What Evidence Do We Have That Frances Wright Personally Was An Epicurean?

  • Just to seed this subforum with an opening post, I wanted to pose the question in the title. I have always found it disconcerting that other than "A Few Days In Athens" itself, there seems to be no - close to zero, and possibly zero - other writings by Frances Wright indicating that she was a devoted Epicurean, a self-proclaimed Epicurean, or even interested in Epicurus. I have not by any means made a complete survey of her other work, so I hope to be corrected on this, and that is the purpose of this thread. Given what I consider to be the incredible depth of insight of "A Few Days in Athens, combined with her young age at publication, and her known family associations with distinguished philosophers, I wonder if in addition to the fiction of it being a "found manuscript" from the ancient world, it might also be material that was produced in part or even in whole collaboratively with others. I have probably said this before here on the forum, but I find it highly strange that someone who had come to understand Epicurus so well would be able or willing to resist devoting a large part of her subsequent writing to the same subject. Certainly most of us here when we discover what Epicurus was really about have a long-term motivation to "spread the word" after that point.

    I haven't had time to pursue this and doubt I will spend much time pursuing the question, because the book stands on its own and is a monumental addition to Epicurean literature no matter who wrote it or under what conditions. But if we were to identify others with whom Frances Wright corresponded who shared these views, then that might lead us to other material which would be worthwhile additions to our library -- again regardless of who wrote them.

  • This would be a subject worthy of a monograph; in lieu of such at present, I will take the thesis in defense of her authorship here.

    I haven't read any of her other works at full length, but the evidence I've seen so far fairly convinced me.

    Like Diogenes of Oenoanda, Wright was cosmopolitan. Born in Scotland and orphaned, she lived throughout her life in England and America, and for brief interludes in France. She traveled even more widely; through Europe, through the United States and the frontier, south as far as Haiti, north into Canada. It might properly be said that she lived on the road.

    In this capacity she was both writer and orator, and was the first woman in the country to lecture mixed company in public on subjects of morality and politics. She was in this respect a new Leontion, and suffered similar calumnies. She was also the first woman in America to edit a published journal.

    She befriended Lafayette and Jefferson, Bentham and Mill. She attempted a utopian community for the betterment of African slaves, which failed. Even so, she supported other communities throughout her life. On her career she had this to say, in a letter to Lafayette:


    Trust me, my beloved friend, the mind has no sex but what habit and education give it, and I who was thrown in infancy upon the world like a wreck upon the waters have learned, as well to struggle with the elements as any male child of Adam.

    The biblical reference is superficial; more subtle is the allusion to Lucretius, whom she surely read. From Cyril Bailey's translation;


    Then again, the child, like a sailor tossed ashore by the cruel waves, lies naked on the ground, dumb, lacking all help for life, when first nature has cast him forth by travail from his mother’s womb into the coasts of light, and he fills the place with woful wailing, as is but right for one for whom it remains in life to pass through so much trouble.

    Her allusion to this passage precedes Alfred Tennyson's (In Memoriam) by over twenty years.

    Like Epicurus she was critical of superstition, critical of priests and clergy, and critical of the institution of marriage—and yet like Metrodorus she did marry, and bore a child.

    It might rightly be said that she wrote out her Epicurean philosophy once (and rather completely), and gave the rest of her life to living it.

    I agree with Cassius' concluding thoughts—more reading of her other works is in order!

  • There are definitely "lifestyle" arguments to be made, so good points. I hope we can find some - any would be a start - references in her other writings that would bear out her Epicurean orientation views specifically. That's the side that really troubles, me because surely we should be able to find some.

    And your reference to her writing lots of things is what I understand too -- that's why among all that she is said to have written and done surely there are *some* specific statements about Epicurus.

  • I found some time tonight to do some word searches through Frances Wright's "Course of Popular Lectures." Here is an excerpt with unmistakable similarities to Epicurus:

    That came from here: https://archive.org/details/coursepopularle00wriggoog/page/n84/mode/2up?q=Pleasure

    Another version: https://babel.hathitrust.org/c…2068156147&view=1up&seq=7

    But it is so odd -- in there is a reference, not to Epicurus, but to "Pestalozzi"?????

