The religious sentiments by which mortals are to be assisted, even in the discharge of their moral duties, and still more, the sentiments which are purely religious, and have no reference to any thing here, are precisely those which are most easily excited in the mind of woman. Affection, admiration, filial reverence, are, if I mistake not exceedingly, those in which the women far surpass the men; and it is on this account that we generally find them so much disposed to devotion, which is nothing but a sort of fond indulgence of these affections without limit to the imagination. The enraptured devotee pours out her soul in expressions of these feelings, just as a fond mother mixes the caresses given to her child with the most extravagant expressions of love. The devotee even endeavours to excite higher degrees of these affections, by expatiating on such circumstances in the divine conduct with respect to man as naturally awaken them; and he does this without any fear of exceeding; because Infinite Wisdom and Goodness will always justify the sentiment, and free the expression of it from all charge of hyperbole or extravagance.
I am convinced, therefore, that the female mind is well adapted to cultivation by means of religion, and that their native softness and kindness of heart will always be sufficient for procuring it a favorable reception, from them. It is therefore with double regret that I see any of them join in the arrogant pretensions of our Illuminated philosophers, who see no need of such assistances for the knowledge and discharge of their duties. There is nothing so unlike that general modesty of thought, and that diffidence, which we are disposed to think the character of the female mind. I am inclined to think, that such deviations from the general conduct of the sex are marks of a harsher character, of a heart that has less sensibility, and is on the whole less amiable than that of others; yet it must be owned that there are some such among us. Much, if not the whole of this perversion, has, I am persuaded, been owing to the contagion of bad example in the men. They are made familiar with such expressions–their first horror is gone, and (would to heaven that I were mistaken!) some of them have already wounded their consciences to such a degree, that they have some reason to wish that religion may be without foundation.
But I would call upon all; and these women in particular, to consider this matter in another light–as it may affect themselves in this life; as it may affect their rank and treatment in ordinary society. I would say to them, that if the world shall once adopt the belief that this life is our all, then, the true maxim of rational conduct will be, to “eat and to drink, since to-morrow we are to die;” and that when they have nothing to trust to but the fondness of the men, they will soon find themselves reduced to slavery. The crown which they now wear will fall from their heads, and they will no longer be the arbiters of what is lovely in human life. The empire of beauty is but short; and even in republican France, it will not be many years that Madame Talien can fascinate the Parisian Theatre by the exhibition of her charms. Man is fastidious and changeable, and he is stronger than they, and can always take his own will with respect to woman. At present he is with-held by respect for her moral worth–and many are with-held by religion–and many more are with-held by public laws, which laws were framed at a time when religious truths influenced the minds and the conduct of men. When the sentiments of men change, they will not be so foolish as to keep in force laws which cramp their strongest desires. Then will the rich have their Harems, and the poor their drudges.
Nay, it is not merely the circumstance of woman’s being considered as the moral companion of man that gives the sex its empire among us. There is something of this to be observed in all nations. Of all the distinctions which set our species above the other sentient inhabitants of this globe, making us as unlike to the best of them as they are to a piece of inanimate matter, there is none more remarkable than the differences observable in the appearances of those desires by which the race is continued. As I observed already, such a distinction is indispensably necessary. There must be a moral connection, in order that the human species may be a race of rational creatures, improveable, not only by the encreasing experience of the individual, but also by the heritable experience of the successive generations. It may be observed between the solitary pairs in Labrador, where human nature starves, like the stunted oak in the crevice of a baron rock; and it is seen in the cultivated societies of Europe, where our nature in a series of ages becomes a majestic tree. But, alas! with what differences of boughs and foliage! Whatever may be the native powers of mind in the poor but gentle Esquimaux, she can do nothing for the species but nurse a young one, who cannot run his race of life without incessant and hard labour to keep soul and body together–here therefore her station in society can hardly have a name, because there can hardly be said that there is an association, except what is necessary for repelling the hostile attacks of Indians, who seem to hunt them without provocation as the dog does the hare. In other parts of the world, we see that the consideration in which the sex is held, nearly follows the proportions of that aggregate of many different particulars, which we consider as constituting