Mary Astell


To Mr. Norris.


       So candid and condescending a Treatment of a Stranger, a Woman, and so inconsiderable an one as my self, shews you to be as much above the Generality of the World in your Practice, as you are in your Theory and Speculation.  Hitherto I have courted Truth with a kind of Romantick Passion, in spite of all Difficulties and Discouragements: for knowledge is thought so unnecessary an Accomplishment for a Woman, that few will give themselves the Trouble to assist us in the Attainment of it.  Not considering that the improvement of one single Soul is an Employment more worthy of a wise Man, than most of those things to which Custom appropriates the Name of Business and Affairs.  But now, since you have so generously put into my Hand an Opportunity of obtaining what I so greedily long after, that I may make the best Improvement of so great an Advantage, I give up my self entirely to your Conduct, so far as is consistent with a rational not blind Obedience, bring a free and unprejudiced Mind to receive from your Hand such Gravings and Impressions as shall seem most convenient, and though I can't engage for a prompt and comprehensive Genius, yet I will for a docible Temper.
       The Esteem I have for those necessary and useful Rules you have already presribed, shall appear by my strict Observation of them: For indeed the Span of Life is too short to be trifled away in unconcerning and unprofitable Matters; and that Soul who has any Sense of a better Life, can't chuse but desire that every minute of her Time may be employed in the regulating of her Will with the most critical Exactness, and the extending her Understanding to its utmost Stretch, that so she may obtain the most enlarg'd Knowledge and ample Fruition of GOD her only Good, that her Nature is capable of.  I will therefore pass on to explain a little what I asserted in my last, next add a few Thoughts concerning Divine Love, and in the last place a Proposal or two for the better Prosecution of those you have already made.
       Now in order to the first, I am very well satisfied that GOD is the Cause of Mental as well as Bodily Pain, if by mental Pain you understand Grief, my Mistake lying in this, that I confounded Sin and mental Pain.  'Tis indeed evident that Sin and Grief are two distinct things; yet I cannot form to my self any Idea of Sin which does not include in it the greatest Pain and Misery.  For as Sin is the meritorious Cause of all Misery, so it seems to me that the Punishment of Sin is concomitant to the Act; Misery is inseparable from Sin, and the Sinner is ipso facto punished.
       When therefore I said that mental Pain is the same with Sin, I meant no more than this, that as a musical Instrument, if it were capable of Sense and Thought, would be uneasie and in pain when harsh discordant Notes are play'd upon it; so Man, when he breaks the Law of his Nature, and runs counter to those Motions his Maker has assign'd him, when he contradicts the Order and End of his Being must needs be in Pain and Misery.  And as the Health and Perfection, Ease and Pleasure, Good and Happiness (or whatever you will call it) of a Creature consists in its Conformity to the End of its Creation, and the being in such Circumstances as are agreeable to its Nature, from which if it deviates in the least it loses both its Beauty and its Pleasure; so the Soul of Man being made on purpose for the Contemplation and Love of GOD, whenever it ceases to pursue that End, must needs be put out of the Order of its Nature, and consequently depriv'd of all Pleasure and Perfection; whilst it stands rightly affected towards GOD it cannot be destitute of Pleasure, but whatsoever sets it in Opposition to him does by that Act deprive it of all Delight.
       So that my Hypothesis will lye thus: That although GOD only has Power to modifie the Soul of Man, and to affect it with Pain and Grief, yet since these are rather Uneasinesses than Evils strictly so call'd (nothing according to my Notion being the proper Evil of Man but Sing, of which more anon) since they are design'd by GOD as Mediums to good, and are, if not formally, yet at least consequentially Occasions of Pleasure; since the wilful and affected Ignorance of the Understanding and Pravity of the Will, or in other Words Sin, is the true and proper Evil of a Man, because Sin only is absolutely and directly opposite to the Essence of Goodness; and seeing GOD can no way be said to be the Author of Sin, consequently his being the Cause of our uneasie Sensations, can be no just Bar to our Love, much less any Motive to our Aversion.
       As for the Distinction of the Soul into inferiour and superiour Part, I am as little satisfied with it as you can be, and do confess to you ingenuously that I have no clear Idea of that which is properly my self, nor do I well know how to distinguish its Powers and Operations: For the usual Accounts that are given of the Soul are very unsatisfactory, that in your Letter being the best I have met with, and therefore for want of better Expressions, I made use of this Distinction, which I did the more readily because I learned it from your Christian Blessedness.  All the remaining Difference therefore lies in this Question, Whether Sin be the only Evil?  And in order to the removing it, I shall first shew you my Design in affirming that it is, and then the Reasons that incline me to it, and when I have done so I will refer all to your better Judgment.
