*Shaftesbury, Earl of
Shaftesbury, Earl of
Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, was among the most widely read and influential writers of his era. A man of aristocratic bearing whose delicate health restricted his involvement in the public domain, Shaftesbury did not court fame through authorship. Unlike a number of his contemporaries, he disdained to engage in controversy, and he did not share in the Augustan propensity to display his talents in the various poetic genres as well as in prose. His fame derived wholly from his essays, and almost entirely from those he published as a collection in one book, the Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, which appeared in 1711, two years before his death.
The Characteristicks represents Shaftesbury’s gathering of essays he had written over the previous decade into a coherent and purposeful single text. At least one essay had appeared without his authorization, and his fastidiousness as a stylist compelled him to pay attention to the text of what must have occurred to him would be the ultimate collected edition of his writings. Besides such stylistic emendations, he restructured his texts to some degree, to enhance the clarity or to reduce the formality of his discourse. To complete the book, he wrote and published for the first time a long essay he called “Miscellaneous Reflections” on the earlier essays. Though he continued to write after publishing this book, and these and other pieces appeared posthumously, the Characteristicks had already established Shaftesbury’s influence and reputation in England and on the continent. Eleven editions of the book had been published in England alone by 1790.
To his own and subsequent generations, Shaftesbury was known primarily as a philosopher. Though they cannot be said to originate with him, his ideas about the perfection of the universe, the innate goodness of man, and the natural human endowment with moral sentiment gave wide popular circulation to basic deistic treatments of the universe and the nature of man; the many writers and theologians who attacked him did so to get at these ideas. Shaftesbury’s notions about poetry, music, architecture, and taste, while not presented systematically in his essays, also made him a contributor to the aesthetic discourse of his age. His comments on enthusiasm, which he disdained in religious behavior but admired as a constituent of the poetic imagination, helped to awaken English poets to the beauties of nature and the significance of the sublime.
As an essayist, Shaftesbury represents well the ease and grace of early 18th-century English prose. Though conservative in his taste and rather doctrinaire about the Rules, Shaftesbury cultivated a clear, relaxed style of discourse based (as he says in his “Advice to an Author”) on the conversation of “good company, and people of the better sort.” The Characteristicks presents blocks of argument developed with such leisure and rhetorical restraint that one is not aware of reading argumentation at all. Through conjunctive elements and bits of narrative he controls transitions of thought easily, and varies masterfully the levels of usage in his address to explicit or imagined readers. Consider the stylistic control of this passage from his essay on “enthusiasm”:
We have a notable instance of this freedom in one of our sacred authors. As patient as Job is said to be, it cannot be denied that he makes bold enough with God, and takes his providence roundly to task. His friends, indeed, plead hard with him, and use all arguments, right or wrong, to patch up objections, and set the affairs of providence upon an equal foot. They make a merit of saying all the good they can of God, at the very stretch of their reason, and sometimes quite beyond it. But this, in Job’s opinion, is flattering God, accepting of God’s person, and even mocking him. And no wonder.
At its best, Shaftesbury’s prose flows easily along a reader’s consciousness with a quality which may perhaps best be called (to use one of his favorite terms) “serenity”: “Whoever has been an observer of action and grace in human bodies must of necessity have discovered the great difference in this respect between such persons as have been taught by nature only, and such as by reflection and the assistance of art have learnt to form those motions which on experience are found the easiest and most natural” (“Advice to an Author”). Such passages—particularly those articulating ideas about virtue and the goodness of the Divine Being—awakened wide admiration for Shaftesbury in his own age (except in the realm of theological controversy), at home and abroad. Both Diderot and Herder read him with pleasure, and Montesquieu named him, with Plato, Malebranche, and Montaigne, among “the four great poets.” The tough-minded Elizabeth Carter spoke of rising from the Characteristicks with her mind full of “beauties, and love, and harmony, but all of a divine and mysterious nature.”
In the 19th and 20th centuries, Shaftesbury’s reputation has waned—along with the subject matter, it must be said, with which his essays are principally concerned. Readers who discover the Characteristicks, however, now some three centuries after the first publication, are likely to agree (at the least) with John M.Robertson’s assessment in the introduction to his edition of these essays (1900), still the only complete modern edition of the work: “Given fair play, the Characteristicks can still hold their own with most of
the books with which they competed in their generation.”
Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury. Born 26 February 1671 at Wimborne St. Giles, Dorset. Studied privately in Dorset, under the influence of John Locke;
Winchester College, 1682–84; privately in London, from 1686. Toured the continent, 1687–89, then returned to look after his family and estate. Whig Member of Parliament for Poole, 1695. Suffered from asthma for the rest of his life. Stayed in Rotterdam, 1697, 1698–99, and 1703–04. Lived in Chelsea, south London, 1699–1709. Married Jane Ewer, 1709: one son. Moved to Reigate, 1709; moved to Italy for his health, 1711. Died in
Chiaia, near Naples, 15 February 1713.
Essays and Related Prose
Inquiry Concerning Virtue in Two Discourses, 1699; facsimile reprint, 1991; edited by David Walford, 1977
A Letter Concerning Enthusiasm, 1708; edited by Richard B.Wolf, 1988
Sensus Communis: An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour, 1709
Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, 3 vols., 1711; revised edition, 1714;
edited by John M.Robertson, 2 vols., 1900, reprinted 1964
Other writings: works on philosophy and moral behavior, and correspondence.
Collected works edition: Complete Works, Selected Letters and Posthumous Writings (in English, and translated into German), edited by Gerd Hemmerich and Wolfram Benda, 6 vols., 1981–93 (in progress).
Aldridge, Alfred Owen, “Shaftesbury and the Deist Manifesto,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 41 (1951): 197–385
Crane, R.S., “Suggestions Toward a Genealogy of the Man of Feeling,” Journal of English Literary History 1 (1934):205–30
Markley, R., “Style as Philosophical Structure: The Contexts of Shaftesbury’s Characteristicks,” in The Philosopher as Writer: The Eighteenth Century, edited by Robert Ginsberg, Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania: Susquehanna University Press, 1987
Moore, C.A., “The Return to Nature in the English Poetry of the Eighteenth Century,” Studies in Philology 14 (1917):157–86
Tuveson, Ernest L., “The Importance of Shaftesbury,” Journal of English Literary History 20 (1953):267–99
Tuveson, Ernest L., “Shaftesbury and the Age of Sensibility,” in Studies in Criticism and Aesthetics, 1660–1800: Essays in Honor of Samuel Holt Monk, edited by Howard Anderson and John S. Shea, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1967
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