Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 18. Shaftesbury; his Characteristics of Men and Manners

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

XI. Berkeley and Contemporary Philosophy

§ 18. Shaftesbury; his Characteristics of Men and Manners

A more fruitful line of ethical thought was entered upon by Clarke’s contemporary, the third earl of Shaftesbury, grandson of the first earl, Locke’s patron, and himself educated under Locke’s supervision. He was debarred by weak health from following an active political career, and his life was thus mainly devoted to intellectual interests. After two or three unhappy years of school life at Winchester, he travelled abroad, chiefly in Italy, with a tutor; in early manhood he resided in Holland; in later life his health drove him to Italy once more. He was an ardent student of the classics, especially of Plato, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, a devotee of liberty in thought and in political affairs, and an amateur of art—at once a philosopher and a virtuoso. His writings were published in three volumes, entitled Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, in 1711; a second edition, carefully revised and enlarged, was ready at the time of his death in 1713. Several of the treatises comprised in these volumes had been previously published. The most important of them, An Inquiry concerning Virtue, or Merit, was surreptitiously printed from an early draft, in 1699, by Toland—whom he had befriended and financed; The Moralists, a Philosophical Rhapsody appeared in 1709; A Letter concerning Enthusiasm in 1708; Sensus Communis: an Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour in 1709; Soliloquy: or Advice to an Author in 1710. Two of the treatises in later editions were posthumous: A Notion of the Historical Draught or Tablature of the Judgment of Hercules, 1713, and Miscellaneous Reflections, 1714. The style of these works is, nearly always, clear, and it has the great merit of avoiding traditional technicalities; but it is over-polished and often artificial—too “genteel,” as Lamb said. Its decorations pleased contemporary taste; but the rhapsodies of The Moralists fall coldly on the modern ear, and the virtuoso has obscured the philosopher.

Shaftesbury was reckoned among the deists, and, perhaps, not without reason, though his first publication was an introduction to the sermons of Whichcote, the Cambridge Platonist, and he remained a churchman to the end. His sympathies were with that spiritual view of the world which is common to Christianity and to Plato and Marcus Aurelius. He had no taste for the refinements of theological controversy or for modern religious fanaticisms. He hated, still more, the method of suppressing the latter by persecution; and this led to his suggestion that they would be better met if their absurdities were left to ridicule. He never said that ridicule was the test of truth; but he did regard it as a specific against superstition; and some of his comments in illustration of this thesis, not unnaturally, gave offence. He himself, however, was not without enthusiasms, as is shown by his concern for the good of his friends and his country and by his devotion to his view of truth.

For him, the enemy was the selfish theory of conduct, which he found not in Hobbes only but, also, in a more insinuating form, in Locke. His own ethical writings were intended to show that the system of man’s nature did not point to selfishness. There are affections in man which have regard to his own interest or happiness; but there are also social (or, as he calls them, natural) affections which are directed to the good of the species to which he belongs; and he labours to prove that there is no conflict between the two systems. But the mind of man has a still higher reach. “The natural affection of a rational creature” will take in the universe, so that he will love all things that have being in the world: for, in the universal design of things, “nothing is supernumerary or unnecessary”; “the whole is harmony, the numbers entire, the music perfect.” Further, the mind of man is itself in harmony with the cosmic order. Connate in it is a “sense of right and wrong,” to which Shaftesbury gives the name “the moral sense.” And it is for his doctrine of the moral sense that he is now most often remembered. In his own century, his writings attained remarkable popularity: Berkeley (in Alciphron) was one of his severest critics; Leibniz and Diderot were among his warmest admirers.