the cultivation of a society. We may perhaps err, and we probably do err, in our estimation of these degrees, because we are not perfectly acquainted with what is the real excellence of man. But as far as we can judge of it, I believe that my assertion is acknowledged. On this authority, I might presume to say, that it is in Christian Europe that man has attained his highest degree of cultivation–and it is undoubtedly here that the women have attained the highest rank. I may even add, that it is in that part of Europe where the essential and distinguishing doctrines of Christian morality are most generally acknowledged and attended to by the laws of the country, that woman acts the highest part in general society. But here we must be very careful how we form our notion, either of the society, or of the female rank–it is surely not from the two or three dozens who fill the highest ranks in the state. Their number is too small, and their situation is too particular, to afford the proper average. Besides, the situation of the individuals of this class in all countries is very much the same–and in all it is very artificial–accordingly their character is fantastical. Nor are we to take it from that class that is the most numerous of all, the lowest class of society, for these are the labouring poor, whose conduct and occupations are so much dictated to them by the hard circumstances of their situation, that scarcely any thing is left to their choice. The situation of women of this class must be nearly the same in all nations. But this class is still susceptible of some variety–and we see it–and I think that even here there is a perceptible superiority of the female rank in those countries where the purest Christianity prevails. We must however take our measures or proportions from a numerous class, but also a class in somewhat of easy circumstances, where moral sentiments call some attention, and persons have some choice in their conduct. And here, although I cannot pretend to have had many opportunities of observation, yet I have had some. I can venture to say that it is not in Russia, nor in Spain, that woman is, on the whole, the most important as a member of the community. I would say, that in Britain her important rights are more generally respected than any where else. No where is a man’s character so much hurt by infidelity–no where is it so difficult to rub off the stigma of bastardy, or to procure a decent reception or society for an improper connection; and I believe it will readily be granted, that their share in successions, their authority in all matters of domestic trust, and even their opinions in what concerns life and manners, are fully more respected here than in any country.
I have been of the opinion (and every observation that I have been able to make since I first formed it confirms me in it) that woman is indebted to Christianity alone for the high rank she holds in society. Look into the writings of antiquity–into the works of the Greek and Latin poets–into the numberless panegyrics of the sex, to be found both in prose and verse–I can find little, very little indeed, where woman is treated with respect–there is no want .of love, that is, of fondness, of beauty, of charms, of graces. But of woman as the equal of man, as a moral companion, travelling with him the road to felicity–as his adviser–his solace in misfortune–as a pattern from which he may sometimes copy with advantage;–of all this there is hardly a trace. Woman is always mentioned as an object of passion. Chastity, modesty, sober-mindedness, are all considered in relation to this single point; or sometimes as of importance in respect of oeconomy or domestic quiet. Recollect the famous speech of Metellus Numidicus to the Roman people, when, as Censor, he was recommending marriage.
“Si fine uxore possemus Quirites esse, omnes ea molestia careremus. Sed quoniam ita natura tradidit, ut nec cum illis commode, nec fine illis ullo modo vivi posset, saluti perpetuae potius quam brevi voluptati consulendum.”
Aul. Gell. Noct. Att. I. 6.
What does Ovid, the great panegyrist of the sex, say for his beloved daughter, whom he had praised for her attractions in various places of his Tristia and other compositions? He is writing her Epitaph–and the only thing he can say of her as a rational creature is, that she is–Domifida–not a Gadabout.–Search Apuleius, where you will find many female characters in abstracto–You will find that his little Photis was nearest to his heart, after all his philosophy. Nay, in his pretty story of Cupid and Psyche, which the very wise will tell you is a fine lesson of moral philosophy, and a representation of the operations of the intellectual and moral faculties of the human soul, a story which gave him the finest opportunity, nay, almost made it necessary for him, to insert whatever can ornament the female character; what is his Psyche but a beautiful, fond, and silly girl; and what are the whole fruits of any acquaintance with the sex?–Pleasure. But why take more pains in the search?–Look at their immortal goddesses–is there one among them whom a wise man would for a wife or a friend?–I grant that a Lucretia is praised–a Portia, an Arria, a Zenobia–but these are individual characters–not representatives of the sex. The only Grecian ladies who made a figure by intellectual talents, were your Aspasias, Sapphos, Phrynes, and other nymphs of this cast, who had emerged from the general insignificance of the sex, by throwing away what we are accustomed to call its greatest ornament.
