Cooper, Anthony Ashley, Earl of Shaftesbury


Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury 1671-1713

English philosopher, editor and essayist.

Shaftesbury was one of the leading thinkers of the Enlightenment and his associations with such figures as John Locke, Pierre Bayle, and John Toland placed him among Europe's intellectual elite. Today he is chiefly remembered as the founder of the “moral sense” school of ethics and as one of the first philosophers to write about aesthetics. His ideas regarding the importance of emotion in relation to morality were taken up later by Adam Smith and David Hume. Shaftesbury also significantly influenced European writers and philosophers from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Friederich Schiller to Emmanuel Kant. Although he was known as a Deist because of the emphasis he placed on reason and his criticism of conventional religious teachings, Shaftesbury also stressed the importance of religious feeling, which he termed “enthusiasm.” A Neoplatonist, Shaftesbury maintained that the purpose of religion, goodness, beauty, and philosophy is to identify completely with the universal system of which one is a part. Although he was plagued with ill health throughout his life, Shaftesbury produced an impressive number of philosophical essays, the most important of which were published in his collection Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711). Shaftesbury was a prominent figure during his day, but his significance as a philosopher has diminished, in large part because his ideas were more rigorously examined and more fully expressed by later thinkers. Many scholars also argue that Shaftesbury was a greater stylist than a thinker, so his philosophical views were quickly overshadowed by those of other philosophers. His engaging style, humor, biting satire, and frequent use of a literary persona in his writings, have interested literary critics and rhetoricians in Shaftesbury's works.

Biographical Information

Shaftesbury was born Anthony Ashley Cooper in February 1671, in London. He grew up in the home of his grandfather, the first Earl of Shaftesbury, who was one of the most prominent political figures of his day. The first Earl appointed the philosopher John Locke, his close friend and secretary, to supervise his grandson's education. Young Shaftesbury would eventually disagree with Locke on many important philosophical issues, but Locke was an important influence on his philosophical development and the two men remained friends until Locke's death. Shaftesbury was tutored at home in Latin and Greek before being sent to a private school. At the age of fifteen he set out on a three-year tour of Europe. On his return to England he devoted himself to the study of philosophy. In 1695 he entered the House of Commons but was forced to leave in 1698 because of ill health. He traveled to Holland, where among others, he met the eminent thinker Pierre Bayle.

In 1698 Shaftesbury brought out his first work, an edition of the sermons of the Platonist Benjamin Whichcote, to which he wrote the introduction. The following year Shaftesbury's An Inquiry Concerning Virtue (1699) was published without his permission by the Deist John Toland. That year Shaftesbury's father, the second Earl, died, and Shaftesbury inherited the title of third Earl. He entered the House of Lords in 1700, but ill health made it necessary that he leave politics once again. In the first decade of the 1700s he traveled occasionally to Holland and also produced his most important writings—a revised version of An Inquiry Concerning Virtue and completed versions of A Letter Concerning Enthusiasm (1708), Sensus Communis: An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour (1709), The Moralists (1709), and Soliloquy; or, Advice to an Author (1710). In 1709 Shaftesbury married, and his son was born the following year. In 1710 the family traveled to Italy because of Shaftesbury's bad health. Despite his physical ailments, he continued to write. In 1711 he published Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, a collection of his writings with extensive notes and commentary. He worked on revisions to the Characteristics over the course of the next two years, until his death in Naples in 1713.

Major Works

Today Shaftesbury is best known for inventing the “moral sense” concept in ethics. He is regarded as a Deist because of his stress on the importance of rational thought, but unlike other Deists he also pointed out the importance of religious feeling. He was a committed Platonist, although he differed from most other Neoplatonists of his day in emphasizing the role of emotion in questions of ethics, as well as because of his concept of religious feeling, or “enthusiasm.” Shaftesbury's philosophy was in large part a reaction against the ethical positions of Thomas Hobbes and Locke, particularly their notions of egoism. In his first published work, the preface to the collection of sermons by Whichcote that he edited, Shaftesbury praises Whichcote's belief in the goodness of human beings and presents Whichcote's idea of “good nature” as an antidote to the Hobbesian tenet of self-interestedness. Shaftesbury's second work, An Inquiry Concerning Virtue, attacks Locke's egoism and proposes a set of practical rules for living, derived from the natural dispositions of all human beings. According to Shaftesbury, these dispositions are not merely self-regarding but also directed to the good of others; thus human beings have a “moral sense”—a sense of right and wrong that apprehends beauty or deformity in actions and affections.

