Damaris Cudworth Masham

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Damaris Cudworth Masham
Born 18 January 1659
Cambridge, England
Died 20 April 1708(1708-04-20) (aged 49)
London, England
Nationality English
Era 17th-/18th-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
Main interests
metaphysics, logic, theodicy, universal language

Lady Damaris Cudworth Masham (18 January 1659 – 20 April 1708) was an English theological writer and advocate for women's education who is characterized as a proto-feminist. She overcame some weakness of eyesight and lack of access to formal higher education to win high regard among eminent thinkers of her time. With an extensive correspondence, she published two works, A Discourse Concerning the Love of God (1696) and Thoughts in reference to a Vertuous or Christian Life (1705). She is particularly noted for her long, mutually-influential friendship with the philosopher John Locke.

Personal life[edit]

Early life[edit]

Damaris Cudworth was born on 18 January 1659, daughter of Damaris and Ralph Cudworth junr., D.D., five years after her father had become Master of Christ's College in the University of Cambridge, a position he occupied for the rest of his life. Distinguished classicist and Professor of Hebrew, Dr. Cudworth was educated during the 1630s in the non-conforming environment of Emmanuel College. Both his father (died 1624) and his stepfather, the clergyman John Stoughton (died 1639), had previously studied and held Fellowships there, and had successively held the college living or Rectory of Aller (Somerset), where Ralph was born. He became a leading figure of the Cambridge Platonist School,[3] and poured immense erudition and originality into his great work, The True Intellectual System of the Universe, only the first very substantial part of which came to readiness by 1671 and publication in 1678.[4] Overtly a refutation of atheistic determinism, his work evolved in critique of aspects of Calvinist theology, in the light of his near-contemporary René Descartes, and in opposition to Thomas Hobbes.[5]

Lady Masham had full brothers John (undergraduate and later Fellow at Christ's College between 1672 and 1684), Charles and Thomas.[6] Her mother Damaris, daughter of Damaris and Mathew Cradock of London (d. 1641),[7] was first married to London merchant citizen Thomas Andrewes (d. 1653)[8] (son of the Commonwealth Lord Mayor of London Sir Thomas Andrewes), by whom there were several half-brothers and sisters.[9] Her mother's stepmother Rebeccah, relict of Mathew Cradock, secondly married the Emmanuel College Platonist Benjamin Whichcote,[10] whose niece married her father's friend John Worthington in 1657.[11]

Although her early life has left no record of formal schooling, the unusual collegiate context of her family environment and her acquaintance with her father's Platonist circle gave her advantages and insights in an age when higher education was not normally accessible to women.[12] There is little or nothing to show the oft-laid claim that she was taught by her father:[13] nor can the claims of John Norris, an early associate with whom she came to differ, sustain the high degree of influence upon her thought which has sometimes been inferred.

Her early letters to John Locke show her as experienced in philosophical discourse, capable in discussion of her father's Platonist views and having knowledge of many Platonist works.[14] By 1682 she was well-read in contemporary philosophy. This was despite a certain weakness of eyesight which affected her ability to read so copiously as she wished to do. There is no medical record of this: John Norris referred to her 'blindness' in his Reflections upon the Conduct of Human Life (1690),[15] a statement which she herself contradicted and corrected him upon.[16] John Locke also referred to her sight in correspondence with Philip van Limborch.[17] Her scholarly calling, itself unusual for a woman in her time, was achieved in spite of this weakness.

Later life[edit]

Damaris Cudworth married Sir Francis Masham,[18] of the Manor of Oates in High Laver in the county of Essex, in 1685 at the age of 26, taking the name and title Lady Damaris Cudworth Masham. Sir Francis, a widower already father of eight children by a former wife, had one son with her named Francis Cudworth Masham.[19] Little is known of their personal relationship: the marriage provided security, if no great social or educational advancement of itself. Her father died in 1688: he left her such of the English books from his library as she should choose.[20] Her mother maintained close connections with her daughter's household, dying there in 1695,[21] when she made extensive provision for her daughter and appointed John Locke, Edward Clarke and Bishop Edward Fowler (her executor) trustees for the future welfare of Francis Cudworth Masham.[22]

From her early twenties she maintained a close personal relationship with John Locke during the remainder of his life. They were probably brought together by Edward Clarke, a mutual friend.[23] They met sometime before 1682, and exchanged many personal and often flirtatious letters. Locke described her admirably in a letter to Phillipp van Limborch: “The lady herself is so well versed in theological and philosophical studies, and of such an original mind that you will not find many men to whom she is not superior in wealth of knowledge and ability to profit by it.”[14] She and Locke were of great importance to one another in their friendship and studies, and Locke took up residence in her household from 1691 until his death in 1704. He brought with him his library of nearly 2,000 books, purchased for her a writing desk, ink and quills, and paid for the binding of her works.[24] Much of Locke's Will is devoted to gifts, legacies and arrangements for Lady Masham and her son.[25] A description of Locke's last day (during which Lady Masham attended him), and of his character, was published in 1705.[26]

