Wollstonecraft begins with some “plain questions.” She asks what humanity’s preeminence over creation consists in, and concludes that it is Reason. Then, “what acquirement exalts one being above another?” The answer is virtue. And why do people deal with passions? The purpose of passions is to bestow experience (knowledge) by means of struggle. Concluding all this, then, “the perfection of our nature and capability of happiness, must be estimated by the degree of reason, virtue, and knowledge” that distinguishes each person; and from these three things, virtue “naturally [flows].”
Wollstonecraft’s opening questions and answers reveal her debt to Enlightenment thought—“Reason” is elevated above all else. She also establishes the basis for her coming argument, which is that all human beings are capable of virtue, which is only attainable through knowledge.
While all this seems obvious, Wollstonecraft argues that reason has been clouded by prejudice to such a degree, and “such spurious qualities have assumed the name of virtues,” that it’s necessary to explore these opening assertions more deeply.
Wollstonecraft’s claims for the centrality of reason, virtue, and knowledge are no longer taken for granted by society, no matter how much it pays lip service to them; it’s therefore necessary to clear away prejudices from the truth in order to better understand the nature of virtue.
After arguing that the sacred right of kings is a belief that stifles virtue and happiness by destroying human equality, Wollstonecraft argues that any profession that involves subordination of rank “is highly injurious to morality.” For example, a standing army necessarily lacks rigor and must be kept in line through despotism, which is “incompatible with freedom.” Also, when soldiers take up residence in country towns, they lure locals into their own vices, under the guise of gallantry. The point is that every person’s character is shaped by their profession—something societies should keep in mind.
Wollstonecraft’s anti-monarchical, republican political commitments are obvious here; they are never far in the background of her arguments about individual and societal virtue. In fact, she holds that “despotism” lurks in any profession in which people must be kept in line by means of authority instead of reason, and this has poor consequences for people’s character. The idleness of soldiers in peacetime is a key example. In short, any defect in the structures of society has a corresponding effect on its constituents’ character.