The Sociable Enthusiast (1704), written in the form of a dialogue among three men, reiterates many of the ideas found in the Inquiry. It also introduces the idea, important in many of Shaftesbury's later works, of “enthusiasm,” or creative imagination that is necessary in order for an individual to attain higher levels of understanding and to glimpse the ideal. The Sociable Enthusiast was printed without Shaftesbury's permission and he revised and published the work as The Moralists five years after its initial publication. In his next work, A Letter Concerning Enthusiasm, an attack on religious fanaticism, Shaftesbury argues that humans have a natural inclination to enthusiasm and urges readers to distinguish ordinary enthusiasm from divine enthusiasm, which is true inspiration. Shaftesbury answered the attacks on his Letter Concerning Enthusiasm with Sensus Communis: An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour, in which he also talks about the problem of writing in the face of censorship and religious intolerance. Soliloquy; or, Advice to an Author, the last of Shaftesbury's essays to be published individually, discusses the necessity of self-knowledge and self-criticism as a precursor to authorship. In it he argues that not only is soliloquy the means by which self-enlightenment can be achieved, it is also the attitude befitting enlightened humanity. Shaftesbury recommends that soliloquy should become a habit for authors in order that they inspire in their readers a free, critical view of themselves and the world.

Although Shaftesbury's 1711 Characteristics is a collection of the philosopher's previously published works, it is more than the sum of its parts. In addition to extensive notes, the volume includes Shaftesbury's “Miscellaneous Reflections,” a running commentary on the other texts. In these reflections Shaftesbury, in the guise of a detached critic, expands upon some of his central themes and discusses his own role as author in a satirical vein.

A number of Shaftesbury's works were published posthumously. The most important of these are two works on aesthetics—the essay “Letter Concerning Design” and the fragment “The Judgement of Hercules”—and “The Adept Ladys,” a reaction to the Rosicrucian movement active in England at the time. Shaftesbury's philosophical notebooks, or “Exercises,” were also published after his death.

Critical Reception

While Shaftesbury was highly respected during his own time and continued to exert considerable influence into the nineteenth century, he is no longer considered a major philosopher. His enduring contribution has been his influence on some of the greatest thinkers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: the publication of Shaftesbury's works gave rise to discussions in Britain among such notable philosophers as Bernard Mandeville, George Berkeley, Frances Hutcheson, Smith, and Hume. In France he was admired by Voltaire, Rousseau, and Denis Diderot, and in Germany his ideas were taken up by Gottfried Leibniz, Gotthold Lessing, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Kant, and Schiller. Recent criticism on Shaftesbury has focused on his moral theory, especially the important concepts of enthusiasm and religious feeling. Many scholars have commented on his interest in religion despite his stance as a Deist and his advocacy of feeling and subjectivity even while he espouses rationalism and objective understanding. Some critics have also examined his use of satire, humor, and literary persona in his writing, comparing his work with that of Jonathan Swift. His writings on aesthetics are regarded as important because of their focus on the centrality of art to human life and because his aesthetic theory is linked intimately with his moral theory. Shaftesbury's ideas about aesthetics are considered original and innovative because he was the first philosopher to elevate the role of the creator of artistic works over the works themselves. Some contemporary critics have championed him as the father of modern aesthetic theory and his reputation continues to grow in this area.

Principal Works

Select Sermons of Dr. Whichcote [editor] (sermons) 1698

An Inquiry Concerning Virtue, in Two Discourses (essay) 1699

Paradoxes of State, Relating to the Present Juncture of Affairs in England and the Rest of Europe [with John Toland] (essay) 1702

The Sociable Enthusiast (essay) 1704

A Letter Concerning Enthusiasm, To My Lord ****** (essay) 1708

*The Moralists: A Philosophical Rhapsody. Being a recital of certain conversations upon natural and moral subjects (essay) 1709

Sensus Communis: An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour. In a letter to a friend (essay) 1709

Soliloquy; or, Advice to an Author (essay) 1710

Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times [Characteristics] (essays) 1711

The Life, Unpublished Letters, and Philosophical Regimen of Anthony Earl of Shaftesbury (essays, letters, notebooks) 1914

*This work is a revised version of The Sociable Enthusiast.


