Topic category: Secession - Formation of a New Constitutional Republic
The Rota of Sex How an Eighteenth Century Novelist Utilized a Seventeenth Century Philosopher
Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders is a literary explication of the topics of how lack of money and dignity on the part of women necessitates a lack of power; in this it is based on James Harrington's The Republic of Oceana.
"How brutish, and much more than brutish, is that commonwealth which prefers the earth before the fruits of the womb? If the people be her treasure, the staff by which she is sustained and comforted, with what justice can she suffer them, by whom she is most enriched, to be for that cause the most impoverished? And yet we see the gifts of God, and the bounties of Heaven in fruitful families, through this wretched custom of marrying for money, become their unsupportable grief and poverty. . . . For what avails it in this case, from whence their veins have derived their blood; while they shall see the tallow of a chandler sooner converted into that beauty which is required of a bride. . . .And why is a woman if she may have but 1500 pounds, undone? If she be unmarried, what nobleman allows his daughter in that case a greater revenue than so much money can command. And if she marry, no nobleman can give his daughter a greater portion than she has. Who is hurt in this case?-- nay, who is not benefitted? If the Agrarian gives us the sweat of our brows without diminution; if it prepares our table; if it makes our cup to overflow; and above all this, in providing for our children, anoints our heads with that oil which takes away the greatest of worldly cares; what man, that is not besotted with a covetousness as vain as endless, can imagine such a constitution to be his poverty? Seeing where no woman can be considerable for her portion, no portion will be considerable with a woman; and so his children will not only find better preferments without his brokerage, but more freedom of their own affections. . . . But there is in this Agrarian a homage to pure and spotless love, the consequence whereof I will not give for all your romances. An alderman makes not his daughter a countess till he has given her 20,000 pounds, nor a romance a considrable mistress till she be a princess; these are characters of a bastard love. But if our Agrarian excludes ambition and covetousness, we shall at length have the care of our own breed, in which we have been curious as to our dogs and horses. The marriage-bed will be truly legitimate, and the race of the commonwealth not spurious." James Harrington The Republic of Oceana(1887 Routledge ed.), p 114-15.
The above quote parallels the discussion in Daniel Defoe's novel Moll Flanders, where a woman is said to marry "for advantage," almost as though marrying was a financial opportunity rather than a familial one. The novel is a literary explication of the topics of how lack of money and dignity on the part of women necessitate a lack of power; in this it echoes philosopher James Harrington's The Republic of Oceana.
The relationship between wealth and power is based on capability--thus talent can be a substitute for wealth in both Moll Flanders and Oceana. ". . .for Beauty will steal a husband sometimes in spite of Money."1 ". . .Beauty's a Portion, and good Humour with it, is a double Portion."2 "That men chose Mistresses indeed by the gust of their Affection, and it was requisite to a Whore to be Handsome,well shap'd, have a good Mien, and a graceful Behaviour; but that for a Wife, no deformity would shock the Fancy, no ill Qualities the Judgment; the Money was the thing; the Portion was neither crooked or Monstrous, but the Money was always agreeable, whatever the Wife was."3 "Folly is set in great dignity, and the rich [either in virtue and wisdom, in the goods of the mind or those fo fortune upon that balance which gives them a sense of the national interest] sit in low places. I have seen servants upon horses and princes walking as servants upon the earth."4 Harrington's Oceana provides financial prizes for military skill.5 Thus, both Defoe and Harrington in the different spheres of literature and philosophy, treat talent and wealth as being logically connected and one in some way a substitute for the other.
Moll Flanders depicts economic inequality as a tool for men to exercise despotism in the same way that The Republic of Oceana sees wealth as a necessary corrolary to power. "I wonder at you Brother, says the Sister, Betty wants but one Thing, but she had as good want every Thing, for the Market is against our Sex just now; and if a young woman have Beauty, Birth, Breeding, Wit, Sense, Manners, Modesty, and all these to an Extream; yet if she have not Money, she's no Body, she had as good want them all, for nothing but Money now recommends a Woman; the Men playu the Game all into their own Hands."6 The woman's sexual behavior, like the property crimes she would later commit, were occasioned by the need for money. "But as Poverty brought me into it, so fear of Poverty kept me in it, and I frequently resolv'd to leave it quite off, if I could but come to lay up Money enough to maintain me."7 ". . . had I not fallen into the Poverty which is the sure Bane of Virtue, how happy had I been, not only here, but perhaps for ever?"8 She later avoids prosecution for theft based on the fact that she carried money. "I smil'd, and told his Worship, that then I ow'd something of his Favour to my Money. . . ."9 The Agrarian Law referred to at the beginning of this essay would limit the amount of property, particularly land, any one person could posess, not from any Marxist desire for equality, but from a Whig attempt to create enough supporters for a strong commmonwealth. Such well-divided establishments ". . . were never touched but that they caused earthquakes, nor could they ever be obtained by the people, or being obtained, be observed by the nobility, who not only preserved their prey, but growing vastly rich upon it, brought the people by degrees quite out of their shares that had been conferred upon them."10 "Where a conqueror finds the riches of a land in the hands of the few, the forfeitures are easy, and amount to vast advantage; but where the people have equal shares, the confiscation of many comes to little, and is not only dangerous but fruitless."11 Because of the lack of emotional ties, wives could bear much the same relationship to their husbands as colonies did to mother countries. "For the colonies in the Indies, they are yet babes that cannot live without sucking the breasts of their mother cities, but such as I mistake if when they come of age they do not wean themselves; which causes me to wonder at princes that delight to be exhausted in that way."12
Dignity is an aspect of both Defoe and Harrington's systems. Defoe sees it as impossible that any without money or talent can have dignity. "Poor Child, says my good old Nurse, you may soon be such a Gentlewoman as that, for she is a Person of Ill Fame, and has had two or three Bastards."13 "On the other hand, I assure you it provokes me to the highest degree, but I can't help my self, she that will be a Whore, will be a Whore."14 When a man ruins himself with extravagance under the illusion that the subject is a rich woman, he is no longer able to live as a gentleman, and becomes a thief as he feels physical labor is beneath him. He is reluctant to choose transportation over the gallows since "Servitude and hard Labour were things Gentlemen could never stoop to."15 In the imaginary Oceana those who refused military service were made slaves, taxed at 20% of their income, and denied the vote.16
Clearly the two Whigs Harrington and Defoe wish to point out how unequal status leads to criminality in relations of the sexes. A situation where money is more important than talent leads to deceit and relationships that otherwise would never have happened. Both men seek, not a Marxist equality, but rather a reconciliation between wealth and talent. In no way an easy goal to achieve, Harrington's Agrarian Law is an attempt to disrupt the system by which most of England's land inhered in few hands.
In conclusion, the work of Whig philosopher James Harrington is echoed in Daniel Defoe's novel Moll Flanders.
1Defoe, Daniel. Moll Flanders. (New York: Norton, 1973),18.
2 Ibid, 35.
4Harrington, James. The Republic of Oceana. (London: Routledge, 1887),25.
11 Harrington, 62.
12 Harrington, 25.
14 Defoe, 106.
15 Defoe, 236.
16 Harrington, 208.
Biography - Shannon Andrew Walsh
Shannon Walsh holds a Bachelor's degree in Political Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a Master's degree in History from Western Illinois University. A lifelong Catholic, Mr. Walsh is a student of philosophical history.