Victor Nuovo: Wollstonecraft’s liberal voice rebuts Burke’s defense of the entitled elite
Editor’s note: This is the 13th in a series of essays about political liberalism and conservatism and the two-party system.
Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France” evoked many liberal responses. One of the most compelling was written by Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–97). In this literary encounter, Burke met his match in intellectual and rhetorical power, not to mention his equal in learning and sheer brilliance. And she attacked Burke just where his political scheme was believed to be most impregnable, the English constitution, and showed that this bastion of time-tested tradition was built on the shifting sands of human pretense and folly.
In her response to Burke, entitled “A Vindication of the Rights of Men” (1790), Wollstonecraft opens with an attack on the pretense of polite learning. She remarks that she has written her response in a plain style, following the train of her thoughts, just as Burke had claimed for his own work, and she observes, with evident sarcasm, that she has not been schooled in the art of polite discourse as have most gentlemen—in fact, she taught herself to be a writer. She also makes clear that she has no tolerance for the hypocrisy of it.
Hers is the voice of impassioned reason, which needs no artifice.
In contrast, she observes that Burke suffers from “a mortal antipathy to reason,” which is evident from his advocacy of an ancient tradition. He would have everyone “revere ancient customs” and regard them as “the sage fruit of experience,” whereas, in fact, the ancient constitution is nothing but a codification of the privileges of the propertied classes, who first acquired their landed estates by usurpation and deceit.
“The demon of property has ever been at hand to encroach on the sacred rights of men and to fence round with awful pomp laws that war with justice,” she wrote. Pretending that these laws are “venerable vestiges of ancient days,” Burke has decked them out with “gothic notions of beauty,” which she compares to ivy, which looks pretty on the surface but which only conceals the rot within.
She then turns to a related topic and refers to Burke’s “Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful.” Burke’s purpose in this work was to differentiate between the two main aesthetic values, the sublime and the beautiful, which, she observes, he associates with male and female respectively.
The qualities of beauty are smoothness, sweetness, smallness or petiteness, all of which evoke the sentiment of love.
The qualities of the sublime express power, turbulence and the infinite; they evoke fear, wonder, terror and awe.
In sum, Burke regards women as beautiful objects, worthy of admiration and of chivalric love and gallantry, but not deserving of that respect proper to an equal. Contrary to this false image of women, Wollstonecraft presents herself as an advocate of moral truth, which, she declares, is a proper expression of the sublime. Moral truth is uncompromising, unflinching; its power is beyond measure, like the “terrible swift sword” of righteousness. She presents herself as an incarnation of this sublime truth: of equality and liberty for all, of “the rights of men.”
As I have already noted, Wollstonecraft sought to undermine the ancient constitution by casting light on its original intent, which was not, as was supposed, to establish justice, but to secure the advantage of the few, men only, and for the sake of whom the welfare of the many were sacrificed. Institutions were established: a monarchy, nobility and feudal laws, the clergy, and joined to these, the commons, which represented only the propertied classes, who financed the other three. They did indeed serve as checks and balances on each other, but only to secure their particular advantages, the advantages of the few.
Wollstonecraft finds powerful evidence for this in the penal laws of England, which victimize the poor for the sake of the privileged. If a poor man trespasses on the land of a nobleman and kills a deer, the penalty is death; whereas, if a nobleman causes the death of a poor neighbor, perhaps in a hunting accident, he pays only a fine: the life of a poor man is worth significantly less than the price of a deer.
In short, the ancient constitution “enshrines” injustice. In the light of these unjust laws, she chides Burke for calling himself a friend of liberty, whereas he is in fact “a champion of property.” In this connection, she presents an alternate view of the American Revolution. It is true that this revolution was settled more easily, but only because it turned on the rights of property rather than on the rights of man; moreover, the U.S. Constitution “settled slavery on an everlasting foundation.”
Wollstonecraft also condemns the culture of elitism, which she regards as integral to the ancient constitution, and calls attention to its corrupting effect on rich and poor alike. The term “vulgarity” which was commonly used to describe the culture of the poor “who work to support the body, have not had times to cultivate their minds,” applies even more fittingly to the rich, who, born in the lap of luxury, have become “creatures of habit and impulse,” their manners gross and contemptible, their “private gratifications” lewd and lascivious; they have no greater interest than to preserve their status in society and they are constantly poised to get even with anyone who threatens it. They are oblivious to how their way of life degrades themselves and others, for they never look beyond their own their own immediate interests. They have no thirst for truth, no noble desire for virtue. One need not look beyond the present political situation for examples worthy of Wollstonecraft’s contempt.
Turning to the poor, she offers an unhappy image of the current state of affairs in England during the 18th century: the poor are a people tyrannized, their spirits broken, their bodies worn out; “all those gross vices which the example of the rich, rudely copied, could produce they desire to copy. Envy built a wall of separation that made the poor hate, whilst they bent their wills to their superiors; who, on their part, stepped aside to avoid the loathsome sight of human misery.”
What is the antidote for this injustice? She proposes the elimination of all class distinctions and propertied classes; a redistribution of property and wealth; universal education; wiping the slate clean and starting over. These were the very goals of the French Revolution.
Wollstonecraft elaborated on her social program in a second longer and more substantial work, “A Vindication of the Rights of Women.” This will be the topic of the next essay.
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