Philosophy Phridays – Lady Anne Conway

Philosophy Phridays is a series where each Friday, I go to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, click on “random entry,” and then write about whatever comes up. This week’s random entry is about Lady Anne Conway.

Lady Anne Conway was a seventeenth century, English philosopher. Philosophy, in general, is very male (and very white). It is a problem the discipline is still struggling with. It is rare to encounter any important women in the field prior to the twentieth century. The few who made it should be celebrated and championed.

Conway was able to learn philosophy through her friendship with Henry More. He taught her through letters that they exchanged. From the letters we have, it looks like they studied Platonism and Cartesian philosophy. Later in her life, she met Francis Mercury van Helmont, who introduced her to kabbalah and Quakerism. She combined these into her own philosophy which was an influence on Leibniz (for those who don’t know, Leibniz was one of the most important thinkers of the Enlightenment, and invented calculus).

Her book is called The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy. In it, she deals mainly with metaphysics, religion, and ethics. She believed that the world was divided into three levels of being, or “species” as she called it. The highest level is God, the source of all being. The third level is what she called “Creature,” which is basically us and what we think of as the world. The middle level is Christ, which links the first and third levels. A principle of “likeness” links everything, so the fact that God is good means that the creation is also good.

Conway didn’t believe in corporeal bodies. For her, the creation was made of monads and all of creation is living and capable of motion and perception. In other words, God’s spirit infuses everything. This is getting uncomfortably close to pantheism, though, the idea that God is everything. It’s interesting how often people who think deeply about God wind up with pantheism, but that’s getting off topic. To protect herself from charges of pantheism, she used the idea of Christ, or the “middle ground,” to act as both a buffer and a link between God and the creation. There’s still a strong whiff of pantheism about it, but that’s ok. The monads in particular were an influence on Leibniz. It is impressive for someone trained in Cartesian thought to reject mind/body dualism, but she was ahead of her time.

Ethically, Conway believed that evil is basically being distant from God. That must come from her Platonism. She believed that everything could improve by getting closer to God. She also denied the concept of Hell. The idea of eternal punishment is incompatible with God being all good. As a Unitarian Universalist, that’s an idea close to my heart. Instead, all suffering is a type of purgatory, a way of moving us closer to God.

That’s a simple summary of Conway’s thought. It deserves more recognition in the history of philosophy classes. I don’t know how many people I will reach, but it feels good to help spread the word. If you’re interested in learning more, there is Sarah Hutton’s book. I wonder what next week will bring us.

Hutton, Sarah, “Lady Anne Conway”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2015/entries/conway/>

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