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


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