1902 Encyclopedia > Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury

Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury
English philosopher
(1671-1713)




ANTHONY ASHLEY COOPER, THIRD EARLOF SHAFTESBURY (1671-1713), was born at Exeter House in London, | February 26, 1670-71. He was grandson of the first and son of the second earl. His mother was Lady Dorothy | Manners, daughter of John, earl of Rutland. According to a curious story, told by the third earl himself, the marriage between his father and mother was negotiated by John Locke, who was a trusted friend of the first earl. The second Lord Shaftesbury appears to have been a poor creature, both physically and mentally,—" born a shapeless lump, like anarchy," according to what is doubtless the exaggerated metaphor of Dryden. At the early age of three his son was made over to the formal guardianship of his grandfather. Locke, who in his capacity of medical attendant to the Ashley household had already assisted in bringing the boy into the world, though not his instructor, was entrusted with the superintendence of his education. This was conducted according to the principles enunciated in Locke's Thoughts concerning Education, and the method of teaching Latin and Greek conversationally was pursued with such success by his instructress, Mrs Elizabeth Birch, that at the age of eleven, it is said, young Ashley could read both languages with ease. In November 1683, some months after the death of the first earl, his father entered him at Winchester as a warden's boarder. Being a shy, retiring boy, and being moreover constantly taunted with the opinions and fate of his grandfather, he appears to have been rendered miserable by the rough manners of his schoolfellows, and to have left Winchester in 1686 for a course of foreign travel. By this change he was brought into direct contact with those artistic and classical associations which afterwards exercised so marked an influence on his character and opinions. On his travels he did not, we are told by the fourth earl, " greatly seek the conversation of other English young gentlemen on their travels," but rather that of their tutors, with whom lie could converse on congenial topics.

In 1689, the year after the Revolution, Lord Ashley returned to England, and for nearly five years from this time he appears to have led a quiet, uneventful, and studious life. There can be no doubt that the greater part of his attention was directed to the perusal of those classical authors, and to the attempt to realize the true spirit of that classical antiquity, for which he had conceived so ardent a passion. He had no intention, however, of becoming a recluse, or of permanently holding himself aloof from public life. Accordingly, he became a candidate for the borough of Poole, and was returned May 21, 1695. He soon distinguished himself by a speech, which excited great attention at the time, in support of the Bill for Begulating Trials in Cases of Treason, one provision of which was what seems to us the obviously reasonable one that a person indicted for treason or misprision of treason should be allowed the assistance of counsel. In connexion with this speech a story is told of Shaftesbury which is also told, though with less verisimilitude, of Halifax, that, being overcome by shyness, and unable to continue his speech, he simply said, before sitting down: " If I, sir, who rise only to speak my opinion on the bill now depending, am so confounded that I am unable to express the least of what I proposed to say, what must the condition of that man be who is pleading for his life without any assistance and under apprehensions of being deprived of it?" "The sudden turn of thought," says his son, the fourth earl, " pleased the House extremely, and, it is generally believed, carried a greater weight than any of the argu-ments which were offered in favour of the bill." But, though a Whig, alike by descent, by education, and by conviction, Ashley could by no means be depended on to give a party vote; he was always ready to support any propositions, from whatever quarter they came, that appeared to him to promote the liberty of the subject and the independence of parliament. Unfortunately, his health was so treacherous that, on the dissolution of July 1698, he was obliged to retire from parliamentary life. He suffered much from asthma, a complaint which was aggravated by the London smoke.

Lord Ashley now retired into Holland, where he became acquainted with Le Clerc, Bayle, Benjamin Furly, the English Quaker merchant, at whose house Locke had resided during his stay at Botterdam, and probably Limborch and the rest of the literary circle of which Locke had been a cherished and honoured member nine or ten years before. To Lord Ashley this society was probably far more congenial than his surroundings in England. Unrestrained conversation on the topics which most interested him—philosophy, politics, morals, religion —was at this time to be had in Holland with less danger and in greater abundance than in any other country in the world. To the period of this sojourn in Holland must probably be referred the surreptitious impression or publication of an imperfect edition of the Inquiry concern-ing Virtue, from a rough draught, sketched when he was only twenty years of age. This liberty was taken, during his absence, by Toland.

