This piece was written for a course I took during the fall titled, “A Brief History of Western Thought.” For my midterm assignment I chose to write a manifesto inspired by the life of Lady Anne Conway and her single, yet comprehensive text—The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy.
Manifesto of Pain
“At the end of my suffering there was a door,”and through that door—I declare—is the meaning and worth of our pain. Please, hear me out—for I believe the salvation of our planet depends on it. Smoke fills the San Francisco skyline on a day I expected to be clear and warm. It isn’t until after I begin to feel inflamed and light-headed that I discover what I mistook for a surprise cloud cover is actually the echo of a wildfire screaming through Chico less than 200 miles north. The question, “what’s wrong with me?” is answered as air pollution that invades every respiring creature around. “My” pain zooms out and becomes ecological, becomes our pain. The question reframes: “what’s wrong with us?” 17thcentury philosopher-heroine Lady Anne Conway offers an answer and means of transmutation by indwelling the question itself. Holding her hand, I extend mine to yours so that together we may lean in and gain clarity through compassion.
It is fitting that Rene Descartes, the boogeyman of Western thought, be supplanted by one of his first major critics. Pulling back the tide of modernity, we invoke the voice of the late, great Lady Anne Conway as the siren to usher in an enchanted world view, synthesizing the old with the new. In her singular, yet comprehensive text, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, Conway persuades us to consider a story of body and mind that “out-narrates”such Cartesian plot twists as the hard problem and the gulf between the divine and the worldly. We hold that Conway’s perspective has more semblance with lived experience and we base that belief in pain. As a woman, it is no surprise that Conway would figure in as one of the most persuasive opponents of Cartesianism. Menses does not permit as easy a dissociation of mind from body that men may fall subject to. That Conway suffered from an incapacitating and incurable headache condition only amplified her insightful rebuttal. “If one should say that dead matter has metaphysical truth and goodness, to the extent that every being is true and good,” Conway asks, “what is truth or goodness? For, if it [dead matter] shares nothing of the communicable attributes of God, it will not be true or good, and consequently, will be an utter fiction.”Our declaration inspires from her ontology, a story of a cosmos created by and soaked with the vitality of a living God.
Guided by Conway, we “proceed securely in the middle way of truth concerning the nature of substance,”between the dualism of Descartes and the monism of Spinoza. In her innovation, there are three forms of being: the singular, self-subsistent and immutable infinity of God; the metaxic being of the Messiah, between the immutable and mutable; and the mutable being of Creation. God’s personality includes traits that can and can’t be spoken:
The incommunicable [traits or attributes] are that God is a being subsisting by himself, independent, immutable, absolutely infinite, and most perfect. The communicable attributes are that God is spirit, light, life, that he is good, holy, just, wise, etc. Among these communicable attributes there are none which are not alive and life itself.
Descartes’ dead matter becomes a fiction in Conway’s ontology, “for what attributes or perfections,” she demands to know, “can be assigned to dead matter which are analogous to those in God?”None, we declare. Her world-story makes sense of the perceived dualism of body and soul by recognizing them as different shades along the spectrum of Creation as living Spirit, made in the image of a living God.
With the “hard problem” dismissed as mere fancy, we are freed up to concern ourselves with realproblems: ouch, something hurts; my head, it aches from the wildfire echo suffusing the sky I breathe—what of pain? How could the goodness of God subject me to suffering? Conway, like Christ, is an exemplar of how we fellow sufferers ought to hold our woe. Being mutable, the body of Creation is subject to change; time; decay. As self-subsistent being, God’s infinity holds hercaptive and powerless over our direct salvation, for God can have no real relations. But within each creature is an original shard of perfection, that sliver of broken mirror in my foot goading me toward something more. Besieged by headaches, Conway intensely strove to make sense of and transmute her own suffering. For her, freedom from pain lies in redemption through God’s love, a love that flows simply from the logic of Creation, “for he [God] gave existence, life, and motion to everything and he therefore loves everything and is unable to not love everything.”The drive to cease pain is the “divine law and instinct with which he [God] has endowed all rational creatures so that they will love him.”If we understand goodness, loving God is no strife, for goodness is Conway’s principle reason for love and God is its paragon. Being images of God herself, it is no wonder that God loves us, as love also inspires from similarity. But, one might ask, how is it possible that God could break through perfection to make love real?
