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Religions 2018, 9(4), 132; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel9040132
1. Cavendish, Morality, and Concrete Harms
God does not quibble about who should be the beneficiaries of his goodness—all who live in the created order receive his gifts. Nature itself is so guided by physical laws that there cannot be disorder. Any perceived irregularities within creation are “just a reflection of our limited perspective and our parochial interests and concerns” (Cunning 2016, p. 172). If nature is governed by laws of creation, and humans are natural animals of that creation, then human action should also be rule-guided and in harmony with the divinely-inspired creation.7 Whatever divisions humans perpetuate within the created order are not flaws in the order itself, but a sign of disconnect between the rules and actions that are supposed to be governed by them. Rather, Cavendish writes, “those active Parts, being united into one Infinite body, cannot break Natures general Peace; for that which Man names War, Sickness, Sleep, Death, and the like, are but various particular actions of the onely matter; not, as your Author imagines, in a confusion, like Bullets, or such like things juggled together in a man’s Hat, but very orderly and methodical …” (Cavendish 1664a, p. 146). Human action, then, even when it results in negative consequences and suffering (war, sickness, sleep, death, etc.) cannot erode the natural order, function, and unity of the world. Evil cannot overturn the orderly functioning of natural systems, but is instead evidence that sometimes humans make choices that run contrary to the guidance of morality.In truth, Generosity and Humanity is like the Sun and the Air, for Humanity doth like the Air spread equally to all, it enters every where, and fills up all Vacuities; and Generosity like the Sun, shines every where, and on every Creature, although not at one Time, yet in such a Compass of Time as it hath strength and motion to extend it self; also his Benefits are General, he Disputes not Who or What deserves his Light or Heat, but knows his Light and Heat is Beneficial to all Creatures.
Here, Cunning’s argument moves from Cavendish’s fact of necessary connection in the world to the emotive moral conclusion that normative judgments simply reflect personal preferences.[Cavendish] is committed to the view that there is a necessary connection between a cause and its effect and that, in a plenum, there is no possible way for things to unfold other than they do. There is no possible reality outside of the bodies of the plenum; there is simply no grid. There are epistemic possibilities that are a reflection of the limited information that we have about our surroundings, but these (imagistic ideas) are just bodies in the plenum as well. Cavendish is committed to saying that there is only one way that things can be at any given moment, and so she will not ever assert that things should be a certain way, or that there are aims and purposes that the constituents of the plenum should take on apart from the ones that it in fact does. She instead holds that the plenum is simply as it is. We do employ normative terms like “good” and “bad”, but these are just a reflection, from our own point-of-view, of how the plenum accommodates our interests and concerns. Different constituents of the plenum are competing with each other to maintain their respective proportions of motion, and that is that. This is a theme that recurs throughout the Cavendish corpus. As we have seen, she holds that strictly speaking there is no disorder or irregularity in nature; the decay and destruction of particular beings is just among the things that happen as creatures struggle to remain in existence.
… or else it proceeds from Unwise Government, where many Errours gather into a Mass, or Tumor of Evil, which Rises into Blisters of Discontents, and then Breaks out into Civil War; or else Heaven sends it to Punish the Sins of the People. Besides, it is to be observed, that Vices Increase in a Civil War, by reason Civil Government is in Disorder, Civil Magistrates Corrupted, Civil Laws Abolished, Civil Manners, and Decent Customs Banished, and in their Places is Ra∣pine, Robbing, Stabbing, Treachery, and Falshood, all the Evil Passions and Debauch’d Appetites are let Loose, to take their Liberty.
Here, Cavendish offers a striking contrast to Cunning’s contention that there are no real moral categories. Cavendish actually presents an opposite view, that the moral has sway over the natural. If “custom” (i.e., habit and practice) and “education” can alter the inaptness, dullness, and evil passion of the mind, our actions can be morally better or worse, which makes us morally responsible to perform that best actions. Although not even the systematicity of nature (the “stars”) can influence human nature, proper habituation, association, and education can yield an improved moral condition, and a better world, for us.for there is no Assurance or Certainty in the Effects or Influence of the Stars and Planets, there is more Assurance in the Educations, and Customs of Men, and Custom and Education hath Stronger Effects, for Custom and Education can Alter the Unaptness in Natural Capacities and Understandings, the Dull Dispositions, Froward, or Evil Passions of the Mind; also it oftentimes Tempers the Irregular Humours of the Body, and can Restrain the Unsatiable Appetites of the Body and Senses, and Long Custom Alters the Nature of Men.
