He was born at Exeter House in London, the grandson of Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury and son of the second earl. His mother was Lady Dorothy Manners, daughter of John, Earl of Rutland. According to a story told by the third earl, the marriage was negotiated by John Locke, who was a trusted friend of the first earl. The second Lord Shaftesbury appears to have been both physically and mentally inadequate. At the age of three his son was made over to the formal guardianship of his grandfather. Locke, who in his capacity of medical attendant to the Ashley household, had already assisted at the child's birth, and was now entrusted with the supervision of his education. This was conducted according to the principles enunciated in Locke's Thoughts concerning Education, and the method of teaching Latin and Greek conversationally was pursued with such success by his instructress, Elizabeth Birch, that at the age of eleven, it is said, Ashley could read both languages with ease.
In November 1683, some months after the death of the first Earl, his father sent him to Winchester College as a warden's boarder. Being shy and mocked because of his grandfather, he appears to have been miserable at school. He left Winchester in 1686 for a course of foreign travel. This brought him into contact with artistic and classical associations which would strongly influence his character and opinions. On his travels he apparently did not seek the conversation of other young English gentlemen on their travels, but rather that of their tutors, with whom he could converse on congenial topics.
In 1689, the year after the "Glorious Revolution", Lord Ashley returned to England, and for nearly five years he appears to have led a quiet and studious life. There can be no doubt that the greater part of his attention was directed to the perusal of classical authors, and to the attempt to realize the true spirit of classical antiquity. He had no intention, however, of becoming a recluse. He became parliamentary candidate for the borough of Poole, and was returned on May 21, 1695. He soon distinguished himself by a speech in support of the Bill for Regulating Trials in Cases of Treason, one provision of which was that a person indicted for treason or misprision of treason should be allowed the assistance of counsel. Although a Whig, Ashley could not be depended on to give a party vote. He was always ready to support propositions from other quarters, if they appeared to him to promote the liberty of the subject and the independence of parliament. His poor health forced him to retire from parliament at the dissolution of July 1698. He suffered from asthma, a complaint which was aggravated by the London smoke.
Lord Ashley now retired to the Netherlands, where he became acquainted with Georges-Louis Leclerc, Pierre Bayle, Benjamin Furly, the English Quaker merchant, at whose house Locke had resided during his stay at Rotterdam, and probably Limborch and the rest of the literary circle of which Locke had been a cherished and honored member nine or ten years before. To Lord Ashley this society was probably far more congenial than his surroundings in England. Unrestrained conversation on the topics which most interested him--philosophy, politics, morals, religion was at this time to be had in the Netherlands with less danger and in greater abundance than in any other country in the world. To the period of this sojourn in the Netherlands must probably be referred the surreptitious impression or publication of an imperfect edition of the Inquiry concerning Virtue, from a rough draught, sketched when he was only twenty years of age. This liberty was taken, during his absence, by Toland.
After an absence of over a twelvemonth, Ashley returned to England, and soon succeeded his father as Earl of Shaftesbury. He took an active part, on the Whig side, in the general election of 1700–1701, and again, with more success, in that of the autumn of 1701. It is said that William III showed his appreciation of Shaftesbury's services on this latter occasion by offering him a secretaryship of state, which, however, his declining health compelled him to decline. Had the king's life continued, Shaftesbury's influence at court would probably have been considerable. After the first few weeks of Anne's reign, Shaftesbury, who had been deprived of the vice-admiralty of Dorset, returned to his retired life, but his letters to Furly show that he retained a keen interest in politics.
In August 1703, he again settled in the Netherlands, in the air of which he seems, like Locke, to have had great faith. At Rotterdam he lived, he says in a letter to his steward Wheelock, at the rate of less than £200 a year, and yet had much to dispose of and spend beyond convenient living. He returned to England, much improved in health, in August 1704. Although he had received immediate benefit from his stay abroad, he was showing symptoms of consumption, and gradually became a confirmed invalid. His occupations were now almost exclusively literary, and from this time forward he was engaged in writing, completing or revising the treatises which were afterwards included in the Characteristics. He continued, however, to take a warm interest in politics, both home and foreign, and especially in the war against France, of which he was an enthusiastic supporter.
