Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
Critical Introduction by E. K. Chambers
Lord Shaftesbury (16711713)
[Anthony Ashley Cooper, third Earl of Shaftesbury, was born in 1671. His education was superintended by Locke, which probably accounts for his reaction from the Lockian philosophy. He was at Winchester from 1683 to 1686. He sat for a time in Parliament, but for the most part he lived the life of a student in ill-health. He was a traveller; he visited Holland, and made the acquaintance of Bayle, and in 1708 he began to publish pamphlets, mainly on ethical subjects. The most important of these is the Enquiry concerning Virtue or Merit. They are reprinted in a collection entitled Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, and Times (1711). In 1709 he married, and in 1712 he died. A fine edition of the Characteristics was printed by Baskerville in 1773, and the first volume has been more recently edited by Mr. Hatch. Two or three specimens of his correspondence have also been printed; the most interesting is the Letters written by a Noble Lord to a Young Man at the University (1716). The student may consult Professor Fowlers Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, Professor Sidgwicks History of Ethics, and Mr. Leslie Stephens English Thought in the Eighteenth Century.]
IN the essentials of their philosophical position, Shaftesbury and Henry More are at one. Both represent the refusal, the characteristically English refusal, to accept the formulas of Hobbes and Locke as the last word on things human and divine. Both point to the unexplored fields, the unexplained residuum of the spiritual life, which those formulas fail to touch. Yet in all else they are each others antipodes. More is eminently of the seventeenth centurypoet, dreamer, Platonist, abhorrent of system, and ever hunting the shy, elusive fringes of truth, he presents a world full of mystery and colour, rich with gracious half-lights and reverent shadows. Not so Shaftesbury: sceptical where More is credulous, clear where More is vague, he wields for imagination the dry light of analysis, and champions the spiritual in a tone that robs it of its spirituality. He is one of the first embodiments of the eighteenth century spirit in speculation, and has all the merits and most of the defects which we habitually associate with that spirit.
He writes in a style which is consummately easy and lucid. There are none of those obscurities and experimental reaches of thought which in other thinkers one sometimes finds so puzzling and so suggestive; his meaning may not be very profound, but it is at least expressed for the better understanding of the plain man. He brings into English prose an order and a clearness of which it was beginning to stand in some need. The worst that can be said of him is that he is terribly affectedgenteel was Charles Lambs epithet. He is not always in buckram; he will unbend to you; but all the same his treatises invariably smack of the superior person, the man of birth, debarred by circumstances from his natural pursuit of politics, and condescending to while away a part of his too abundant leisure in unravelling some niceties of the intellect. Unwilling to appear a pedant, he falls into the opposite vices of desultoriness and superficiality.
As a thinker Shaftesbury made definite and prominent an important principle of moralsthat man is not a solitary unit, to be treated in vacuo as a self-contained whole; but rather a centre of forces in a complex society, dependent on others at every turn, with desires and modes of conduct inextricably entangled with theirs. Or, to use a phraseology nearer his own, Shaftesbury taught that mans benevolent impulses are as fundamental and natural, as much a part of man himself, as those which are self-regarding: and that an ethical scheme which takes into account the one and neglects the other must needs be one-sided and incomplete. He struck a real blot in the reasoning of his predecessors, and laid down the lines on which English psychological ethics were to proceed for some time to come.
Shaftesburys moral doctrine is positive enough, but he had his negative side also. The element of analysis, of criticism, in him led him into the camp of the unorthodox, and he ranks among the able, if transient, school of English Deists. Hence his influence over French thought, as French thought culminated in the worship of the Supreme Reason; while he is at one with Voltaire, as well as with certain brilliant writers, both French and English, of our own day, in finding the true solvent of superstition and fanaticism, not in persecution, but in humour.