Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

A Woman's Influence? John Locke and Damaris Masham on Moral Accountability

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

A Woman's Influence? John Locke and Damaris Masham on Moral Accountability

Article excerpt

In a 1705 letter to the poet Elizabeth Thomas, Richard Gwinnett offers his considered opinion on "a little Posthumous Treatise of Mr. Locke." Gwinnett observes that the work is "nothing inferiour to the more elaborate Works of that ingenious author, except in the Stile, which is sometimes perplexed, and in many Places forced and stiff."1 Notwithstanding this criticism, Gwinnett remarks that "what in my opinion deserves the highest Praise, is the principal Design of the Book, which is to recommend the Improvement of the Fair Sex, by a more ingenious and learned Education than is now customary, or even commendable among them."2 For Locke scholars, it will come as no surprise to hear that Locke never wrote a defense of women's education. Although the work in question was issued under Locke's name in 1747, the treatise is in fact Damaris Cudworth Masham's Occasional Thoughts in Reference to a Vertuous or Christian Life (1705).3 Lady Masham (1659-1708) was one of Locke's closest friends in the later years of his life. The daughter of the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth (1617-88), Masham grew up among philosophers and theologians at Cambridge University, and later became a philosopher herself and a correspondent of many leading intellectuals of the day.4 Masham and Locke first met in London in about 168 1, when she was in her early twenties and he was already "past the middle age of Man."5 Although the full details are obscure, their early attachment seems to have been a romantic one. When Locke went into exile in 1683, the couple exchanged letters on a range of topics, from the general town gossip to philosophical discussions of Locke's early abridgment of the Essay concerning Human Understanding.'' In 1685, Masham married a member of Parliament, Sir Francis Masham, and left Cambridge for the Masham family estate of "Oates," a Tudor manor house situated in Essex, about 25 miles northeast of London. Upon Locke's return to England in 1689, he met with Lady Masham and her husband in London, and they invited him to make "a Tryal of the Air" at their home. After a few extended visits, Locke made a permanent move to Oates in 1691, and from that time onwards Locke and Damaris Masham spent "many years almost constantly together."7 Apart from occasional visits to London in the summer, Locke resided with Masham and her family until his death on 28 October 1704.

In his Rational Theology and Christian Philosophy (1874), John TuIloch says that Masham "may be said by herself to deserve a niche in the history of English philosophy."8 In her lifetime, Masham published two philosophical treatises: her Occasional Thoughts, and A Discourse concerning the Love of God (1696). Gwinnett can be forgiven for his mistake about Masham's work-Locke is clearly an influence on her ideas. In the Discourse, Masham bases her criticisms of John Norris's occasionalist philosophy upon Lockean epistemological principles, and this work was also misattributed to Locke.9 In Occasional Thoughts, a work that was written a year or so before Locke's death, Masham also appeals to "that Knowledge immediately received from Sense, or Reflection";10 and elsewhere in the text, she explicitly acknowledges a debt to Locke's Reasonableness of Christianity, and his Thoughts concerning Education.11 In a short correspondence with the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz from 1703-4, Masham upholds a Lockean position on substances, and articulates something like Locke's theory of "thinking matter." In all of her intellectual writings, as many scholars have emphasized, Masham was a strong supporter of the Lockean way of ideas.

In this paper, however, rather than look at Locke's influence on Masham, I propose to turn the tables and examine whether or not Masham might have influenced him. Some scholars assert that Masham had an impact upon the early drafting of Locke's Essay. Ruth Perry claims that "There is evidence to suggest that Locke partially worked out the materialist epistemology of the Essay concerning Human Understanding in reaction to the Platonist arguments of Damaris Cudworth. …

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