Shaftesbury on Truth as the Most Powerful Thing in the World

Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury

Found in Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, vol. 1

The quotation that follows comes from a letter written by Anthony Ashley Cooper, the third Earl of Shaftesbury to Lord Sommers, a leading Whig jurist and statesman. The quotation appears at the beginning of the letter to Lord Sommers which is generally a defense of enthusiasm:

But as to this Doubt, your Lordship wou’d have soon resolv’d your-self: and it cou’d only serve to bring a-cross you a Reflection you have often made, on many occasions besides; That Truth is the most powerful thing in the World, since even Fiction it-self must be govern’d by it, and can only please by its resemblance. The Appearance of Reality is necessary to make any Passion agreeably represented: and to be able to move others, we must first be mov’d ourselves, or at least seem to be so, upon some probable Grounds. (FROM: SECTION I) - Earl of Shaftesbury

There was, at the time, grave concerns about the value of enthusiasm, since enthusiasm seemed to suggest a loss of control of one’s passions. The quotation suggests, by contrast, that when coupled to truth, enthusiasm is actually an admirable quality.

Truth assures us that even fiction seems plausible if grounded in at least the “appearance of reality,” and our emotions only move others if those others believe them to be grounded in a real cause or truth. In our own case, too, we justify our reaction to things in terms that we claim are true. A lack of enthusiasm seems to suggest a lack of confidence in the truth, and truth is better established when accompanied by enthusiasm.