Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times Analysis

Anthony Ashley Cooper


Anthony Ashley Cooper, third earl of Shaftesbury, was a grandson of the famous Whig statesman of the same name. When his own career in politics was cut short by ill health, he turned his liberal and humanitarian efforts into literary channels, bringing to the task, besides a Puritan sense of moral responsibility, an aesthetic sensibility disciplined by the study of Greek and Roman models. His assorted essays, published under the title of Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, develop the ideal of humankind working out the purposes of God through moral and spiritual striving. He opposed the dehumanizing tendencies of the Cartesian and Newtonian philosophies, much in the same way that Socrates had opposed the naturalism of an earlier day. Like the famous Athenian, Shaftesbury taught his age that humankind should know itself.

Influences from Locke and Descartes

Philosopher John Locke, who was for many years secretary to the elder Shaftesbury, was tutor to the author of the Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times and may be credited with imparting to him a liberality of spirit and a general trust in reason. Shaftesbury, however, rejected Locke’s theory of ideas and the whole philosophical enterprise that, beginning with French philosopher René Descartes, pursued the ideal of certitude based on self-evident truths.

Far from putting a stop to skepticism, said Shaftesbury, the attempt initiated by Descartes to demonstrate the rationality of nature and morality played directly into the hands of sophists and triflers. Descartes’s statement of existence, Cogito, ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”), merely stated a verbal identity. It left untouched the real problems, “what constitutes the I” and “whether the I of this instant be the same with that of any instant preceding or to come.” One has nothing but memory, Shaftesbury said, to warrant one’s belief in one’s own identity, and if one wishes to play the metaphysical game, the question about the “successional I” must remain undecided: I take my being upon trust. Let others philosophise as they are able: I shall admire their strength when, upon this topic, they have refuted what able metaphysicians object and Pyrrhonists plead in their own behalf.

Shaftesbury noted that persons of breeding habitually respond to the pedantry of scholars with irony or “wit.” Appealing to this, Shaftesbury constructed a metaphysical theory of morals that showed, after the fashion of the Stoics and of Baruch Spinoza, that, if one accepts the theory of ideas, humanity’s well-being consists of learning to entertain only those thoughts that will not disappoint. This excursus into “dry philosophy” and the “rigid manner” of metaphysical disputes was, however, only half serious. It was useful, he said, to be able to argue in this way with “moon-blind wits . . . who renounce daylight and extinguish in a manner the bright visible outward world, by allowing us to know nothing beside what we can prove by strict and formal demonstration.” Also, in any case, “it is in a manner necessary for one who would usefully philosophise, to have a knowledge in this part of philosophy sufficient to satisfy him that there is no knowledge or wisdom to be learnt from it.”

Views on the Nature of Philosophy

Because it had become engrossed in introspection, Shaftesbury said, philosophy had fallen into ill repute among men of judgment. The philosopher was now what was formerly intended by the word “idiot”—a person who can attend to nothing except his or her own ideas. Persons concerned with bringing honest reason to bear on the affairs of life stood “to gain little by philosophy or deep speculations of any kind.” In a passage often appealed to during the eighteenth century, Shaftesbury said, “In the main, tis best to stick to common sense and go no farther. Men’s first thoughts in this matter [morals] are generally better than their second: their natural notions better than those refined by study or consultation with casuists.” He added,Some moral and philosophical truths there are withal so evident in themselves that twould be easier to imagine half mankind to have run mad, and joined precisely in one and the same species of folly, than to admit anything as truth which should be advanced against such natural knowledge, fundamental reason, and common sense.

Shaftesbury, however, was unwilling to give up the word “philosophy.” A person does not become a philosopher by writing and talking philosophy, he said. In reality, a philosopher is one who reasons concerning humankind’s main interests, and there are good and bad philosophers, separated as to whether they reason skillfully or unskillfully. In Shaftesbury’s hands, therefore, the bald contrast between philosophy and common sense was not a philistine repudiation of the life of reason but an attempt to vindicate a venerable tradition against the pretensions of “the new learning.”

Although he was committed to the political ideals of the rising bourgeoisie, Shaftesbury was alarmed at what appeared to be its want of sound moral foundations. For the greater glory of God, the followers of religious leaders Martin Luther and John Calvin repudiated nature, and for the greater glory of humankind, the followers of philosophers Francis Bacon and Descartes repudiated the past. To remedy these defects, Shaftesbury turned to the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle and to the living tradition of Renaissance Platonism. The aim of philosophy is “to learn what is just in society and beautiful in Nature and the order of the world,” and this with a view to enabling humanity to realize the highest ideal of being.

