April 28, 2020

"The Sacred Law of Fashion": Masham on Religious (Non-)Conformity

The 'occasion' for Damaris Cudworth Masham's 1705 Occasional Thoughts was, she tell us, a discussion among several women about "ladies' conduct books" and, in particular, Francois Aubignac's Les Conseils d'Ariste a Celimene, sur les Moyens de Conserver sa Reputation (Occasional Thoughts, p. 9).* These conduct books were intended to teach young ladies how to behave properly in the society circles in which they would move. This particular book was likely chosen because its very title illustrates the point Masham wants to make about this genre. The book purports to be advice from a man to a young woman on how to preserve her reputation. According to Masham's account, these books which purport to teach women how to live lives of honor and virtue in fact treat 'honor' and 'virtue' as involving nothing more than a reputation for chastity. The reality of chastity is of secondary concern as compared to the reputation for it, and there are essentially no virtues other than chastity and no vices other than unchastity (see pp. 21-22).

From this starting point, Masham launches into a discussion, and critique, of typical practices of early childhood moral and religious education. According to Masham, the usual practice of religious education is to make children memorize a catechism full of words they don't understand and discourage them from doubting or questioning (pp. 38-40). Masham goes so far as to say that, although Protestants claim to believe in individual judgment and 'searching the Scriptures' for oneself, in fact they usually behave just like "the good Lady of the Church of Rome [who] instructed her Child; [and] who when the girl told her, she could not believe Transubstantiation; Reply'd What? do you not believe Transubstantiation? You are a naughty Girl, and must be whip'd" (p. 39).

Religion, it was generally believed, was the foundation for morality. But religious education, according to Masham, all too frequently consists of a habit of mouthing certain words without understanding—a habit (literally or figuratively) beaten into the child—and moral education consists in what looks to be a collection of arbitrary rules created by others to support their domination over us. (Masham is particularly confirmed with the gendered dimension of this practice, but she does think that it happens to some extent to boys as well as girls.) Such a form of 'religion' (so-called) can never be the source of genuine virtue, which must be rooted in the exercise of one's own reason. Further, it can never be a stable principle of belief and practice. Indeed, Masham takes these bad practices of religious education to be one of the principal causes of the growth of atheism and religious skepticism.

There are many layers to Masham's polemic here, including a particular concern with the proper relation between religion and virtue and an insistence that genuine virtue, belief, or knowledge can only come from an autonomous exercise of reason. One particular strand of her polemic I want to pick up on here is her concern with the question: what rule is followed by religious conformists?

Now Masham herself was, in the language of the period, 'conforming'. That is, she was a member of the Church of England. That's not what I mean here. What I mean by a 'religious conformist' is a person who is taught by their parents or broader community to accept unquestioningly a collection of religious beliefs and practices, and continues in this unquestioning belief and practice throughout their life. If a person exhibits this kind of religious conformity, what kind of rule is that person conforming to?

According to Masham, this can only be conformity to "the Sacred Law of Fashion" (p. 152).

Masham had criticized certain other Christians for treating "the Doctrines of their Sect" as "that Analogy of Faith by which they are sure the Scriptures ought always to be interpreted" (p. 135), and thereby distorting the plain teachings of the Bible. The interpretation of Scripture according to the 'Analogy of Faith' is a Catholic idea, but Masham's use of the word 'sect' and her allegation on the same page that these people prioritize obscure sayings of St Paul over the clear teachings of Jesus suggests that she has Puritans in mind. She appears to be accusing Puritans of reading the Bible like Catholics, elevating tradition and authority above the plain meaning of the text.

Subsequently, though, Masham trains her fire on her fellow upper-class Anglicans. Most of these people, she says, clearly lack "a firm assent to the Divine Authority of the Scriptures" as can be seen from the fact that "such Men acquiesce not in the Precepts of the Gospel as the Rule of their Actions" (pp. 147-148).