After an absence of over a twelvemonth, Ashley returned to England, and soon succeeded his father as earl of Shaftesbury. He took an active part, on the Whig side, in the general election of 1700-1, and again, with more success, in that of the autumn of 1701. It is said that William III. showed his appreciation of Shaftesbury's services on this latter occasion by offering him a secretary-ship of state, which, however, his declining health compelled him to decline. Had the king's life continued, Shaftesbury's influence at court would probably have been considerable. After the first few weeks of Anne's reign, Shaftesbury, who had been deprived of the vice-admiralty of Dorset, returned to his retired mode of life, but his letters to Furly show that he still retained a keen interest in politics. In August 1703 he again settled in Holland, in the air of which he seems, like Locke, to have had great faith. At Rotterdam he lived, he says in a letter to his steward Wheelock, at the rate of less than £200 a year, and yet had much " to dispose of and spend beyond convenient living." He returned to England, much improved in health, in August 1704. But, though he had received immediate benefit from his stay abroad, symptoms of consumption were constantly alarming him, and he gradually became a confirmed invalid. His occu-pations were now almost exclusively literary,' and from this time forward he was probably engaged in writing, completing, or revising the treatises which were afterwards included in the Characteristics. He still continued, how-ever, to take a warm interest in politics, both home and foreign, and especially in the war against France, of which he was an enthusiastic supporter.





Shaftesbury was nearly forty before he married, and even then he appears to have taken this step at the urgent instigation of his friends, mainly to supply a successor to the title. The object of his choice (or rather of his second choice, for an earlier project of marriage had shortly before fallen through) was a Miss Jane Ewer, the daughter of a gentleman in Hertfordshire. The marriage took place in the autumn of 1709, and on February 9, 1710-11, was born at his house at Reigate, in Surrey, his only child and heir, the fourth earl, to whose manuscript accounts we are in great part indebted for the details of his father's life. The match appears to have been a happy one, though Shaftesbury neither had nor pretended to have much sentiment on the subject of married life.

With the exception of a Preface to the Sermons of Dr Whichcote, one of the Cambridge Platonists or latitudinarians, published in 1698, Shaftesbury appears to have printed nothing himself till the year 1708. About this time the French prophets, as they were called, attracted much attention by the extravagances and follies of which they were guilty. Various remedies of the repressive kind were proposed, but Shaftesbury maintained that their fanaticism was best encountered by '"raillery" and "good-humour." In support of this view he wrote a letter to Lord Somers, dated September 1707 which was published anonymously in the following year, and provoked several replies. In May 1709 he returned to the subject, and printed another letter, entitled Sensus Communis, an Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour. In the same year he also published The Moralists, a Philosophical Rhapsody, and in the following year Soliloquy, or Advice to an Author. None of these pieces seem to have been printed either with his name or his initials. In 1711 appeared the Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, in three volumes, also without any name or initials on the title-page, and without even the name of a printer. These three handsome volumes contain in addition to the four treatises already mentioned, Miscellaneous Reflections, now first printed, and the Inquiry concerning Virtue or Merit, described as "formerly printed from an imperfect copy, now corrected and published intire," and as "printed first in the year 1699."

The declining state of Shaftesbury's nealth rendered it necessary for him to seek a warmer climate, and in July 1711 he set out for Italy. He settled at Naples in November, and lived there considerably over a year. His principal occupation at this time must have consisted in preparing for the press a second edition of the Characteristics, which appeared in 1713, soon after his death. The copy, most carefully corrected in his own handwriting, is still preserved in the British Museum. He was also engaged, during his stay at Naples, in writing the little treatise (afterwards included in the Characteristics) entitled A Notion of the Historical Draught or Tablature of the Judgment of Hercules, and the letter concerning Design. A little before his death he had also formed a scheme of writing a Discourse on the Arts of Painting, Sculpture, Etching, etc., but when he died he had made but little progress with it. "Medals, and pictures, and antiquities," he writes to Furly, "are our chief entertain-ments here." His conversation was with men of art and science, " the virtuosi of this place."