Constant companions, they exchanged ideas and theories and entertained many other theologians and philosophers, among them Isaac Newton and Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont.[27] During this time she published her first work, A Discourse Concerning the Love of God (a response to John Norris’s Practical Discourses), and shortly after Locke’s death she published her best-known work, Thoughts in Reference to a Vertuous or Christian Life.[23] Both were published anonymously, to avoid prejudice or irrelevant courtesy towards a woman scholar: Pierre Bayle (who easily ascertained her authorship) hastened to amend a careless observation of his, about her father's work, with an elaborate and probably sincere compliment upon her Savoir and other perfections.[28] Her correspondence with Gottfried Wilhem Leibniz explored their respective theories including Leibniz's work on Pre-established harmony, Dr Cudworth's work, and the relationship between body and soul.[29]

Philosophy and Advocacy[edit]

Often touted as the "Lockean feminist" by scholars such as Jaqueline Broad and Lois Frankel, Cudworth's public works consisted of a mix between her father's Platonism, Lockean theories and arguments, and her own proto-feminist ideals and advocacy. Cudworth criticised the double-standard of men and women's moralities and women's lack of access to higher education.[30]

In Thoughts in reference to a Vertuous or Christian Life, Cudworth makes two important points regarding the inferior education given to women. First, she argues that by giving an inferior education to women, it leaves them unfit to be able to give their children a proper education, as most children during this time period are still given early education by their mothers as education is still much reserved to those in the elite classes.[31] Cudworth writes,

“The improvements of Reason, however requisite to Ladies for their Accomplishment, as rational Creatures; and however needful to them for the well Educating of their Children, and to their being useful in their Families, yet are rarely any recommendation of them to Men; who foolishly thinking, that Money will answer to all things, do, for the most part, regard nothing else in the Woman they would Marry … Girls, betwixt silly Fathers and ignorant Mothers, are generally so brought up, that traditionary Opinions are to them, all their lives long, instead of Reason."[32]

Here Cudworth argued that it would be a benefit to all mankind should women be allowed access to higher education, as it would have allowed them to better educate their sons and daughters and advance reason in society.

Secondly, Cudworth argued that women should have access to education for not only their children’s spiritual welfare, but for their own as well. She argued that “Women have Souls to be sav’d as well as Men,” and that by being blessed with rational thinking, it was imperative that women understood the principles and values behind their own religious beliefs.[33] “They [women] are, perhaps sometimes told in regard of what Religion exacts, They must Believe and Do such and such things, because the Word of God requires it; but they are not put upon searching the Scriptures themselves, to see whether, or no, these things are so."[34] She argued that a woman's duty and knowledge should not be grounded on the "uncertain and variable Opinions of Men"[34] and should instead be able to nurture their minds as well as their bodies to form their own opinions about spirituality.

Influence on other philosophers[edit]

Cudworth's work and correspondence with many of the great philosophers of the Enlightenment was bound to have an influence on their resulting published works. Most notably, it is surmised that Cudworth had an influence on Locke's second revision of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.[35] Locke worked on the various revisions of this treatise between 1689 until his death in 1704, during the time that he was living with the Mashams at the manor of Oates at High Laver. Thus, it is not unlikely that Cudworth could have some intellectual influence over these revisions. In the revision of the section "Of Power" Locke seems to adopt many of the ideas of Ralph Cudworth, especially the ideas contained in his unpublished manuscripts that are considered the second and third parts to his The True Intellectual System of the Universe.[36] However, these manuscripts are not suspected to be in Cudworth's possession until the death of her older brother, John Cudworth in 1726. However, Locke's apparent influence from Ralph Cudworth's ideas cannot be ignored and has led historians to believe that it was Damaris Cudworth herself and in familiarity with her father's works that may have influenced Locke during his second revision of "Of Power."[37] Cudworth did make parallels to her father's ideas on free will contained in his third manuscript, which appear in her publication Occasional Thoughts,

"without a capacity in the Creature to act contrary to the Will of the Creator there could be no desert, or self-excellency in any Created Being; contrariety to the Will of God is therefore permitted in the Universe as a necessary result of Creaturely imperfection, under the greatest endowment that a Created Being is capable of having, viz. That of Freedom or Liberty of Action."[38]

