An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex/Section 4/Modern

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The Education of the Female Sex not so deficient as commonly thought.
There are others that deserve to be brought into the Company of these upon like Honourable Reasons; but I keep them in reserve for a proper place, where I may perhaps take the pains to draw their Pictures to the Life at full length. Let us now return to our Argument, from which we have had a long breathing while. Let us look into the manner of our Education, and see wherein it falls short of the Men’s, and how the defects of it may be, and are generally supplied. In our tender years they are the same, for after Children can Talk, they are promiscuously taught to Read and Write by the same Persons, and at the same time both Boys and Girls. When these are acquired, which is generally about the Age of Six or Seven Years, they begin to be separated, and the Boys are sent to the Grammar-School, and the Girls to Boarding Schools, or other places, to learn Needle Work, Dancing, Singing, Music, Drawing, Painting, and other Accomplishments, according to the Humour and Ability of the Parents, or Inclination of the Children. Of all these, Reading, and Writing are the main Instruments of Conversation; though Music and Painting may be allowed to contribute something towards it, as they give us an insight into two Arts, that makes up a great part of the Pleasures and Diversions of Mankind. Here then lies the main Defect, that we are taught only our Mother Tongue, or perhaps French, which is now very fashionable, and almost as Familiar amongst Women of Quality as Men; whereas the other Sex by means of a more extensive Education to the knowledge of the Roman and Greek Languages, have a vaster Field for their Imaginations to rove in, and their Capacities thereby enlarged. To see whether this be strictly true or not, I mean in what relates to our debate, I will for once suppose, that we are instructed only in our own Tongue, and then enquire whether the Disadvantage be so great as it is commonly imagined. You know very well, Madam, that for Conversation, it is not requisite we should be Philologers, Rhetoricians, Philosophers, Historians, or Poets; but only that we should think pertinently, and express our thoughts properly, on such matters as are the proper Subjects for a mixed Conversation.
Religion, &c. no proper subject for mixed Conversation.
The Italians, a People as delicate in their Conversation as any in the World, have a Maxim, That our selves, our Neighbours, Religion, or Business, ought never to be the Subject. There are very substantial Reasons to be given for these Restrictions, for Men are very apt to be vain, and impertinent, when they talk of themselves, besides that others are very jealous, and apt to suspect, that all the good things said, are intended as so many arguments of preference to them. When they speak of their Neighbours, they are apt out of a Principle of Emulation and Envy, natural to all the race of Adam, to lessen, and tarnish their Fame, whether by open Scandal, and Defamatory Stories, and Tales, or by malicious Insinuations, invidious Circumstances, sinister and covert Reflections. This humour springs from an over fondness of our selves, and a mistaken conceit that another’s loss is an addition to our own Reputation, as if like two Buckets, one must necessarily rise as the other goes down. This is the basest and most ungenerous of all our natural Failures, and ought to be corrected as much as possible every where; but more especially in Italy, where Resentments are carried so high, and Revenges prosecuted with so much Heat and Animosity. Religion is likewise very tender there, as in all other places, where the Priests have so much Power and Authority. But even here, where our differences and disputes have made it more tame, and used it to rough handling, it ought carefully to be avoided; for nothing raises unfriendly warmths among Company more than a religious Arugment, which therefore ought to be banished all Society intended only for Conversation and Diversion. Business is too dry and barren to give any Spirit to Conversation, or Pleasure to a Company, and is therefore rather to be reckoned among the Encumbrances than Comforts of Life, however necessary. Besides these, Points of Learning, abstruse Speculations, and nice Politics, ought, in my opinion, to be excluded; because being things that require much Reading and Consideration, they are not fit to be canvassed ex tempore in mixed Company, of which ’tis probable the greatest part will have little to say to them, and will scarce be content to be silent Hearers only; besides that they are not in their nature gay enough to awaken the good Humour, or raise the Mirth of the Company. Nor need any one to fear, that by these limitations Conversation should be restrained to too narrow a compass, there are subjects enough that are in themselves neither insipid, nor offensive; such as Love, Honour, Gallantry, Morality, News, Raillery, and a numberless train of other Things copious and diverting.
Great Improvements to be made by the help of English Books only.
