WOLLSTONECRAFT Philosophy, Passion and Politics
Sylvana Tomaselli

ISBN 978-0-691-24175-3   Princeton   £17.99

 Reviewed by Alan Dent

Mary Wollstonecraft was a remarkably advanced thinker. Her achievement is all the more impressive given the weight of prejudice against women in her time. Some of her ideas would give today’s Tory Party (which may not last much longer) a fit of the vapours. She was anti-racist, recognising that the human species is one while her contemporaries took for granted the superiority of the pale-face. She was sexually enlightened arguing that frigidity is a degradation of sex and more or less equating sexual responsiveness in women with virtue. It isn’t often recognised that the male domination of women robs men of one of the greatest delights in life. It is a pinnacle of male stupidity to want women to be cowed and incapable of love and passion. Yet, though Wollstonecraft must be highly praised, she made some fundamental mistakes. Chief is the notion of native human benevolence. There is an obvious, glib response: how is it compatible with centuries of injustice, violence, oppression, prejudice, tyranny? A slightly more nuanced view is that we are neither benevolent nor malevolent by nature. We are capable of both. What matters are the choices we make. It’s perfectly sensible to argue that benevolence is often predominant: by and large, people behave generally well towards one another; we are shocked by acts of random cruelty or violence, and when cruelty is politically organised it has to conceal itself behind high-sounding phrases. Benevolence is to some degree normative, a default setting. Yet if its opposite wasn’t possible, we wouldn’t recognise it. Everything is what it is only because it isn’t something else. It might be accurate to say that benevolence grows from the satisfaction of our needs. A curious feature of our culture of pursuit of wealth and consumerism is the more we have the more dissatisfied we are; obviously because pursuing wealth is not the same as attending to our needs and may well be incompatible with it.  

The first chapter considers what Wollstonecraft liked and loved. She had an appreciative sensibility and a healthy imagination. She thought poetry flourished best in “the infancy of civilization” and that “flights of the imagination and the laboured deductions of reason, appear almost incompatible”. She’s surely right that imagination has the power to condense, to evoke with minimal means while most of what passes for “reason” is often verbose over-extension. When Kafka writes “A cage went in search of a bird” he’s saying what a more discursive mind might take paragraphs to explain. Wollstonecraft didn’t believe in an eternal opposition between imagination and reason; negotiating the difference between them was a matter of “discernment”. She didn’t like Burke. She felt his defence of “romance” was support for fashionable emptiness. She was onto the phoniness of a culture which feared simplicity of feeling, a Holden Caulfield of the eighteenth century. She was contemptuous of artificial pleasures ( just as well she didn’t live to see the internet and virtual reality).  

She had a curtailed affair with American capitalist Gilbert Imlay, a man well below her level of imagination, discernment, sensitivity and generosity. He was the father of her daughter Fanny. She spotted in him the need for superficial variety as an antidote to the ennui that afflicts those out of touch with their own feelings. She was an advocate of high-minded eroticism in which physical pleasure melds with the self-transcendence of love. Lust and its attendant degradations she viewed as a failure in rising to a demanding ideal of sexual love. She didn’t think much of drunkards either, seeing intoxication as “the pleasure of savages”. None of this is moralistic, however; she wasn’t some early-day Mrs Whitehouse. She was authentic. Capable of genuine pleasure and release she had no use for the common forms of phoney hedonism. 

“It may be confidently asserted,” she wrote, “that no man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.” 

Defining evil isn’t easy, but maybe it could be said that to know something is wrong but to do it anyway, might pass muster; which of course, begs the question what we mean by “wrong”. The Hippocratic position is valuable: if we do no harm, or at least strive to, we should avoid evil, or the worst of it. Is Wollstonecraft right? Is Putin pursuing happiness in Ukraine and blind to the evil of his invasion? He certainly can’t be unaware of the harm he’s causing. Does he consider it worthwhile for a greater good? Wollstonecraft may be slightly naïve in her assertion: it’s almost certainly true that people deliberately choose courses of action which harm others but conceal their motivation (from themselves as well from others, to some degree) by adopting a moral pose. What she’s getting is that we are moral creatures by nature; but what that means is we have to choose between harmful and beneficial actions. Some people do choose evil. In fact probably, by default, a lot of people a lot of the time. Live the standard life of a first world citizen and you are almost certainly harming someone in a developing country.  

She was a great advocate of imagination, of what might be termed a poetic orientation; but she recognised not all people were equally capable:  

                        “the generality of the people cannot see or feel poetically..” 

She’s probably wrong. There may be degrees, but that some people are devoid of imagination (apart from a few tragic cases of severe brain problems) probably reflects the class structure of her time. Most people don’t have the wherewithal to write like Jane Austen or compose like Fanny Mendelssohn, but they enjoy stories, music, drama, rhyme, rhythm. What she calls the “glowing minds” have a responsibility. In our debased society, this is virtually never mentioned. The talented are supposed to make their way to fame and fortune, but Wollstonecraft’s suggestion is correct: if you can write like George Eliot or  paint like Bridget Riley, you have a responsibility to do so in ways which enhance life for everyone.  