Shaftesbury was nearly forty before he married, and even then he appears to have taken this step at the urgent instigation of his friends, mainly to supply a successor to the title. The object of his choice (or rather of his second choice, for an earlier project of marriage had shortly before fallen through) was Jane Ewer, the daughter of a Hertfordshire gentleman. The marriage took place in the autumn of 1709, and on February 9, 1710/1, was born at his house at Reigate, in Surrey, his only child and heir, the fourth Earl, to whose manuscript accounts we are in great part indebted for the details of his father's life. The match appears to have been happy, though Shaftesbury had little sentiment on the subject of married life.
With the exception of a Preface to the Sermons of Dr Whichcote, one of the Cambridge Platonists or latitudinarians, published in 1698, Shaftesbury appears to have printed nothing himself till 1708. About this time the French Camisards attracted much attention by their extravagances and follies. Various repressive remedies were proposed, but Shaftesbury maintained that fanaticism was best defeated by raillery and good-humour. In support of this view he wrote a letter Concerning Enthusiasm to Lord Somers, dated September 1707, which was published anonymously in the following year, and provoked several replies. In May 1709, he returned to the subject, and printed another letter, entitled Sensus Communis, an Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour. In the same year he also published The Moralists, a Philosophical Rhapsody, and in the following year Soliloquy, or Advice to an Author. None of these pieces seems to have been printed either with his name or his initials. In 1711, the Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times appeared in three volumes, also without any name or initials on the title-page, and without even the name of a printer. These volumes contain in addition to the four treatises already mentioned, Miscellaneous Reflections, now first printed, and the Inquiry concerning Virtue or Merit, described as formerly printed from an imperfect copy, now corrected and published intire, and as printed first in 1699.
The declining state of Shaftesbury's health rendered it necessary for him to seek a warmer climate and in July 1711 he set out for Italy. He settled at Naples in November, and lived there for more than a year. His principal occupation at this time must have consisted in preparing for the press a second edition of the Characteristics, which appeared in 1713, soon after his death. The copy, carefully corrected in his own handwriting, is preserved in the British Museum. He was also engaged, during his stay at Naples, in writing the little treatise (afterwards included in the Characteristics) entitled A Notion of the Historical Draught or Tablature of the Judgment of Hercules, and the letter concerning Design. A little before his death he had also formed a scheme of writing a Discourse on the Arts of Painting, Sculpture, Etching, &c., but when he died he had made but little progress with it. Medals, and pictures, and antiquities, he writes to Furly, are our chief entertainments here. His conversation was with men of art and science, the virtuosi of this place.
The events preceding the Treaty of Utrecht, which he regarded as preparing the way for a base desertion of our allies, greatly troubled the last months of Shaftesbury's life. He did not, however, live to see the actual conclusion of the treaty (March 31, 1713), as he died the month before, February 4, 1712/3. His body was brought back by sea to England and buried at St Giles's, the family seat in Dorsetshire. His only son, Anthony Ashley, succeeded him as 4th earl, and his great-grandson was the famous philanthropist, the 7th earl.
Shaftesbury's amiability of character seems to have been one of his principal characteristics. Like Locke he had a peculiar pleasure in bringing forward young men. Among these may be especially mentioned Michael Ainsworth, a native of Wimborne St Giles, the young man who was the recipient of the Letters addressed to a student at the university, and was maintained by Shaftesbury at University College, Oxford. The interest which Shaftesbury took in his studies, and the desire that he should be specially fitted for the profession which he had selected, that of a clergyman of the Church of England, are marked features of the letters. Other protegés were Crell, a young Pole, the two young Furlys and Harry Wilkinson, a boy who was sent into Furly's office at Rotterdam, and to whom several of the letters still extant in the Record Office are addressed.