Now I can’t see the necessity of any other Tongue beside our own, to enable us to talk plausibly, or judiciously, upon any of these Topics: Nay, I am very confident, that ’tis possible for an ingenious Person to make a very considerable progress in most parts of learning, by the help of English only. For the only reason I can conceive of learning Languages, is to arrive at the Sense, Wit, or Arts, that have been communicated to the World in them. Now of those that have taken the pains to make themselves Masters of those Treasures, many have been so generous as to impart a share of them to the Public, by Translations for the use of the Unlearned; and I flatter my self sometimes, that several of these were more particularly undertaken by Ingenious, good Natured Men in Kindness and Compassion to our Sex. But whatever the Motives were, the obliging Humour has so far prevailed, that scarce any thing either Ancient, or Modern, that might be of general use, either for Pleasure, or Instruction, is left untouched, and most of them are made entirely free of our Tongue. I am no Judge either of the Accuracy, or Elegance of such Performances; but if I may credit the report of Learned and Ingenious Gentlemen, (whose Judgment or Sincerity I have no reason to question) many of those excellent Authors have lost nothing by the change of Soil. I can see and admire the Wit and Fancy of Ovid in the Translation of his Epistles, and Elegies, the softness and Passion of Tibullus, the Impetuosity and Fire of Juvenal, the Gaiety, Spirit and Judgment of Horace; who, though he may appear very different from himself through the diversity, and inequality of the Hands concerned in making him speak English, yet may easily be guessed at from the several excellent Pieces rendered by the Earl of Roscommon, Mr. Cowley, Mr. Dryden, Mr. Congreve, Mr. Brown, and other ingenious Gentlemen, who have obliged the Nation with their excellent Versions of some parts of him. Nor is it possible to be insensible of the sweetness and Majesty of Virgil, after having read those little, but Divine Samples, already made public in English by Mr. Dryden, which gives us so much Impatience to see the whole Work entire by that admirable Hand. I have heard some ingenious Gentlemen say, That it was impossible to do Justice in our Tongue to these two last Celebrated Roman Poets, and I have known others, of whose Judgments I have as high an Opinion, affirm the contrary; my ignorance of Latin disables me from determining whether we are in the right, but the Beauty of what I have already seen by the means of those Gentlemen, has so far prejudiced me in favour of the latter; that might I have them entire from the same hands, I think I should scarce envy those, who can taste the pleasure of the Originals. Nor is it to the Poets only, that we stand indebted for the Treasures of Antiquity, We have no less Engagements to those, who have successfully laboured in Prose, and have made us familiar with Plutarch, Seneca, Cicero, and in general with all the famous Philosophers, Orators and Historians, from whom we may at once learn both the Opinions and Practices of their Times. Assisted by these helps, ’tis impossible for any Woman to be ignorant that is but desirous to be otherwise, though she know no part of Speech out of her Mother Tongue. But these are neither the only, nor the greatest Advantages we have; all that is excellent in France, Italy, or any of our neighbouring Nations is now become our own; to one of whom, I may be bold to say, we are beholding for more, and greater Improvements of Conversation, that to all Antiquity and the learned Languages together.
The name of Learning unjustly restrained to the knowledge of Latin and Greek only.
Nor can I imagine for what good Reason a Man skilled in Latin, and Greek, and versed in the Authors of Ancient Times shall be called Learned; yet another who perfectly understands Italian, French, Spanish, High Dutch, and the rest of the European Languages, is acquainted with the Modern History of all those Countries, knows their Policies, has dived into all the Intrigues of the several Courts, and can tell their mutual Dispositions, Obligations, and Ties of Interest one to another, shall after all this be thought Unlearned for want of those two Languages. Nay, though he be never so well versed in the Modern Philosophy, Astronomy, Geometry and Algebra, he shall notwithstanding never be allowed that honourable Title. I can see but one apparent Reason for this unfair procedure; which is, that when about an Age and a half ago, all the poor Remains of Learning then in Being, were in the hands of the School-men; they would suffer none to pass Muster, that were not deeply engaged in those intricate, vexatious and unintelligible Trifles, for which themselves contended with so much Noise and Heat; or at least were not acquainted with Plato and Aristotle, and their Commentators; from whence the Sophistry and Subtleties of the Schools at that time were drawn. Thus Usurpation was maintained by their Successors, the Divines, who to this day pretend almost to the Monopoly of Learning; and though some generous Spirits have in good measure broke the neck of this Arbitrary, Tyrannical Authority; yet can’t they prevail to extend the name of Learning beyond the Studies, in which the Divines are more particularly conversant. Thus you shall have them allow a Man to be a wise Man, a good Naturalist, a good Mathematician, Politician, or Poet, but not a Scholar, a learned Man, that is no Philologer. For my part I think these Gentlemen have just inverted the use of the Term, and given that to the knowledge of words, which belongs more properly to Things. I take Nature to be the great Book of Universal Learning, which he that reads best in all, or any of its Parts, is the greatest Scholar, the most learned Man; and ’tis as ridiculous for a Man to count himself more learned than another, if he have no greater extent of knowledge of things, because he is more versed in Languages; as it would be for an Old Fellow to tell a Young One, his own Eyes were better than the other’s because he Reads with Spectacles, the other without.