Stanley Grean (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: Grean, Stanley. “Enthusiasm” and “Concluding Remarks.” In Shaftesbury's Philosophy of Religion and Ethics: A Study in Enthusiasm, pp. 19-36; 258-63. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1967.

[In the first of the following essays, Grean explores the background and significance of Shaftesbury's central doctrine of enthusiasm and discusses how it is related to his religious concepts; in the second, he offers an overview of Shaftesbury's thought, viewing him as a poet rather than a philosopher because of his belief that reason ought to be transcended to reach higher truths.]


In a letter to a friend, Shaftesbury once...

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John G. Hayman (essay date spring 1970)

SOURCE: Hayman, John G. “Shaftesbury and the Search for a Persona.” SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 10, no. 2 (spring 1970): 491-504.

[In the following essay, Hayman examines Shaftesbury's use of a literary persona that embodies flexibility, composure, grace, and penetration, which the critic says marks the author as a deliberate artist.]

The preoccupation of Swift and Pope with the creation of personae has naturally received a good deal of attention, but the extent to which this preoccupation was also shared by other writers of the period has perhaps been insufficiently recognized. In discussions of Shaftesbury, for example, commentators have...

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Pat Rogers (essay date summer 1972)

SOURCE: Rogers, Pat. “Shaftesbury and the Aesthetics of Rhapsody.” British Journal of Aesthetics 12, no. 3 (summer 1972): 244-57.

[In this essay, Rogers explores the reasons for Shaftesbury's use of the word “rhapsody” in the subtitle of his treatise The Moralists, arguing that the philosopher was responsible for the positive association of the term in relation to aesthetics.]

One of the cheats of time is to rob us of surprise. History acts as a buffer against that sense of shock which contemporaries, lacking such insulation, must often have felt. For the literary student this attenuation of the unexpected affects—and distorts—judgement in several...

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James W. Davidson (essay date summer 1974)

SOURCE: Davidson, James W. “Criticism and Self-Knowledge in Shaftesbury's Soliloquy.Enlightenment Essays 5, no. 2 (summer 1974): 50-61.

[In the essay below, Davidson examines Shaftesbury's ideas about self-examination, criticism of society, and the control of the irrational.]

In the second treatise of the Characteristics, An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour, Shaftesbury proposes that criticism of self and society, regulated by the standard of taste—“common sense”—be initiated through literature. If poets are “to ridicule folly, and recommend wisdom and virtue (if possibly they can) in a way of pleasantry and mirth,” then...

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Raymond A. Anselment (essay date April-June 1978)

SOURCE: Anselment, Raymond A. “Socrates and The Clouds: Shaftesbury and a Socratic Tradition.” Journal of the History of Ideas 39, no. 2 (April-June 1978): 171-82.

[In the following essay, Anselment discusses Shaftesbury's views on the impact of Aristophanes' The Clouds on the trial, imprisonment, and execution of Socrates.]

Among the many eighteenth-century reactions to Shaftesbury's Characteristics the issue of Aristophanes' role in the condemnation of Socrates provoked considerable controversy. Shaftesbury had cited Aristophanes' attack against the philosopher to argue that Socrates' reputation and philosophy were enhanced rather than...

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Garland P. Brooks (essay date autumn 1982)

SOURCE: Brooks, Garland P. “Shaftesbury and the Psychological School of Ethics.” Dalhousie Review 62, no. 3 (autumn 1982): 431-40.

[In the essay below, Brooks examines the theory of morality propounded by Shaftesbury, which the critic views as essentially subjective despite the philosopher's search for an objective system of ethics.]

British eighteenth-century psychology: the most typical association is probably to the Nihil est in intellectu, quod non prius fuerit in sensu epistemology of the empiricists. The view that the psychology of the period was synonymous with tabula rasa, sensation and association has long been widespread. Such a perception...

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Chester Chapin (essay date August 1983)

SOURCE: Chapin, Chester. “Shaftesbury and the Man of Feeling.” Modern Philology 81, no. 1 (August 1983): 47-50.

[In the following essay, Chapin explores the influence of Shaftesbury's ideas about benevolence on other eighteenth-century philosophers.]

