ ‘…and then?’ ‘Conquer the World” ‘what will you do after you’ve conquered the World?’ he asks the king. The king replies ‘I will sit down and have a glass of wine.’ The philosopher says: ‘Why don’t you just sit down now and have a glass of wine?’

This is what I’m going to do now, as it is also my birthday.

The Good Life

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESNow that the Christmas season is over, everyone is thinking about getting back to normal again. Perhaps some are regretting the overindulgence. Perhaps some are thinking of giving something up. I think New Year is, with so many grim days ahead and so long to wait until spring, a terrible time to try to deny yourself the things you enjoy. That’s why I want to tell you today about the Epicureans.

Today, the word Epicurean mostly means someone who enjoys fine food and drink. But there’s actually a lot more to them than that. Epicureans are the followers of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who lived between 341 and 270 BC.01 03 friends Epicurus did not put any faith in the gods, nor did he believe that there was a life beyond death. For him, the only life was this one. We should live it well and in good company. He believed that pleasure was the most important thing in life. The way to attain pleasure was to live modestly and gain knowledge about the workings of the world and learn what it is that makes us truly happy. We should stop believing in an afterlife and fearing the gods; avoid politics and people who are annoying; surround ourselves with trustworthy and affectionate friends; and, most importantly, be an affectionate, virtuous person worthy of trust. This would lead to a state of tranquillity called ataraxia and a life free from fear and from pain. Sounds good doesn’t it?

I have written a lot in the last month about shadowy figures watching over people to see if they were bad or good. For Epicurus and his followers there was no Saint Nicholas, no Krampus, no Icelandic trolls watching over them. Nor did they need to worry about upsetting the gods, because they weren’t watching either. It is people who do bad things and people who are upset by that. It wasn’t that they didn’t believe in the gods, it’s just that they couldn’t really see any evidence of them intervening in human lives. There were four possible reasons for this: The gods either wanted to eliminate bad things and could not, or could but did not want to, or neither wished to nor could, or both wanted to and could. If they wanted to and could not, then they were weak – and this doesn’t sound very godlike. If they could but did not want to, then they were spiteful – which is equally foreign to a god’s nature. If they neither wanted to nor could, they were both weak and spiteful, and therefore not gods. If they wanted to and could, which is the only thing fitting for a god, where then did bad things come from? Or why did they not eliminate them?

The Epicureans answer to this was that the gods would not and could not intervene, not because they were malevolent but because they were living in the blissful state of ataraxia. 01 03 food in good companyThe gods did not create the universe, nor did they punish or bless anyone but they were supremely happy, a condition all humans should strive for in their lifetimes. Therefore Epicurus encourages us all to pursue pleasure. Not to overindulge as this causes us suffering. Pleasures of the mind are more important than those of the body so, far from being people who wanted the best of everything, the Epicureans believed that what you ate was less important than who you ate with. Nor did they believe in breaking the law. Because the fear of being found out and the shame and pain associated with punishment takes away pleasure. Laws and punishments, for them, were to protect people from harm and leave everyone free to pursue the goal of happiness. So laws that did not contribute to human happiness were not just.

It wasn’t that they believed virtue was a good thing in itself, only that it served as a means to gain happiness. Therefore, one does nice things, not because it is noble or because the gods want you to, but because it cultivates friendship, which leads to a pleasant life for us. Putting ourselves first, as long as we cause no harm along the way, is a good thing to do. If we choose things that make us happy, we will meet other like-minded people and be even happier.

01 03 blundabus

So, if you were thinking of giving up everything you like and taking on a new and punishing regime, it’s worth remembering the Epicureans thought physical pleasures should be moderated not censored, indulged and not feared. We only pass this way once and we should make the most of it. If you are going to give something up, make it something you hate, not something you enjoy.


11 10 ninon de l'enclosToday I am celebrating the birthday of Ninon de l’Enclos, a courtesan, freethinker and patron of the arts who was born in Paris in 1620. Her mother was a devout Catholic, but her father, a professional musician, was much more of a free spirit. He taught her to play the lute and the clavichord and took her with him around the salons of Paris. In 1632, he was exiled from France following a duel over another man’s wife. Ninon identified much more with her father, so she must have found life difficult with her fanatical mother. She did not see that her mother’s religion brought her happiness and began to believe that it was all nonsense. She also resolved never to marry. To this end, she allowed herself to be ‘ruined’ by a cousin of the king, to make sure her mother couldn’t marry her off. Her mother put her in a convent.

