Friday, December 28, 2018

Shelley's detestable distinctions

Percy Bysshe Shelley
My last post was about the Austrian statesman Metternich and his far-sighted observation, way back in 1820, that liberals would seek to erase nationality because of their desire to base society on every individual being subject only to their own will (i.e. autonomy).

I found evidence for his claims in a play published in 1820, Prometheus Unbound, by the English poet Shelley, who, sure enough, thought that in a reformed society man would be "uncircumscribed", the "king over himself" and therefore "tribeless and nationless".

There is more evidence that the liberal "intellectual and philosophical brew" (as one of my readers put it in the comments) was already well and truly set in place by the 1820s and that is Shelley's attitude to sex distinctions (Shelley identified as a liberal, collaborating with Byron and Hunt in 1822 to produce a literary periodical titled the Liberal).

It was not only nationality that Shelley wanted erased, but also distinctions between men and women. That makes sense from the liberal point of view. If the idea is to be unconstrained in your will as an individual, then our inherited, biological sex will be thought of negatively as something unchosen and predetermined. It then makes sense for liberals to want to make it no longer matter.

In 1811 Shelley wrote a letter to Elizabeth Hitchener in which he regretted a character in a Southey poem being made a male, and then, in the context of this reference to biological sex, continued:
"these detestable distinctions will surely be abolished in a future state of being" [1]

Nor was Shelley alone in the literary and political current he belonged to in holding such a view. Shelley would later marry the daughter of the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. In 1792 Wollstonecraft had written:
A wild wish has just flown from my heart to my head, and I will not stifle it, though it may excite a horse-laugh. I do earnestly wish to see the distinction of sex confounded in society

You can find the same view in the writings of other early feminists. For instance, the American feminist Sarah Grimke wrote in 1837:
permit me to offer for your consideration, some views relative to the social intercourse of the sexes. Nearly the whole of this intercourse is...derogatory to man and woman...We approach each other, and mingle with each other, under the constant pressure of a feeling that we are of different sexes...the mind is fettered by the idea which is early and industriously infused into it, that we must never forget the distinction between male and female...Nothing, I believe, has tended more to destroy the true dignity of woman, than the fact that she is approached by man in the character of a female.

... Until our intercourse is purified by the forgetfulness of sex...we never can derive that benefit from each other's society...

Unsurprisingly, Shelley (despite marrying twice) was also in principle opposed to marriage. Again, if the aim is to be subject only to your own will, then it becomes difficult to accept the ideal of a commitment to a lifelong, exclusive union. In the same letter to Elizabeth Hitchener quoted above, Shelley writes:
Miss Weeke's marriage induces you to think marriage an evil. I think it an evil - an evil of immense and extensive magnitude...Marriage is monopolizing, exclusive, jealous.

(Interesting that Shelley makes some sort of appeal to an ideal of inclusiveness here.)

In the next post I intend to look a little deeper into the development of the words "liberal" and "liberalism" as I believe this sheds some light on how literary figures like Shelley and Byron ended up with their world view.

[1] Letter to Elizabeth Hitchener, 26th November 1811, p.119 here.

A note to Melbourne readers. If you are sympathetic to the ideas of this website, please visit the site of the Melbourne Traditionalists. It's important that traditionalists don't remain isolated from each other; our group provides a great opportunity for traditionalists to meet up and connect. Details at the website.


  1. Shelley's beliefs in sexual freedom and equality were of course combined with a tendency to treat women very badly indeed.

    Which seems to be the way it always goes. Of course women are still very resistant to the idea that sexual freedom is actually in practice a bad thing for women.

    1. Yes, he was extraordinarily high-minded in his account of his own motivations (he considered himself ethereal and disinterested and a paragon of virtue). Yet he left a trail of devastation, particularly in regards to women. Two female suicides, including his first wife; he also reacted to his second wife's depression at losing two children by having a series of affairs.

    2. So he's just like every other male leftist radical today using rhetoric to try and get into the woke child's panties.

      If he were around today he'd probably be sending dick pics like Stephen Jolly.

    3. James, here's a typical Shelley move:

      Shelley: dear Lady friend, I am way above having a physical interest in you, I love you for your beautiful mind, dear spirit. When can you come and live in my household? Oh, my wife sends her greetings.

      Shelley: dear Lady friend, our minds meet forever in eternity. My thoughts are forever pure, unmired in worldly passions. Why have you not yet given up your employment to come and live with me? Oh, my wife says hello.

      (Lady friend, gives up job, possessions, moves into Shelley household, becomes Shelley's mistress. Shelley drops her six months later. She lives the rest of her life in penury).

      Shelley: The ridiculous devil woman is finally gone. Such a mentally inferior creature.

    4. I don't believe it. He is essentially a 200 year old version of the modern "woke" male feminist. The same patterns repeat over and over.

  2. Shelley as you describe him could almost exist today. His views are entirely fitting with the modern orthodoxy.

    1. I had the same thought. He prefigures the modern left in a number of ways. Radical for 1820, but part of the "woke left" today.

    2. The modern left. On the cutting edge of 200 year old ideas.

  3. I listened to the student's perfectly sensible and articulate questions and to the defensive non-answers of the panel that urgently wanted to move on. I listened to enough of the suspension hearing to make me actually feel sick.

    You have to hear this.

    The obviously bright young student suffered a torturing silence, lead by one almost whispering spokesman at a hearing that he obviously wasn't expected to attend. All but three of the sixteen executioners sat silent as the student tries to discover why he's being expelled. It's like pulling teeth.

    Finally, one frustrated inquisitor has had enough. Bart Nathan decides to badger the accused by asking the same unanswerable question 6 or 7 times. The bewildered student struggles to understand a question that he can't answer, as if he's being forced to confess to crime that no one has accused him of, and under the penalty of expulsion from school.

    It is truly astounding.

    This young student should get a Nobel peace prize for not going postal on that room full of repugnant academic a**holes. A more arrogant, condescending, mean-spirited and dishonest group of entitled demi-gods could not be better assembled outside of the U.S. Supreme Court.

    Those academics wield the unconstrained power of gods and executioners.

    It really is a view into a true heart of darkness.

  4. I listened to all of it as well. Unless there's something we don't know about this case, it's disturbing. He keeps on being accused of being aggressive, but there's nothing in the sound recordings to suggest this. Maybe there's some body language happening, I don't know, but my concern is this. If you listen to the original lecture on microaggressions, a masculine mind will find it revolting, as it's all about "we have to tip toe around everyone's feelings in everything we say" rather than "let's be resilient enough to have robust debate about things". The student is clearly someone who prefers the older style "get at the truth via healthy debate". Does this now qualify as "aggression"? The male academics on the panel sound so effeminate in the way they modulate their voices - maybe this kind of thing is sinking into the culture.

  5. Mark I'd be interested in your take on how the liberal concept of autonomy translates into the left liberal concept of equality as the highest good.

    Is it simply that the 19th century left liberals who founded the Socialist movement saw individual autonomy as impossible without equality or is there something deeper going on?

    1. Great question. I'm working on a partial response to that right now - hope to have another post up by this evening.