Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Wollstonecraft: The formation of the human heart

Mary Wollstonecraft wrote: "Children, I grant, should be innocent; but when the epithet is applied to men, or women, it is but a civil term for weakness." "Innocent" comes from the Latin for non-harmful. Wollstonecraft used it in the sense of ignorant, pointing out that ignorance entails weakness. She defended the right of women to have access to education so that they are not forced into intellectual subservience to men.

She believed that "every being may become virtuous by the exercise of its own reason; for if but one being was created with vicious inclinations, that is positively bad, what can save us from atheism? or if we worship a God, is not that God a devil?"

This view assumes that God creates humans with the desire to be virtuous so that they may perfect themselves. Education must be a central part of a social program "to strengthen the body and form the heart. Or, in other words, to enable the individual to attain such habits of virtue as will render it independent. In fact, it is a farce to call any being virtuous whose virtues do not result from the exercise of its own reason." But isn't this contradictory? It attempts to take both sides of the question of whether we are shaped by nature or nurture. If God forms our hearts, why should we need education to do it for us? What types of virtues or inclinations, we might ask, must be implanted in us by God (if we are to maintain a theism worth its salt, in Wollstonecraft's opinion) and what types may be acquired through education?

Mary Wollstonecraft. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. (1792) Chapter 2: The Prevailing Opinion of a Sexual Character Discussed.

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