Shaftesbury on the True Test of Bravery

Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury

Found in Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, 3 vols.

Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713) was the grandson of a founder and leader of the English Whigs, and was tutored by John Locke. Shaftesbury wrote one of the most intellectually influential works in English of the eighteenth century, The Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times. Shaftesbury argued that human nature responds most fully to representations of the good, the true, and the beautiful, and that human beings naturally desire society.

“Nothing is more ridiculous than this it-self. The Vulgar, indeed, may swallow any sordid Jest, any mere Drollery or Buffoonery; but it must be a finer and truer Wit which takes with the Men of Sense and Breeding. How comes it to pass then, that we appear such Cowards in reasoning, and are so afraid to stand the Test of Ridicule?—O! say we, the Subjects are too grave.—Perhaps so: but let us see first whether they are really grave or no: for in the manner we may conceive ’em, they may peradventure be very grave and weighty in our Imagination; but very ridiculous and impertinent in their own nature.”

This passage comes from “A Letter Concerning Enthusiasm to My Lord Sommers.” In that letter Shaftesbury gives a powerful defense of freedom of speech and its utility in uncovering the truth.

Shaftesbury allows for not only the freedom of polite speech, but also for humor and ridicule to be deployed. Indeed, he has another essay entitled, “Sensus Communis: an Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour.” The above passage suggests that if we have good reasons for something, then those reasons should stand up to ridicule, and we should have confidence that they will. But since ridicule may also serve the purpose of exposing the true seriousness and value of an idea, we need to be open to that as well. On the one hand, then, we should have confidence in our conclusions while at the same time recognize the possibility of our over-valuing their merit. Thus, for the sake of truth we should have no fear of ridicule and should value it’s probing power.