English Books the best helps to Conversation
Thus, Madam, you see we may come in Time to put in for Learning, if we have a mind, without falling under the Correction of Pedants. But I will let Learning alone at present, because I have already banished it (though not out of disrespect) from mixed Conversation; to which we will return, and of which the greatest Magazines and Supports are still in Reserve. I mean the many excellent Authors of our own Country, whose Works it were endless to recount. Where is Love, Honour and Bravery more lively represented than in our Tragedies, who has given us Nobler, or juster Pictures of Nature than Mr. Shakespeare? Where is there a tenderer Passion, than in the Maid’s Tragedy? Whose Grief is more awful and commanding than Mr. Otway’s? Whose Descriptions more Beautiful, or Thoughts more Gallant than Mr. Dryden’s? When I see any of their Plays acted, my Passions move by their Direction, my Indignation, my Compassion, my Grief are all at their Beck. Nor is our Comedy at all inferior to our Tragedy; for, not to mention those already named for the other part of the Stage, who are all excellent in this too, Sir George Etherege and Sir Charles Sedley for neat Raillery and Gallantry are without Rivals, Mr. Wicherley for strong Wit, pointed Satire, sound and useful Observations is beyond Imitation; Mr. Congreve for sprightly, genteel, easy Wit falls short of no Man. These are the Masters of the Stage; but there are others who though of an inferior Class, yet deserve Commendation, were that at present my Business. Nay, even the worst of them afford us some diversion; for I find a sort of foolish Pleasure, and can laugh at Mr. D——y’s Farce, as I do at the Tricks, and Impertinencies of a Monkey; and was pleased to see the humour and delight of the Author in Mr. H——n’s Eating, and Drinking Play which I fancied was written in a Victualling House. In short, were it not for the too great frequency of loose Expressions, and wanton Images, I should take out Theaters for the best Schools in the World of Wit, Humanity, and Manners; which they might easily become by retrenching that too great Liberty. Neither have the Poets only, but the Critics too Endeavoured to complete us; Mr. Dennis and Mr. Rimer have by their Ingenious, and judicious labours taught us to admire the Beauties as we ought, and to know the faults of the former. Nor are we less beholding to these for forming our Judgments, than to those for raising our Fancies.
These are the Sources from whence we draw our gayer part of Conversation; I don’t mean in exclusion to the other parts of Poetry, in most of which (as I have heard good Judges say) we equal at least the Ancients, and far surpass all the Moderns. I honour the Names, and admire the Writings of Denham, Suckling and D’avenant, I am ravished with the Fancy of Cowley, and the Gallantry of Waller, I reverence the Fairy Queen, am raised, and elevated with Paradise Lost, Prince Arthur composes and reduces me to a State of Yawning indiffference, and Mr. W—stl—y’s Heroicks lull me to Sleep. Thus all Ranks and Degrees of Poets have their use, and may be serviceable to some body or other from the Prince to the Pastry Cook, or Paste-board Box-maker. I should mention our Satirists, but it would be endless to descend to every particular, of these Mr. Oldham is admirable, and to go no further, the inimitable Mr. Butler will be an everlasting Testimony, of the Wit of his Age, and Nation, and bid eternal defiance to the Wits of all Countries, and future Ages to follow him in a Path before untracked. Our Prose Writers, that are eminent for a gay Style and Jovial Argument, are so many, that it would swell this Letter too much to name them, so that I shall only take notice, that whoever can read without Pleasure, or Laughter, The contempt of the Clergy, and the following Letters and Dialogues by the same Author, or the facetious Dialogues of Mr. Brown must be more Splenetic than Heraclitus, or more stupid, than the Ass he laughed at.
Nor are we less provided for the serious Part; Morality has generally been the Province of our Clergy who have treated of all parts of it very largely with so much Piety, Solidity, and Eloquence, that as I think I may venture to say, they have written more upon it than the Clergy of all the rest of the World; so I believe no Body will deny that they have written better. Yet I could wish, that our Ingenious Gentlemen would employ their Pens oftener on these Subjects; because the severity of the other’s Profession obliges them to write with an Air, and in a Style less agreeable, and inviting to Young People. Not that we are without many excellent Pieces of Morality, Humanity and Civil Prudence written by, and like Gentlemen. But it is the Excellence of them, and the ability of our Gentlemen, which appears in the Spirit, Wit, and curious Observations in those Pieces, which makes me desire more of the same Nature. Who can read the Essays of that Wonderful Man, my Lord Bacon, or the no less to be admired Sir Walter Raleigh’s, or Mr. Osborn’s advice to a Son, the Advice to a Daughter, Sir William Temple’s, or Sir George Machenzie’s Essays, Sir Roger L’Estrange’s Esop (to which last we are likewise obliged for an incomparable Version of Seneca) and abundance of others, without wishing for more from the same, or the like hands? Our Neighbours the French, have written a great deal of this kind, of the best of which we have the benefit in English; but more particularly the Sieurs, Montagne, Rochefaucaut, and St. Evremont, deserve to be immortal in all Languages. I need not mention any more, it is apparent from these that Women want not the means of being Wise and Prudent without more Tongues than one; nay, and Learned too, if they have any Ambition to be so.
