“Epictetus, the philosopher-slave whose ideas profoundly influenced Marcus Aurelius, maintained that this striking out or rearsure of imaginary representations was a necessary step in the quest for an exact perception of things. This is how Marcus Aurelius describes the successive stages:
“Wipe away the impress of imagination. Stay the impulse that is drawing you like a puppet. Define the time which is present. Recognize what is happening to yourself or another. Divide and separate the event into its causal and material aspects. Dwell in thought upon your last hour.”
Each of these injunctions required the adoption of a specific moral technique aimed at acquiring mastery over the passions...”
Shaftesbury’s method and madness converge on an operating table in which the writer is both surgeon and patient. One notices that the direction of the Stoic move – of wiping away impressions – is the opposite of the direction of the Lockean idea – which builds outwards from a presumed tabula rasa. For Shaftesbury, the Lockean notion that in our minds we build the world anew (an implication that finds its political expression in Tom Paine) can’t possibly be true. The world is the more certain fact, and its impingement upon the mind comes in the form of impressions that are distorting – rather than the sole hermeneutical resource with which we make our uncertain way through the world. In the PR, Shaftesbury’s exercises literally apply Marcus Aurelius’s suggestions, and reference the idea of viewing things “as from a height.” The aftershocks of the clash between Locke's experience (which, for Shaftesbury, is a false kind of innocence) and the Stoic dissection of experience can be felt in the question marks that swarm all over Shaftesbury’s text. They seem like so many jabs into the simulacra of the philosopher patient, the wax doll upon which he intends to operate in order to effect a ritual cleansing. Here’s a passage from the notes on “Deity”. It comes just after a passage comparing the Deists and the Epicureans – “Atoms and void. A plain negative to the Deity, fair and honest. To Deism, still no pretence. So the sceptic....
“From whence then this other pretence? Who are these Deists? How assume the name? By what title or pretence? The world, the world? say what? how? A modified lump? matter? motion? – What is all this? Substance what? Who knows? why these evasions? subterfuges with words? definitions of things never to be defined? structures or no foundations? Come to what is plain. Be plain. For the idea itself is plain; the question plain; and such as everyone has invariably some answer to which it is decisive. Mind? or not mind? If mind, a providence, the idea perfect: a God. If not mind, what in the place? For whatever it be, it cannot without absurdity be called God or Deity; nor the opinion without absurdity be called Deism.” (38-39)
While we recognize both Marcus Aurelius's exercise and the grammatical echoes of the great Carolinean preachers - Donne, Taylor - the effect of this continually interrupted movement, this play of thought that tears at itself, over pages, is of a sort of self-cutting. One can’t help but wonder whether the voices at play, here, don’t include Locke's voice from the nursery. A voice which we know from Locke's work on education, which was confessedly based on his experience teaching the Shaftesbury children. This is Locke:
“Familiarity of discourse, if it can become a father to his son, may much more be condescended to by a tutor to his pupil. All their time together should not be spent in reading of lectures, and magisterially dictating to him what he is to observe and follow. Hearing him in his turn, and using him to reason about what is propos’d, will make the rules go down the easier and sink the deeper, and will give him a liking to study and instruction: And he will then begin to value knowledge, when he sees that it enables him to discourse, and he finds the pleasure and credit of bearing a part in the conversation, and of having his reasons sometimes approv’d and hearken’d to; particularly in morality, prudence, and breeding, cases should be put to him, and his judgment ask’d. This opens the understanding better than maxims, how well soever explain’d, and settles the rules better in the memory for practice. This way lets things into the mind which stick there, and retain their evidence with them; whereas words at best are faint representations, being not so much as the true shadows of things, and are much sooner forgotten. He will better comprehend the foundations and measures of decency and justice, and have livelier, and more lasting impressions of what he ought to do, by giving his opinion on cases propos’d, and reasoning with his tutor on fit instances, than by giving a silent, negligent, sleepy audience to his tutor’s lectures; and much more than by captious logical disputes, or set declamations of his own, upon any question. The one sets the thoughts upon wit and false colours, and not upon truth; the other teaches fallacy, wrangling, and opiniatry; and they are both of them things that spoil the judgment, and put a man out of the way of right and fair reasoning; and therefore carefully to be avoided by one who would improve himself, and be acceptable to others.”
Wit and false colours. Which, of course, are just what is defended in Shaftesbury's Sensus Communis. One might wonder how one gets from the severities of the stoic operating table to the epigrams of the drawing room - this has puzzled Shaftesbury's commentators, at least. The key is to follow not the thread of that truth which is discovered by a process of corresponding idea to object, according to the narrow procedures of proof, but to take a broader, more social sense of proof into account. Wit is a trial. A trial is a different thing than the amassing of proofs, which is the sort of activity done by the police or prosecutor before a trial. Trials are about guilt and innocence, which is the context in which truth gains its social footing. Thus, trials are dramas about character and circumstances. Trials are part of the world as theater. And the world is a place of infinite and not so converging impressions. Here is the gap, the little peephole, into souls, and for souls, truth alone is not enough. Truth won't give us seriousness. Which is why we need other methods more appropriate to our theatrical world. Which is why we need wit. The test of opinion is in the struggle between the serious and the absurd. This is a point to which Shaftesbury returns time and again in defending wit as the kind of thing that is consistent with common sense: ridicule drives an opinion to the point at which it becomes ridiculous, or extravagant. It drives it outside the bounds of common sense. It makes it a scapegoat. It expels it.
