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2 - Political thought/political action: Margaret Cavendish's Hobbesian dilemma

from Part I - Women's political writings, 1400–1690

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 August 2010

Hilda L. Smith
Affiliation:
University of Cincinnati
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Summary

An affiliation between Margaret Cavendish (1623–1673) and Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) might on first consideration seem unlikely. Cavendish was by her own admission both unlearned and undisciplined; despite having attended a French queen as a maid of honor and having lived in exile for sixteen years first in Paris and then in Antwerp, she never became fluent in any language other than English. Her reading, while substantially broader than has been acknowledged, was begun late and pursued haphazardly. Hobbes, on the other hand, though eager to demonstrate his independence from any religious or classical authority, was from his youth deeply steeped in the literate culture of Renaissance humanism, having translated Euripides' Medea before he left for Oxford. Cavendish's rambling volumes appear to record the spontaneous stream of her thoughts with little or no system or method. Hobbes's work, despite its puzzling inconsistencies, is clearly the product of a system builder. He was widely admired for his witty conversation; she seems, for all the garrulity of her prose, to have been struck dumb in the company of others.

And yet unlikely as this pair might at first seem, they share similarities, beginning with their traditional reputations as isolated thinkers “without ancestry or posterity.” They traveled in the same circles. Both were considered mad by some and feared by others, in part because they insisted that the nature of God was unknowable and also because they shared a disturbingly pessimistic view of human nature.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 1998

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