I think that the first piece in which woman is pictured as a respectable character, is the oldest novel that I am acquainted with, written by a Christian Bishop, Heliodorus–I mean the Adventures of Theagenes and Chariclea. I think that the Heroine is a greater character than you will meet with in all the annals of antiquity. And it is worth while to observe what was the effect of this painting. The poor Bishop had been deposed, and even excommunicated, for doctrinal errors, and for drawing such a picture of a heathen. The magistrates of Antioch, the most voluptuous and corrupted city of the East, wrote to the Emperor, telling him that this book had reformed the ladies of their city, where Julian the Emperor and his Sophists had formerly preached in vain, and they therefore prayed that the good Bishop might not be deprived of his mitre.–It is true, we read of Hypatia, daughter of Theon, the mathematician at Alexandria, who was a prodigy of excellence, and taught philosophy, i.e. the art of leading a good and happy life, with great applause in the famous Alexandrian school.–But she also was in the times of Christianity, and was the intimate friend of Syncellus and other Christian Bishops.
It is undoubtedly Christianity that has set woman on her throne, making her in every respect the equal of man, bound to the same duties, and candidate for the same happiness. Mark how woman is described by a Christian poet,
——“Yet when I approach
Her loveliness, so absolute she seems,
And in herself complete, so well to know
Her own, that what she wills to do or say
Seems wisest, virtuousest, discreetest, best.
Neither her outside, form’d so fair,——
So much delights me, as those graceful acts,
Those thousand decencies that daily flow
From all her words and actions, mix’d with love
And sweet compliance, which declare unfeign’d
Union of mind, or in us both one soul.
——And, to consummate all,
Greatness of mind, and nobleness, their feat
Build in her loveliest, and create an awe
About her, as a guard angelic plac’d.”
This is really moral painting, without any abatement of female charms.
This is the natural consequence of that purity of heart, which is so much insisted on in the Christian morality. In the instructions of the heathen philosophers, it is either not mentioned at all, or at most, it is recommended coldly, as a thing proper, and worthy of a mind attentive to great things.–But, in Christianity, it is insisted on as an indispensable duty, and enforced by many arguments peculiar to itself.
It is worthy of observation, that the most prominent superstitions which have dishonored the Christian churches, have been the excessive refinements which the enthusiastic admiration of heroic purity has allowed the holy trade to introduce into the manufacture of our spiritual fetters. Without this enthusiasm, cold expediency would not have been able to make the Monastic vow so general, nor have given us such numbers of convents. These were generally founded by such enthusiasts–the rulers indeed of the church encouraged this to the utmost, as the best levy for the spiritual power–but they could not enjoin such foundations. From the same source we may derive the chief influence of auricular confession. When these were firmly established, and were venerated, almost all the other corruptions of Christianity followed of course. I may almost add, that though it is here that Christianity has suffered the most violent attacks, it is here that the place is most tenable.–Nothing tends so much to knit all the ties of society as the endearing connections of family, and whatever tends to lessen our veneration for the marriage contract, weakens them in the most effectual manner. Purity of manners is its most effectual support, and pure thoughts are the only sources from which pure manners can flow. I readily grant that this. veneration for personal purity was carried to an extravagant height, and that several very ridiculous fancies and customs arose from this. Romantic love, and chivalry, are strong instances of the strange vagaries of our imagination, when carried along by this enthusiastic admiration of female purity; and so unnatural and forced, that they could only be temporary fashions. But I believe that, with all their ridicule, it would be a happy nation where this was the general creed and practice. Nor can I help thinking a nation on its decline, when the domestic connections cease to be venerated, and the illegitimate offspring of a nabob or a nobleman are received with ease into good company.