Mary Astell's Machiavellian moment? Politics and feminism in Moderation truly Stated

In Jo Wallwork & Paul Salzman (eds.), Early Modern Englishwomen Testing Ideas. Ashgate. pp. 9-23 (2011)
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In The Women of Grub Street (1998), Paula McDowell highlighted the fact that the overwhelming majority of women’s texts in early modern England were polemical or religio-political in nature rather than literary in content. Since that time, the study of early modern women’s political ideas has dramatically increased, and there have been a number of recent anthologies, modern editions, and critical analyses of female political writings. As a result of Patricia Springborg’s research, Mary Astell (1668-1731) has risen to prominence as one of the most astute female political commentators of her day. Springborg argues for Astell’s importance as one of the first systematic critics of the philosopher John Locke, and she interprets Astell’s political thought as a reaction to Lockean Whig politics in the early reign of Queen Anne. But some scholars claim that it is a mistake to think that Astell was chiefly preoccupied with Locke, and others suggest that reading Astell in relation to Locke alone can distort our understanding of her larger political theory. In this chapter, I argue that a more accurate picture of Astell’s political outlook emerges by examining a little studied essay, ‘A Prefatory Discourse to Dr D’Aveanant’ in her 1704 work Moderation Truly Stated. In this critique of Charles Davenant’s Essays upon Peace at Home, and War Abroad (1704), Astell provides a commentary on the political ruthlessness of Niccolo Machiavelli in his Discourses on Livy. Astell’s comments reveal that, in an age in which the political vocabulary was turning to the language of rights, property, and liberty, she still subscribed to the ancient world view, and the ethical-political language of virtue and the good. My intention is to show that these ethical dimensions of Astell’s political thought are consonant with her wider philosophy.

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Jacqueline Broad
Monash University


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