Shaftesbury, Third Earl of (Anthony Ashley Cooper) (1671–1713)

views updated


Anthony Ashley Cooper (the Third Earl of Shaftesbury) was born in London in the home of his grandfather, the first earl, a prominent Whig politician, who put his secretary and friend, John Locke, in charge of his grandson's education. Fluent at eleven in both Greek and Latin, Shaftesbury was an avid student of ancient philosophy, particularly Plato and the Stoics. In 1686, accompanied by a tutor, he embarked on a three-year tour of the Continent, learning French and acquiring a sophisticated taste for the arts. He was elected to Parliament in 1695 and served for three years, although asthma prevented him from standing for reelection. In 1698 he moved to Holland, where he met Pierre Bayle, an advocate for religious tolerance and one of the first to argue that it is possible for an atheist to be virtuous. After becoming the Third Earl of Shaftesbury in 1699, he attended meetings of the House of Lords until 1702, but once again ill health prevented him from continuing to serve and being more active in Whig causes. He married Jane Ewer in 1709; they had one son. His bad health forced him to move in 1711 to Italy, where he died in 1713.


Shaftesbury's first published work was an edited collection of the sermons of the Cambridge Platonist Benjamin Whichcote (16091683). In his preface Shaftesbury attacked Thomas Hobbes's conception of morality as a matter of law springing from the will of a sovereign, backed up by sanctions imposed on us to restrain our natural, selfish tendencies. His letters make clear, however, that he thought John Locke was an even greater threat to morality since he made Hobbes's views more respectable. Rejecting Locke's view that moral laws spring from the will of God and that morality requires sanctions, Shaftesbury complained that Locke not only "threw all order and virtue out of the world" but also made moral ideas "unnatural," without any "foundation in the mind" (1900, p. 403). In the Cambridge Platonists, however, he found doctrines that were both congenial to his own outlook and an antidote to those of Hobbes and Locke. Proposing a conception of morality that centered on love, the Cambridge Platonists emphasized the natural goodness and sociability of human beings and our ability to act virtuously without sanctions.

Shaftesbury's chief work is Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, an anthology of his essays. It was first published in 1711 in three volumes; ten more editions were printed by 1790. Characteristicks includes "An Inquiry concerning Virtue or Merit," which John Toland originally published in 1699, although there is dispute about whether Shaftesbury authorized that version. He revised the "Inquiry" for inclusion in Characteristicks. The other four essays were written between 1705 and 1710 and cover a variety of topics in different genres. He discusses issues in morality, politics, religion, aesthetics, culture, and what he calls "politeness"the conventions of good manners and refined conversation. The essays take different forms: the traditional treatise, as well as an epistle, a dialogue, and a soliloquy. He includes his own commentaries or "miscellaneous reflections" on each essay, which were written especially for the collection.

Conception of Philosophy

Shaftesbury's unorthodox writing style goes hand in hand with his conception of philosophy as practical. He laments that philosophy "is no longer active in the world" (1711/1999, p. 232). On his view, philosophy should help people fashion themselves into moral and unified beings. Conceiving of moral self-transformation in Socratic terms as the pursuit of self-knowledge, he suggests that the best way to know yourself is by means of an inner dialogue. Dialogues and soliloquies, rather than lectures and sermons, are therefore the appropriate vehicles for inspiration and edification. His intended audience was cultivated readers rather than philosophers and other academics, so he thought his writing needed to be accessibleeasy, smooth, and polite.

Shaftesbury's practical conception of the philosophical enterprise led him to reject metaphysical and epistemological studies on the grounds that they make people "neither better, nor happier, nor wiser" (1900, p. 269). He was largely indifferent to the successes in the natural sciences that were made during this period and opposed mechanistic conceptions of nature. In contrast to many eighteenth-century philosophers, he was uninterested in putting morality on a scientific footing. He preferred ancient philosophy to that of his contemporaries.

Shaftesbury is best read as a transitional figure, a bridge between the philosophical thinking of the ancients and the moderns, as well as between the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries. Although he rejected the seventeenth-century natural law view of morality, he retained its Stoic conception of the universe as teleologically structured. The natural world is an integrated and harmonious whole composed of many subsystems, all of which are ordered to good ends. Each subsystem or species, including the human species, is designed to play specific functional roles in still larger systems, which together form the universal nature, the system of all things. The order and harmony in universal nature is a product of God's creative intelligence. As a reflection of God's intelligence, the universe itself embodies rational principles. Shaftesbury's teleological picture of the universe underwrites many of his views on religion, morality, and aesthetics.