As Creation, we know God’s love most intimately through each other. Love between us follows the logic of similarity; though “we include many individuals gathered into subordinate species and distinguished from each other modally,” difference is not essential for us, because
God has made all tribes and troops from one blood…so that they would love one another and would be bound by the same sympathy and would help one another. Thus God has implanted a certain universal sympathy and mutual love into his creatures so that they are members of one body…for whom there is one common Father, namely, God in Christ or the word incarnate…[and] one mother, that unique substance or entity from which all things have come forth.”
Our love for each other is the commonsense of our fundamental unity as one Creation; it awakens us to our origin in God’s goodness, moving us to participate in the immutable through the metaxy of Christ—the first Creature. As the first, Christ the Messiah is the most perfect of all Creatures and can only tend toward greater goodness. For Conway, Christ is the etheric substance joining infinity with time “like a most powerful and efficacious balm, through which all things are preserved from decline and death[;]…in assuming flesh and blood, he sanctified nature so that he could sanctify everything.”
Through Christ the woes of chronic time may be sanctified by the brilliant light of eternity. In Conway’s spectrum of being, sin and suffering are transfigured into ataxia, “or disorderly direction of motion;” in this case, motion away from the goodness of God.My pain is not a final judgement, rather, it is what spells my karmic inheritance in the undulating matrix of matter. The question is less about identity and more about action. In Conway’s example, just as the helmsman steering the ship “is neither author nor cause of the wind; but the wind blowing, he makes either good or bad use of it,” so too are we response-able for recognizing woe as blessing in disguise.Our pain is the key to Heaven on Earth, for, because “torment stimulates the life or spirit existing in everything which suffers…[,] it irrefutably follows that it [the Creature] must return toward the good, and the greater its suffering, the sooner its return and restoration.”
There is a telos in Conway’s story and its motor is pain. Through our response to suffering, Conway declares, “creatures may have the opportunity to attain, through their own efforts, ever greater perfection as instruments of divine wisdom, goodness, and power, which operate in them and with them. For in this the creatures enjoy greater pleasure.”Four hundred years after Conway’s treatise, we find ourselves in the midst of immense Creaturely pain. The threat to Earth’s achievement of complex life forms steepens the longer the human species remains dissociated from feeling the planet. Rather than point fingers at philosophical boogeymen or, on the other hand, pronounce that our species’ rite of passage necessitates the current devastation for realization, we must first open ourselves up to feel the suffering that is in no shortage within and “outside” human civilization. We must feelworld-pain. Hand in hand with Conway, I declare that—until we fully indwell our pain—a vision of divinized otherwise will not come. Will you join me in taking a deep breath of our polluted sky? Is there meaning in the marked brilliance of a wildfire sunrise? The wild iris answers: “at the end of my suffering there was a door. Hear me out: that which you call death, I remember.”
Conway, Anne. Anne Conway: The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy. Edited by Allison P. Coudert and Taylor Corse, Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Glück, Louise. “The Wild Iris.” PoemHunter.com, https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-wild-iris/. Accessed on 9 Nov. 2018.
Quote from Jacob Sherman in class on November 9th, 2018.
Anne Conway, Anne Conway: The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, ed. Allison P. Coudert and Taylor Crose (Cambridge University Press, 1996), 46.
Anne Conway, Anne Conway: The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 31.
Anne Conway, Anne Conway: The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 45.
We use the feminine pronoun in reference to God in order to offset the masculine default in hopes of underscoring the utter androgyny and queerness of such a being.
Anne Conway, Anne Conway: The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 47.
Anne Conway, Anne Conway: The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 31.
Anne Conway, Anne Conway: The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 27.
Anne Conway, Anne Conway: The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 58.
Anne Conway, Anne Conway: The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 43.
Anne Conway, Anne Conway: The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 66.
Glück, “The Wild Iris.”