Enthusiastic Improvement: Mary Astell and Damaris Masham on Sociability

Document Type


Publication Date

Summer 2013

Department 1



Many commentators have contrasted the way that sociability is theorized in the writings of Mary Astell and Damaris Masham, emphasizing the extent to which Masham is more interested in embodied, worldly existence. I argue, by contrast, that Astell's own interest in imagining a constitutively relational individual emerges once we pay attention to her use of religious texts and tropes. To explore the relevance of Astell's Christianity, I emphasize both how Astell's Christianity shapes her view of the individual's relation to society and how Masham's contrasting views can be analyzed through the lens of her charge that Astell is an “enthusiast.” In late seventeenth-century England, “enthusiasm” was a term of abuse that, commentators have recently argued, could function polemically to dismiss those deemed either excessively social or antisocial. By accusing Astell of enthusiasm, I claim, Masham seeks to marginalize the relational self that Astell imagines and to promote a more instrumental view of social ties. I suggest some aspects of Astell's thought that may have struck contemporaries as “enthusiastic” and contrast her vision of the self with Masham's more hedonistic subject. I conclude that, although each woman differently configures the relation between self and society, they share a desire to imagine autonomy within a relational framework.


Original version is available from the publisher at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1527-2001.2012.01294.x/full



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