The Earl of Shaftesbury on the value of good conversations for questioning everything (1709)

Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury

The Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713) defended the vigorous questioning of received ideas by means of wit and humour as well as by reasoning in congenial conversations:

According to the Notion I have of Reason, neither the written Treatises of the Learned, nor the set Discourses of the Eloquent, are able of themselves to teach the use of it. ’Tis the Habit alone of Reasoning, which can make a Reasoner. And Men can never be better invited to the Habit, than when they find Pleasure in it. A Freedom of Raillery, a Liberty in decent Language to question every thing, and an Allowance of unravelling or refuting any Argument, without offence to the Arguer, are the only Terms which can render such speculative Conversations any way agreeable.

Shaftesbury’s “Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour” (1709) is a powerful defence of the freedom to say anything and question anything. This was a provocative thing to do in early 18th century Britain when it was still dangerous to question or mock the King or the established Church, especially fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. In addition to defending the freedom to print political or religious material Shaftesbury wanted to defend the freedom to make fun of these things in “conversations”. He believed critical and speculative thinking can be bored to death if one is always forced to be a “listener only”, enduring endless hours of “discourse” and “oration”. A better way to encourage people to think and reason for themselves is to give them the freedom to engage in “agreeable” conversations which would be enlivened by humour, wit, “raillery” (teasing and kidding), and the cut and thrust of vigorous and amusing discussion beyond the reach of the “Imposition of Authority”.