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The Earl of Shaftesbury states that civility and politeness is a consequence of liberty by which “we polish one another, and rub off our Corners and rough Sides” (1709)

Central to Shaftesbury’s idea of liberty is the notion of the free interchange of ideas, even if some of those ideas grate against those of others (p. 42, last paragraph of Section I):

And thus in other respects Wit will mend upon our hands, and Humour will refine it-self; if we take care not to tamper with it, and bring it under Constraint, by severe Usage and rigorous Prescriptions. All Politeness is owing to Liberty. We polish one another, and rub off our Corners and rough Sides by a sort of amicable Collision. To restrain this, is inevitably to bring a Rust upon Mens Understandings. ’Tis a destroying of Civility, Good Breeding, and even Charity it-self, under pretence of maintaining it.

We have seen in our own time the Decline and Ruin of a false sort of Wit, which so much delighted our Ancestors, that their Poems and Plays, as well as Sermons, were full of it. All Humour had something of the Quibble.The very Language of theCourt was Punning. But ’tis now banish’d the Town, and all good Company: There are only some few Footsteps of it in the Country; and it seems at last confin’d to the Nurserys of Youth, as the chief Entertainment of Pedants and their Pupils. And thus in other respects Wit will mend upon our hands, and Humour will refine it-self; if we take care not to tamper with it, and bring it under Constraint, by severe Usage and rigorous Prescriptions. All Politeness is owing to Liberty. We polish one another, and rub off our Corners and rough Sides by a sort of amicable Collision. To restrain this, is inevitably to bring a Rust upon Mens Understandings. ’Tis a destroying of Civility, Good Breeding, and even Charity it-self, under pretence of maintaining it.

About this Quotation:

This is a clever lapidary analogy concerning the improvement of politeness and manners through the free intercourse of human beings, an “amicable collision” between individuals as Shaftesbury puts it. To use force or coercion to improve civility, good breeding, and charity will create its very opposite, as any good free market economist will tell you regarding economic regulations. One wonders however about his condemnation of punning as the language of the court. Perhaps we have been court out as a closet monarchists?

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