Having sworn not to marry, Ninon had three choices, she could join the Church, become a governess or become a courtesan. The Church was definitely out as she didn’t believe in God. She left the convent less that a year later, when her mother died. Governess would have been boring. She was soon back in the salons again and well on her way to becoming one of Paris’s most celebrated courtesans. The Salons of Paris were places where people who were interested in literature and philosophy gathered together to amuse one another and exchange ideas.

Ninon was also famous for being beautiful and for retaining her beauty far into old age. In fact, some believed that when she was eighteen, she was visited by a mysterious white haired old man who is known only as the Noctambule (the sleepwalker). He told her that he had come to bestow on her one of three gifts. She must choose which she wanted: Riches, glory or eternal beauty. He told her that he had wandered the earth for six thousand years and had only made this offer to four other people: Semiramis, Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, and Diane de Poitiers. Ninon was the fifth and last person he would ask. She chose beauty and he asked her to write her name on a black tablet. In return for this gift, he would visit her once more, three days before her death and she must give him her soul. Good story, but it was probably made up by a drunken priest who was a bit obsessed with her.

Although she had a succession of wealthy lovers, she was never supported by any of them. Her independence was important to her. Her lovers had to understand that she needed to accept paid assignations with other men. They also had to understand that they couldn’t keep her. When she said it was over, it was over. She rarely had a relationship that lasted longer that three month and she was perfectly happy with that. Her behaviour was considered a scandal amongst more devout circles of Paris, not just for her numerous affairs, but also for her non-belief in God. In 1656 she was imprisoned in the Convent of the Madelonnettes at the behest of Queen Anne of Austria, who was then regent of France. But she was visited by Queen Christine, the exiled queen of Sweden, who intervened on her behalf and she was soon released.

By 1667, she was running a salon of her own at the Hôtel de Sagonne. She offered lectures on the subject of love; both how to win love and how to properly end an affair. Men had to pay for her advice, but women, she taught for free. Her salon became a safe meeting place for people who, like herself, were sceptical about Christianity. She believed that it was possible to live a moral life without being a Christian. Philosophically, she was a neo-Epicurean which means that she felt pleasure was the most important thing in life and that pain should always be avoided. She argued that, while wealth, power, honour and virtue might contribute to our happiness, it is the enjoyment of pleasure that really drives us and we shouldn’t feel guilty about it. Christianity, she felt, was responsible for making us ashamed of pleasure and that was wrong: “They preferred the austerities of deserts and rocks to the pleasures of a garden bursting with flowers.”

For her, sex was the pinnacle of human pleasure, but in order for it be really great, men and women should treat each other with equal respect. In seventeenth century France, women were expected to be pleasant and amusing and men intellectual and commanding. She said men should be more sympathetic and amusing and women shouldn’t be afraid of being clever.

Ninon believed that love is an instinct which knows no reason. It is an amoral passion that will die if you try to refine it with moral codes like chivalry. She has this to say about it:

“If you attempt to walk in the footsteps of our ancient heroes of the romances and attempt to develop great and restrained sentiments, you will soon discover that this alleged heroism only turns love into a sad and occasionally lethal folly. Love in fact is fanaticism. If you separate it from the romantic baggage public opinion has added to it, it will soon give you its proper sort of pleasure and happiness. Trust me: If it were reason that designed the affairs of the heart, love would be insipid.”

When people thought that is was terribly immoral of her to be always falling in love with someone new, her reply was that love should not be the subject of either praise or blame. It would be the same as deciding whether being thirsty was a good or a bad thing.

She lived a long and happy life and died when she was eighty-five. In her will she left money to the nine-year-old son of her accountant to buy books. He grew up to be the famous writer, historian and philosopher, Voltaire. Want to know if the Noctambule came back for her like he promised? He did but, as she did not believe in God, she had no soul to give him and he had to go away empty handed.