       First, for what I aim at, I have observ'd that most of the Folly and Mischief that is in the World proceeds from false Notions of Pain and Pleasure, and Mistakes concerning the Nature of Good and Evil.  For would Men be perswaded that GOD is their only Good, they would not muxh regret the Absence of other things, so they might but enjoy him; neither would they so greedily pursue the Shell of Pleasure, nor fix their Hearts on sensible Objects which can never satisfie.  And were they but convinced that nothing is so evil as Sin, they would not choose Iniquitie rather than Affliction.  As therefore your Account of Pleasure does rectifie the Errors of our Love, so I could wish that our Aversions were better regulated than they usually are; and that Sin, which though it be not the efficient, is yet the moral Cause   of all our Evils and Displeasures, were so represented as that it might appear the only proper and adequate Object of our intire Hatred and Aversion.  This is my Design.
       Now for the Reasons (besides what are already intimated) which incline me to think that Sin is the only Evil.  I grant that whatever is contrary to the Pleasure and Good of Man in any of his Capacities, may in some Sense be call'd an Evil, and in this Latitude no doubt but that both mental and sensible Pain are Evils.  But because, when we speak of Evil we usually understand something that in its own Nature is the proper Object of our Aversion, Evil as Evil being no way eligible; and since mental and bodily Pain are not so far evil but that in some Circumstances they may become eligible, which yet they could not be without assuming the Nature of Good, and therefore they are not pure and absolute Evils; and further, though 'tis easie in our Contemplations and Retirements to distinguish between greater and lesser Evils, to compare and weigh them together, and to allot to each its due Proportion of Choice or Aversion, yet since Good and Evil do frequently present themselves to our Minds in common Conversation and Business, when we have neither Time nor Appetite to abstract and consider, but are determin'd by this short and obvious Sillogism, 'Evil is not eligible, but such a this is Evil, therefore it is not to be chosen': Whereas perhaps that which we refuse as Evil (suppose bodily or mental Pain) though formally, and in the greatest Latitude of the Word it be an Evil, yet comparatively and pro hic & nunc, it may be a Good, and so the proper Object of our Choice.  To avoide which common Occasion of Mistake, and because the Nature of Man has so strong an Aversion to every thing that bears the Name of Evil, I wou'd rather call Grief and Pain Uneasinesses  than Evils, and wholly appropriate the Name of Evil to Sin, which is* essentially and absolutely Evil, and the only entire Object of a Rational Creatures Hatred and Aversion.
       But not to contend about Words, admitting that Pain and Grief are Evils, it is but in a comparative and lower Sense; if they were essentially Evil, they could not in some Circumstances become Good, which you your self allow them to be occasionally and consequentially, and as they may be a Means to avoid a greater Evil.  Whereas the very Essence of Sin is evil, it can never in any Circumstance be eligible, which is a sign it is never good.  We may not commit a lesser Sin under pretence to avoid a greater, but we may, nay we ought  to endure the greatest Pain and Grief rather than commit the least Sin.  For (not to dispute what Good GOD  may bring out of the Sins of Men, or how he does it, which are Questions I will not now meddle with) I have always thought that the least moral Evil is not to be chosen, no not in order to the greatest Good, as I think may be inferred from the Apostles arguing (Romans 3:8) there is a certain peculiarity of Evil in Sin, which (though you will not allow it the only Evil, yet at least) renders it an Evil paramont to all other Evils, and excludes it from being in the least degree eligible.  For tho' Pain and Grief put the Soul into uneasie Circumstances, yet they don't withdraw her from her true Good, they rather excite her more strongly to cleave to him, and that Trouble which sensible things occasion, and which she feels through the Disorder of her own Thoughts, stirs her up to fix more firmly on him, whose Comforts in this Case are her only Refreshment.  Whereas sin quite alienates the Soul from her only true Good, and thereby deprives her of the sole Prop she has to rest on, and consequently puts her in the most wretched, helpless and evil Condition.  Every thing but Sin has something of Good in it, because every thing else proceeds from GOD; but Sin is all over perfect Deformity, an uncompounded Evil, and a direct Contradiction to Order and Perfection, and consequently to Pleasure, and therefore is, or ought to be, set at the greatest Opposition to the Nature of Man, and to be the proper Object of his intire Hatred and Aversion.  This is the Point I drive at, and if it may be gained, am very indifferent whether it be by mine, or some other way of arguing.

*       *       *       *       *

*The Reader is desired to take Notice that no more is meant by these Phrases, than that Sin in its own Nature or Formality is entirely evil, it has neither Form nor Beauty that we should desire it, can never be ordinable to a good End, is none of GOD's Creatures, and therefore has not any the least Degree of Goodness in it, is neither eligible for its own sake, nor upon any other Account whatsoever.

Astell, Mary and John Norris.
Letters Concerning the Love of God.
E. Derek Taylor and Melvin New, eds.
Aldershot, Hant., England: Ashgate, 2005. 87-90.

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