The events preceding the peace of Utrecht, which he regarded as preparing the way for a base desertion of our allies, greatly troubled the last months of Shaftesbury's life. He did not, however, live to see the actual conclusion of the treaty (March 31, 1713), as he died the month before, February 4, 1712-13. At the time of his death he had not yet completed his forty-second year. His body was brought back by sea to England and buried at St Giles's, the family seat in Dorsetshire. Though he died so long ago, and was one of the earliest of the English moralists, his descendant, the celebrated philanthropist, who died so recently as 1885, was only his great-grandson.

Shaftesbury's amiability of character seems to have been one of his principal characteristics. All accounts concur in representing him as full of sweetness and kindliness towards others, though he may sometimes himself have been the victim of melancholy and despondency. Like Locke he had a peculiar pleasure in bringing forward young men. Amongst these may be especially mentioned Michael Ainsworth, a native of Wimborne St Giles, the young man who was the recipient of the Letters addressed to a student at the university, and who was maintained by him at University College, Oxford. The keen interest which Shaftesbury took in his studies, and the desire that he should be specially fitted for the profession which he had selected, that of a clergyman of the Church of England, are marked features of the letters. Other proteges were Crell, a young Pole, the two young Furlys, and Harry Wilkinson, a boy who was sent into Furly's office at Rotterdam, and to whom several of the letters still extant in the Record Office are addressed.

In the popular mind, Shaftesbury is generally regarded as a writer hostile to religion. But, however short his orthodoxy might fall if tried by the standards of any particular church, his temperament was pre-eminently a religious one. This fact is shown conspicuously in his letters, where he had no reason for making any secret of his opinions. The belief in a God, all-wise, all-just, and all-merciful, governing the world providentially for the best, pervades all his works, his correspondence, and his life. Nor had he any wish to undermine established beliefs, except where he conceived that they conflicted with a truer religion and a purer morality.

To the public ordinances of the church he scrupulously conformed. But, unfortunately, there were many things both in the teaching and the practice of the ecclesiastics of that day which were calculated to repel men of sober judgment and high principle. These evil tendencies in the popular presentation of Christianity undoubtedly begot in Shaftesbury's mind a certain amount of repug-nance and contempt to some of the doctrines of Christianity itself; and, cultivating, almost of set purpose, his sense of the ridiculous, he was too apt to assume towards such doctrines and their teachers a tone of raillery and banter, which sometimes even approaches grimace.

But, whatever might be Shaftesbury's speculative opinions or his mode of expressing them, all witnesses concur in bearing testimony to the elevation and purity of his life and aims. Molesworth, who had no special reason for flattering him, speaks of him as "possessing right reason in a more eminent degree than the rest of man-kind," and of his character as " the highest that the per-fection of human nature is capable of." Even Warburton, in his dedication of the Divine Legation to the free-thinkers, is compelled to "own <hat this lord had many excellent qualities, both as a man and a writer. He was temperate, chaste, honest, and a lover of his country."

As an earnest student, an ardent lover of liberty, an enthusiast in the cause of virtue, and a man of unblemished life and untiring beneficence, Shaftesbury probably had no superior in his generation. His character and pursuits are the more remarkable, considering the rank of life in which he was born and the circumstances under which he was brought up. In many respects he reminds us of the impe-rial philosopher Marcus Aurelius, whose works we know him to have studied with avidity, and whose influence is unmistakably stamped upon his own productions.

Most of Shaftesbury's writings have been already mentioned. In addition to these there have been published fourteen letters from Shaftesbury to Molesworth, edited by Toland in 1721 ; some letters to Benjamin Furly, his sons, and his clerk Harry Wilkinson, included in a volume entitled Original Letters of Locke, Sidney, and Shaftesbury, which was published by Mr T. Forster in 1830, and again in an enlarged form in 1847 ; three letters, written respectively to Stringer, Lord Oxford, and Lord Godolphin, which appeared, for the first time, in the General Dictionary; and lastly a letter to Le Clerc, in his recollections of Locke, first published in Notes and Queries, Feb. 8, 1851. The Letters to a Young Man at the University [Michael Ainsworth], already mentioned, were first published in 1716, it being uncertain by whom. The Letter on Design was first published in the edition of the Characteristics issued in 1732. Besides the published writ-ings, there are still to be found several memoranda, letters, rough drafts, &c, in the Shaftesbury papers in the Record Office.

