Revisiting My Old Literary Friend Mary Astell By Discussing Friendships

Why am I writing about friendship? I’m considering friendships in light of the internet–in light of the non physical way people relate to each other here in the ether. I admit starting this discussion with Mary Astell was simple because I merely stole the quotes and ideas from research I conducted years ago.

Mary Astell, the 17th C English essayist, believed that reform in family and marriage was necessary in her society. Her essays, including her famous push for female educational monasteries in A Serious Proposal To the Ladies, were not her only means of reforming the family. In her own personal situation, family existed in any “happy Society” of females, or a united “Body, whose Soul is love” (87). Societal reform, according to Astell, comes through friendship as well as study.

As an ardent intellectual, Astell desired true friendship of the mind. Repeatedly in her writings, she stresses the importance of the mind, even in acts of charity. This Platonic ideal conformed well with Astell’s simultaneous love of Cartesian philosophy. Because the mind and body are separate entities, it’s possible to carry on a truly Platonic relationship, in which all bodily desire is refocused into intellectual energy. Intellectual energy becomes the driving passion. No longer are outward appearances important, nor gratifying the stomach with rich foods. Even entertainment is part of intellectual passion and must not “enervate” the mind. Within this context, she writes in her Proposal:

“We will have the opportunity of contracting the purest and noblest Friendship; a Blessing, the purchase of which were richly worth all the World Besides . . . A Blessing, which next to the love of GOD is the choicest Jewel in our Caelestial Diadem . . . For Friendship is a Vertue which comprehends all the rest; none being fit for this, who is not adorn’d with every other Vertue.” (98)

Because Astell, here, is calling friendship the highest virtue, it’s important to point out that, earlier in the same text, she writes, “Since [God] has not denied [women] the faculty of Thinking, why shou’d we not (at least in gratitude to him) employ our Thoughts on himself their noblest Object and not unworthily bestow them on Trifles and Gaities and secular Affairs” (80). In Astell’s understanding, true friendship isn’t a “secular Affair.” It’s second only to the love of God, or “next to the Love of GOD.” It will, indeed, not go unrewarded, but will be “the choicest Jewel” in the heavenly crown. Additionally, in order to interact in this pure kind of relationship, a friend must already possess the other necessary virtues.

How will she learn of these virtues? She learns of them, of course, through proper study. In another quote from her Proposal, she tells women that they must “employ” their thoughts on God. Later, she explains that women must study both God’s word as well as secular texts. Although true friendship isn’t secular, the attainment of virtue comes, in part, through secular study. In her Proposal’s passage on friendship, she explains that the current “degeneration” in society is probably owing to a lack of true friendship (98). This cycle she calls a reciprocal “cause and effect” and uses a chiastic expression to relate the circular argument: “for were the World better, there wou’d be more Friendship, and were there more Friendship we shou’d have a better World” (98). Only after the mind has been prepared to lead a virtuous life does true friendship occur and, finally, after friendship is a possibility, positive change will occur in society.

Furthermore, Astell calls true friendship “Charity contracted,” or brotherly love narrowed and focused until it reaches only a few people (98). In fact, in the same paragraph, she claims that friendship is the “best Instructor” (99). She distinguishes this idea of true friendship from the definition the rest of the world would give to relationships. True friendship goes beyond the outward things and isn’t selfish in any way. Nor does true friendship find any “distinction betwixt its Friend and its self” (99). Her ideal is a relationship of souls.

“[I]t is not advisable,” she writes,” to be too hasty in contracting so important a Relation; before that be done, it were well if we could look into the very Soul of the beloved Person, to discover what resemblance it bears to our own” (100). Here, she’s not advising that a careful judgement of another’s outer appearance should be the guide. Instead, she suggests peering into another person’s soul–as though that were an easy thing to do! A friendship of the souls is divinely gifted, and not only that, but it’s an “exact conformity” of souls (100).

This true friendship hearkens back to Plato and numerous other ancient writers, including Aristotle. In the 16th C, Montaigne followed in the footsteps of Aristotle when he defined friendship as uniting one soul in two bodies. What Astell completely denies by not addressing it at all, and for good reason, is that all of these ancient writers were describing male friendship. If females were brought into the discourse of the ancients, or even contemporary male writers of friendship, they were used only as a comparison–the banal (female love) set against the heavenly (male love). Female love, no matter how sweet, couldn’t compare to the glories of male friendship, according to the great philosophers.

But Astell didn’t need to argue that female friendship was as worthy as male bonding–she’d already established souls as sexless. In this, she followed the likes of the poet Katherine Philips (an earlier 17th C poet and writer), who, in response to the male definition of friendship, wrote a poem called “A Friend.” In it, she claims, “If soules no sexes have, for men t’ exclude / Women from friendship’s vast capacity, / Is a design injurious or rude, / Onely maintain’d by partiall tyranny” (from the poem A Friend).

As a woman, Philips confirms two important concepts that Astell also proclaims–concepts that had originated in the writings of men: souls are sexless, and friendship is, indeed, of the soul. While it would be impossible to claim that English women didn’t discover the joys of same-sex friendship until the 17th C, female authors such as Philips established friendship, through writing, as an institution as valuable as that of male camaraderie. Men had their taverns and, later, their coffee shops to continue their long tradition of bonding and solidarity, yet women still had their parlours and tea tables, and, in the case of Mary Astell’s imagination, an entire house for communal living and sharing. In reality and in the imagination, women have and continue to construct personal spaces that are far more intimate than any public meeting houses.

Where does that leave the internet? In a sense, we are all in each other’s parlours. At the same time, we aren’t any place that could be called physical at all.

The Astell quotes come from this edition:

Astell, Mary. A Serious Proposal to the Ladies parts I and II 1697. Ed. Patricia Springborg. Ontario: Broadview Press Ltd., 2002.


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