Referring to what he calls “the mid-eighteenth-century cult of the ‘man of feeling,’” R. S. Crane argued that this cult owed much to “the propaganda of benevolence and tender feeling carried on with increasing intensity by the anti-Puritan, anti-stoic, and anti-Hobbesian divines of the Latitudinarian school.”1 Donald Greene has challenged this argument in the pages of this journal,2...

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Robert Voitle (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Voitle, Robert. “The Patterns of Shaftesbury's Later Thought 1704-1713.” In The Third Earl of Shaftesbury, 1671-1713, pp. 313-66. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1984.

[In this excerpt, Voitle discusses Shaftesbury's philosophical works after 1700, which he argues are heavily influenced by Platonic idealism but also stress the importance of the creative imagination.]

Before considering Shaftesbury's Philosophical Rhapsody it would be well to see where it lies among his more serious studies. His earliest printed philosophical work is his preface to the Select Sermons of Benjamin Whichcote published in 1698. He must have...

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Robert Markley (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Markley, Robert. “Style as Philosophical Structure: The Contexts of Shaftesbury's Characteristicks.” In The Philosopher as Writer: The Eighteenth Century, edited by Robert Ginsberg, pp. 140-54. Selinsgrove, Pa: Susquehanna University Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Markley argues that Shaftesbury's work is important not only for its ideas but because it shows the interaction of philosophical and stylistic concerns.]

Shaftesbury has traditionally proved a difficult writer for both literary critics and philosophers. Most of his commentators have taken his self-proclaimed status as a “philosopher” as both the beginning and logical conclusion...

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Richard B. Wolf (essay date August 1988)

SOURCE: Wolf, Richard B. “Shaftesbury's Wit in A Letter Concerning Enthusiasm.Modern Philology 86, no. 1 (August 1988): 46-53.

[In the essay below, Wolf discusses Shaftesbury's ironic wit, focusing particularly on his use of paradox and the conceit, which he says are used to attack dogmatists.]

Comparing his reaction to Characteristics with his earlier response to the French translation of A Letter Concerning Enthusiasm, Leibnitz observed that the third earl of Shaftesbury “s'etoit merveilleusement corrigé dans le progrès de ses meditations, et que d'un Lucien il etoit devenu un Platon.”1 Leibnitz's observation has also...

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Robert Voitle (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Voitle, Robert. “Lord Shaftesbury and Sentimental Morality.” Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 263 (1989): 489-91.

[In this essay, Voitle considers the factors that contributed to the rationally inclined Shaftesbury becoming an early leader in the movement towards sentimental morality.]

How did Lord Shaftesbury, who was not at all pious in the ordinary sense of the word, who was remote and austere in his dealings with mankind, who strove all of his life to achieve a purely rational mode of behaviour, come to be regarded as one of the founders of sentimental morality?

Some modern critics have difficulty interpreting Shaftesbury...

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Susan Griffin (essay date fall 1990)

SOURCE: Griffin, Susan. “Shaftesbury's Soliloquy: The Development of Rhetorical Authority.” Rhetoric Review 9, no. 1 (fall 1990): 94-106.

[In the following essay, Griffin analyzes Shaftesbury's Soliloquy, examining its ideas about the role of the author and arguing that the work shows how eighteenth-century notions about rhetoric differ from contemporary rhetorical thought.]

Vous savez que je suis habitué de longue main à l'art du soliloque. Si je quitte la societé et que je rentre chez moi triste and chagrin, je me retire dans mon cabinet, and là je me questionne and je me demande: Qu'avez vous? de l'humeur? … Oui … Est-ce...

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Richard B. Wolf (essay date summer 1993)

SOURCE: Wolf, Richard B. “Shaftesbury's Just Measure of Irony.” SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 33, no. 3 (summer 1993): 565-85.

[In this essay, Wolf examines Shaftesbury's use of satiric wit and discusses how his distinctive use of raillery is influenced by his philosophical beliefs and classical background.]

John Hayman has justly linked the third earl of Shaftesbury to Augustan satiric reformers such as Addison and Steele, who were intent on curbing the malice of contemporary raillery and providing a proper model of good humored mental disposition.1 These writers reacted against the cynical and predatory image of humankind associated with...

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Jorge V. Arregui and Pablo Arnau (essay date October 1994)

SOURCE: Arregui, Jorge V., and Pablo Arnau. “Shaftesbury: Father or Critic of Modern Aesthetics?” British Journal of Aesthetics 34, no. 4 (October 1994): 350-62.

