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Anne Conway (1631-1679)
Jonathan Head looks at the life and thoughts of an early animal equaliser.
Could I be reborn as a horse in a future life? Or could I have been a horse in a past life?
These might seem like strange questions to some, but they were nevertheless answered in the affirmative by the seventeenth century philosopher Anne Conway. In her only published work, Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy (1690), Conway proposed a radical view of nature that’s only now in the process of being rediscovered.
White horse portrait © DavidJRasp 2018
Anne Finch was born into a wealthy family in London in 1631. She was the daughter of Sir Heneage Finch, a former Speaker of the House of Commons, and Elizabeth (nee Cradock). Little is known of her childhood, but from her early correspondence in young adulthood it appears that she had a voracious intellectual curiosity, with wide-ranging interests in philosophy, religion, science, and languages. In 1650, she began exchanging letters with the Cambridge philosopher Henry More, with whom she discussed numerous topics, including the new philosophy of René Descartes and the Platonism that More himself espoused. Anne and More had been introduced through her half-brother, John Finch, who had studied under More at Cambridge. More’s role as a philosophical mentor for Anne soon developed into that of a close friend, and they would remain in frequent contact for the rest of her life.
In 1651 Anne married Edward Conway, who would later be the First Earl of Conway, and soon settled at his home of Ragley Hall in Warwickshire. Their only child, Heneage, died of smallpox in 1660, aged only two.
Anne Conway eventually made Ragley Hall into the centre for a network of thinkers that reflected her broad range of expertise. The most significant member of this intellectual circle came into Conway’s life in 1670: the physician, writer, and alchemist Francis Mercury van Helmont. They were introduced by More, who was striving to help Conway find a cure for the migraines that had afflicted her since her youth. Although van Helmont was unable to help Conway medically, they also began a close intellectual friendship. A particular area of interest for them was Jewish Kabbalism, which at the time was often taken to offer ancient teachings that could encourage a rapprochement of sorts between Christianity and Judaism. In addition to discussing philosophical and theological matters at length, both Conway and van Helmont took the scandalous step of converting to Quakerism, which had an active presence in the area around Ragley Hall at the time. Conway hosted numerous major figures from the early Quaker community, including William Penn and George Fox. She died in 1679, and in her will requested a simple burial in the style of the Quakers.
Although she published nothing during her lifetime, Conway left behind notebooks that contained various philosophical reflections from the last few years of her life. It was van Helmont who brought these notes to posthumous publication as the Principles: first in a Latin translation in 1690, then in an English translation of that translation in 1692, the original notes apparently having been lost.
This text was unfortunately largely ignored until the final years of the twentieth century – the first modern translation of the Principles appeared in 1996 – but now Conway’s philosophy is commanding growing attention on the part of scholars. Though unfortunately rather short, and at some times rather cryptic, the Principles is full of fascinating arguments about the most fundamental metaphysical questions, including the nature of God and the soul. Throughout the work, Conway constructs a radical philosophy influenced by Platonism, Quakerism, Jewish Kabbalism and other sources. Here, I will focus on one strand of her philosophy: namely, her claim that human beings can be reborn as other animals and other animals can be reborn as human beings. We call this ‘transmutation across species’.
Snakes & Ladders
So how does Conway argue for her view concerning transmutation across species? First, she claims that the form which creatures are born into, be it a horse, a human being, a fish, or whatever, is reflective of rewards and punishments ordained by God: “there is a certain justice in all these things, so that in the very transmutation from one species to another, either by ascending from a lower to a higher or by descending in the opposite way, the same justice appears” (p.35. All references are to the edition of Principles edited by Coudert and Corse, published by Cambridge University Press in 1996).