Justice in the public square comes directly from governmental order, but Cavendish appeals to others to behave in peaceful ways. If you believe in peace, you ought to act peaceably, since consistent thinking produces consistent action—moral thinking must result in bringing about moral states of affairs. The result is that Cavendish does not believe that all states of affairs are equal and determined. Instead, action is valuable based on whether its consequences are peaceful and positive, and whether an action ought to be performed depends in part on the extent to which it allows us to enjoy rights and peace: “Wherefore your best way is, to Submit and Obey, to be Content, to be Ruled, and not seek to Govern, to enjoy your Rights, and to revenge your Wrongs by Law and Justice, and not to make War and Confusion to destroy your selves” (Cavendish  2003b, p. 122). Of course, as a monarchist, Cavendish believes that we are most able to pursue action that produces the best states of affairs under a strong monarch. Such a leader is positioned to allow us to pursue peace, Cavendish thinks, and to avoid war (which can enslave, entrap, suppress rights, and create a false peace.) If there is a despotic government, or if a citizenry is morally base and confused, the predictable evils of war are likely to result. Cavendish’s strong warning against the vices of war and her view that peace is the protector of virtue are powerfully present in her poem “A Dialogue Betwixt Peace and War”:In other texts, when Cavendish praises or blames individuals for their actions, she typically appeals to how their actions have increased or decreased peace. For example, she criticizes Cato for killing himself over a change of government; the new government was likely to make the country safer and more peaceful, Cavendish says, so someone who truly cared for peace and safety would have supported the change.
As the guardian of virtue, peace is cast in the poem as something that can vanquish the injustices and concrete harms of war. We can strive for and attain peace, especially when we seek it in other endeavors, like religion, aesthetics, and moral education.War.Thou Flattering Peace, and most unjust, which drawesThe Vulgar by thy Rhet’rick to hard LawesWhich makes them silly Ones, content to be,To take up Voluntary Slavery.And mak’st great Inequalities beside,Some like to Asses beare, others on Horsback ride.Peace.O War, thou cruell Enemy to Life,Vnquieted Neighbour, breeding alwaies StrifeI the Parent of Learning am, and Arts,Nurse to Religion, and Comfort to all Hearts.I am the Guardian, which keepes Vertue safe.(PF, 90–91)
Women and men can wreak havoc on a government, on each other, and on themselves—and their actions can have consequences such that even the wisest people cannot “settle into order”. If we are able to harm each other in ways that escape the healing touch of the wisest among us, we must be compelled to seek knowledge, control appetites, and (ultimately) for Cavendish do what is good.though it is easier to do evil than good, for every fool can make an uproar, and a tumultuous disorder, such as the wisest can hardly settle into order again. But Women in State-affairs can do as they do with themselves, they can, and do often make themselves sick, but when they are sick, not well again: So they can disorder a State, as they do their Bodies, but neither can give Peace to th’ one, nor Health to th’ other; but their restless Minds, and unsatiable Appetites, do many times bring Ruin to the one, and Death to the other.
2. Free Will and Redemptive Goods
There are a number of distinct points in this text that lend themselves towards theodicy, mostly centered on the concept of divine justice. First, a good God will not punish humans for performing actions that they are unfree to perform, or are non-culpably ignorant in performing. Second, God’s mercy is incompatible with a sort of moral necessitarianism. Finally, most people are comfortable thinking blasphemous thoughts about God, namely, that God is perfectly good, all-knowing, and just, but punishes his contingent creation for exercising free will that was given to humanity during creation. By providing a free-will defense, Cavendish provides an argument that is consistent with traditional theodicy in the early modern period. If we want to account for divine perfection and the presence of evil in the world, we need to remember that evil comes when people choose to act in a manner that is contrary to the guidance of the moral law.Fear, for Moral Conscience, said she, is the most Tender Effect of a Fearful Passion, but Divine Conscience is an Effect of Grace, which the Common People hath but little of... I do believe, that the Great Omnipotent God is Good, Wise, Powerful, Knowing, Fore-seeing, and Just, as not to Damn a man for that which he could not possibly know, or for that which Nature made him to do, neither was he Ignorant, as not to Fore-see what Man could, or would do, and if Man could do nothing without Gods Permission, Gods Mercy would not Permit, or Suffer Man to Damn himself, for that would be to Make Man to that End, Knowing it before, as Fore-seeing it, and if he gave Man a Free-Will, that were to give away one of his Attributes, and so to make Man Great, and himself Less, and only to Impower Man to Damn himself; or for God to Make Man, and then Damn him, whereby to shew his Power, would neither stand with God’s Justice nor Goodness; but certainly God could shew his Power other wayes, than by Damning those Creatures he Made, or Makes; and that God be as much, if not more Glorified by the Damned as by the Blessed, is but an Odd Belief, that Gods Glory should Arise from Torments, as if God had no other way to be Glorified, this would not Express Justice so much as Severity, if not Cruelty, as first, to Fore-see the Evil, then to make the Creature, and at last to Suffer that Evil, and to Damn the Creature for the Evil…but most Men have Blasphemous Opinions, as to make God either Cruel, or Ignorant, as not to Fore-know, or else to Make to Damn.(SL, CLXX)
