Third Earl of Shaftesbury

(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Shaftesbury emphasized common sense as opposed to logical systems and introduced the theory of the moral sense as an influential element of ethical theory. Although he drew on numerous traditions in philosophy, his work demonstrates a debt to Plato in both form and substance.

Early Life

Anthony Ashley Cooper, third earl of Shaftesbury, was born into a prominent noble family. At the time of his birth, his grandfather, the first earl of Shaftesbury, towered in the forefront of English politics as a champion of liberty and an advocate of Parliamentary power. He was to become an important founder of the Whig Party and a contributor to the development of the two-party system. Because of his son’s ill health and frailty, he became his grandson’s guardian and oversaw the boy’s early education, until the age of eleven. The first earl’s political activity placed him in opposition to King Charles II, and to escape a charge of treason, he was forced to flee to Holland, where he died in 1683. Afterward, Anthony’s father, the second earl, who suffered from an incurable malady that left him an invalid, assumed responsibility for his son.

Anthony’s early education followed the principles of his grandfather’s secretary, philosopher John Locke, who selected a young woman named Elizabeth Birch as his tutor. Known for her ability in Latin and Greek, she enabled her pupil to master these languages by the age of eleven. Evidence suggests that, even from an early age, classical literature and philosophy were congenial to the young earl’s temperament. Following the death of Anthony’s grandfather, Anthony’s father sent him to a preparatory school, Winchester College, where schoolmates taunted him about his grandfather’s Whig politics. Before completing his studies, he left Winchester to take a three-year grand tour of Europe, accompanied by a tutor and his lifelong friend, Sir John Cropley. They traveled to France, Italy, Bohemia, Austria, and Germany before returning to England in 1689. Following his return to England, he devoted an additional five years to his studies.

Life’s Work

In 1695, he was elected to the House of Commons, in which he served three years. In Parliament, he remained a loyal Whig, voting for measures that would extend the liberty of the king’s subjects, but his brief career was not distinguished, largely because of his shy and reticent nature. In 1698, hoping to improve his frail health, he left for Rotterdam, Holland, where Locke had earlier lived. In the liberal atmosphere of Rotterdam, Anthony conversed with learned men, both Dutch and English, and continued his study of the classics. The extensive library of his friend, merchant Benjamin Furly, enabled him to continue his studies.

In November, 1699, upon the death of his father, he inherited his title and was placed in charge of large estates. He spent two years in the House of Lords, but the polluted London air aggravated his chronic asthma, so he retired from public life and left London in 1702. He devoted himself primarily to learning, art, managing his properties, and corresponding and conversing with friends. It is often noted that he retired from public life to devote himself to other pursuits because of his frail health, but it is equally noteworthy that his retirement coincided with the accession of Queen Anne and the return to power of the Tory Party that he opposed. His voluminous correspondence indicates that he spent much effort guiding promising young men in their studies and careers and taking care of his interests in England.

His retirement from public life did not offer him much comfort, because after 1704, he was in chronically bad health. The exact cause remains unknown, but his letters refer to asthma, colds, and recurring fevers; it seems likely that he suffered from tuberculosis. During 1703 and 1704, he again lived for a year in Holland, but afterward he resided in England until 1711. There, he lived in numerous places—at his country estate Wimborne St. Giles in Dorsetshire; at Chelsea and Reigate, where he owned houses; and at the houses of friends. His frequent relocations were often motivated by efforts to improve his health.

In 1709, Shaftesbury married Jane Ewer, the daughter of Thomas Ewer, a country gentleman of Hertfordshire. Their union produced one son, also named Anthony Ashley Cooper, who was to become the fourth earl. In 1711, accompanied by Lady Shaftesbury and their servants, he left England for Europe to seek a more favorable climate. He settled in Naples, but after fifteen months, he died there in 1713. Near the end of his life, too enervated to write, he had others copy his letters from dictation.

Shaftesbury’s early publications were for the most part anonymous. In 1698, he wrote a preface to an edition of sermons by Benjamin Whichcote, a moderate clergyman associated with the Cambridge Platonists. In his preface, Shaftesbury observes that true virtue is not motivated by hope of future rewards or fear of punishments, a viewpoint indicative of the ethical cast of thought that formed a major theme of his writings.

His first important philosophical work, An Inquiry Concerning Virtue, appeared anonymously in an unauthorized edition in 1699. In it, he outlines his moral sense theory for the first time. A revised version appeared in the first edition of Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times.

In 1708, he published his A Letter Concerning Enthusiasm, also anonymously. The work was prompted by events of the early 1700’s. A splinter group of French Huguenots, known as Camisards, had adopted religious observances that included speaking in tongues and specific prophecies. Camisards who had settled in England predicted the imminent destruction of London by fire and set a specific date when one of their number would arise from the grave, a prophecy sufficiently specific to be easily discredited. Numerous Englishmen, unaccustomed to religious zeal so extreme, argued that the Camisards should be suppressed for their “enthusiasm.” In his pamphlet, Shaftesbury suggests that the proper antidote for excessive zeal is satire though raillery and ridicule. His solution, though moderate by comparison, opened him to the animosity of those who thought...

(The entire section is 2601 words.)