Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Week 10. Shaftesbury on the Philosophical Life

For our final session of the term we turn to Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713), best know as the author of the three-volume Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, published in 1711, which was in fact a collection of various items he had published previously, including his Inquiry Concerning Virtue or Merit of 1699. 
 
 Shaftesbury was in many always out of sync with his time, or at least out of sync with our usual narrative of the history of the philosophy of his time. He disliked the approach to philosophy adopted by many of his contemporaries and wanted to replace it with something more worldly. He consciously saw his own philosophy as an attempt to revive a Socratic conception of philosophy as ethical self-transformation. He combined this with a love of Classical literature and was especially drawn to Roman satirists such as Horace, Juvenal, and Persius, all of whom engage in passing with Stoic and Epicurean themes. In many ways Shaftesbury might be compared with Cicero, both being non-technical thinkers and elegant stylists, and both interested in philosophy as a guide to a good life. 
 
Although he rarely discusses them in his published works, Shaftesbury was thus unsurprisingly a great admirer of the Roman Stoics Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. He wrote extensive textual notes on the Dissertationes of Epictetus and these were drawn on in the commentary in John Upton’s 1739-41 edition of Epictetus. He also kept a pair of notebooks inspired by his reading of these two Roman Stoics in which he addressed a range of topics including natural affection, the self, simplicity, the passions, God, nature, providence, and the nature of philosophy itself.
 
People have not been sure what to make of these notes. They resemble Marcus’s Meditations in some respects and, like the Meditations, do not straightforwardly articulate a philosophical position. In the light of the work of Pierre Hadot, however, it is now perhaps easier to classify these as Shaftesbury’s ‘spiritual exercises’, his working through practical precepts on paper as a means to digest philosophical ideas. Shaftesbury characterizes his project as ‘care of self’ (SE, p. 195), placing the text in a tradition running from Socrates to Foucault. In these notebooks Shaftesbury is ‘alone with himself, caring for himself, testing, debating with and exhorting himself’ (SE, p. 16).  
 
These notebooks were examined by Benjamin Rand, who published an edited version of them in 1900 under the title Philosophical Regimen. What Rand did was tidy up the various notes in an attempt to do his best to put the text into publishable form; one might say that he tried to make a book out of them. Ever since then those curious about the text have felt a certain ambivalence towards Rand’s book: thankful that he made the text available at all but frustrated that his text might not be a full and accurate account of what Shaftesbury actually wrote down in his notebooks. In 1993 Laurent Jaffro published a French translation based on a fresh inspection of the notebooks, following the text as Shaftesbury had left it. This has been well received but for the last two decades it has put English-speaking scholars in the odd position of turning to a French translation for the most reliable discussion and account of an English text. Recently an excellent new critical edition of the original text (under its original title of Askêmata) has been published that solves all these problems once and for all.
 
One question that the editors of the new edition consider in their introduction is whether these notebook musings on late Stoic themes should lead us to think of Shaftesbury as a Stoic, a topic on which a small literature has grown. They also address the purpose of the text, emphasizing the way in which Shaftesbury is taking inspiration from Epictetus’ advice that one should write down one’s reflections, keep them to hand, and reread them, in order both to comfort and to strengthen oneself (see SE, p. 17, citing Epictetus, Dissertationes 3.24). Even if the final judgement is that Shaftesbury does not adopt a wholehearted Stoicism, it does seem clear that he adopted certain Stoic practices and the wider Stoic approach to philosophy as an art of living.
 
With these thoughts in mind I propose we focus in on just three short sections. For our present purposes it will be simplest to use the readily available edition by Rand. The first section is devoted to ‘the end’, the second to ‘character and conduct’, and the third to ‘philosophy’. I hope that looking at these will help to bring out the nature of what Shaftesbury is doing.
 
The End
 
The section on ‘the end’ seems to offer an interesting blend of Aristotelian and Stoic themes. Much of the discussion is framed around a very Aristotelian account of whether there is a telos of human life. Shaftesbury sees two potential candidates and wants to reconcile them. The first of these is our natural sociability, which Shaftesbury sees embodied in our natural instincts of affection. He discusses affection at length in another section of the work and he seems here to be thinking of the Stoic theory of oikeiôsis. It is our nature to follow these natural instincts of affection.
 
Distinct from this is the argument concerning what might be the highest good for humans. Shaftesbury considers and rejects the idea of pleasure as the end, in harmony with both Aristotle and the Stoics. He affirms in instead virtue, not least for the fact that it is self-sufficient. It is perhaps worth noting here that again here he follows a Stoic line of argument. (It is also perhaps worth noting that Aristotle ultimately prefers contemplation over practical wisdom because it is more self-sufficient than the latter; Aristotle would not hold that these kinds of virtues are as self-sufficient as either the Stoics or Shaftesbury claim.) Shaftesbury suggests that this virtuous self-sufficiency offers a form of constancy, which brings to mind Lipsius, and the editors of the recent edition report that Shaftesbury owned two copies of Lipsius’s complete works (SE, p. 442).
 
