privilege of turn 2

Second Part

Shaftesbury’s Sensus Communis essay is, as he puts it, an earnest attempt to defend raillery. This is a very odd way to begin an essay on common sense, which is the kind of phrase that Shaftesbury’s tutor Locke was getting at with his notion that we receive our ideas from experience:

“But perhaps you may still be in the same humour of not believing me in earnest. You may continue to tell me, I affect to be paradoxical, in commending a Conversation as advantageous to Reason, which ended in such a total Uncertainty of what Reason had seemingly so well established.”

From the very beginning, then, Shaftesbury is presenting an explicit break between form and content. The form of the essay is, as Shaftesbury would know from Montaigne, the place of opinion, doxis, and is not a treatise. It deals with becoming – the characteristicks of men – rather than being – the universal forms. It is Shaftesbury’s piece of fun to defend mockery – his object – with a piece of reasoning. And that he labels this an essay on common sense calls attention to the difference between common sense and rationality. Shaftesbury is explicit enough about the nature of wit. It is paradoxical. It is extravagant. Moreover, it seems to affect a certain disconnect between the speaker and the opinion the speaker gives. In fact, at first glance, if we take common sense to be a secondary kind of rationality, it would seem that the freedom of wit and humor is a freedom from common sense in as much as common sense assigns beliefs to people, so that each self possesses a belief. On the other hand, it is a form of the commons, of shared possession. And there are many forms the commons takes – it isn’t all pasturing the village’s sheep. It is also the life of the common, in fairs, everyday talk, rituals. If we extend this sense of the common to common sense, then we are less shocked that wit, that thief who unlocks the chain binding a man to his opinion, should be part of the commons. On the other hand, as we know from Don Quixote, the impulse to unlock chains and free prisoners, while a noble one, can have dubious results.

Shaftesbury, puts the essay in terms of an argument with an unnamed friend who doesn’t see wit’s right to operate in the commons. Like the puritans casting out the punch and judy shows and the bear baitings, this friend can’t see the point of mockery, and can see, very well, the vice of it.

“I HAVE been considering (my Friend!) what your Fancy was, to express such a surprize as you did the other day, when I happen’d to speak to you in commendation of Raillery. Was it possible you shou’d suppose me so grave a Man, as to dislike all Conversation of[60] this kind? Or were you afraid I shou’d not stand the trial, if you put me to it, by making the experiment in my own Case?

I must confess, you had reason enough for your Caution; if you cou’d imagine me at the bottom so true a Zealot, as not to bear the least Raillery on my own Opinions. ’Tis the Case, I know, with many. Whatever they think grave or solemn, they suppose must never be treated out of a grave and solemn way: Tho what Another thinks so, they can be contented to treat otherwise; and are forward to try the Edge of Ridicule against any Opinions besides their own.

The Question is, Whether this be fair or no? and, Whether it be not just and reasonable, to make as free with our own Opinions, as with those of other People?”

I want to linger on this trial of opinion by wit. Which will be the subject of my next post.