  • We're going to need to be careful to steer clear of analyzing this from strictly political terms, but I am finding some interesting reading in this version of her "course of popular lectures"

    It sounds like she has gotten herself deeply into the controversies around abolition, which I think I understood from reading about her career, but this part apparently seems to go in the direction of her seeing an even BIGGER problem in "chartered companies" and "banks," which I am gathering means that she is diagnosing overriding financial considerations are worse problems. I may be misreading this but I am gathering she is approaching this from an anti-Hamilton, pro Jeffersonian / Jacksonian perspective.

    Not sure what I gather from that other than that she is super-wrapped up in lots of types of politics, but certainly from a perspective friendly to Jefferson and Jackson at least from an "anti-monopoly" perspective.

    I may have misunderstood this by not reading the whole thing but her writing style does definitely seem similar to me with "A Few Days In Athens."

    Ha - maybe we'll end up here with the example being - "Here's another person who thoroughly understands Epicurus and translates his advice in a very Julius Caesar / Cassius Longinus / Thomas Jefferson "activist" kind of way.

    And aside from the intrinsic merit of the substance of "A Few Days In Athens," her example of taking that knowledge and then "seizing the day" / channeling her energy into activism may be the ultimate lesson.

    Maybe she WAS the full and complete genius behind A Few Days in Athens, maybe she DID understand Epicurus better than anyone else of her time, and maybe FOR THAT VERY REASON she became one of the leading social reformers and activists of her age! Is that possible????

  • A good find Cassius, but rather sad—it seems to confirm DeWitt; "It was the fate of Epicurus to be named if condemned, unnamed if approved."

    Henry David Thoreau rode the 19th century lecture circuit as well. I am absolutely convinced from a comprehensive reading of his published works and private letters that he did not believe in a personal god, or in any hell or paradise, and yet he sometimes evokes this theme in his lectures—as when arguing against slavery, or pleading for the life of John Brown. A case of tailoring his message to his audience, I suppose. The Reform movement had strong ties to the Romantic movement in Europe and the Transcendentalists in America, as well as the Quaker and Unitarian churches.

    Tell an audience of nineteenth century men and women that you are going to educate children on the model of the best philosophers in Europe, and they might applaud you. Tell them that the foundation stones of that philosophy were laid by Epicurus as a bulwark against Plato and religion, and the same audience might balk to hear it.

    Pestalozzi, by contrast, was a Christian humanist trained for the clergy.

  • it seems to confirm DeWitt; "It was the fate of Epicurus to be named if condemned, unnamed if approved."

    Yes, Joshua -- exactly! Good point.

    Tell them that the foundation stones of that philosophy were laid by Epicurus as a bulwark against Plato and religion, and the same audience might balk to hear it.

    That would seem to be what is going on from what I am reading. Well I started to write "Yes Frances Wright was an abolitionist" -- but I have to take that back, from what I am reading so far she didn't like the term herself. She was definitely advocating for the eventual freedom of the slaves, but through a gradual educational / resettlement process -- at least in this volume. She's taking a VERY intellectual approach to the problem so the reason I am making the observation is that she seems pretty definitely to be calculating her words to suit her circumstances. She seems to have been prevented from speaking in many instances, so she was definitely having to measure her words.

  • I am going back to her 1829 edition of her Course of Popular Lectures. This one contains an opening lecture on "knowledge" and I am finding this rings true to how I now read Epicurus. Don will recognize this as perhaps echoing our recent discussions on the passage translated as "mere words":


  • That sounds like Epicurus's injunction against education as indoctrination.

    "Set sail in your own boat, free from all indoctrination!"

    I'm certainly hearing strong albeit uncited echoes of Epicurus in Wright from your postings here.

  • There is now absolutely no doubt in my mind but that Frances Wright was the author of AFDIA. Not only is the writing style is there, but also much of the basic theory. More examples are below.