Wollstonecraft, to her credit, was amongst the critics of Edmund Burke, particularly his views on the French Revolution. Burke’s most famous maxim is that for evil to triumph, it is necessary only for good men to do nothing. The evil in question was the subversion of the ancien regime. She saw him as reactionary, irrational and emotionally labile. Of course, The French Revolution was born in idealism and died in blood, but she’s right to castigate Burke’s anti-democratic instincts. His attack on Richard Price and his famous sermon, in which he typified the events in France as of the same kind as 1688 and the American Revolution, she saw as unworthy. She perceived the possibility of a transformation of all social relations, including the personal, in and through the attempt to overthrow the ancien regime. In this she was right: the intimate is socially mediated.

Nevertheless, she believed in a “natural elite”: “the persons pointed out by nature to direct the society of which they make a part, on any extraordinary emergency.” In this she’s confused. It’s perfectly true of course that capacities differ from person to person, but how does that confer the right on some to “direct” society? This is the idiocy of meritocracy, rightly satirized by Michael Young. In any social formation it’s sensible for skills to be assigned to those best able to fulfil them, but that doesn’t imply a right to power over others. Such power doesn’t derive from the possession of skill but, finally, from the use of force. Richard Lewontin’s observation is crucial: differences are biological, distinctions social.  

Wollstonecraft wrote about Catherine Maccaulay, the world’s first female historian and an advocate of political equality who scandalously married aged forty-seven the twenty-one-year-old William Graham (brother of the more famous James). Like her, Wollstonecraft believed that “ignorance is a soil in which no uniform virtue can take root.” This was important in the debate over free-will: she contended the will could not be free if people were sunk in ignorance (think of Trump’s base). We are free to choose, but not entirely. We are bound by necessity, but not entirely. We can’t choose to leap a thousand metres in the or to live to be three hundred. Paradoxically, our liberty rests on narrow biological limits. Absolutists blench from paradox. Wollstonecraft is right, understanding what we are, what the world is, as far as we can, is indispensable to making rational choices, which is why tyrants love ignorance.  

Engaging in an interesting anthropological speculation, she argues that when laws were first introduced, it would have been natural for people to be selfish, because they couldn’t have envisaged how a future society would make interdependence obvious. The notion that laws were introduced is intriguing: in the sense of written statute, of course, there was a period when this began; but we have never lived without laws, or rules, since we became what we are, creatures with language and abstract thought. The anthropological evidence suggests early society was characterised much less by selfishness than ours, that without property the arrogant had no basis for control and could easily be brought down a peg or two by mockery. 

In her late twenties she was a governess in Ireland, an experience which increased her contempt for the aristocracy. In Lady Kingsborough’s petting of her dogs she saw the cruel sentimentality of her class. She was without “any softness in her manners” but soppy about her animals. Hitler was the same. Psychopaths are notoriously sentimental, but what Wollstonecraft spotted in Lady K wasn’t an individual pathology, but a class sensibility. Fawning on her dogs, the narcissistic toff was formal towards her children, denying what Wollstonecraft saw as a fundamental moral duty.  

Despite her contempt for the aristocracy, whose distorted sensibilities are the product of the social pre-eminence which accompanies property, Wollstonecraft believed in property: “The only security of property that nature authorises and reason sanctions is the right a man has to enjoy the acquisitions which his talents and industry have acquired….. and to bequeath them to whom he chooses.” On the other hand, she was a critic of inheritance, arguing that property should be “fluctuating” and recognising the injustice of primogeniture. She believed that parental affection but also “superior merit” should determine legacy. Applied strictly, her definition of property would eliminate great wealth: what a person can produce from their own talent and industry is very limited. All significant wealth flows from making use of the talent and industry of others. Yet she appears not to recognise this, as if she has fallen for the myth that the rich have made their fortunes through the sweat of their brows. If property is limited to what individuals can produce by their own effort, there will be little to be passed on. Wollstonecraft has hit on the moral outrage of an economic system which permits people to enrich themselves from others’ work, but at the same time asserted “property, once gained, will procure the respect due only to talents and virtue.” 

There is a strain of anarchism in Wollstonecraft’s thinking. She was in favour of individuals having the liberty to develop to the fulness of their capacities and to choose how to do so. She exhibited a healthy degree of mistrust of governments. At the heart of her moral vision is the conviction that vanity is the abiding evil. It’s the pursuit of self-worth which undoes us. Of course, how our sense of self is constructed depends on the kind of society we inhabit. Wollstonecraft recognised people in her time were hungry for the gaze of others. This is not our natural condition. When people are valued for their wealth or power rather than their human qualities, narcissism is bound to flourish. Being denied the attention we all deserve, people identify with those who gain excessive attention (celebrities, billionaires, dictators). A genuine sense of self is denied, in its place comes the phoney selfhood of fawning identification. Just as property sucks wealth from society and deposits it in the hands of a few, so a sense of worth is concentrated in the few and the rest are tormented by the sense of emptiness which haunts our culture. What Wollstonecraft was thinking of when she wrote of vanity was almost certainly narcissism, a term which she didn’t have to hand.  

This keys in to her view of women. She recognised the irony that her society turned women into fribbles, and then held them in contempt for being so. The process goes on: women are eye-candy, their bodies are used to sell cars and ice-cream, pornography abounds and its essence is to turn women into meat. Today’s feminism has more or less abandoned the will to radically transform our economic and social arrangements and substituted a few women shinning up the greasy pole as the best to be hoped for. Wollstonecraft would surely have despised such failing expectations. 

Tomaselli is a good writer and her research is excellent. This is a thoroughly fascinating book, full of enhancing detail. Maybe she could turn her attention to Catherine Macaulay, a remarkable woman who deserves to be much more widely known.