Mary Astell

Second part

of the


to the



Of the Mutual Relation between Ignorance and Vice, Knowledge and Purity.


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What are Ignorance and Vice but Diseases of the Mind contracted in its two principal Faculties the Understanding and Will? And such too as like many Bodily distempers do mutually foment each other.  Ignorance disposes to Vice, and Wickedness reciprocally keeps us Ignorant, so that we cannot be free from the one unless we cure the other; the former part of this Proposition has been already shewn,1 and the latter may easily be made apparent; for as every Plant does Naturally draw such juices towards it as serve for its Nutrition, as every Creature has an aptness to take such courses as tend to its preservation; so Vice that spawn of the Devil, that Ignis fatuus2 which can't subsist but in the dark night of Ignorance, casts forth Vapours and Mists to darken the Soul and eclipse the clear light of Knowledge from her View.  And tho a Wicked Man may pretend to Wit, tho he have never so much Acumen and Facetiousness of Humour, yet his Impiety proclaims his Folly; he may have a lively Fancy, an Intriguing Cunning and Contrivance, and so may an Ape or a Fox, who probably if they had but Speech, tho destitute of Reason, wou'd outdo him in his own way; but he wants the Ingenuity of a Man, he's a Fool to all Rational Intents and Purposes.  She then who desires a clear Head must have a pure Heart; and she who has the first in any Measure will never allow herself to be deficient in the other.  But you will say what degrees of Purity are requisite in order to Knowledge, and how much must we Know to the end we may heartily endeavour to Purify?
       Now in Order to satisfie this demand I consider, That there are certain Notices which we may call the Rudiments of Knowledge, which none who are Rational are without however they came by them.  It may happen indeed that a habit of Vice or a long disuse has so obscur'd them that they seem to be extinguish'd but it does only seem so, for were they really extinguish'd the person wou'd be no longer Rational, and no better than the Shade and Picture of a Man.  Because as Irrational Creatures act only by the Will of him who made them, and according to the Power of that Mechanisme by which they are form'd, so every one who pretends to Reason, who is a Voluntary Agent and therefore Worthy of Praise or Blame, Reward or Punishment, must Chuse his Actions and determine his Will to that Choice by some Reasonings or Principles and the Consequences he deduces from them he is to be accounted, if they are Right and Conclusive a Wise Man, if Evil, Rash and Injudicious a Fool.  If then it be the property of Rational Creatures, and Essential to their very Natures to Chuse their Actions, and to determine their Wills so that Choice by such Principles and Reasonings as their Understandings are furnish'd with, they who are desirous to be rank'd in that Order of Beings must conduct their Lives by these Measures, begin with their Intellectuals, inform themselves what are the plain and first Principles of Action and Act accordingly.
       By which it appears that there are some degrees of Knowledge necessary before there can be any  Human Acts, for till we are capable of Chusing our own Actions and directing them by some Principle, tho we Move and Speak and so many such like things, we live not the Life of a Rational Creature but only of an Animal.  If it be farther demanded what these Principles are? Not to dispute the Number of 'em here, no body I suppose will deny us one, which is, That we ought as much as we can to endeavour the Perfecting of our Beings, and that we be as happy as possibly we may.  For this we see is Natural to every Creature of what sort soever, which endeavours to be in as good Condition as its Nature and Circumstances will permit.  And now we have got a Principle which one would think were sufficient for the Conduct of our Actions thro the whole Course of our Lives; and so indeed it were, Cou'd we as easily discern, wherein our Happiness consists as 'tis natural to wish and desire it.  But herein lies our great mistake and misfortune; for altho we all pursue the same end, yet the means we take to obtain it are Indefinite: There needs no other Proof of this than the looking abroad into the World, which will convince us of the Truth and raise our Wonder at the absurdity, that Creatures of the same Make shou'd take not only so many different, but every contrary Ways to accomplish the same End! We all agree that its fit to be as Happy as we can, and we need no Instructor to teach us this Knowledge, 'tis born with us, and is inseparable from our Being, but we very much need to be Inform'd what is the true Way to Happiness.  When the Will comes to ask the Understanding this Question, What must I do to fill up my Vacuities, to accomplish my Nature? Our Reason is at first too weak, and afterwards too often too much sophisticated to return a proper Answer, tho it be the most important concern of our Lives, for according as the Understanding replies to it so is the Moral Conduct of the Will, pure and right if the first be well Inform'd irregular and vitious if the other be weak and deluded.  Indeed our power of Willing exerts it self much sooner than that Rational Faculty which is to Govern it, and therefore t'will either be left to its own range, or to the Reason of another to direct it; whence it comes that we generally take that Course in our search after Happiness, which Education, Example or Custom puts us in, and, tho not always, yet most commonly, we tast of our first seasoning; which shou'd teach us to take all the care we can that it be Good, and likewise that how Good soever it appear, we be not too much Wedded to and biass'd by it.  Well then, the first light of our Understanding must be borrow'd, we must take it on trust till we're furnish'd with a Stock of our own, which we cannot long be without if we do but employ what was lent us in the purifying of our Will, for as this grows more regular the other will enlarge, if it clear up, that will brighten and shine forth with diffusive Rays.
       Indeed if we search to the bottom I believe we shall find, that the Corruption of the Heart contributes more to the Cloudiness of the Head, than the Clearness of our Light does to the regularity of our Affections, and 'tis oftner seen that our vitious Inclinations keep us Ignorant, than that our Knowledge makes us Good.  For it must be confess'd that Purity is not always  the product of Knowledge; tho the Understanding be appointed by the Author of Nature to direct and Govern the Will, yet many times it's headstrong and Rebellious Subject rushes on precipitately, [not only] without[, but against] its directions.3   When a Truth comes thwart our Passions, when it dares contradict our mistaken Pleasures and supposed Interests, let the Light shine never so clear we shut our Eyes against it, will not be convinced not because there's any want of Evidence, but because we're unwilling  to Obey.  This is the Rise of all that Infidelity that appears in the World; it is not the Head but the Heart that is the Seat of Atheism.  No Man without a brow of Brass, and an Impudence as strong as his Arguments are weak, cou'd demur to the convincing Proofs of Christianity; had not he contracted such diseases in his Passions as make him believe 'tis his Interest to oppose those  that he may gratify these.  Yet this is no Objection against what we have been proving, it rather confirms what was said concerning the mutual Relation between the Understanding and the Will, and shews how necessary it is to take care of both, if we wou'd improve and advance either.

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1 Part I. page 22, Etc. — Astell.
2 Will-o'-the-wisp. See Oxford Dictionary of Foreign Phrases and Classical Quotations, 54.
3 Material in square brackets indicated as requiring to be deleted in the Errata list, 298.

Astell, Mary. A Serious Proposal to the Ladies.
Parts I and II. Patricia Springborg, ed.
Peterborough, ON, Canada: Broadview Press, 2002. 127-130.

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