In the popular mind, Shaftesbury is generally regarded as a writer hostile to religion. But, however short his orthodoxy might fall if tried by the standards of any particular church, his temperament was pre-eminently religious. This fact is shown in his letters. The belief in a God, all-wise, all-just and all-merciful, governing the world providentially for the best, pervades all his works, his correspondence and his life. Nor had he any wish to undermine established beliefs, except where he conceived that they conflicted with a truer religion and a purer morality.
To the public ordinances of the church he scrupulously conformed. But, unfortunately, there were many things both in the teaching and the practice of the ecclesiastics of that, day which were calculated to repel men of sober judgment and high principle. These evil tendencies in the popular presentation of Christianity undoubtedly begot in Shaftesbury's mind a certain amount of repugnance and contempt to some of the doctrines of Christianity itself; and, cultivating, almost of set purpose, his sense of the ridiculous, he was too apt to assume towards such doctrines and their teachers a tone of raillery.
But, whatever might be Shaftesbury's speculative opinions or his mode of expressing them, all witnesses bear testimony to the elevation and purity of his life and aims. As an earnest student, and ardent lover of liberty, an enthusiast in the cause of virtue, and a man of unblemished life and untiring beneficence, Shaftesbury probably had no superior in his generation. His character and pursuits are the more remarkable, considering the rank of life in which he was born and the circumstances under which he was brought up. In many respects he reminds us of the imperial philosopher Marcus Aurelius, whose works he studied with avidity, and whose influence is stamped upon his own productions.
Most of Shaftesbury's writings have been already mentioned. In addition to these there have been published fourteen letters from Shaftesbury to Molesworth, edited by Toland in 1721; some letters to Benjamin Furly, his sons, and his clerk Harry Wilkinson, included, in a volume entitled Original Letters of Locke, Sidney and Shaftesbury, which was published by Mr T Forster in 1830, and again in an enlarged form in 1847; three letters, written respectively to Stringer, Lord Oxford and Lord Godoiphin, which appeared, for the first time, in the General Dictionary; and lastly a letter to Le Clerc, in his recollections of Locke, first published in Notes and Queries, Feb. 8, 1851. The Letters to a Young Man at the University (Michael Ainsworth), already mentioned, were first published in 1716. The Letter on Design was first published in the edition of the Characteristics issued in 1732. Besides the published writings, there are several memoranda, letters, rough drafts, etc., in the Shaftesbury papers in the Record Office.
Shaftesbury took great pains in the elaboration of his style, and he succeeded so far as to make his meaning transparent. The thought is always clear. But, on the other hand, he did not equally succeed in attaining elegance, an object at which he seems equally to have aimed. There is a curious affectation about his style--a falsetto note--which, notwithstanding all his efforts to please, is often irritating to the reader. Its main characteristic is perhaps best hit off by Charles Lamb when he calls it genteel. He poses too much as a fine gentleman, and is so anxious not to be taken for a pedant of the vulgar scholastic kind that he falls into the hardly more attractive pedantry of the aesthete and virtuoso. But he is easily read and understood. Hence, probably, the wide popularity which his works enjoyed in the 18th century; and hence the agreeable feeling with which, notwithstanding all their false taste and their tiresome digressions, they impress the modern reader.
Thus, by the criterion of harmony, Shaftesbury refutes Hobbes, and deduces the virtue of benevolence as indispensable to morality. So also he has drawn a close parallel between the moral and the aesthetic criteria. Just as there is a faculty which apprehends beauty in the sphere of art, so there is in the sphere of ethics a faculty which determines the value of actions. This faculty he described (for the first time in English thought) as the Moral Sense (see Hutcheson) or Conscience (cf. Butler). In its essence, it is primarily emotional and non-reflective; in process of development it becomes rationalized by education and use. The emotional and the rational elements in the moral sense Shaftesbury did not fully analyse (see Home).