    But rather than ending my feeling that something is strange here, my feeling of strangeness has at least doubled. I think Joshua has put his finger exactly on the issue with the DeWitt quote. Wright made the decision to bulldoze forward with the substance of Epicurean theory while at the same time dropping all attribution to its authors.

    So yes it presumably must have been a factor that she decided the religious question was too hot to handle, and indeed the end of AFDIA does attack religion, but indicates that much more could be said about it - without carrying through in full force.

    Interesting as that is, I think the question more important to consider is how this applies to the issue of those who see Epicurus devoted to "living unknown" and "avoiding politics" and pursuing "absence of pain" at all costs.

    Here is someone who has shown a deep understanding and appreciation of what would appear to be every significant aspect of Epicurean philosophy at a level undocumented since the ancient world, and yet she uses that knowledge in a way that every respectable modern commentator for at least 500 years (with the exception of DeWitt) would hold to be totally unacceptable to Epicurus!

    If that is the case (and I think we can document a mountain of evidence that it is) who is wrong about Epicurus? The non-DeWitt modern commentators, or Frances Wright, Thomas Jefferson, Julius Caesar, Cassius Longinus, and others we've only begun to discuss?

    What we're seeing with Frances Wright in these passages is an amplification of Jefferson's words in his letter to William Short that he attributed specifically to EPicurus:

    "I take the liberty of observing that you are not a true disciple of our master Epicurus, in indulging the indolence to which you say you are yielding. One of his canons, you know, was that “that indulgence which prevents a greater pleasure, or produces a greater pain, is to be avoided.” Your love of repose will lead, in its progress, to a suspension of healthy exercise, a relaxation of mind, an indifference to everything around you, and finally to a debility of body, and hebetude of mind, the farthest of all things from the happiness which the well-regulated indulgences of Epicurus ensure; fortitude, you know is one of his four cardinal virtues. That teaches us to meet and surmount difficulties; not to fly from them, like cowards; and to fly, too, in vain, for they will meet and arrest us at every turn of our road. Weigh this matter well; brace yourself up...."

    From page 63 of the 1829 Courses of Popular Lectures:

  • I won't have time and it would take too much space to paste too many of these clips, but some are so blindingly obviously derived from Epicurus that I'd like to save people some time and post a few more:

    Judgment based on analogy against past observations:

    This is aimed at the church, but does it not remind you of Torquatus criticizing Plato in "On Ends"?

    Compare that to "You are pleased to think him uneducated. The reason is that he refused to consider any education worth the name that did not help to school us in happiness. Was he to spend his time, as you encourage Triarius and me to do, in perusing poets, who give us nothing solid and useful, but merely childish amusement? Was he to occupy himself like Plato with music and geometry, arithmetic and astronomy, which starting from false premises cannot be true, and which moreover if they were true would contribute nothing to make our lives pleasanter and therefore better? Was he, I say, to study arts like these, and neglect the master art, so difficult and correspondingly so fruitful, the art of living?"

    This is SO good:

    Longer version of excerpt already cited:

  • Cassius

    Changed the title of the thread from “What Evidence Do We Have That Frances Wright personally was an Epicurean?” to “What Evidence Do We Have That Frances Wright Personally Was An Epicurean?”.
  • I told Elayne that I would read some more into Frances Wright to see if I could pull out particularly interesting sections of her "Courses of Popular Lectures." References here are to the PDF located here.

    Here is a notation as to one such section, in Volume I -

    I find this very strange. She has published an entire book praising Epicurus to the skies, and putting in his mouth exactly the words that science should be observation, and not theory, which IS consistent with Epicurus' viewpoint.

    How then to explain these paragraphs, in which she slams Athenian philosophers without mentioning the exception of Epicurus, and she mentions only Aristotle (I think it is fair to say that that's a negative reference, but it's not clear to me)?

    And as the text continues she then turns to praising Pestalozzi, the Christian. Hopefully by the end of this chapter on "religion" it will be clear why she is doing this.

    Great line here, as to "Castles in the Air" on page 93:

    OK this is important. As the chapter closes, it is clear what is going on -- she has decided that she is going to take the position simply that I DON'T KNOW - and she's not going to take a position on anything other than what she can see in this world -- and in the absence of anything said here, she does not even seem to be taking a position on life after death.