Yet Shaftesbury is careful not to confuse absurdity with falsity. An opinion doesn’t have to be untrue to be absurd. In the infinitesimal separation, there lodges an infinite meaning, because it presents another dimension of reason, one in which the terms concern the serious and the absurd. It is in that dimension that LI sees the glimmer of what Durkheim called the sacred. The spirits at work in the festival of mockery are the spirits of the sacred and the profane, and the shock of mocking opinion, especially one’s own, is derived from the sense of profanation, of de-consecration.
The trial of opinion by wit is parallel to the trial of the mind by the body, as this is laid out in the Philosophical Regimen. “Nature has joined thee to such a body, such as it is. The supreme mind would have it that this should be the trial and exercis of inferior minds. It has given thee thine; not just at hand, or as when they say into one’s mouth; not just in the way so as to be stumbled on by good luck; not so easily either, but so as thou mayst reach it; so as within thy power, within command. See! Here are the incumbrances. This is the condition, the bargain, terms. Is the prize worth contending for? or what will become of me if I do not contend? How if the stream carries me down? how if wholly plunged in this gulf? What will be my condition then? what, when given up to body, when all body, and not a motion, not a thought, not one generous consideration or sentiment besides?” That gulf, as Shaftesbury points out at the beginning of the section on the body, is one composed of shit. The body is an excrement in potentia
“And as from the parts of the body, so also abstract it from the whole body itself, an excrement in seed, already half being, half putrefaction, half corruption. Thus be persuaded of this: that I (the real I) am not a certain figure, nor mass, nor hair, nor nails, nor flesh, nor limbs, nor body; but mind, thought, intellect, reason; what remains but that I should say to this body and all the pompous funeral, nuptial, festival (or whatever other) rites attending it, “This is body. These are the body only. The body gives life to them, exalts them, gives them their vigour, force, power and very being.”
The trial of the mind proposed here will follow a body’s logic, which is the logic of juxtapositions. Throughout the Regimen, the thought of the simultaneous and the all – that gaze down from the height – operates to create a world wide absurdity, a feeling of disgust, of a crowd of potential excrement increasing at every moment:
“Consider the number of animals that live and draw their breath, and to whom belongs that which we call life, for which we are so much concerned; beasts, insects, the swarm of mankind sticking to this earth, the number of males and females in copulation, the number of females in delivery, and the number of both sexes in this one and the same instant expiring and at their last gasp’ the shrieks, cries, voices of pleasure, shoutings, groans nd the mixed noise of all of these together. Think of the number of those tht died before thou wert or since; how many of those that came into the world at the same time and since; and of those now alive, what alteration. Consider the faces of those of thye acquaintance as thou sawest them some years since; how changed since then! how macerated and decayed! All is corruption and rottenness; nothing at a stay, but continued changes; and changes renew the face of the world.” (257)
And as always, Shaftesbury’s move is to put these notions in a scene, sketched rapidly.
Life is as those that live it. What are those? What are we? Nos numerus sumus et fruges consumere nati. Tolerable carrion; fit to be let live. Honest poor rascals not so bad as when they say “scarce worth the hanging.” Life-worthy persons, if a bare liveable life. But say, what are we? What do we make of ourselves? How esteem ourselves? Warm flesh, with feelings, aches, and appetites. The puppet – play of fancies. O the solemn, the grave, the ponderous business. – Complex ideas, dreams, hobby-horses, houses of cards, steeples and cupolas. – The serious play of life. – Shows, spectacles, rites, formalities, processions; children playing at bugbears, frighting one another through masks. The heard, priests, cryer. The trump of fame; the squeaking trumpet and cat-call; the gowns! habits! robes! How underneath? How in the nightcaps, between the curtains and sleeps? How anon in the family with wife, servants, children, o where even none of these must see? Private pleasures, other privacies? the closet and bed-chamber, parlours, dining-rooms, dressing-rooms, and other rooms. In sickness, the lazy hours, in wines, in lecher? taking in, letting out- O the august assembly; each of you, such as you are apart!” (258-259)
The wit of Sensus Communis and the reductions and division of the Philosophical Regimen are attempts not only to find a place for profanation, but – in as much as absurdity is a proxy for the profane – to come back to the serious as a form of the sacred. LI would love, at this point, to refer to Marcel Mauss’ book on Prayer – but we have no more time for this.