We can think of created species as forming a hierarchy, ordered by their relative sophistication, with humans at the top. Since humans are more similar than any other animals to God, and closeness to God is a good, then being born as a human being can be thought of as a reward. On the other hand, we can think of being reborn as a lower animal – one which is less similar to God – as a punishment. So, Conway argues, it is possible that a human being can be punished for immoral actions by being reborn as a horse: it is right that an individual who has become a ‘brute in spirit’ takes on the shape of a ‘species of beast’ in their next life (p.36). Contrariwise, a horse could be rewarded for its good behaviour by being reborn as a human.
How is it, though, that creatures can be reborn in this way? Conway states that your body is not an intrinsic part of you, so it is possible that you can lose the body you currently have and be reborn in another one. In fact, for Conway, your identity is constituted by a unified system of spirits under the command of a principal spirit (we can think of this system as our soul). The principal spirit determines the form that the creature as a whole takes: “it rules over that body and has the ability and freedom to shape the body according to its own ideas and inclinations” (p.36).
Crucially for Conway’s theory of transmutation, there can be power plays between the spirits that make up you, with the result that your principal spirit can change. If a human being, for example, begins behaving in a manner that suggests that they have given in to their animalistic desires rather than acting in a rationally-balanced manner in line with what God wills, this reflects a beastly spirit gaining ascendance over the previously superior human spirit. If that person then dies with the beastly spirit still dominating, then that spirit enters a new body in line with its new image. Or, going the other way, if a horse acts in a ‘good horse’ manner – such as being obedient to its master or having a steady temperament – that suggests that the beastly principle spirit has been overcome, leading to the possibility of the horse being reborn in a higher form in the next life.
Conway does not really give us a sense of how often she thinks transmigration across species occurs, but she does think it is something we have direct experience of taking place: “Among animals… worms change into flies, and beasts and fish that feed on beasts and fish of another species change into their nature and species” (p.34). We may find this apparent evidence of Conway’s theory of transmigration dubious, but we are also offered philosophical arguments that do not rely on any kind of empirical observation.
Anne Conway and friend by Samuel Van Hoogstraten, c.1662
Conway begins her arguments by stipulating the existence of God, “who is spirit, light, and life” (p.1). God creates the world as an act of his own free will, but there are some restrictions on what he can create. In particular, God can only create other spirits, not things made up solely of matter. This claim is based on what we might call a ‘communication’ model of divine creation, according to which creation involves God communicating his own attributes to a created realm that is at least partially exterior to him. An implication of this model is that God cannot create anything utterly alien to his own nature. So as “spirit, light, and life,” God simply could not create dead matter: “And since every creature shares certain attributes with God, I ask what attribute produces dead matter, or body, which is incapable of life and sense for eternity?… There can be no dead reality of which he is or could be a part” (p.45). So, Conway concludes, all things in creation must be living spirits. (You may be wondering, what makes up our body and other physical objects? Conway states that these things are composed of condensed spirits – spirits currently existing at a lower form of ethereality than the spirits that make up our soul. As an analogy, think of how water vapour can condense into both a liquid – water – and a solid – ice. Conway is arguing that essentially the same thing can happen to spirits.)
A further implication of the nature of God, Conway argues, is that all creatures are created with the same original status. We might call this the ‘original equality’ of creatures. Conway claims that all things are made by God ‘from one blood’, so that “in their primitive and original state [they are] a certain species of human being” (p.31).
Again Conway relies upon a supposed implication of the nature of God to argue for this position. As part of divine justice, it is only fair that all creatures are created with the same opportunities to become closer to God and are not put at a disadvantage compared to other created beings. It follows that all creatures are created with the same status and capacities. Moreover, it would also not be fair if all creatures were created at the lower end of the hierarchy, for this would essentially be punishment without a crime; and so creatures are created high up in the hierarchy, as ‘a certain species of human being’ (presumably meaning, as creatures with the kind of rational capacities that distinguish human beings from other animals).
