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Shaftesbury’s Aesthetics & Moral Philosophy

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Source: Editors' Introduction to Shaftesbury's Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, ed. Douglas den Uyl (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2001). 3 vols. Vol. 1.


Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, wrote one of the most important and influential books of the eighteenth century. Other than Locke’s Second Treatise, Shaftesbury’s Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, first published in 1711, was the most reprinted book in English in that century. A three-volume work, the Characteristicks was influential not only in England but throughout Europe. Three centuries later, Shaftesbury is most remembered—when he is remembered at all—as the initiator of the “moral sense” school of British ethical theory usually associated with another eighteenth-century thinker, Francis Hutcheson. Hutcheson, David Hume, Adam Smith, and others of that era are connected to Shaftesbury as part of a way of moral theorizing that emphasized sentiment in moral experience.

The groundwork for that movement is certainly to be found in the pages of Shaftesbury, but one would do well not to approach these texts predisposed to a certain framework or perspective. In doing so, one would miss a richness of style and substance, an exceptional learning, and a subtlety of thought seldom paralleled in the English language. Shaftesbury’s essay “An Inquiry Concerning Virtue and Merit” is the basis of his reputation. But it is a work quite unlike the others in these volumes. The “Inquiry” is deductive and reads like a formal treatise. Most of the other works are discursive and literary in character. It would be difficult even to classify some of the essays, such as the “Miscellaneous Reflections.” Indeed, when one considers the Characteristicks as a whole, one finds here a collection of writings of great diversity. No doubt this diversity was intentional on Shaftesbury’s part. He tells us, for example, that “there is more need . . . to interrupt the long-spun thread of reasoning, and bring into the mind, by many different glances and broken views, what cannot so easily be introduced by one steady bent or continued stretch of sight.”

It is, in fact, one of the intriguing features about Shaftesbury that, although his remarks seem clear enough, efforts to identify his full position on an issue can often be more complicated than expected. For example, in “A Letter Concerning Enthusiasm,” we find, apparently, an argument for vented, but moderated, enthusiasm as part of a recommendation for religious toleration. Enthusiasm—which at the time was usually connected to religion and had a ring of “fanaticism” to it—was said to be natural to human beings. Rather than suppress enthusiasm as some would recommend, Shaftesbury argues for constrained tolerance. However, by the end of the essay, we read that “something there will be of extravagance and fury, when the ideas or images received are too big for the narrow human vessel to contain. So that inspiration may be justly called divine enthusiasm; for the word itself signifies divine presence, and was made use of by the philosopher whom the earliest Christian Fathers called divine, to express whatever was sublime in human passions.”

After reading “A Letter Concerning Enthusiasm” one is left with more questions than answers. Is there a form of enthusiasm that Shaftesbury finds unqualifiedly good? If so, is this enthusiasm like the other enthusiasm that worried so many in Shaftesbury’s day? If not, what is the difference? Is enthusiasm really a feature of human nature? This passage suggests that enthusiasm comes from outside the human person. To what extent is enthusiasm a feature of Christianity? The same passage is ambiguous about that question, but it suggests an ancient, pre-Christian form of enthusiasm. If there are non-Christian forms, is the Christian version a purer form of enthusiasm? With respect to the number and variety of questions it raises, this essay is typical of the others found in the Characteristicks.

Not only do these writings open a number of questions for exploration, but they raise them in diverse formats. The “Letter Concerning Enthusiasm” is called a “letter,” but we have as well (in Shaftesbury’s own words) an “essay,” “advice,” an “inquiry,” a “rhapsody,” and “miscellaneous reflections” on the preceding treatises. Not only are different modes of reflective thinking represented, but in the “Miscellaneous Reflections” Shaftesbury further complicates matters by giving us thoughts about his own thoughts. All this makes for fascinating reading, to be sure, but it also signals some fascinating rereading. One can come back to these texts over and over again and still find fresh insights. And the different nature of these works, not to mention the subtle contours within them, only adds to the enjoyment of rereading them. No wonder the Characteristicks was so popular during the eighteenth century.

Why, then, would the Characteristicks eventually fall into such obscurity? One can only speculate: are the different forms of writing diverse ways of pointing to one message, are they refracted glimpses from a single perspective, or could they be disparate and only loosely connected points of view? Whatever the answer, there is a certain degree of self-conscious subtlety that Shaftesbury has put into this work to elicit these questions. This subtlety is endemic to the sensibilities of the eighteenth century, but perhaps not so to subsequent eras. This difference of temperament may in part explain the Characteristicks’ fall from favor. The work’s messages are perhaps multiple and not driven home with the same transparency of purpose and objective as writings of later times. Indeed, Shaftesbury calls upon the reader to reflect with him, a somewhat more demanding task than asking only that the reader grasp a message. Furthermore, Shaftesbury expects the reader to make some effort, so the author is not compelled to please pre-existing tastes or opinions. In this respect, Shaftesbury stands in contrast to the modern author who “purchases his reader’s favour by all imaginable compliances and condescensions.” Shaftesbury writes less to inform, instruct, or persuade than to move the reader to thought.

Yet despite the demands placed upon the reader for intellectual reflection, there is nevertheless a peculiarly aesthetic quality to Shaftesbury’s array of styles and forms of writing. Indeed, the aesthetic element looms large in Shaftesbury, and he has been credited with pioneering some forms of modern thinking about aesthetics and aesthetic experience. The eighteenth century itself was deeply concerned with the aesthetic, in large measure, I believe, due to Shaftesbury. One thinks of Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), but Hume, Hutcheson, Smith, and others give aesthetic issues—or at least the imagination—central importance in their theories.

For Shaftesbury, the companion to intellectual reflection is aesthetic experience. These activities are not only mutually reinforcing, but share certain dimensions. One is struck by the beauty of any object of understanding, and the beautiful is itself a sign of an order waiting to be grasped by the mind. Aristotle noted that the most abstract thought is aided by and represented in the imagination, and Shaftesbury is ever mindful of this insight. The Characteristicks appeals to both intellect and imagination. But more than this, Shaftesbury may have been one of the first to understand that the modern world would be moved primarily by imagination, however much he may have preferred the guidance of reason. Indeed, it is here that the link to sentiment mentioned earlier is to be found, for sentiment and imagination are themselves integrally connected.

Believing that the modern world would be moved by imagination and sentiment, Shaftesbury’s task was to fashion a way to lead the reader to intellectual introspection and reflection while engaging the imagination. The aesthetic dimension was, therefore, the link between intellect and imagination, sentiment and judgment. One of the truly remarkable features of the Characteristicks is its use of visual images—one for each essay, each volume, and for the work as a whole. These images were carefully and meticulously designed by Shaftesbury himself to represent, in visual terms, some of the main themes of his writings. In the early editions containing these images, the page numbers for the corresponding passages are often included on the image itself.

The round frontispiece that serves as the image for the entire Characteristicks refers to two passages in the “Miscellaneous Reflections.” Both are given originally in Greek, and, interestingly, both originally appear in a footnote rather than the body of the text itself. The first passage, from Marcus Aurelius, is:

What view you take is everything, and your view is in your power. Remove it then when you choose, and then, as if you had rounded the cape, come calm serenity, a waveless bay.

In the frontispiece are ships in a harbor, which is the representation of the “waveless bay.” The ships have presumably “rounded the cape” as well. The second citation is from Epictet