How I discovered Anne Conway

I want to tell how I’ve just come to discover Lady Anne Conway (1631-79).  Not because anyone should care that much as to the “how” of it, but more to illustrate the fortuity that has characterized my unstructured self-education in the subjects this blog deals with.

As most any professor of philosophy would tell me, I’ve gone about learning philosophy all wrong.  First, he or she would say, one should obtain a thorough grounding in the subject by reading and studying the canonized, curriculum-approved “giants” in the field.  Only then, goes the thinking, is it acceptable to examine the sort of “fringe” thinkers that I have studied, with the caveat always kept firmly in mind that there are reasons why these thinkers aren’t considered part of the canon.

I reject this center-outwards approach to learning.  My approach is decidedly outwards-center and will remain so.  For that matter I would contest the value and validity of canon-formation, but a discussion of that would take us far afield.  In short, I have my method and they have theirs.  Of course, in general, they could care less what I think or do, because I’m not part of the guild or even trying to be part of the guild.

Not all professors are dogmatic about this, of course, and I am thankful for that.  Some will carry on an email conversation with me.  I’ve written to many over the years.  Some reply, some don’t.  It’s like anything else.  But I digress.  So, to begin:

Lately, I’ve been thinking about participating in organized religion again.  My wife and I were members of the Antelope Park Church of the Brethren in Lincoln, Nebraska from 2005 until 2009, which is when we moved to Aiken, South Carolina.  There are no Church of the Brethren congregations anywhere close to us now.  But there is a Quaker meeting group here in Aiken.

Back in 1980 when I was twenty-two years old and living in Tampa, Florida, I attended some Quaker meetings for worship.  Back then, I had read several books about Quakers and their beliefs, including Friends for 300 Years by Howard H. Brinton, John Woolman’s Journal, and one or two books by Rufus Jones.  I still have my old, tattered copy of Friends for 300 Years, and somewhere along the line I’ve replaced my lost copy of Woolman’s Journal, although I hadn’t looked at either book in years.

Now, there was a Quaker meeting group in Lincoln, Nebraska, and so before we joined the Church of the Brethren in 2005, I first thought of giving Quakerism another try.  But my wife and I wanted to attend church together, and when I explained to her how unprogrammed Quaker worship works (which is the kind that both the Lincoln and the Aiken meeting groups practice), she demurred.  In her life-experience, as the daughter of a one-time Methodist minister, “church” to her meant sermons and liturgy and hymn singing.  Did I expect her to give up all those things and sit with others for an hour each week in (mostly) silent worship?  Well, no, I guess I didn’t.  And to tell the truth, back then, I also wanted the usual “trappings” of organized religion.

And so we became members of the Brethren for the rest of our time in Lincoln.  We met wonderful people in the church and we became good friends with several of them.  I have only good things to say about all the Brethren we met.  There wasn’t a single “stinker” in the bunch, and about how many congregations can that be said?  Of course, it was a fairly small congregation.

As I reflect back on the experience, the only part that never sat that well with me was the part about which nothing could be done – that is, the trappings of organized worship, i.e. the very things that are largely absent from unprogrammed Quaker worship.  Because, make no mistake, it takes a lot of hard work to maintain all these “trimmings,” and it’s the kind of work that, over time, tends to burn people out, or at least wear them out.

But are the trimmings really necessary?  Well, yes, I suppose they are, if you’re committed to making church attendance the kind of experience that most people expect to have.  But I always found that the best moments in church, the most precious ones, were unprompted, unscripted, and cost very little in terms of preparation.  I mean: those rare moments when our congregation was one joyous heart and mind, when we became almost super-organic.  It was as though everything else – I mean, all of the trappings – should have led to these moments, and occasionally, they did, but more often than not these moments occurred independently of the trappings – almost in spite of them.

It wasn’t as much that way in the Quaker meetings for worship I remember attending.  The moments of accord there, although far from constant, at least seemed more frequent and more obviously the goal of the worship.  But again I digress.  To return to the topic at hand:

About a week ago I pulled out my old copy of Friends for 300 Years and starting reading from it again.  The book is (as I remembered it) a wonderful (re)introduction to Quakerism.  However, partly reflecting the fact that Brinton wrote it in 1952, and partly reflecting the fact that it is after all only an introduction, it does not delve much into the finer points of Quaker history and perspectives (I’m aware that the book was updated in 2002, and rechristened Friends for 350 Years, but I don’t have the updated book).

Wanting to dive a bit deeper I searched around online, and one of the first persons I found was Ellen Ross, an Associate Professor of Religion at Swarthmore College, whose department web page is here.  The following paragraph on her web page, about a book she’s currently working on (and which I can’t wait to read), certainly got my attention:

This project emerges from my study of Quakers who were keen observers of the natural world and who were among the first, if not the first, post-contact North Americans to understand the detrimental impact white settlers were having on the environment.  American and English Quaker naturalists such as John and William Bartram, Peter and Michael Collinson, and John Fothergill express deep alarm, from the mid-eighteenth-century forward, about the potential loss and eventual extinction of bears, beavers, buffalo, rattlesnakes and other reptiles, as well as plant life endangered by increased human presence and predation.  I explore how religious belief was a catalyst for scientific exploration in this era – an era in which, for many Quaker naturalists, science and religion were united in cultivating compassionate regard for the natural world.  Scientific study pursued within a belief structure that regarded creation as a manifestation of eternal wisdom led many Quaker naturalists to be (as William Bartram described himself and others) “advocate[s] or vindicator[s] of the benevolent and peaceable disposition of animal creation.”  These lives and stories, little known to many of us now, open our eyes to this unheralded but influential tradition within land ethics and social reform in American history.