Masham provides four examples. First, "That we should forgive our Enemies and be patient under injuries (for instance) are, as plainly as words can make them so, commanded in the Scriptures." Yet gentlemen (and here the restriction of class and gender is intended) do not follow this rule "because the Fashion of the Country has establish'd it, that a Gentleman cannot do so with Honour" (p. 149). Whereas 'fashion' decrees that 'honour' for a lady means maintaining a reputation for chastity, 'fashion' decrees that 'honour' for a gentleman means fighting duels rather than forgiving affronts.

Second, according to Masham, the Gospel condemns idleness and commands us to improve our 'talents'.** Yet a lifestyle of idleness is tolerated in gentlemen and positively encouraged in ladies. Young ladies, indeed, are encouraged to become so engrossed in a "Ridiculous Circle of Diversions...that they can find no spare Hours, wherein to make any such improvements of their understanding, as the leisure which they have exacts from them as rational Creatures" (p. 151).

Third, "not to Covet...is as much forbidden in the Law of God as not to Steal...And yet the same Parents who have bred their Children in such a Sense of the Enormity of these last Vices...are so far from teaching them to restrain their Exorbitant Desires...that Ambition is thought a Passion becoming some Ranks of Men" (pp. 153-154).

Fourth and finally, Masham returns to the sexual double standard:


Chastity (for example) is, according to the Gospel, a duty to both Sexes, yet a Transgression herein, even with the aggravation of wronging another Man, and possibly a whole Family thereby, is ordinarily talk'd as lightly of, as if it was but a Peccadillo in a Young Man, altho' a far less Criminal Offence against that duty in a Maid shall in the opinion of the same Persons brand her with perpetuall Infamy: The nearest Relations oftentimes are hardly brought to look upon her after such a dishonour. (pp. 154-155)

If the source of the gendered rules of honor, and the class-based permission of idleness and covetousness, is not the Gospel, then what is it? What, indeed, is the rule whereby these people are regulating their actions, and their approval and disapproval? According to Masham, this pattern of behavior would be "unaccountable if Men were indeed heartily perswaded of the Divine Revelation of our Saviours Doctrine." Instead, they "profess to believe [Christianity] because this is the Fashion of their Country" (p. 155). That the real rule of their action is "the Sacred Law of Fashion" (p. 152) and not the teachings of the Gospel is clear from the fact that when the fashion of the country conflicts with the teachings of Jesus, fashion wins every time. These people (outwardly, superficially) conform to Christianity only because and insofar as fashion dictates.

For Masham, this kind of superficial religious conformity traces directly back to bad childhood religious education. When this kind of bad education doesn't lead to superficial conformity, it can lead instead to religious skepticism or atheism; sometimes it even leads to both atheism and superficial conformity at once.

In Masham's view, there is really only one alternative to this, for women, children, and everyone: question, question, question! "It is as undeniable as the difference between Men's being in, and out of their Wits, that Reason ought to be to Rational Creatures the Guide of their Belief" (p. 32). In early childhood education, this means that children's doubts and questions must be encouraged and answered by reason, even if they doubt the existence of God! (pp. 40-41) A person who conforms to Christianity because it's what they've been taught, without doubting or questioning, is really a follower of the fashion of their country, and not a follower of Christ.

Although Masham does not express her point this provocatively, it's fair to say that one of her central theses is: only a freethinker can be a genuine Christian.




Notes


* I had a bit of difficulty tracking down Masham's reference. To my surprise it doesn't seem to be on Gallica! The author was named on p. 295 of this Italian dissertation I found on Google (I don't read Italian!), which enabled me to track down the Internet Archive version. I haven't read it.

** The English word 'talent' has its origin in the Biblical Parable of the Talents, in which 'talents' are large sums of money entrusted by a master to his servant. In 1705, the metaphor is not yet dead.

Posted by Kenny at April 28, 2020 5:01 PM
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