VI. SHAFTESBURY: 1671–1713

His pupil, Anthony Ashley Cooper, third Earl of Shaftesbury, was a credit to Locke the educator. Not that Locke was responsible for Shaftesbury’s style; the explorative psychologist wrote a pedestrian prose, simple and usually clear (this side the stake), but seldom beautiful; Shaftesbury, a man of wealth and leisure, wrote with confident urbanity, tolerant humor, and almost Gallic grace—the English seigneur condescending to be a philosopher. We must stay with him a while, for he almost founded aesthetics in modern philosophy, and, by rescuing feeling and sympathy from the cold hands of Hobbes and Locke, fed the stream of sentiment that culminated in Rousseau.

Under Locke’s supervision, and on Locke’s scheme of teaching a language by conversation, Elizabeth Birch, skilled in Greek and Latin, enabled Anthony to read both these languages with ease by the age of eleven. Then off to Winchester School; then three years of travel, during which he learned French and French ways, and acquired such a flair for art as must have seemed unseemly in an English lord. He served for a year in Parliament—long enough to note “the injustice and corruption of both parties”; 163 but London smoke so aggravated his asthma that he retreated to Holland, where he found the intellectual air vibrant with Spinoza and Bayle. Having succeeded to the earldom (1699), he spent the remainder of his life at his country estate. Four years before his death he married, and was astonished to find himself as happy as before. 164 In 1711 he published his collected essays under the omnibus title Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, and Times. In 1713, only forty-two years old, he died.

It was not to be expected that a man who had inherited such a fortune on the earth should bother much about heaven. He deprecated the “enthusiasm”—by which his time meant fanaticism—of those Englishmen who thought that they exhaled divine revelations. Any form of violent emotion or speech was in his judgment a mark of ill-breeding. But he thought it wiser to smile at such people than to persecute them; indeed, wit and humor, which he made the subject of an originative essay, appeared to him the best approach to everything, even to theology. He agreed with Bayle that atheists could be decent citizens, and that they had done less harm to religion and morality than the brutality of faiths wielding power. 165 He protested against “the adoration and love of a God whose character it is to be captious and of high resentment, subject to wrath and anger, furious and revengeful . . . , encouraging deceit and treachery amongst men, favorable to a few . . . and cruel to the rest.” 166 He wondered what effect such a conception of the deity had had upon human character and conduct. He thought it abject and cowardly to be virtuous from hope of heaven or fear of hell; virtue is real only when practiced for its own sake. However, man being what he is, it is necessary to inculcate belief in such future punishments and rewards. 167 “’Tis real humanity and kindness to hide strong truths from tender eyes. . . . It may be necessary . . . for wise men to speak in parables.” 168 So Shaftesbury defended an established church, and tried to reconcile evil and theism with an optimistic philosophy that reduced evil to a human prejudice. 169 Nevertheless Alexander Pope thought that the Characteristics had done more harm to revealed religion in England than all the works of explicit infidels. 170

Shaftesbury agreed with Aristotle and Locke that happiness is the rightful aim of human actions; he defined philosophy as “the study of happiness.” 171 But he opposed the reduction of all human motives to egoism or self-interest. According to that analysis (recently expounded by Hobbes and La Rochefoucauld),

civility, hospitality, humanity towards strangers or people in distress, is only a more deliberate selfishness. An honest heart is only a more cunning one; and honesty and good nature a . . . better regulated self-love. The love of kindred, children, and posterity is purely love of self and one’s own immediate blood. . . . Magnanimity and courage, no doubt, are modifications of this universal self-love! 172

Against this view Shaftesbury alleged the double equipment of human nature with instincts for personal gain and instincts for living in a group. He believed that society and the state had originated not in a social contract but in the “herding principle and associating inclination . . . so natural and strong in most men.” 173 There are “natural affections . . . founded in love, complacency, goodwill, and sympathy with the kind. . . . To have these natural and good affections in full strength is to have the chief means of self-enjoyment; to want them is certain misery and ill.” 174 To be “good” is to have one’s inclinations consistently directed toward the good of the group: the larger the group that inspires these feelings, the better the man. The consciousness of such social sympathy is the moral sense. This is innate, not in its specific commands (which vary from group to group), but in its instinctive ground, “the sense of right and wrong . . . being as natural to us as natural affection itself, and being a first principle in our constitution.” 175

Shaftesbury passed from ethics to aesthetics by identifying them. The good and the beautiful are one: morality is “the taste of beauty and the relish of what is decent”; so we speak of some unsocial acts as ugly, for we feel that they offend that harmony of the part with the whole which is both goodness and beauty. A man can make his life a work of art—of unity and harmony—by developing an aesthetic sense in which morality will be an element; a man “of thorough good breeding” (our aristocrat believed) does this, and is by training “incapable of doing a rude or brutal action”; 176 his formed good taste will guide him in conduct as in art. Truth too is a kind of beauty, a harmony of the parts of knowledge with the whole. Hence Shaftesbury took readily the side of classicism in art: form, unity, and harmony seemed to him the essentials of excellence in poetry, architecture, and sculpture; and in painting color is less basic and noble than line. He was the first modern who made beauty a fundamental problem in philosophy; he began the discussion that at the end of the eighteenth century culminated in Lord Kames and Burke.

This was one line of Shaftesbury’s influence; there were many others. His emphasis on feeling affected the romantic movement, especially in Germany through Lessing, Schiller, Goethe, and Herder—who called him “Europe’s amiable Plato.” 177 In France this influence appeared in Diderot as well as in Rousseau. His interpretation of religion as theoretically weak but morally indispensable touched Kant’s practical nerve. His stress on sympathy as the basis of morals reappeared in Hume and Adam Smith. His ideas on art shared in forming Winckelmann’s classical ecstasy. Beginning as a pupil of the intellectual and not too aesthetic Locke, he became (perhaps by the natural resistance of every generation to its generators) the philosopher of feeling, sentiment, and beauty. Lover of the classic style in art, he became a source of the romantic revival on the Continent, though in England poetry and architecture followed his classic bent. And he had the distinction of making philosophy shine with a grace of style reminiscent of Plato, and then rivaled only by Berkeley.

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