A letter concerning ENTHUSIASM (1)

A letter concerning ENTHUSIASM

One of the pleasures of the edition that I am using is that it has, largely, retained the punctuation and formatting of the original. This means a juvenile reliance on ALL CAPS.

I cannot imagine lecturing this man for using CAPS. If the frontispiece is to be believed, Shaftesbury spent (at least some of) his time posing for etchings, wearing a powdered wig, pajamas, standing in front of his own bed sheets.


It’s a strange letter, and tiny in comparison to the other pieces. It’s also not at all clear what he wants to do. It begins with a frontal attack on enthusiasm, largely because for Shaftesbury, God (or the Mind of Nature) must be either decent, or indifferent.

His argument here is rather clever:

  1. Malice occurs where “reasons are opposed”
  2. If there is a God, or some kind of Mind of Nature, it’s not going to be opposed to anything (because it’s the only game in town)
  3. Therefore: “if unhappily there be no Mind we can comfort ourselves, however, that Nature has no Malice: if there really be a Mind we may rest satisfy’d, that it is the best natur’d one in the World” [25]

Enthusiasm, it seems, is too malicious and humourless to be an appropriate reaction to such a Mind. The whole piece hinges on the difference between enthusiasm (which is false) and inspiration (which is true)—

“But the passion they raise is much alike”. And this is the difficulty, and strength, of the letter, which at the end turns around and presents a defense of enthusiasm, provided it is inspired. It is not a complete reversal:  magnanimity and good humour are the test of real inspiration; inspiration can handle both, enthusiasm cannot. Humour–the subject of the next, much longer section–becomes the fire that tests: those inspired by God can withstand it, enthusiasts projecting their own flaws onto the divine, cannot.

Having begun by attacking enthusiasm, and ending in praise of it, Shaftesbury apologizes for the letter’s contradictions, blaming his own enthusiasm .



I sometimes worry that contemporary writing is being poisoned by the emails and funding applications we write. The email destroys all formality and punctuation, while the funding application forces us into a mold of crude simplicity. The proposal is more dangerous than the email (or, eletter): they trade in simplifications and pitches, and the perpetual question ‘what can this do for my work?’, is answered with  an irritating mixture of academic codes and crude generalizations, with an imaginary method attached as an epigraph. We write these to sell, assuming our real project will be more meaningful than the fiction we have sold. But, by the time we have spent our energy asking for money with a fictitious project, one gone over countless times, sculpted and sanded it so it can pass through a committee of disinterested and hostile academics and administrators, we are spent. And the project, while uninspired, is ready to go, and more often than not we complete it out of need and inertia.


The Earl of Shaftesbury

I have been moving my way through Shaftesbury’s Characteristick of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, a book I picked up because he was carefully read by Mendelssohn. It is delightful, and would be more delightful if the author didn’t spend so much time trying to be a delight. It is one of those books that only a ‘gentleman of leisure’ could write: genuinely mild, trying to find a place for everyone, and anti-pedantic; the sort of gentleman who has a pretend aversion to public life, but clearly obsessed with psychological detail and virtue. The kind of philosophy that is close to being systematized gossip, which requires a constant critique that is supported by genuine affection for most people.

His position on religion is unclear to me. Volume 1 (which is the only volume I’ve finished) ends with a very long ‘Soliloquy, or Advice to an AUTHOR’ (in which it is suggested that internal dialogues are essential to moral development, and there is something of an imperative to split ourselves into two voices–more on this later) and this Soliloquy in turn ends with a suggestion that we cannot really use religious texts except for religious purposes, because, once we leave the “mythology”  of Genesis behind we can not take seriously the idea of using religious figures as guides in day to day life–because from that point on, many people in the bible are horrid. Religion is then compared to heraldry: useful, but they need to know their place, a place determined by the public.

Sprawling, disorganized, with a playfulness that’s sometimes too studied, it is not a boring text: the boring parts flow quickly, and the book jabs when it wants you to pay attention. For my work, I am going to use the sections on the relationship between beauty and nature, as well as his conflicted excursuses on Judaism. Here I am going to  post a few of his observations, with my own comments, treating one piece at a time.


NPG D4190; Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury by Francis Kyte, after  Unknown artist