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.