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The credulous Mr. Locke - Shaftesbury and underground philosophy

Anthony, the third Earl of Shaftesbury (1670-1713) was born into a title that had been given to his grandfather, the first earl, who was the giant of the family. The First Earl was one of the grandees who designed the proto-whig culture that opposed James II, and brought about his downfall. He was the patron of John Locke, whom he first employed as a physician, then encouraged as a patron, used as a pamphleteer, made the entremetteur for his son, Anthony, the second earl (who married the woman Locke found for him) and finally employed to tutor his grandchildren. By chance (although it is a chance that one is not surprised at in class bound Britain) two of the English philosophers, Shaftesbury and Mill, could claim to be entirely educated by the reigning English philosopher that preceded them – respectively, Locke and Bentham.


The third earl Shaftesbury dutifully followed in his grandfather’s footsteps – his father seems to have been an entirely ineffectual man – in promoting the Whig policy, first under William, then under Anne. On becoming the head of the house after his father’s death, he took over the running of the family estate, too. All of these burdens destroyed his health. He begins a typical letter to the manager of his estate, John Wheelock, in November 1703, like this:


“I am sorry to hear all things are so low and tenants so disheartened. The greater must be my frugality and care to repair the great wounds I have made in my estate. I shall keep in my compass of ₤ 200 for the year that I stay here [in Holland], and if this does not do it shall be yet less, and the time longer, for I will never return to be as I was of late richly poor; that is to say, to live with the part of a rich man, a family and house such as I have, and yet in debt and unable to do any charity or bestow money in any degree.” In another letter that same year, he writes:


“I should have been glad to have lived in the way that is called hospitable in my country, but experience has but too well shown me that I cannot do it. Nor will I ever live again as I have done and spend to the full of my estate in house and a table. I must have werhewithal to do good out of my estate, as well as feed a family, maintain a set of idle servants entailed upon me, and a great mass of building yet more expensive. If my estate cannot, besides my house and rank, yield me five or six hundred pounds a year to do good with (as that rank requires), my house and rank may both go together, come what will of them, or let the world say what they will, they shall both [be] to ruin for me...”


In the next decade, fighting a mysterious sickness and bouts of ‘melancholia”, Shaftesbury, like many indebted British nobles, economized by remaining for long seasons on the Continent. In his last journey to Italy in 1711, when he was deathly ill with shortness of breath – he’d been told, or believed at least, that the coal fires of London were to cause for his asthma, and was going to stay in Naples to breath the air there, and because it was cheap – he writes to Wheelock:



“As good a husband as I have been (and my wife surely the best housewife as well as wife, nurse and friend that ever was known in her whole sex), I have not been able to keep with the expense proposed, but have expended at least a hundred pund a month by Bryan’s reckoning, I fear I shall be little able to diminish it. But it will not be, I trust in God (and can surely presume), much beyond this present compass. If I live my family and paternal estate will not (I hope) be prejudiced by this remittance out of it for my subsistence...”


It was while in Naples that he completed the book that made him famous: Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times.


I have been reading one essay from that mass: ‘Sensus Communis: An Essay on the Freedom of wit and humor’. Shaftesbury’s reputation rather waned in the twentieth century, until Gadamer mentioned this essay in Truth and Method, since, of course, Gadamer’s book is concerned, in part, with the analysis of common sense. Both Gadamer and Habermas instigated an interest in the formation of the public sphere in the Enlightenment that has produced ever swelling torrent of books and articles, and Shaftesbury was revived, to an extent, as a spokesperson for sociability.


Myself, I’ve been struck by the discrepancy between this secondary literature and Shaftesbury’s writings. The secondary literature might persuade the reader to regard Shaftesbury as a sort of philosophical etiquette writer, decorous, a bore. But reading Sensus Communis and, especially, Shaftesbury’s notebook - which he entitled Askemata, or exercises, but which was published as the Philosophical Regimen – I’ve been struck, instead, by Shaftesbury’s near madness. His Philosophical Regimen, which has sunk into total obscurity, is a document that is as strange in its way as Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno. John Stuart Mill fled to the Lake Poets for relief from his early teaching. Shaftesbury fled to Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, and yet one can still hear the voice of his tutor in the dense cloud of question marks and comments.


Let me end this with a quote from one of the letters about said tutor. This is to one of Shaftesbury’s admirers, Michael Ainsworth, June 3, 1709:



It was Mr. Locke that struck the home blow: for Mr Hobbes character and base slavish principles in government took off the poison of his philosophy. ‘Twas Mr. Locke that struck at all fundamentals, threw all order aand virtue out of the world, and made the very ideas of these (which are the same as those of God) unnatural, and without foundation in our minds. Innate is a word he poorly plays upon; the right word, though less used, is connatural. For what has birth of progress of the foetus out of the womb to do in this case? The question is not about the time the ideas entered, or the moment that one body came out of the other, but whether the constitution of man be such that, being adult and grown up, at such or such a time, sooner of later (no matter when), the idea and sense of order, administration, and a God, will not infallibly, inevitably, necessarily spring up in him.


Then comes the credulous Mr. Locke, with his Indian, barbarian stories of wild nations, that have no such idea (travellers, learned authors! and men of truth! and great philosophers! have informed him), not considering that is but a negative upon a hearsay, and so circumstantiated that the faith of the Indian danger may be as well questioned as the veracity or judgment of the relater; who cannot be supposed to know sufficiently the mysteries and secrets of those barbarians: whose language they but imperfectly know; to whom we good Christians have by our little mercy given sufficient reason to conceal many secrets from us, as we know particularly in respect of simples and vegetables, of which, though, we got the Peruvian bark, and some other noble remedies, yet it is certain taht through the cruelty of the Spaniards, as they have owned themselves, many secrets in medicinal affairs have been suppressed.”


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?”


Of the major essays in my life, a number come from the pen of Carlo Ginzburg, a historian who has modelled himself on Auerbach – that is, a historian who seeks to understand narrative and its figural backgrounds, as they impose themselves in a history of the various instrumentalities of power. Or, to put it more crudely, how forms of inquisition fuck over the common life. One of Ginzburg’s essay, Making it strange: the prehistory of a literary device, has a pertinence here, in the case of Shaftesbury.

Shaftesbury’s Philosophical Regimen brings to bear certain stoic techniques on his own particular madness. To understand those techniques,  Ginzburg is a good guide. He traces the connection between the Stoic practices recorded by Marcus Aurelius and, link by link, the formalist notion of “making strange”, that formula which was so important to Victor Shklovsky. Ginzburg does not mention Shaftesbury in his essay; yet his explanation of the Stoic method can easily be applied to Shaftesbury's Philosophical Regimen.

“Epictetus, the philosopher-slave whose ideas profoundly influenced Marcus Aurelius, maintained that this striking out or re erasure 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 theatre. 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 exercise 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 and the mixed noise of all of these together. Think of the number of those that 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 thy 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.

Too little, in my opinion, has been made of Shaftesbury’s crazy book – one sees in it a link to Diderot’s Rameau’s nephew – not that Diderot read the Regimen, but that the spirits conjured by Shaftesbury from the Lockian ideology seem cousins to Diderot’s trickster – and from there to Hegel’s Phenomenology, which in a sense is also a crazy book. All of them registered in the philosophical underground that has merged so often with other undergrounds. It does so now, on social media, in plain sight.