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What would Margaret Cavendish say?

Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673) was a philosopher, poet, essayist, and fiction writer, and she had opinions. Lots of them, on topics from the cause of thunder, to the qualities of a good book translator, to the value of diverse opinions themselves (her assessment on this last point: “Several Opinions, except it be in Religion, do no harm.”).

In her 1666 work of science fiction, Blazing World, Cavendish imagined a lady, abducted from her own planet into another one and made Empress, who interrogates the most learned inhabitants of that world about science, philosophy, and religion. In some cases, the Empress is “very well satisfied with their answers”, in other cases she is “amazed”, and in a few cases she is “displeased.”

What if we imagine Margaret Cavendish transported into our world today? Like the Empress, she would be curious about what we believe and do in the 21st century – and she would have plenty of opinions.

About panpsychism: In some half-dozen books published over almost two decades, Cavendish developed a metaphysics and natural philosophy that steered a middle path between Hobbesian materialism and Cartesian dualism. According to her theory, all of nature is composed of matter, but a matter that can think and perceive. Philosophical systems that grant humans a privileged status because of their ability to think are really only motivated more by a desire to elevate humans above nature, Cavendish thought.

Developments in both physics and philosophy of mind over the past 30 years would intrigue Cavendish. Panpsychism – roughly, the view that the mental is a fundamental, pervasive feature of the universe – has become, if not mainstream, at least a respectable contender in the marketplace of ideas. Like Cavendish, contemporary panpsychists seek middle ground between the physicalist view that mental events are physical events in the brain and nothing more, and the dualist view that the mental and the physical both exist and are fundamentally different. Panpsychism promises a way to explain the mental without trying to eliminate it or carve it off from the rest of nature, by treating the world as conscious all the way to the subatomic level. Cavendish might well feel vindicated by learning that views related to her own are getting a hearing some 350 years later.

About our treatment of the environment: Cavendish’s belief that all of nature consists of the same thinking, perceptive matter allows her to argue for a more compassionate, egalitarian relationship between humans and the natural world: against Descartes and other dualists, she denies that humans have some special feature that makes us better than everything else. Thus, we should not see the natural environment as solely for our use. Of course, all living creatures must use other natural resources to survive, and so Cavendish thought humans may do so too. What she objected to was profligate, wasteful uses of natural resources, and uses that merely promote human arrogance and pride. In a remarkable poem told from the perspective of a hunted hare, she writes:

 And [Man] is so Proud, thinks only he shall live,
That God a God-like Nature did him give.
And that all Creatures for his sake alone,
Was made for him, to Tyrannize upon.

What would she say about watering golf courses in the Arizona desert? About destroying rain forests to support the fast-food industry? About burning fossil fuels to fuel the one billion cars on Earth? I think she would say that we lack humility; we consider ourselves like gods, free to use whatever we want for whatever purpose we want.

Image credit: Margaret Newcastle 1668 Grounds frontis. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

About social media: What would Cavendish say about Facebook and Twitter? Would she use them? She might feel conflicted. Cavendish clearly wanted her views to be known. In a preface to her Poems and Fancies, for example, she writes:

For all I desire is Fame, and Fame is nothing but a great noise, and noise lives most in a Multitude; wherefore I wish my Book may set awork every Tongue.

If anything can be described as noise living in a multitude, it is surely social media. And many of Cavendish’s pronouncements seem made for Twitter. “Essay” #55 in Worlds Olio, for example, is only 143 characters long:

What hopes can People have of a King to govern a Kingdom, when he doth not reform his own Household, but lets it run into Faction and Disorder?

Her “Allegories” also tend to be brief aphorisms, witty sayings – too long for Twitter, but apt for a Facebook post:

The Head of Man is like a Wilderness, where Thoughts, as several Creatures, live therein, as Coveting Thoughts which hunt after our Appetites, which never leave feeding untill their Desires are satisfied, or indeed they are glutted; others so fearfull that every Object is apt to startle them; and others so dull and slow, like crawling Worms; others so elevated, like Birds. They fly in Aery Imaginations, and many above all possibility.

Yet Cavendish condemns people who waste their time seeking public approval and gossiping about others. Defending her publication of Poems and Fancies, she says that writing is a “harmless pastime,” better than focusing on (and criticizing) what others are up to:

for sure this work is better than to sit still, and censure my Neighbours action, which nothing concerns me, or to condemne their Humours, because they do not sympathize with mine, or their lawfull Recreations, because they are not agreeable to my delight; or ridiculously to laugh at my Neighbours Clothes….

She claims to prefer a “retired Life, a Home Life, free from the Intanglements, confused Clamours, and rumbling noise of the world,” where she can “live in a calm Silence, wherein I have my Contemplations free from Disturbance.”

Thus, I suspect that while our imaginary 21st century Cavendish might be tempted to use social media to get her views known, she would see its use as a distraction from worthier pursuits. Perhaps a YouTube channel for telling her stories and poems would be more fitting.

Image credit: Media Social Apps by Pixelkult. CCO via Pixabay.

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