Indicating that her father likely passed down many of his ideas regarding free will and the rejection of determinism to Cudworth either directly through the reading of his manuscripts or indirectly from her tutoring in philosophical discourse.[39]

List of Works[edit]

  • A discourse concerning the Love of God (A. and J. Churchill at the Black-Swan in Paternoster-Row, London 1696).
  • Occasional Thoughts in reference to a Vertuous or Christian Life (Awnsham and John Churchill at the Black-Swan in Paternoster-Row, London 1705). At Project Gutenberg (accessed 8 December 2014).
  • Briefwechsel zwischen Leibniz und Lady Masham. 1703-1705. In: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: Philosophische Schriften (Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, Berlin 1887), vol. 3, pp. 331-375. [Leibniz writes in French, Lady Masham answers in English. Volume online.]


  1. ^ The History of Philosophy, Vol. IV: Modern Philosophy: From Descartes to Leibniz by Frederick C. Copleston (1958)
  2. ^ "It is in Leibniz that Tarde finds the main conditions for the metaphysics of possession.He sees in Monadology (1714) the beginning of a movement of dissolution of classical ontology (notably the identity of "being" and "simplicity"), which would, in a still implicit and unthinking form, find its most obvious confirmation in today's science." In: "The Dynamics of Possession: An Introduction to The Sociology of Gabriel Tarde" by Didier Debaise
  3. ^ See Cambridge Platonist Research Portal
  4. ^ R. Cudworth, The true intellectual system of the universe. The first part wherein all the reason and philosophy of atheism is confuted and its impossibility demonstrated (Richard Royston, London (1678) but with imprimatur of 1671).
  5. ^ Benjamin Carter, 'The standing of Ralph Cudworth as a Philosopher', in G.A.J. Rogers, Tom Sorell and Jill Kraye (eds), Insiders and Outsiders in Seventeenth-Century Philosophy (Routledge 2010), pp. 99-111. Catherine Osborne, 'Ralph Cudworth's The True Intellectual System of the Universe and the Presocratic Philosophers', in Oliver Primavesi and Katharina Luchner (eds) The Presocratics from the Latin Middle Ages to Hermann Diels (Steiner Verlag 2011), pp 215-235.
  6. ^ Venn, Alumni Cantabrigienses Part I. From the earliest times to 1751, Vol. 1 (1922), pp. 430-31. Venn infers that Charles Cudworth (Trinity College 1674, died 1684) was her brother. See David A. Pailin, 'Cudworth, Ralph (1617-1688), theologian and philosopher' in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  7. ^ Will of Mathew Cradock (P.C.C. 1641).
  8. ^ Will Of Thomas Andrewes (P.C.C. 1653).
  9. ^ Wills of Ralph Cudworth (P.C.C. 1688) and Damaris Cudworth (P.C.C. 1695).
  10. ^ Sarah Hutton, 'Whichcote, Benjamin (1609-1683), theologian and moral philosopher' in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  11. ^ John T. Young, 'Worthington, John (bap. 1617, d. 1671)' in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  12. ^ Frankel, Lois. "Damaris Cudsworth Masham." Vol. 3, in Modern Women Philosophers, 1600–1900 by Mary Ellen Waith (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991.), 73.
  13. ^ The claim appears to originate speculatively in George Ballard, Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain (Author, Oxford 1752), pp. 379-388, at p. 379. See a discussion in James G. Buickerood, 'What is it with Damaris, Lady Masham? The Historiography of one early modern woman philosopher', Locke Studies. An Annual Journal of Locke Research 5 (2005), pp. 179-214; and a reply by Richard Acworth, 'Cursory Reflections', &c., Locke Studies 6 (2006).
  14. ^ a b Frankel, Modern Women Philosophers, 73–74.
  15. ^ Jaqueline Broad. "Damaris Masham." In Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 138.
  16. ^ Buickerood, Locke Studies 5 (2005), at pp. 191-93, citing letter of Masham to Jean le Clerc of 18 June 1703, Universiteitbibliotheek, Amsterdam, MS J.58v.
  17. ^ Frankel, Modern Women Philosophers, 73–74; but see Buickerood, p. 193.
  18. ^ M. Knights, 'MASHAM, Sir Francis, 3rd Bt. (c.1646-1723), of Otes, High Laver, Essex', in D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks and S. Handley (eds), The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715 (Boydell & Brewer, 2002) Read here.
  19. ^ Sarah Hutton, "Lady Damaris Masham." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (March 2014). http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/lady-masham.
  20. ^ Will of Ralph Cudworth, Doctor of Divinity (P.C.C. 1688).
  21. ^ Her epitaph (monumental inscription in High Laver church) was reputedly written by John Locke, see H.R. Fox Bourne, The Life of John Locke, 2 Vols (Harper & Brothers, New York 1876), II, pp. 306-07.
  22. ^ Will of Damaris Cudworth (P.C.C. 1695).
  23. ^ a b Hutton, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  24. ^ Jaqueline Broad, 'A Woman's Influence? John Locke and Damaris Masham on Moral Accountability,' Journal of the History of Ideas 2006 (University of Pennsylvania Press), 493.
  25. ^ Will of John Lock of High Laver (P.C.C. 1704).
  26. ^ J. le Clerc, 'Article V. Eloge de feu Mr. Locke,' Bibliothèque Choisie, pour servir de suite à la Bibliothèque Universelle, Vol. VI: Année MDCCV (Henry Schelte, Amsterdam 1705), pp. 342-411, at pp. 398-401 (deathbed scene); pp. 402-410 (character). (In French).
  27. ^ Lois Frankel, 'Damaris Cudsworth Masham, A Seventeenth-Century Feminist Philosopher,'in Linda Lopez McAlister (ed), Hypatia's Daughters (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1996), pp. 128–138.
  28. ^ 'Lettre CCXXVII, à Mr Coste, 3 Juillet 1705,' Lettres Choisies de Mr. Bayle, avec des Remarques, Vol. III (Fritsch et Böhm, Rotterdam 1714), pp. 874-76. (In French).
  29. ^ Frankel, Modern Women Philosophers, p. 75.
  30. ^ Frankel, Modern Women Philosophers, 83.
  31. ^ Broad, Women Philosophers. 138.
  32. ^ Lady Damaris Masham. "Occasional Thoughts in Reference to a Vertuous or Christian Life." Project Gutenburg. (1705). https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/13285/pg13285.html
  33. ^ Broad, Women Philosophers. 139.
  34. ^ a b Masham, Occasional Thoughts
  35. ^ Broad. Journal of the History of Ideas, 492.
  36. ^ Broad. Journal of the History of Ideas, 497–500.
  37. ^ Broad. Journal of the History of Ideas, 502–508.
  38. ^ Lady Damaris Masham. "A discourse concerning the love of God" (London: A. and J. Church at the Black-Swan in Paternoster-Row, 1696).
  39. ^ Broad. Journal of the History of Ideas, 506.