Ethical Theory

As Henry Sidgwick remarks in his Outlines of the History of Ethics [for English Readers] (1886), Shaftesbury's Characteristicks "marks a turning point" in the history of ethics, since he is the first to take "psychological experience as the basis of ethics" (p. 190). He makes morality dependent on the mind in two ways. First, first-order sentimentsthe passions and affections that motivate people to actand actions expressive of these sentimentshave moral value. Second, what gives these motives their value are reflective, second-order sentimentssentiments we have about our own or other people's sentiments. Shaftesbury's inward turn was the inspiration for sentimentalist moral theories, especially Francis Hutcheson's and David Hume's, as well as Bishop [Joseph] Butler's electric theory.

Shaftesbury's best-known work today is his most traditional piece of writing, "An Inquiry concerning Virtue or Merit." The question that frames the "Inquiry" is whether virtue is able to support itself without the aid of religion. In the course of answering that question he explains both the nature of virtue and our obligation to it. Distinguishing between natural goodness and moral goodness, he defines natural goodness in a functional or teleological way. To say that something is naturally good is to say that it contributes to the good of the system of which it is a part. Where a subsystem is part of a larger system, judgments of natural goodness are relative to that larger system. He even says that something is "really" good or bad only if it benefits or hinders universal nature. However, when we judge the natural goodness or badness of a sensible creature, our judgments concern the structure or economy of its affections. Sensible creatures are good if their affections are adapted to contribute to the good of their species. Their goodness is a matter of being in a healthy state, one that enables them to realize their natural ends. Not surprisingly, Shaftesbury often equates the good with the natural and evil with the unnatural.

While sensible creatures are capable of natural goodness, Shaftesbury claims that only rational creatures are capable of moral goodnessvirtuebecause only they have the capacity to make their affections objects of reflection. When affections are "brought into the mind by reflection there arises another kind of affection towards those very affections themselves and now become the subject of a new liking or disliking" (1711/1999, p. 172). As rational creatures, human beings have second-order, reflective sentiments, sentiments about sentiments. Shaftesbury calls this reflexive capacity a "moral sense." He conceives of it in aesthetic termsa sense of what is beautiful or harmonious, foul or dissonant in our sentiments. The harmony and proportion of the affections, like the natural beauty in the universe, is evidence of a creative designing mind: God. In feeling moral approval we are able to share in the divine intelligence that created the beauty in the universe. On Shaftesbury's view the moral sense is an active, intelligent, and creative power, not the passive faculty that Hutcheson took it to be.

Shaftesbury argues that what the reflective sense approves of, and so makes morally good, is our natural goodness. We are naturally good when our "natural" or social affections and our self-directed affections are balanced in such a way as to promote our own good and the good of our species. While he thinks that our concern for others may be too strong and our self-concern may be too weak, more typically people are vicious when their social affections are too weak or their self-directed affections too strong. Moral evil arises not only from an imbalance between the social and self-interested affections but also from such "unnatural" affections as malice, sadism, and "delight in disorder."

After explaining the nature of virtue Shaftesbury turns to the question of our obligation to virtue, which he takes to mean "what reason there is to embrace" a virtuous life (1711/1999, p. 192). He then proceeds to show that virtue and self-interest coincide. He begins by arguing that mental pleasures are superior to physical pleasures. He thinks that there are two kinds of mental pleasures: those that consist in the operation of first-order affections and those that result from second-order affections such as those of the moral sense. The first-order affections that are social are a superior source of pleasure since they are pleasant in themselves, never go stale, and enable us to share sympathetically in the pleasures of others. More important, virtuous people experience the pleasures of their own approval as well as the approval of others, while vicious people suffer the torments and pangs of their own disapproval and those of others. He concludes that what obligates us to the practice of virtue is that being virtuous makes us happy. Being a virtuous person is not only good but also good for you.

Returning to the topic of the relation between morality and religion, Shaftesbury argues that it is possible for an atheist to be virtuous and that superstitious or false religious beliefs do more harm than having none at all. He characterizes theism as the belief that the universe is designed by a benevolent God and ordered "for the best," whereas atheists deny that there is a natural order and believe that the universe is a product of chance. Theism is the "perfection and height of virtue," since the theist is attuned to the order and harmony of the universe (1711/1999, p. 192). As moral agents, this is an order and harmony to which we ought to aspire.

