Margaret Cavendish, Epicureanism, and Philosophy as Confession

In her erudite and enjoyable Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity Catherine Wilson makes note of Margaret Cavendish‘s participation in the so-called “Cavendish Salon” in Paris, which served as “the center of a revival of Epicureanism led by Hobbes and Gassendi.” Cavendish, who might have obtained her knowledge of that school of thought either through her own translations of the originals or from Hobbes, went on to write Philosophicall Fancies, which would serve as one of the “earliest print references to the reviving doctrine.”

Interestingly, Wilson suggests Cavendish’s philosophical inclinations were grounded in her biography:

Echoing Lucretius‘s unforgettable opening passage on the murder of Iphigenia by Agamemnon, Cavendish went on to say in The World’s Olio of 1655 that it was better to be an atheist than superstitious; atheism fostered humanity and civility, whereas superstition only bred cruelty. Unlike More and Descartes, Cavendish recognized no spirits or incorporeal substances in her metaphysical system. Consciousness depended in her view on a material substrate: Nature makes a brain out of matter so that there can be perception and appreciation of the material world.

Cavendish’s religious skepticism and her initial attraction to the atomic philosophy reflected the somewhat rebellious and resentful attitudes of one excluded from participation in the learned world and essentially powerless. Accustomed to being ruled and ordered about by fathers, husbands, and even sons, early modern women might have been drawn to a philosophy in which nature was depicted as accomplishing everything by herself [note Wilson’s use of the feminine pronoun here] without taking direction from an autocratic and psychologically impenetrable divinity. Lucretius insisted that ‘nature is her own mistress and is exempt from the oppression of arrogant despots, accomplishing everything by herself spontaneously and independently and free from the jurisdiction of the gods’, and Cavendish proposed that:

Small Atomes of themselves a World may make,
For being subtile, every shape they take;
And as they dance about, they places find,
Of Forms, that best agree, make every Kind.
[Margaret Cavendish, Poems and Fancies (London:1664),6]


As this marvelous collection of quotations–put together by Peter Suber–shows, the idea that philosophy works as a kind of confession has a long and storied history. Among the most famous proponents of this metaphilosophical thesis was, of course, Nietzsche.

First, in Human, All Too Human, trans. Marion Faber, with Stephen Lehmann, University of Nebraska Press, 1984 (original 1878):

[§513] However far man may extend himself with his knowledge, however objective he may appear to himself ultimately he reaps nothing but his own biography.

And then most memorably, in Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Walter Kaufmann, Vintage, 1966 (original 1886).

[§6] Gradually it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir; also that the moral (or immoral) intentions in every philosophy constituted the real germ of life from which the whole plant had grown.Indeed, if one would explain how the abstrusest metaphysical claims of a philosopher really came about, it is always well (and wise) to ask first: at what morality does all this (does he) aim? Accordingly, I do not believe that a “drive to knowledge” is the father of philosophy; but rather that another drive has, here as elsewhere, employed understanding (and misunderstanding) as a mere instrument….

Links added throughout; Nietzsche quotations from Suber’s page

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