The numberless Treatises of Antiquities, Philosophy, Mathematics Natural, and other History (in which I can’t pass silently by, that learned One of Sir Walter Raleigh, which the World he writ of can’t match) written originally in, or translated to our Tongue are sufficient to lead us a great way into any Science our Curiosity shall prompt us to. The greatest difficulty we struggled with, was the want of a good Art of Reasoning, which we had not, that I know of, till that defect was supplied by the greatest Master of that Art Mr. Locke, whose Essay on Human Understanding makes large amends for the want of all others in that kind.
Thus, Madam, I have endeavoured to obviate all our Adversaries’ Objections, by touching upon as great a Variety of things relating to the Subject as I conveniently could. Yet I hope I have troubled you with nothing but what was necessary to make my way clear, and plain before me; and I am apt to think I have made it appear, that nothing but disencouragement or an Idle Uncurious Humour can hinder us from Rivalling most Men in the knowledge of great Variety of things, without the help of more Tongues than our Own; which the Men so often reproachfully tell us is enough. This Idleness is but too frequently to be found among us, but ’tis a Fault equally common to both Sexes. Those that have means to play the Fool all their lives, seldom care for the trouble of being made wise. We are naturally Lovers of our Ease, and have great apprehensions of the difficulty of things untried; Especially in matters of Learning, the common Methods of acquiring which are so unpleasant, and uneasy. I doubt not but abundance of noble Wits are stifled in both Sexes, for want but of suspecting what they were able to do, and with how much facility. Experience shows us every day Blockheads, that arrive at a moderate, nay sometimes a great Reputation by their Confidence, and brisk attempts which they maintain by their Diligence; while great Numbers of Men naturally more Ingenious lie neglected by, for want of Industry to improve, or Courage to exert themselves. No Man certainly but wishes he had the Reputation in, and were Respected and Esteemed by the World as he sees some Men are for the Fruits of their Pens; but they are loth to be at the pains of an Attempt, or doubt their sufficience to perform; or what I believe is most general, never to enquire so far into themselves, and their own Abilities, as to bring such a thought into their Heads. This last I fancy is the true Reason, why our Sex, who are commonly charged with talking too much, are Guilty of Writing so little. I wish they would shake of this lazy Despondence, and let the noble examples of the deservedly celebrated Mrs. Philips, and the incomparable Mrs. Behn, rouse their Courages, and show Mankind the great injustice of their Contempt.
Ignorance of Latin, &c. no disadvantage.
I am confident they would find no such need of the assistance of Languages as is generally imagined. Those that have of their own need not graft upon Foreign Stocks. I have often thought that the not teaching Women Latin and Greek, was an advantage to them, if it were rightly considered, and might be improved to a great height. For Girls after they can Read and Write (if they be of any Fashion) are taught such things as take not up their whole time, and not being suffered to run about at liberty as Boys, ar furnished among other toys with Books, such as Romances, Novels, Plays and Poems; which though they read carelessly only for Diversion, yet unawares to them, give them very early a considerable Command both of Words and Sense; which are further improved by their making and receiving Visits with their Mothers, which gives them betimes the opportunity of imitating, conversing with, and knowing the manner, and address of elder Persons. These I take to be the true Reasons why a Girl of Fifteen is reckoned as ripe as a Boy of One and Twenty, and not any natural forwardness of Maturity, as some People would have it. These advantages the Education of Boys deprives them of, who drudge away the Vigour of their Memories at Words, useless ever after to most of them, and at Seventeen or Eighteen are to begin their Alphabet of Sense, and are but where the Girls were at Nine or Ten. Yet because they have learnt Latin and Greek, reject with Scorn all English Books their best helps, and lay aside their Latin ones, as if they were already Masters of all that Learning, and so hoist Sail for the wide World without a Compass to Steer by. Thus I have fairly stated the difference between us, and can find no such disparity in Nature or Education as they contend for; but we have a sort of ungenerous Adversaries, that deal more in Scandal than Argument, and when they can’t hurt us with their Weapons, endeavour to annoy us with stink Pots. Let us see therefore, Madam, whether we can’t beat them from their Ammunition, and turn their own Artillery upon them; for I firmly believe there is nothing, which they charge upon us, but may with more Justice be retorted upon themselves.