So we have a natural tendency towards social affection (Stoic) and functional conception of humans that identifies goodness with virtue and rationality (Aristotelian). Shaftesbury thinks it perverse to fight against our natural instincts, and equally perverse to think that nature might have arranged things so that our natural instincts would turn out to be at odds with what is good for us. The individual human being who fulfils his or her function will inevitably possess a range of social virtues and these social virtues will be in complete harmony with our natural instincts to social affection. So we needn’t fight against our own natural instincts when trying to become good. On the contrary, if we want to fulfil our telos then we ought ‘to live according to nature’, which in this context clearly refers to our natural instincts for affection.
 
Let me make a final comment on this section. In his correspondence Shaftesbury suggests that there are only two real schools of philosophy in antiquity: a hedonist tradition uniting Epicurus and the Cyrenaics, and a Socratic tradition uniting Academics, Peripatetics, and Stoics (Rand, p. 359; cf. SE, p. 15). So for Shaftesbury Aristotle and the Stoics are part of a single Socratic philosophical tradition united by their commitment to virtue (and rejection of pleasure) as the telos. Shaftesbury fleshes this out a little further in a brief genealogy of ancient philosophy in his Soliloquy where he describes Socrates as ‘the philosophical patriarch’ (Klein, pp. 114-15; cf. SE, p. 14). Apparently Shaftesbury planned to write a history of Socratic philosophy and he produced a detailed draft around the same time he was compiling these notebooks (SE, p. 14). So, Shaftesbury’s blend of Stoic and Aristotelian themes in this chapter was probably done very consciously.
 
Character and Conduct
 
The next section, ‘character and conduct, is very brief but I think it is worth looking at as an example of the sort of thing that Shaftesbury is doing in these notebooks as a whole. The section opens with a quotation from Epictetus, who is cited a couple of further times as well. The text takes the form of a dialogue with oneself very much inspired by the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. The central theme is the contrast – and perhaps ultimately conflict – between our social persona and our essential nature. We can see Shaftesbury struggling with his social identity and the expectations it forces upon him. Whatever social expectations might demand of him, Shaftesbury reminds himself that he is a man, a human being, the essence of which is reason and a range of virtues (‘humanity, faith, friendship, justice, integrity’). As he develops the theme Shaftesbury approaches the conclusion that the two modes of life, living according to nomos or according to one’s own phusis, are mutually exclusive. To pursue one inevitably involves the sacrifice of the other. So if our goal is a virtuous life following nature then we must accept that we cannot also pursue social advancement. The whole piece really does have the flavour of Marcus Aurelius – someone grappling with the tension between their philosophical ideals and the reality of their social position.
 
Philosophy
 
The final section is on philosophy. Here Shaftesbury affirms the idea that philosophy ought to be concerned not with idle speculations but rather with life. The ‘philosophical art’ as he calls it ought to focus on happiness and tranquillity. Whether space is a vacuum or a plenitude is an abstract question he dismisses as uninteresting, and this is a striking echo of those comments in Marcus Aurelius where the Emperor expresses mild indifference as to whether the cosmos is composed of a continuum of matter or of atoms and void.
 
Shaftesbury goes on to consider three different ways to think about philosophy: i) subtle speculation, which would put it on a par with mathematics and the sciences; ii) the study of happiness, with happiness conceived as something dependent on external goods, and so philosophy itself would be concerned with those external goods; iii) the study of happiness, with happiness conceived as something dependent solely on the mind, as the Stoics taught. Shaftesbury is drawn to the last of these, conceiving philosophy as a psychotherapeutic activity whose aim is to help us overcome ‘disquiet, restlessness, anxiety’.
 
A little later Shaftesbury picks up the theme of the previous section, suggesting that a wholehearted commitment to philosophy conceived in this way will entail neglecting one’s social position in the world of affairs. Even so he suggests it is the right thing to pursue because it is the truer route to security against fortune – ‘by settling matters within’ rather than by acquiring great reserves of wealth or social contacts. This neatly brings us right back round to where we began with Lipsius – philosophy as an antidote against the vicissitudes of fortune.
 
(These notes draw in places on a review of the new critical edition of Shaftesbury’s Askêmata forthcoming in the British Journal for the History of Philosophy.)
 
References
 
Klein = Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, Edited by Lawrence E. Klein (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)  
 
Rand = The Life, Unpublished Letters, and Philosophical Regimen of Anthony, Early of Shaftesbury, Edited by Benjamin Rand (London: Sawn Sonnenschein, 1900) 
 
SE = Standard Edition: Complete Works, Correspondence and Posthumous Writings, Edited with German Translations and a Commentary by Wolfram Benda, Christine Jackson-Holzberg, Patrick Müller & Friedrich A. Uehlein, Vol. II,6 Askêmata (Stuttgart / Bad Cannstatt: Frommann-Holzboog, 2011)