From this principle, it follows:
From these results we see that Shaftesbury, opposed to Hobbes and Locke, is in close agreement with Hutcheson, and that he is ultimately a deeply religious thinker, inasmuch as he discards the moral sanction of public opinion, the terrors of future punishment, and the authority of the civil authority as the main incentives to goodness, and substitutes the voice of conscience and the love of God. These two alone move men to aim at perfect harmony for its own sake in the man and in the universe.
Shaftesbury's philosophical activity was confined to ethics, religion, and aesthetics where he was one of the earliest writers to bring into prominence the concept of the sublime as an aesthetic quality. For metaphysics, properly so called, and even psychology, except so far as it afforded a basis for ethics, he evidently had no taste. Logic he probably despised as merely an instrument of pedantic judgment for which, in his day, and especially at the universities, there was only too much ground.
The main object of the Moralists is to propound a system of natural theology, and to vindicate, so far as natural religion is concerned, the ways of God to man. The articles of Shaftesbury's religious creed were few and simple, but these he entertained with a conviction amounting to enthusiasm. They may briefly be summed up as a belief in one God whose most characteristic attribute is universal benevolence, in the moral government of the universe, and in a future state of man making up for the imperfections and repairing the inequalities of the present life. Shaftesbury is emphatically an optimist, but there is a passage in the Moralists (pt. ii. sect. 4) which would lead us to suppose that he regarded matter as an indifferent principle, coexistent and coeternal with God, limiting His operations, and the cause of the evil and imperfection which, notwithstanding the benevolence of the Creator, is still to be found in His work. If this view of his optimism be correct, Shaftesbury, as Mill says of Leibniz, must be regarded as maintaining, not that this is the best of all imaginable but only of all possible worlds. This brief notice of Shaftesbury's scheme of natural religion would be conspicuously imperfect unless it were added that it is popularized in Pope's Essay on Man, several lines of which, especially of the first epistle, are simply statements from the Moralists done into verse. Whether, however, these were taken immediately by Pope from Shaftesbury, or whether they came to him through the papers which Bolingbroke had prepared for his use, we have no means of determining.
The influence of Shaftesbury's writings was considerable both at home and abroad. His ethical system was reproduced, though in a more precise and philosophical form, by Hutcheson, and from him descended, with certain variations, to Hume and Adam Smith. Nor was it without its effect even on the speculations of Butler. Of the so-called deists Shaftesbury was probably the most important, as he was certainly the most plausible and the most respectable. No sooner had the Characteristics appeared than they were welcomed, in terms of warm commendation, by Le Clerc and Leibniz.
In 1745 Denis Diderot adapted or reproduced the Inquiry concerning Virtue in what was afterwards known as his Essai sur le Mérite et la Vertu. In 1769 a French translation of the whole of Shaftesbury's works, including the Letters, was published at Geneva. Translations of separate treatises into German began to be made in 1738, and in 1776-1779 there appeared a complete German translation of the Characteristics. Hermann Hettner says that not only Leibnitz, Voltaire and Diderot, but Lessing, Mendelssohn, Wieland and Herder, drew the most stimulating nutriment from Shaftesbury. His charms, he adds, are ever fresh. A new-born Hellenism, or divine coitus of beauty presented itself before his inspired soul.
Herder is especially eulogistic. In the Adrastea he pronounces the Moralists to be a composition in form well-nigh worthy of Grecian antiquity, and in its contents almost superior to it. The interest felt by German literary men in Shaftesbury was revived by the publication of two excellent monographs, one dealing with him mainly from the theological side by Gideon Spicker (Freiburg in Baden, 1872), the other dealing with him mainly from the philosophical side by Georg von Gizycki (Leipzig, 1876).
In Thomas Fowler's monograph on Shaftesbury and Hutcheson in the series of English philosophers (1882) he was able to supplement the printed materials for the Life by extracts from the Shaftesbury papers in the Record Office. These include, besides many letters and memoranda, two Lives of him, composed by his son, the fourth earl, one of which is evidently the original, though it is by no means always closely followed, of the Life contributed by Dr Birch to the General Dictionary.
For description and criticism of Shaftesbury's philosophy:
For his relation to the religious and theological controversies of his day, see: