Document 3B: Frances Wright, excerpt from "Lecture I: On the Nature of Knowledge," Course of Popular Lectures; With Three Addresses, on Various Public Occassions, and a Reply to the Charges against the French Reformers of 1789 (London: James Watson, 1834). Reprinted in Frances Wright D'Arusmont, Life, Letters and Lectures, 1834/1844 (New York: Arno Press, 1972), pp. 15-21.
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Perhaps at this moment, she who speaks is outraging a prejudice--(shall I be forgiven the word?) Perhaps among those who hear me, there are who deem it both a presumption and an impropriety for a woman to reason with her fellow creatures.
Did I know, of a surety, this prejudice to prevail among my hearers, I should, indeed, be disposed to reason with them. I should be tempted to ask, whether truth had any sex; and I should venture farther to ask, whether they count for nothing, for something, or for every thing, the influence of women over the destinies of our race.
Shall I be forgiven for adverting, most unwillingly, to myself? Having assumed an unusual place, I feel, that to my audience some explanation is due.
Stimulated in my early youth, by I know not what of pitying sympathy with human suffering, and by I know not what persuasion, that our race was not of necessity born to ignorance, and its companion, vice, but that it possessed faculties and qualities which pointed to virtue and enjoyment; stimulated, at once, by this pity for the actual condition of man, and this hope of a possible melioration, I applied myself to the discovery of the causes of the one, and of the means for effecting the other.
I have as little the inclination to obtrude on you the process of investigation and course of observation I followed through the period of an eventful youth, as you would probably have to listen to them. Suffice it, that I have been led to consider the growth of knowledge, and the equal distribution of knowledge, as the best--may I say, the only means for reforming the condition of mankind. Shall I be accused of presumption for imagining that I could be instrumental in promoting this, as it appears to me, good work? Shall I appear additionally presumptuous for believing that my sex and my situation tend rather to qualify than to incapacitate me for the undertaking.
So long as the mental and moral instruction of man is left solely in the hands of hired servants of the public--let them be teachers of religion, professors of colleges, authors of books, or editors of journals or periodical publications, dependent upon their literary labours for their daily bread, so long shall we hear but half the truth; and well if we hear so much. Our teachers, political, scientific, moral, or religious; our writers, grave or gay, are compelled to administer to our prejudices, and to perpetuate our ignorance. They dare not speak that which, by endangering their popularity, would endanger their fortunes. They have to discover not what is true, but what is palatable: not what will search into the hearts and minds of their hearers, but what will open their purse strings. They have to weigh every sentiment before they hazard it, every word before they pronounce it, lest they wound some cherished vanity, or aim at some favourite vice. A familiar instance will bring this home to an American audience.
I have been led to inspect, far and wide, the extensive and beautiful section of this country which is afflicted with slavery. I have heard in the cities, villages, and forests of this afflicted region, religious shepherds of all persuasions haranguing their flocks; and I have never heard one bold enough to comment on the evil which saps the industry, vitiates the morals, and threatens the tranquility of the country. The reason of this forbearance is evident. The master of the slave is he who pays the preacher, and the preacher must not irritate his paymaster....
And though I have quoted an instance more peculiarly familiar to Americans, every country teems with similar examples. The master vice, wherever or whatever it be, is never touched. In licentious aristocracies, or to look no farther than the towns and cities of these states, the rich and pampered few are ever spared, or so gently dealt with, as rather agreeably to tickle the ear, than to probe the conscience, while the crimes of the greatly-tempted, greatly-suffering poor, are visited with unrelenting vigour.
Is any discovery made in science, tending to open to us farther the book of knowledge, and to purge our minds of superstitious beliefs in occult causes and unsubstantiated creeds--where has it ever found opposers--or, might we not say, persecutors? Even among our hired preachers and licensed teachers of old doctrines and old ways. Is any inquiry instituted into the truth of received opinions and the advantage of existing practice--who are the last to encourage it? nay, the foremost to cry out "heresy!" and stop the mouth of knowledge? Who but those who live by the ignorance of the age, and the intolerance of the hour? Is any improvement suggested in our social arrangements, calculated to equalize property, labour, instruction, and enjoyment; to destroy crime by removing provocation; vice, by removing ignorance; and to build up virtue in the human breast by exchanging the spirit of self abasement for that of self respect--who are the foremost to treat the suggestions as visionary, the reform is impossible? Even they who live by the fears and the vices of their fellow creatures; and who obtain their subsistence on earthy by opening and shutting the door of heaven.
Nor, as we have seen, are our licensed and pensioned teachers the only individuals interested in disguising the truth. All who write for the public market, all who plead our courts of law, all who harangue in our halls of legislature, all who are, or who aspire to be, popular servants or popular teachers of the people, all are compelled to the support of existing opinions, whether right or wrong--all, more or less, do, and more or less must, pander to the weaknesses, vices, and prejudices of the public, who pays them with money or applause.
I have said not only that they do, but that they must; and most assuredly they must conciliate the popular feeling, or forego the popular favour. Here is intended no satire upon any individuals, professions, nor employments. The object is merely to expose a fact, but a fact highly important to be known; that as, to be popular, men must seek them from other mouths and other pens than those which are depending upon popular patronage, or which are ambitious of popular admiration.
And here then, is the cause why I have presumed to reason with my fellow creatures; why, in my earliest years, I devoted myself to the study of their condition, past and present; why I searched into their powers and their capabilities, examined their practice, and weighed their opinions; and why, when I found these both wanting, I volunteered to declare it. I believe that I see some truths important for my fellow beings to know; I feel that I have the courage and the independence to speak that which I believe; and where is the friend to his species that will not say, "Happy, most happy shall it be for human kind, when all independent individuals, male or female, citizens or foreigners, shall feel the debt of kindness they owe to their fellow beings, and fearlessly step forth to reveal unbought truths and hazard unpopular opinions."
Until this be done, and done ably, fearlessly, and frequently, the reign of human error must continue; and, with human error, human vice, and human suffering. The advocates of just knowledge must be armed with courage to dare all things, and to bear all things, for the truths they revere; and to seek, as they may only find, the reward of their exertions in the impression, great or little, slow or rapid, as it may be, which their exertions may produce on public opinion, and through the public opinion on the public practice.
We have now sufficiently considered, so far as I have found possible in a single discourse on so wide a topic, the main subject of our introductory inquiries: viz. the nature and object of just knowledge. We have examined, also, many of the impediments which now obstruct our advances in the road of improvement. We have seen that just knowledge is easy of acquirement, but that few are interested in revealing its simple principles; while many are driven by circumstances to interpret or dissemble them. We have remarked that, to accelerate the progress of our race, two means present themselves; a just system of education, and a fearless spirit of inquiry; and that while the former would remove all difficulties from the path of future generations, the latter would place far in advance even the present. We have also observed on the advantage which would accrue to mankind, if all independent individuals would volunteer the task, for which appointed teachers and professional men are now but to frequently unfit, by devoting themselves to the promulgation of truth, without regard to fashionable prejudice. I have been led, also, incidentally to advert to the influence exerted over the fortunes of our race by those who are too often overlooked in our social arrangements and in our civil rights--I allude to women.
Leaving to a future opportunity the more complete development of the important subject, we have this evening approached--the nature of all knowledge--as well as the equally important subject of youthful education, I shall, at our next meeting, consider the other two enumerated means of improvement, viz. by free inquiry. And as this is for us of the present generation the only means, so shall I endeavour to show how much it is our interest, and how imperiously it is our duty to improve it to the uttermost.
It is with delight that I have distinguished, at each successive meeting, the increasing ranks of my own sex. Were the vital principle of human equality universally acknowledged, it would be to my fellow beings without regard to nation, class, sect, or sex, that I should delight to address myself. But until equality prevail in condition, opportunity, and instruction, it is every where to the least favoured in these advantages, that I most especially and anxiously incline.
Nor is the ignorance of our sex matter of surprise, when efforts, as violent as unrelaxed, are every where made for its continuance.
It is not as of yore. Eve puts not forth her hand to gather the fair fruit of knowledge. The wily serpent now hath better learned his lesson; and, to secure his reign in the garden, beguileth her not to eat. Promises, entreaties, threats, tales of wonder, and, alas! tales of horror, are all poured in her tender ears. Above, her agitated fancy hears the voice of a god in thunders; below, she sees the yawning pit; and, before, behind, around, a thousand phantoms, conjured from the prolific brain of insatiate priestcraft, confounded, alarm, and overwhelm her reason!
Oh! were the worst evil withdrawn which now weighs upon our race, how rapid were its progress in knowledge! Oh! were men--and, yet more, women, absolved from fear, how easily, and speedily, and gloriously would they hold on their course in improvement! The difficulty is not to convince, it is to win attention. Could truth only be heard, the conversion of the ignorant were easy. And well do the hired supporters of error understand this fact. Well do they know, that if the daughters of the present, and mothers of the future generation, were to drink of the living waters of knowledge, their reign would be ended--"their occupation gone." So well do they know it, that, far from obeying to the letter the command of their spiritual leader, "Be ye fishers of men," we find them ever where fishers of women. Their own sex, old and young, they see with indifference swim by their nets; but closely and warily are their meshes laid, to entangle the female of every age.
Fathers and husband! Do ye not also understand this fact? Do ye not see how, in the mental bondage of your wives and fair companions, ye yourselves are bound? Will ye fondly sport yourselves in your imagined liberty, and say, "it matters not if our women be mental slaves?" Will ye pleasure yourselves in the varied paths of knowledge, and imagine that women, hoodwinked and unawakended, will make the better servants and the easier playthings? They are greatly in error who so strike the account; as many a bankrupt merchant and sinking mechanic, not to say drowning capitalists, could bear witness. But setting aside dollars and cents, which men, in their present uncomfortable state of existence, are but too prone exclusively to regard, how many nobler interests of the mind and the heart cry "treason!" to this false calculation?
At our next meeting, we shall consider these interests, which will naturally present themselves during our investigations on the subject of free inquiry. In what just knowledge consists we have cursorily examined; to put ourselves in the way of attaining that knowledge, be our next object.
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