  • Broad, Jacqueline, 2002, 'Damaris Masham', in Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 114–140.
  • Broad, Jacqueline, 2006, 'A Woman's Influence? John Locke and Damaris Masham on Moral Accountability,' Journal of the History of Ideas, 67 no. 3 (July 2006): 489–510.
  • Frankel, Lois, 1989, 1991, 1996, 'Damaris Cudworth Masham,' in Mary Ellen Waithe, ed., A History of Women Philosophers, Vol. 3, (Kluwer Academic, Dordrecht 1991), pp. 73–85. (Reprinted from Hypatia, 1989). Reprinted as 'Damaris Cudworth Masham, A seventeenth-century feminist philosopher' in Linda Lopez McAlister (ed), Hypatia's Daughters: 1500 Years of Women Philosophers (Indianapolis, Indiana University Press 1996), pp. 128–138.
  • Hammou, Philippe, 2008, 'Enthousiasme et nature humaine: à propos d'une lettre de Locke à Damaris Cudworth', Revue de Métaphysique et Morale, 3: 337–350.
  • Hutton, Sarah, 1993, 'Damaris Cudworth, Lady Masham: between Platonism and Enlightenment', British Journal for the History of Philosophy 1 (1): 29–54.
  • Hutton, Sarah, 2010, 'Damaris Masham', in P. Schuurman and S.-J. Savonius Wroth (eds.), The Continuum Companion to Locke (London & New York: Continuum), pp. 72–6.
  • Hutton, Sarah, 2012, 'Religion, Philosophy and Women’s Letters: Anne Conway and Damaris Masham', in Anne Dunan-Page and Clotilde Prunier (eds.), Debating the Faith: Religion and Letter-Writing in Great Britain, 1550–1800 (Dordrecht: Springer).
  • Hutton, Sarah. 'Lady Damaris Masham,' Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Stanford University 2014). (accessed 8 December 2014)
  • Laslett, Peter, 1953, 'Masham of Oates', History Today, 3: 535–43.
  • Phemister, Pauline, 2007, ' ‘All the time and everywhere everything's the same as here’: the principle of uniformity in the correspondence between Leibniz and Lady Masham', in Paul Lodge (ed.), Leibniz and his Correspondents (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
  • Simonutti, Luisa, 1987, 'Damaris Cudworth Masham: una Lady della Repubblica delle Lettere,' in Scritti in Onore di Eugenio Garin (Pisa: Scuola Normale Superiore), pp. 141–165.

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