[In the essay below, Arregui and Arnau view Shaftesbury not as the father of modern aesthetics, but as the first great critic of aesthetic modernity.]

Shaftesbury is usually considered the father of modern aesthetics and, consequently, only those aspects of his thought specially relevant to later aesthetics—the disinterested attitude, the moral and aesthetic sense, and the sublime—are studied.1 In this sense, Stolnitz has stressed his importance in engendering the central concept of modern...

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Preben Mortensen (essay date October 1994)

SOURCE: Mortensen, Preben. “Shaftesbury and the Morality of Art Appreciation.” Journal of the History of Ideas 55, no. 4 (October 1994): 631-50.

[In this essay, Mortensen examines Shaftesbury's notion of aesthetic disinterestedness and his moral defense of art appreciation.]

It is central to our Western conception of art that art has its value in itself and not just as a vehicle for, say, moral or religious enlightenment. According to this idea of the autonomy of art, when we contemplate art, we adopt a specific “aesthetic attitude” which serves, as it were, to bracket whatever practical, moral, religious, political, or other concerns we may have, and we attend...

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Lawrence E. Klein (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Klein, Lawrence E. “The Culture of Liberty.” In Shaftesbury and the Culture of Politeness: Moral Discourse and Cultural Politics in Early Eighteenth-Century England, pp. 195-212. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Klein discusses the concepts of discursive, cultural, and political liberty in Shaftesbury's later essays, arguing that, for Shaftesbury, conditions of freedom were necessary in order for the public to be able to make sound judgments.]


Shaftesbury may have had qualms about the links between Whiggism and the Court after 1688, but polemics in Queen Anne's reign demanded...

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Joel Weinsheimer (essay date summer 1995)

SOURCE: Weinsheimer, Joel. “Shaftesbury in Our Time: The Politics of Wit and Humor.” Eighteenth Century 36, no. 2 (summer 1995): 178-88.

[In the essay below, Weinsheimer compares the criticism of Shaftesbury's satire with prohibitions against certain forms of “offensive” humor in contemporary American culture.]

“The main problem is we live in a world with no sense of humor or irony.” Such was Art Spiegelman's response to the outrage ignited by his New Yorker cover depicting a Hasidic Jew kissing an African-American woman. “We are stunned that you approved the use of a painting that is obviously insensitive,” wrote the director of the...

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A. Owen Aldridge (essay date June 1996)

SOURCE: Aldridge, A. Owen. “Shaftesbury, Rosicrucianism and Links with Voltaire.” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature 23, no. 2 (June 1996): 393-401.

[In the following essay, Aldridge discusses Shaftesbury's critique of religious superstition in The Adept Ladies.]

Scholars have realized for many years that a close connection exists between Protestantism and Rosicrucianism, but the only major literary figures that have been extensively studied from this perspective are the Renaissance martyr Giordano Bruno (who remained nominally a Catholic) and the political and philosophical propagandist of the early Enlightenment John Toland. Bruno's pantheistic hermetism...

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Robert D. Richardson, Jr. (essay date April 1997)

SOURCE: Richardson, Robert D., Jr. “Liberal Platonism and Transcendentalism: Shaftesbury, Schleiermacher, Emerson.” Symbiosis 1, no. 1 (April 1997): 1-20.

[In the excerpt below, Richardson briefly summarizes Shaftesbury's major ideas and his influence on writers and philosophers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.]

It has often been noted that the Cambridge Platonists had a direct impact on American Transcendentalism; what is less often remarked is the even more massive indirect influence exerted by the Cambridge Platonists through Shaftesbury. Indeed, Shaftesbury, whom Herder called ‘the beloved Plato of Europe’ is probably the main person through...

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Further Reading


Alderman, William E. “English Editions of Shaftesbury's Characteristics.Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 61 (1967): 315-34.

Examines the evidence that suggests there were multiple editions of Characteristics.

———. “Pope's Essay on Man and Shaftesbury's The Moralists.Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 67 (1973): 131-40.

Presents evidence to show that Alexander Pope owed a greater debt to Shaftesbury than has previously been established.

Aldridge, A. Owen. “Shaftesbury's Rosicrucian Ladies.” Anglia 103, no....

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