The Order of Nature

The starting point of Shaftesbury’s moral philosophy was the conception of nature as an orderly whole. The daylight philosopher, in contrast to those who fumble among ideas in the cellars of their own minds, recognizes with Plato that nature is a system in which each part is ordered with a view to the perfection of the whole. Shaftesbury was no less impressed than were his contemporaries by the regular motion of the heavens. Even more remarkable, in his opinion, was the microscopic life revealed by the new biology. The latter, in particular, suggested that the world is a self-sustaining whole composed of subordinate wholes, each having a life and nature of its own but so adjusted that while it pursues its private end, it also functions in the interest of the systems that comprehend it.

From this point of view, all excellence consists of following nature. Shaftesbury said that he was a realist, holding that virtue or excellence is “really something in itself and in the nature of things; not arbitrary or factitious; not constituted from without, or dependent on custom, fancy, or will; not even on the supreme will itself, which can no way govern it; but being necessarily good, is governed by it and ever uniform with it.” Animal breeders know what is natural and what is unnatural behavior in a dog or in a horse; they know a good animal from a mediocre one, and they know what constitutes the excellence of the former. So it is with people. By a native endowment, each individual knows what is just, fair, and honest in people’s character and conduct.

The human soul, as Shaftesbury represents it, is like every other living form in that it has a natural constitution. Within the systems of nature and society, each human being is a system in which passions, inclinations, appetites, and affections have their place. Some of these are purely local, such as the appetite for food; others are more comprehensive, such as pride, embracing the individual’s general interest; others, such as parental love and friendship, bind the individual to society. Each is good in its proper place, and people are endowed with reason to regulate them.

Reason, Morality, and Beauty

According to Shaftesbury, reason or reflection is that faculty by which people review their mind and actions and pass judgment on them, either approving or disapproving. It manifests itself in two quite different ways, which may be designated “prudence” and “conscience.” By the former, people judge what is to their advantage; by the latter, they judge what is proper and right. Shaftesbury denies that prudence gives adequate direction for an individual’s life; for this purpose, people have been given conscience. It follows, according to Shaftesbury, that the goal of life lies not in happiness, whether in this world or in that to come, but in the perfection of the soul itself and its harmony with the total order of things.

In opposition to the religious doctrine of human depravity, Shaftesbury maintains that all people are endowed with a sufficient sense of right and wrong to enable them to achieve virtuous lives, and that the only obstacles are passion and vice. He describes appetite or passion as the elder brother of reason, striving to take advantage of reason, but when reason grows strong enough to assert itself, appetite, “like an arrant coward . . . presently grows civil, and affords the younger as fair play afterwards as he can desire.” Vicious habits and customs present a more difficult problem. One source of these, according to Shaftesbury, is “corrupt religion and superstition,” which teaches people to regard as praiseworthy practices that are “most unnatural and inhuman.” Another is idleness, such as befell the “superior” classes in his day. Without a proper goal in life, people fall, he says, into a “relaxed and dissolute state” in which passions break out.

As Shaftesbury pictures it, conscience or moral insight is all of a piece with aesthetic judgment. There is a “natural beauty of figures,” for example, that causes a mere infant to be pleased with the proportions of a ball or a cube or a dye. If, in more intricate cases, where color, texture, motion, sound, and the like are involved, there is room for dispute as to which is the finer fabric, the lovelier face, or the more harmonious voice, it remains as a fundamental assumption “that there is a beauty of each kind.” “All own the standard, rule, and measure; but in applying it to things disorder arises, ignorance prevails, interest and passion breed disturbance.” Nor is it otherwise, Shaftesbury continues, in matters of conduct. That there is a “fitness and decency in actions” can never be denied as long as people preserve...

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Nature, Evil, and Optimism

Shaftesbury’s reaffirmation of design in the world raised in an acute form the problem of evil. His answer was similar to that given by the Stoics and by Saint Augustine. Suffering and loss are bound to appear evil to people because of their limited perspective. When better instructed, people find cause for admiration in the arrangement by which individuals sacrifice their lives for the species, and even in the relentless forces of earthquake and fire. Monstrous and abnormal births, he said, do not mitigate against the design of nature, because they result not from any natural failure but from the natural conflict of forces.Tis good which is predominant,” says one of the characters in his dialogue, “and every corruptible and...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Bernstein, John Andrew. Shaftesbury, Rousseau, and Kant: An Introduction to the Conflict Between Aesthetic and Moral Values in Modern Thought. London: Associated University Press, 1980. Bernstein explores Shaftesbury as a precursor to modern ethics and aesthetics. Whereas Shaftesbury assumed a kind of Platonic unity and harmony between the two, later thinkers have seen them as divided and even opposing. The chapter on Shaftesbury demonstrates how his view of both is at base psychological and is dependent on his generally deistic religious outlook.

Brett, R. L. The Third Earl of Shaftesbury: A...

(The entire section is 475 words.)