Shaftesbury, it is plain, took great pains in the elaboration of his style, and he succeeded so far as to make his meaning trans-parent. The thought is always clear. But, on the other hand, he did not equally succeed in attaining elegance, an object at which he seems equally to have aimed. There is a curious affectation about his style,—a falsetto note,—which, notwithstanding all his efforts to please, is often irritating to the reader. Its main characteristic is perhaps best hit off by Charles Lamb when he calls it "genteel." He poses too much as aline gentleman, and is so anxious not to be taken for a pedant of the vulgar scholastic kind that he falls into the hardly more attractive pedantry of the aesthete and virtuoso. But, notwithstanding these defects, he possesses the great merits of being easily read and easily under-stood. Hence, probably, the wide popularity which his works enjoyed in the last century ; and hence, undoubtedly, the agreeable feeling with which, notwithstanding all their false taste and their tiresome digressions, they still impress the modern reader.

It is mainly as a moralist that Shaftesbury has a claim to a place in the history of literature and philosophy. Like most of the ethical writers of his time his first impulse to speculation, or at least to publication, seems to have been derived from a desire to combat the still fashionable paradoxes of Hobbes, and to arrest the progress of doctrines at which society still continued to be seriously alarmed. Hence it became his main concern to assert the reality and independence of our benevolent affections, and to show that these and the acts which result from them are what mainly elicit the feeling of moral approbation. This work he appears to have conceived it his special mission to undertake, not as a "pedant" or a " Schoolman," but as a "man of taste." It was probably in accordance with this conception that he refrained from using the language about the "laws of nature" which had hitherto been current in ethical treatises, and that he preferred to represent morality as a matter of "taste," "sentiment," or "affection," rather than as dictated simply by reason.





The leading ideas in Shaftesbury's ethical theory are those of a system, or the relation of parts to a whole, benevolence, moral beauty, and a moral sense.

The individual man himself is a system consisting of various appetites, passions, and affections, all united under the supreme control of reason. Of this system the parts are so nicely adjusted to each other that any disarrangement or disproportion, however slight, may mar and disfigure the whole. " Whoever is in the least versed in this moral kind of architecture will find the inward fabric so adjusted, and the whole so nicely built, that the barely extending of a single passion a little too far, or the continuance of it too long, is able to bring irrecoverable ruin and misery."

But morality and human nature cannot be adequately studied in the system of the individual man. There are parts in that system, both mental and bodily, which have an evident respect to something outside it. Neither man nor any other animal, though ever so complete a system of parts as to all within, can be allowed in the same manner complete as to all without; lie must be considered as having a further relation abroad to the system of his kind. So even this system of his kind to the animal system; this to the world (our earth); and this again to the bigger world and to the universe. No being can properly be called good or ill except in reference to the systems of which he is a part. " When, in general, all the affections or passions are suited to the public good or end of the species, then is the natural temper entirely good. If, on the contrary, any requisite passion be wanting, or if there be any one supernumerary or weak, or anywise disserviceable or contrary to that main end, then is the natural temper, and consequently the creature himself, in some measure corrupt and ill." Hence it follows that benevolence, if not the sole, is at least the principal moral virtue.

The idea of a moral and social system, the parts of which are in a constant proportion to each other, and so nicely adjusted that the slightest disarrangement would mar the unity of design, almost necessarily suggests an analogy between morality and art. As the beauty of an external object consists in a certain pro-portion between its parts, or in a certain harmony of colouring, sc the beauty of a virtuous character consists in a certain proportion between the various affections, or in a certain harmonious blending of the various springs of action as they contribute to promote the great ends of our being. And similarly, we may suppose, the beauty of a virtuous action would be explained as consisting in its relation to the virtuous character in which it has its source, or to the other acts of a virtuous life, or to the general condition of a virtuous state of society. This analogy between art and morality, or, as it may otherwise be expressed, between the beauty of external objects and the beauty of actions or characters, is never long absent from Shaftesbury's mind. Closely connected with it is the idea that morals, no less than art, is a matter of taste or relish.