However, when we look upon nature, we see all sorts of different kinds of beings. The only explanation for this fact, given the original equality of all creatures, is that many beings have fallen from their original state due to divine punishment. But given that they all fell from this higher status, it must at least in principle be possible for them to attain that state again, as a human being. Thus there must be a process of transmutation by which spirits can both descend and ascend through the hierarchy of forms of life – the process I described above, in which spirits can shape unified systems that form creatures around them.
We’re still left with the question of whether in fact these spirits can and will attain their original status. It could instead be the case that some spirits fall into the lower forms of life and never return to the summit again. It could also be the case that spirits can only fall down the hierarchy and never ascend. However, Conway offers us a final argument from the nature of God to say that spirits can and must endeavour to return to the state from which they have fallen. Given the perfect goodness of God, he would only punish us for our own benefit. Given that what is good for us is to become closer to God, it must therefore be that any punishment we undergo will have the ultimate purpose of facilitating this ascent. So, divine punishment will ultimately have a restorative function, and the punishment of rebirth in a lower form is only a temporary, limited penalty that allows for growth in character, which in turn prepares us for further development beyond the state in which we previously found ourselves: “At this time [of divine punishment] every sin will have its own punishment and every creature will feel pain and chastisement, which will return that creature to the pristine state of goodness in which it was created and from which it can never fall again because, through its great punishment, it has acquired a greater perfection and strength” (p.42). For Conway, the nature of divine punishment ensures that the creature is morally developed to such an extent that they will never descend to that form again. The punishment is therefore only a temporary but necessary setback on the spiritual journey to become close to God again, and its nature guarantees that spirits will eventually transmutate back to their original higher human status.
Summary & Conclusions
So Conway argues from the nature of God to three main claims that buttress her overall argument for transmutation across species:
1) All created beings are essentially spirits, currently differentiated according to a hierarchy of different forms of natural life.
2) All creatures had the same original status in the hierarchy, which is higher than the status they currently enjoy (unless they’re human).
3) All created beings will attain such a higher status again.
The argument structure is such that if you accept her starting premise of the absolute goodness and justice of God, and if you agree with the supposed implications she draws out from that in terms of what he creates, then you have good reason to accept transmutation across species. Though there are additional claims that Conway draws upon in establishing this theory, her reasoning from the nature of God forms the main bedrock of her argument. Thus, you can go a long way to rejecting Conway’s argument for transmigration simply by denying that God exists; or, if you do believe that God exists, by denying that she has correctly characterised God’s nature or the implications of that for creation. For example, you could question her communication model of creation, according to which God can only create beings who share his essential attributes to some extent. It would seem like quite a limitation on God’s power for him not to be able to create something as unlike him as ‘dead matter’. It is a problem if we wish to affirm divine omnipotence, as many mainstream theists would wish to do. But Conway’s communication model is just one of a number of assumptions built into her argument that we may wish to question.
Although you may be unconvinced by Conway’s argument, it is still worth noting that the view of nature she offers substantially emphasises the interconnectedness of all things in a manner reminiscent of recent ecological theories. According to Conway, human beings are such an intrinsic part of nature that we might have lived through many different forms, including as other animals, plants, and even as inanimate objects such as rocks (which are to Conway spiritual beings). Furthermore, given the original equality of all things, human beings should be humble about their status in the world. Not only do we have a role in helping the rest of creation to realise its destiny in becoming closer to God, we could also easily become those things that we at the moment have the power to mistreat and misuse. Such a perspective stresses the need for human beings to ensure harmony among all creatures and to adopt a much more careful approach to the environment than we currently have. This message is potentially of great significance as we look to face the environmental challenges that are to come.
Regardless of whether you’re persuaded of transmigration across species, I hope that I have at least convinced you that Conway’s work offers us many interesting arguments that merit our attention as philosophers today.
© Jonathan Head 2021
Jonathan Head is Lecturer in Philosophy at Keele University. He is the author of The Philosophy of Anne Conway: God, Creation and the Nature of Time (Bloomsbury: 2020).