Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of

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Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of (1671-1713) English Philosopher.

Anthony Ashley Cooper, later (1699) third Earl of Shaftesbury, was born in London on 26 February, 1671. His father was a sickly and ineffectual man, so he was cared for by his grandfather, the first Earl of Shaftesbury. The first Earl was a powerful Whig politician, plotter against James II (who was later overthrown in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688), and close friend of the philosopher John Locke. Locke was assigned to supervise the grandson’s education, which emphasized classical languages and learning. While Shaftesbury showed great affection for his tutor, he later attacked Locke’s philosophical views.

When his grandfather died in exile in 1683, Shaftesbury was sent to Winchester school. After several miserable years there, Shaftesbury took a Grand Tour of Europe, where he developed an interest in art and music. Returning to England, he spent several years in private study of the classics, and ran for Parliament in 1695. Shaftesbury (then Lord Ashley) served as an independent Whig until he retired in 1698. The next year his father died and he assumed the title of third Earl of Shaftesbury. He was an active participant in the House of Lords despite serious asthma, which was worsened by smog already present in London. He thus lived in the country, visiting London only when necessary.

Shaftesbury was led, both by interests and ill health, to prefer a literary life to a political one. A disciple published his Inquiry Concerning Virtue in 1699 while Shaftesbury was in Holland, but Shaftesbury suppressed that essay temporarily for further polishing. Shaftesbury’s Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions and Times (1711) collected together the Inquiry, four other essays and five collections of “Miscellaneous reflections on the preceding treatises.” As the title suggests, the Characteristics contained a mixture of pieces on a number of themes, linked by Shaftesbury’s concern with virtue, sociability, moderation and self-knowledge. He wrote for an educated but genteel audience, in a playful and varied style. Like Plato, he challenged his readers to discover his philosophical views and develop their own, through engagement with his works.

The two explicitly ethical treatises reflect the variability of his style. The Moralist, A Philosophical Rhapsody was a Socratic dialogue discussing the relationship between beauty and moral truth. As Leibniz himself noted, its optimistic theism is similar to Leibniz’s Theodicy which was published shortly afterwards but without direct influence. In sharp stylistic contrast was the earlier, Inquiry which Shaftesbury revised for inclusion in the Characteristics. This was easily his most influential work, as well as his most serious in style and subject matter. Shaftesbury rejected the view, which he ascribed to Locke, that God’s commands establish and justify ethical rules. As a follower of the Stoics, Shaftesbury denied that revealed religion was needed for moral guidance. Rather, he believed that human beings are participants in a great system, wherein their virtuous actions (those which tend to the public good), also tend to their personal happiness. Virtue is, to a large extent, its own reward. Moreover, contrary to both Hobbes and Locke in their political writings, Shaftesbury thought it impossible to imagine humans in a pre-social state of nature. Rather, we are naturally made to live together, valuing friendship above personal gain. Humans are provided with a moral sense, which reflects upon and approves of virtuous motives. While the moral sense is subject to improvement and development, it is innate like our aesthetic tendency which automatically approves of beautiful things. Shaftesbury finds the motive for moral goodness in our desire to approve of ourselves, which is only possible when we behave virtuously.

Shafesbury’s “Letter concerning Enthusiasm” was probably his most controversial work. Shaftesbury argued that mockery was the appropriate response to religious fanaticism. If a novel religious belief is true it will survive being laughed at, while if false it will be destroyed better by jokes than by punishment. These doctrines are further defended in “Sensus communis, an essay on the freedom of wit and humor.” Shaftesbury upholds his tolerant view of religion, and clearly shows that good humor is incompatible with too serious an attitude to religion. He prefers men of social and moral sophistication who display politeness in its many forms. This essay also includes arguments for the natural benevolence of human beings, rejecting the egoism of Thomas Hobbes.

Shaftesbury’s ethical and literary/cultural interests combine in “Soliloquy, or Advice to an Author.” While arguing for the importance of self-knowledge (influenced presumably by his interest in Marcus Aurelius’s stoical reflections), he notes how challenging it can be to give moral advice. Shaftesbury, who supported a number of poor followers and wrote to them frequently, had noticed how difficult it is to give advice without badgering the recipient or merely praising oneself. A collection of his letters to Michael Ainsworth, Several Letters of a Noble Lord to a Young Man at the University (1716), show that Shaftesbury was a thoughtful and generous patron.

He was married in 1709, and moved to Naples in 1711 in hopes of preserving his fragile health. He died in February 1713.

He greatly influenced two later British ethicists, the Scottish Hutcheson, Francis who developed Shaftesbury’s doctrine of the moral sense, and the Anglican Bishop Butler, Joseph who shared Shaftesbury’s distain for egoism. Diderot, Denis, the French encyclopedist, Pope, Alexander and Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de also wrote works inspired by Shaftesbury.

Further Reading:

D. J. Den Uyl, “Shaftesbury and the Modern Problem of Virtue,” Social Philosophy and Policy 15 (1998): 275-316.

M. B. Gill, “Shaftesbury’s Two Accounts of the Reason to be Virtuous,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 38.4 (2000): 529-548.


Nicholas Hunt-Bull

Southern New Hampshire University

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