Views on Politics, Agency, and Aesthetics

In other essays Shaftesbury, like his grandfather, champions religious tolerance and liberty of thought. Tolerance and free discussion are the basis of moral and cultural improvement. The way to disarm religious fanatics or those who are superstitious is with "ridicule," light-hearted, good-mannered humor, and tolerance, rather than with punishment and persecution. Although highly critical of the enthusiasm that results from fanaticism or superstition, Shaftesbury argues for true or reasonable enthusiasma state of mind that raises people beyond their ordinary capacities and enables them to feel the divine presence. Shaftesbury's conception of reasonable enthusiasm informs his views on nature, religion, morality, and aesthetics.

Some commentators, notably Stephen Darwall, find Shaftesbury's thoughts on the self, its unity and self-government, to be suggestive even though his ideas on these topics are not developed in a systematical way. Shaftesbury thinks that soliloquy is necessary both for self-government and for an agent's unity and integrity. He describes soliloquy, a kind of self-analysis, as a process whereby we are able to divide ourselves into "two parties," an idea that foreshadows Adam Smith's conception of conscience. One part is the better self, the sage, demon, or geniusan ideal of character to which each person is committed. In dividing ourselves into two, we erect the better part as the "counsellor and governor" (1711/1999, p. 77). Soliloquy enables us to step back and critically assess our desiresscrutinizing their causes and their place in the scheme of our aims and concerns. Likewise, soliloquy aims to make us unified agents, true to our ideals of character.

Shaftesbury has been described as the first great English aesthetician. Not only does he think of moral goodness as a species of the beautiful but he also thinks that moral and aesthetic taste amount to the same thing. Thus, he says that "the science of the virtuosi and that of virtue itself become, in a manner, one and the same." The real virtuoso understands and appreciates the inner harmony and order that constitute the goodness in works of art and in people's characters. The source of Beauty and what we ultimately find beautiful is the creative, intelligent mind. Thus, he says that "the beautifying, not the beautiful is the really beautiful" (1711/1999, p. 322). When we admire order and proportion in natural objects, we are really admiring the creator, God. Shaftesbury developed a concept of disinterested pleasure to explain the kind of pleasure we experience in a true apprehension of beauty.

Shaftesbury's Characteristicks was influential both in England and on the Continent during the eighteenth century. It is thought that virtually every educated man in the eighteenth century was acquainted with it. While the sentimentalists, Hutcheson and Hume, kept Shaftesbury's idea that moral goodness springs from second-order affections, they detached their accounts of natural goodness from his teleological picture of the universe. Thus, Hutcheson identifies natural goodness with pleasure. There has been renewed attention to Shaftesbury's work since the 1980s, not only by traditional philosophers interested in his moral and aesthetic views but also by those interested in literary theory and gender studies.

See also Aesthetics, History of; Bayle, Pierre; Cambridge Platonists; Locke, John.


works by shaftesbury

Select Sermons of Dr. Whichcot. London: Awnsham and John Churchill, 1698.

Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711), edited by Lawrence E. Klein. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

The Life, Unpublished Letters, and Philosophical Regimen of Anthony, Earl of Shaftesbury, edited by Benjamin Rand. London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1900.

Second Characters. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1914.

works about shaftesbury

Darwall, Stephen. "Shaftesbury: Authority and Authorship." In The British Moralists and the Internal "Ought": 16401740. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Gill, Michael B. "Shaftesbury's Two Accounts of the Reason to Be Virtuous." Journal of the History of Philosophy 38 (4) (2000): 529548.

Grean, Stanley. "Self-Interest and Public Interest in Shaftesbury's Philosophy." Journal of the History of Philosophy 2 (1964): 3746.

Grean, Stanley. Shaftesbury's Philosophy of Religion and Ethics: A Study in Enthusiasm. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1967.

Schneewind, J. B. The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Sidgwick, Henry. Outlines of the History of Ethics. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1988.

Taylor, Charles. "Moral Sentiments." In Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Trianosky, Gregory W. "On the Obligation to Be Virtuous: Shaftesbury and the Question, Why Be Moral?" Journal of the History of Philosophy 16 (3) (1978): 289300.

Voitle, Robert. The Third Earl of Shaftesbury, 16711713. Baton Rouge: Louisiana University Press, 1984.

Charlotte R. Brown (2005)