The Enlightenment Narrative of Mary Wollstonecraft
I thought Carl Becker’s words below provide some nice context for our analysis of the life of Mary Wollstonecraft. This was delivered as part of a lecture series to Yale Law School around 1931; it is one of the more enjoyable passages I have read:
“They denounced Christian philosophy, but rather too much, after the manner of those who are but half emancipated from the “superstitions” they scorn. They had put off the fear of God, but maintained a respectful attitude toward the Deity. They ridiculed the idea that the universe had been created in six days, but still believed it to be an articulated machine designed by the Supreme Being according to a rational plan as an abiding place for mankind. The Garden of Eden was for them a myth, no doubt, but they looked enviously back to the golden age of Roman virtue, or across the waters to the unspoiled innocence of an Arcadian civilization that flourished in Pennsylvania. They renounced the authority of church and Bible, but exhibited a naive faith in the authority of nature and reason. They scorned metaphysics, but were proud to be called philosophers. They dismantled heaven, somewhat prematurely it seems, since they retained their faith in the immortality of the soul. They courageously discussed atheism, but not before the servants. They defended toleration valiantly, but could with difficulty tolerate priests. They denied that miracles ever happened, but believed in the perfectibility of the human race…in spite of their aversion to hocus-pocus and enthusiasm and dim perspectives, in spite of their eager skepticism, their engaging cynicism, their brave youthful blasphemies and talk of hanging the last king in the entrails of the last priest—in spite of all of it, there is more of Christian philosophy in the writings of the Philosophes than has yet been dreamt of in our histories.”
–Carl Becker, The Heavenly City of the 18 th Century Philosophers, 1931, 31.
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