This idea leads us to the last of the distinctive features in Shaftesbury's ethical philosophy. The faculty which approves of right and disapproves of wrong actions is with him a sense, and more than once he anticipates Hutcheson by calling it a "moral sense," an expression, indeed, which he may be said to have contributed to the English language. This '' sense of right and wrong" is " as natural to us as natural affection itself," and "a first principle in our constitution and make." At the same time it includes a certain amount of judgment or reflexion, that is to say, a rational element. Shaftesbury's doctrine on this head may, perhaps, briefly be summed up as follows. Each man has from the first a natural sense of right and wrong, a " moral sense " or " conscience " (all which expressions he employs as synonymous). This sense is, in its natural condition, wholly or mainly emotional, but, as it admits of constant education and improvement, the rational or reflective element in it gradually becomes more pro-minent. Its decisions are generally described as if they were immediate, and, beyond the occasional recognition of a rational as well as an emotional element, little or no attempt is made to analyse it. It was reserved for Hume properly to discriminate between these two elements, and to point out that, while the feeling of moral approbation or disapprobation is instantaneous, the moral judgment which precedes it is often the result of an intellectual process of considerable length and perplexity.

It may be sufficient to supplement this brief survey of Shaftesbury's system by a still briefer summary of the answers, so far as they can be collected from his works, which he would have given to the principal questions of ethics as they are now usually pro-pounded. His answers to these questions are, as it appears to the present writer, that our moral ideas—the distinctions of virtue and vice, right and wrong—are to be found in the very make and constitution of our nature ; that morality is independent of theology, actions being denominated good or just, not by the arbitrary will of God (as had recently been maintained by Locke), but in virtue of some quality existing in themselves ; that the ultimate test of a right action is its tendency to promote the general welfare ; that we have a peculiar organ, the moral sense, analogous to taste in art, by which wo discriminate between characters and actions as good or bad; that the higher natures among mankind are impelled to right action, and deterred from wrong action, partly by the moral sense, partly by the love and reverence of a just and good God, while the lower natures are mainly influenced by the opinions of others, or by the hope of reward and the fear of punishment; that appetite and reason both concur in the determination of action ; lastly, that the question whether the will does or does not possess any freedom of choice, irrespectively of character and motives, is one (at least so we may gather from Shaftesbury's reticence) which it does not concern the moralist to solve.

The close resemblance of Hutcheson's speculations to those of Shaftesbury, amounting sometimes to identity, will be apparent on reference to the account of that philosopher (vol. xii. pp. 409-11). Next to Hobbes, the moralist with whose views Shaftesbury's stand in most direct antagonism is Locke, who not only maintained that moral distinctions depend solely on the arbitrary will of God, but that the sanctions by which they are mainly enforced are the hope of future reward and the fear of future punishment. "By the fault is the rod, and with the transgression a fire ready to punish it." Shaftesbury's was in reality, though perhaps not in appearance, a more truly religious philosophy. For with him the incentives to well-doing and the deterrents from evil-doing are to be sought not solely, or even mainly, in the opinion of man-kind, or in the rewards and punishments of the magistrate, or in the hopes and terrors of a future world, but in the answer of a good conscience approving virtue and disapproving vice, and in the love of a God, who, by His infinite wisdom and His all-embracing beneficence, is worthy of the love and admiration of His creatures.