This passage argues, a bit differently than the SL text, that divine goodness would prevent finite human sins to condemn us to eternal damnation. The benevolence of God—characterized here as mercy and justice—is juxtaposed against the concrete results of human evil, such as cruelty and suffering. Of course, there is a hint at a free will defense here as well, but that defense is strongly overshadowed by appeals to divine goodness. It is irrational, Cavendish’s character asserts, to conceive of a good and fully wise God that would create humans who could eternally condemn themselves, just as it is irrational to conceive of a good God who could allow his creation to suffer. The interlocuter interjects, not to disagree, but to warn against anthropomorphizing God: “Man is so Presumptuous, as to Assimilize God, as also to Pretend to know what God sayes, making him to Speak like Man; also to Express him to have Passions; but if God be Absolute and Incomprehensible, it is High Presumption to Assimilize God to any Creature; besides, it is absurd and Ridiculous to Compare that which is Incomprehensible, for if he cannot be Conceived, how shall he be Express’d?” Cavendish (1664a, p. 170). If there is a God (and there is, for Cavendish), we cannot know anything about his nature. We can merely acknowledge that he is, and that he exists in the manner of perfection. An upshot to this interesting bit of philosophy of religion is that Cavendish thinks that what we can know of God indicates that he would be more interested in fostering the moral development of his creation rather than permitting rampant suffering within it.God’s Mercy would not Permit or suffer Man to Damn himself, for that would be to Make Man to that End, Knowing it before, as Fore-seeing it, and if he gave Man a Free-Will, that were to give away one of his Attributes, and so to make Man Great, and himself Less, and only to Empower Man to Damn himself; … this would not Express Justice so much as severity, if not Cruelty, as first, to Fore-See the Evil, then to make the Creature, and at last to Suffer that Evil, and Damn the Creature of the Evil; neither, said she, can that Rational Part that God hath given me, perceive how it can stand with his Goodness and Mercy, or his Wisdom and Glory, to Suffer more Devils, than to Make Saints.
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There are many more women in the long early modern period who contributed to the philosophical projects about evil or divine perfection who, for space issues, cannot be discussed here.
Although Cavendish believes God created this particular world (i.e., planet), she is not committed to the view that God created all of nature: “You will say, the Scripture doth teach us that, for it is not Six thousand years, when God created this World. I answer, the holy Scripture informs us onely of the Creation of this Visible World, but not of Nature and natural Matter; for I firmly believe according to the Word of God, that this World has been Created, as is described by Moses, but what is that to natural Matter? There may have been worlds before, as many are of the opinion that there have been men before Adam, and many amongst Divines do believe, that after the destruction of this World God will Create a new World again, as a new Heaven, and a new Earth; and if this be probable, or at least may be believed that there have been other worlds before this visible World? For nothing is impossible with God; and all this doth derogate nothing from the Honour and Glory of God, but rather increases his Divine Power” (Cavendish 1664a, p. 15).
Mascetti (2008, p. 3). Some feminists have worried that Cavendish’s reticence to seek to directly abolish systems of patriarchy means that she was less committed to what we would now call a feminist project. Indeed, Cavendish equivocates on issues contemporary feminists would think are important—for example, whether married women really are free; Cavendish at points argues that they are because their natural beauty gives them power over their husbands. Yet at other points, “Cavendish shows a keen awareness of the fact that many early modern women do suffer from a debilitating loss of negative liberty in the patriarchal marriage state,” Broad (2014, p. 113). Mascetti replies to this criticism by noting that Cavendish’s “philosophical feminism was, therefore, carved out of a conscious and supportive acknowledgment of male hegemony, and not turned into a method of gendered opposition and subversion. The dimension of feminine fancy that she created was innocuously and respectfully parallel to that of male wisdom” (Mascetti 2008, p. 13).
Although, some scholars observe the tension with which Cavendish’s poems describe the relationship between women (as objects of love) and men (who seek to objectify women through the love act.) Jennifer Low writes, “Cavendish displays both the cruelty and the power relations inherent in the Petrachan ideal through [her] lyric…. By literalizing the trope of lovers’ pains, Cavendish brings new life to the convention of the cruel beloved” (Low 1998, p. 160).
Cavendish famously defends a monarchy as the proper government to better address civil inequalities. Broad and Green note, “For Cavendish, as for Hobbes, it is crucial that the sovereign’s power be simple and undivided. This is the only way in which human beings might gain some unanimity in their opinions about right and wrong: that is, by subordinating their judgement to the judgement of one individual. Thus in Cavendish’s utopia, there is ‘but one sovereign, one religion, one law, and one language, so that all the world might be as one united family’” (Broad and Green 2009, p. 212).
Card defines evil as “reasonably foreseeable intolerable harms produced (maintained, supported, tolerated, and so on) by culpable wrongdoing. So understood, evils have two irreducibly distinct components: a harm component and an agency component” (Card 2002, p. 5).
Unsurprisingly, Cavendish thinks moral transformation can result from a proper authoritative structure within government, “Thus the role of government is not merely to control those with ‘rude and wild natures’ but to transform them” (Boyle 2006, p. 260).
There are feminists and theologians who would disagree, of course, with a redemptive theodicy, whether grounded in abstract or concrete evil. Oppressive paternalistic regimes could, after all, continue their abuses of political power with the promise that their antics are necessary for the project of redemption to occur. Cavendish does not argue that political injustices are justified on the basis of whether they eventually strengthen the character of the person who suffers, but given that they are part of our cache of human experiences, we must then answer the question, “What now?”
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