I then looked around online for people who have referenced her work, and I tracked down a PhD thesis written in 2009 by Geoffrey Peter Morries titled From revelation to resource: the natural world in the thought and experience of Quakers in Britain and Ireland, 1647-1830.  The web page (which includes a link to the full text of the thesis, available free of charge) is here.  In his thesis Morries discusses Francis Mercury van Helmont and Anne Conway, both of whom were briefly Quakers (Conway died shortly after converting), and both of whom had metaphysical interests and commitments that most Quakers of that era could neither accept nor assimilate.

I was slightly familiar with F. M. van Helmont having studied his better-known father J. B. van Helmont several years ago to some degree of depth.  The esotericism of the younger van Helmont didn’t interest me much at that time, and so I hadn’t pursued him.  I’m still predisposed to resist esoteric spirituality, at least in general, but due to my recent reading about the Catholic “heretic” Guillaume Postel (1510-81), who was much influenced by the Jewish mystical teaching known as the Kabbalah, I now realize that F. M. van Helmont is worth looking at more closely.

But Anne Conway?  Who was she?  I’d never heard of her.  I suppose I’d been in her general vicinity, studying people like Postel and van Helmont and John Webster (see the passage quoted below), but I hadn’t detected her presence.  Wanting to learn more I started looking around online for all I could find about her.  The more I read, by and about her, the more excited I became.  Her sole work, brought to anonymous publication by van Helmont only after her death, consisted of notes, written in English, which she had kept to herself.  Her work was first published in Latin translation (1690) as Principia philosophiae antiquissimae et recentissimae.  It was then published in English translation (1692, a back-translation from Latin – an original English manuscript has never been found) as The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy.  It appears to be a remarkable work!  I’m stunned by what I’ve read from it so far.  I’m still very much in “assimilation mode” – waiting on a variety of books to come, etc. – and so I suppose I should be more cautious about this.  But I’ll admit it.  Right now, I’m ecstatic.  Anne Conway looks like a major find, at least for me.

In terms of free web access to The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, Jonathan Bennett has a terrific web site wherein he has “translated” some of the works of early modern philosophy into more modern English – so that today’s college students can read them more easily – without, however, “dumbing them down.”  One can quibble with the concept, I suppose, but I think Bennett has provided something very useful.  Anyway, Bennett has Anne Conway’s only work on his site, and it can be found here.  Read Chapter 6 if nothing else.  I think it resonates wonderfully well with the discussions here on Scandinavian creation theology and animal theology.

Back in an earlier post I wrote the following (emphasis added):

Webster’s ideas and opinions were drawn from eclectic sources.  Although he is generally, and correctly, classed with the Paracelsians and Helmontians (i.e. the scientific counter-movement), Webster also praised the accomplishments of men like Bacon, Galileo and Descartes, and he was a strong supporter of the Royal Society (i.e. the scientific main movement).  He is a reminder to us of the danger of drawing the line between the two movements too cleanly, too neatly.  Webster, and many others of that period, were suspended, magnetically, as it were, between two poles.  In the span of the seventeenth century – a mere blink of an eye on the human evolutionary timescale – man’s mental compass had to adapt to a sudden reversal of the magnetic poles.  In the historical moment when this flip occurred, even great minds knew not which way to go.  Newton himself, most now believe, “wasted” years of his life on religious questions and alchemy.  Where before there had been the settled religious certainty of an Aquinas, and ahead lay the settled scientific certainty of a Laplace (who, when asked by Napoleon why his works on nature never mentioned its Creator, famously replied, “I had no need of that hypothesis”), it may be that at this juncture, and perhaps only then, sublime natural truths were briefly visible.

The reason why there may have been a unique opportunity in the seventeenth century to see truths we weren’t able to see before, and haven’t been able to see since, is because our collective mind (or at least the collective mind of those in Europe at the time who had the luxury of being educated and the wherewithal to think hard about how the truths of natural philosophy might be reconciled with the truths of revealed religions) was still effectively open in both directions on time’s double-pointed arrow.

Or, to put it slightly differently: whereas our collective mind prior to that century was pointed only backwards, i.e. eschatological considerations aside, any “golden age” was thought to have occurred in the past; and whereas our collective mind since that century has been pointed only forwards, i.e. any golden age is expected in the future; in the seventeenth century, when the needle of our mental compass was in the process of swinging 180 degrees, we were at least briefly able to see bidirectionally.

(One must not think that just because we study history, or because every specialization now has its “history of …” component (e.g. history of science, history of religion, and so on), that we are still “bi” in the same way.  We aren’t, because those “history of …” components are stoutly bracketed by steely institutional pincers that don’t permit “anachronisms” to pass through.  One may certainly study history for history’s sake and for what it tells us about us; in fact, it’s laudatory.  Just don’t think of putting new wine in old bottles, if you get my drift.)

Metaphysically speaking it may be that Anne Conway saw things more clearly, in both directions at once, than anyone else in the century that Bergson described as “a sublime parenthesis.”  And wouldn’t that just be killer? Because the capper, the icing on the cake, is that she’s a woman.  I love it.  We need more women philosophers, and more influence by women philosophers!

Much more about Anne Conway will follow I am sure, as the books arrive, and as I have time to digest them.

This entry was posted in Animal theology, Conway, Anne, Helmont, Francis Mercury van, Helmont, Jan Baptista van, Kabbalah, Postel, Guillaume, Quakerism, Scandinavian creation theology, Science, History of, Theology (uncategorized), Webster, John. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s