    Here then we may have the ultimate dividing line and where she decided to depart from Epicurus:

    This exchange from Chapter 14 of A Few Days In Athens always bothered me, because it seemed that she was putting words in Epicurus' mouth that seemed clearly different from what we know about his positions from the ancient texts. I always wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt that somehow she thought there was a way to reconcile this with what he wrote, but now I see that she simply decided to write her own position in as his. Here is the text:

    Continuing on:

    So she DOES mention Epicurus, at least once, and approvingly, however short;

    But oh my my -- can it really be true that she is going to base her morals on "good" and 'beneficial" without further definiton?

    This is not directly related to investigating FW's thought process but it is too good not to include:

    Well i did not expect THIS --- almost a precursor or shade of Ayn Rand in discussing self-interest, but stated in a much better way (Not sure if this comment is an aside or not, but i do personally think that this is the correct way to interpret Epicurus.)

    Then she continues on to discuss what is essentially a feeling-based "moral sense" - very similar to Jefferson's formulation which i'll quote here from the Peter Carr letter:


    He who made us would have been a pitiful bungler if he had made the rules of our moral conduct a matter of science. For one man of science, there are thousands who are not. What would have become of them? Man was destined for society. His morality, therefore, was to be formed to this object. He was endowed with a sense of right and wrong, merely relative to this. This sense is as much a part of his Nature, as the sense of hearing, seeing, feeling; it is the true foundation of morality, and not the [beautiful], truth, &c., as fanciful writers have imagined. The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree. It may be strengthened by exercise, as may any particular limb of the body. This sense is submitted, indeed, in some degree, to the guidance of reason; but it is a small stock which is required for this: even a less one than what we call common sense. State a moral case to a plowman and a professor. The former will decide it as well, & often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules."

  • I doubt it is wise or helpful to go too far into discussion of Frances Wright's political opinions, but I do want to save people some time so they don't have to read the full books without some guidance or markers ahead of time. I will LIST a few choice excerpts to show her views, which seem to have been intended to promote a very radical and very sweeping overthrow of almost every aspect of existing society:

    (1) Starting around page 166, in the chapter "Existing Evils." Not just universal public schools as we might think of them today, but very strongly regimented public schools for children in which parents are allowed minimal interference, and apparently minimal contact with their children:

    (2) The following is not a political opinion, but it is so pointed an indictment of speculation about the nature and origin of the universe that I have to include it as significant to her perspective:

    (3) And she carries that forward to advocate a kind of tolerance, that it does not matter if we disagree so long as we keep our opinions about speculations to ourselves (?)

    OK at this point I have finished reading the first book of lectures. There is some in it about slavery, but not really a lot, as I would have expected based on reputation. It is really a much deeper blueprint for full societal revolution based on overthrowing the church and existing systems of culture and business, with emphasis on her theory that it is knowledge/observation that much be expanded, while speculation on religious and other matters that cannot be answered should be minimized. I see no discussion whatsoever of the issue of life after death.

    Now on to the second book of lectures.

    This is just SO fascinating. Wright's target is indeed going to be slavery, but she is not content just to oppose slavery - she sees the source of the movement towrard war -- on both sides -- as caused by financial interests / financial speculators / banks which she identifies as a movement of the "chartered monopolies" promoting their own interests:

    And it appears that she singled out as her opposition not mobs of pro-slavery agitators, but "Federal Bank mobs":

    Here she denies that she was an abolitionist as that term was generally understood:

    Here are her views on what would happen after emancipation, and her views on racial developments later:

  • Just a few more clips from the Second collection of Frances Wright's popular discourses:

    She was definitely on Jefferson's side against Hamilton:

    Here Frances Wright tells us how she really feels on the issue of what to do with the chartered banks:

    The final essay in Volume 2 is "The Sectional Question: On Southern Slavery" =

    Ok that pretty much sums up the second collection, which seems much shorter than the first, unless the version I have is an abridgement.