The main object of the Moralists is to propound a system of natural theology, and to vindicate, so far as natural religion is concerned, the ways of God to man. The articles of Shaftesbury's religious creed were few and simple, but these he entertained with a conviction amounting to enthusiasm. They may briefly be summed up as a belief in one God whose most characteristic attribute is universal benevolence, in the moral government of the universe, and in a future state of man making up for the imperfections and repairing the inequalities of the present life. Shaftesbury is emphatically an optimist, but there is a passage in the Moralists (pt. ii. sect. 4) which would lead us to suppose that he regarded matter as au indiflerent principle, co-existent and co-eternal with God, limiting His operations, and the cause of the evil and imperfection which, notwithstanding the benevolence of the Creator, is still to be found in His work. If this view of his optimism be correct, Shaftesbury, as Mill says of Leibnitz, must be regarded as maintaining, not that this is the best of all imaginable but only of all possible worlds. This brief notice of Shaftesbury's scheme of natural religion would be conspicuously imperfect unless it were added that it is popularized in Pope's Essay on Man, several lines of which, especially ot the first epistle, are simply statements from the Moralists done into verse. Whether, however, these were taken immediately by Pope from Shaftesbury, or whether they came to him through the papers which Boling-broke had prepared for his use, we have no means of determining.

Shaftesbury's philosophical activity was confined to ethics, aesthetics, and religion. For metaphysics, properly so called, and even psychology, except so far as it afforded a basis for ethics, he evidently had no taste. Logic he probably despised as merely an instrument of pedants,—a judgment for which, in his day, and especially at the universities, there was only too much ground.

The influence of Shaftesbury's writings was very considerable both at home and abroad. His ethical system was reproduced, though in a more precise and philosophical form, by Hutcheson, and from him descended, with certain variations, to Hume and Adam Smith. Nor was it without its effect even on the specula-tions of Butler. Of the so-called deists Shaftesbury was probably the most important, as he was certainly the most plausible and the most respectable. No sooner had the Characteristics appeared than they were welcomed, in terms of warm commendation, by Le Clerc and Leibnitz. In 1745 Diderot adapted or reproduced the Inquiry concerning Virtue in wdiat was afterwards known as his Essai sur le M&rite et la Vertu. In 1769 a French translation of the whole of Shaftesbury's works, including the Letters, was published at Geneva. Translations of separate treatises into German began to be made in 1738, and in 1776-1779 there appeared a complete German translation of the Characteristics. Hermann Hettner says that not only Leibnitz, Voltaire, and Diderot, but Lessing, Mendelssohn, Wieland, and Herder, drew the most stimulating nutriment from Shaftesbury. "His charms," he adds, " are ever fresh. A new-born Hellenism, or divine cultus of beauty presented itself before his inspired soul." Herder is especially eulogistic. In the Aclrastea he pronounces the Moralists to be a composition in form well-nigh worthy of Grecian antiquity, and in its contents almost superior to it. The interest felt by Ger-man literary men in Shaftesbury has been recently revived by the publication of two excellent monographs, one dealing with him mainly from the theological side by Dr Gideon Spicker (Freiburg in Baden, 1872), the other dealing with him mainly from the philosophical side by Dr Georg von Gizyeki (Leipsic, 1876).

In the foregoing; article the writer has made free use of his monograph, on Shaftesbury and Hutcheson in the series of "English philosophers" (1882), published by Sampson Low & Co. In that woik he was able largely to sup- plement the printed materials for the Life by extracts from the Shaftesbury papers now deposited in the Record Office. These include, besides many letters and memoranda, two lives of him, composed by his son, the fourth earl, one of which is evidently the original, though it is by no means always closely followed, of the Life contributed by Dr Birch to the General Dictionary. For a description and criticism of Shaftesbury's philosophy reference may also he made to Mackintosh's Progress of Ethical Philosophy, Whewell's History of Moral Philosophy in England, Jouffroy's Introduction to Ethics (Channing's translation), Leslie Stephen's English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, Martineau's Types of Ethical Theory, and the article ETHICS in the present work (vol. viii. pp. 599, 600). For his relation to the religious and theological controversies of his day, see, in addition to some of the above works, Leland's View of the Principal Deistical Writers, Lechler's Geschichte des Englischen Deismus, Hunt's Religious Thought in England, Abbey and Overton's English Church in the Eighteenth Century, and A. S. Farrar's Bampton Lectures. (T. F.)



The above article was written by: Rev. Thomas Fowler, M.A., President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford.




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