Cooper, Anthony Ashley

, earl of Shaftesbury, the celebrated author of the Characteristics, was born Feb. 26, 1671, at Exeter-house in London. His father was Anthony earl of Shaftesbury; his mother lady Dorothy Manners, daughter of John earl of Rutland. He was born in the house of his grandfather Anthony first earl of Shaftesbury, and chancellor of England, of whom we have spoken in the preceding article; who was fond of him from his birth, and undertook the care of his education. He pursued almost the same method in teaching him the learned languages, as Montaigne’s father did in teaching his son Latin: that is, he placed a person about him, who was so thoroughly versed in the Greek and Latin tongues, as to speak either of them with the greatest fluency. This person was a female, a Mrs. Birch, the daughter of a schoolmaster in Oxfordshire or Berkshire; and a woman who could execute so extraordinary a task, deserves to have her name recorded with honour among the learned ladies of England. By this means lord Shaftesbury made so great a progress, that he could read both these languages with ease when but eleven years old. At that age he was sent by his grandfather to a private school; and in 1683 was removed to Winchester school, but such was the influence of party-spirit at the time, that he was insulted for his grandfather’s sake, by his companions, which made his situation so disagreeable, that he begged his father to consent to his going abroad. Accordingly he began his travels in 1686, and spent a considerable time in Italy, where he acquired great knowledge in the polite arts. This knowledge is very visible through all his writings; that of the art of painting is more particularly so, from the treatise he composed upon “The Judgement of Hercules.” He made it his endeavour, while he was abroad, to improve himself as much as possible in every accomplishment; for which reason he did not greatly affect the company of other English gentlemen upon their travels; and he was remarkable for speaking French so readily, and with so good an accent, that in France he was often taken for a native.

Upon his return to England in 1689, he was offered a | seat in parliament from some of those boroughs where his family had an interest; but he declined it, and pursued that strict course of study, which he had proposed to himself, near five years. He was then elected a burgess for Poole: and, soon after his coming into parliament, had an opportunity of shewing that spirit of liberty, which he maintained to the end of his life, when “The act for granting counsel to prisoners in cases of high treason” was brought into the house. This he looked upon as important, and had prepared a speech in its behalf: but when he stood up to speak it in the house of commons, he was so intimidated, that he lost all memory, and was quite unable to proceed. The house, after giving him a little time to recover his confusion, called loudly for him to go on, when he proceeded to this effect: “If I, sir,” addressing himself to the speaker, “who rise only to give my opinion on the bill now depending, am so confounded, that I am unable to express the least of what I proposed to say; what must the condition of that man be, who, without any assistance, is pleading for his life?” During this and other sessions, in which he continued in the house of commons, he gave a consistent support to every motion for the farther security of liberty: but the business of attending regularly the house of commons, which in those active times generally sat long, in a few years so impaired his health, naturally never robust, that he was obliged to decline coming again into parliament, after its dissolution in 1698.

Being thus at liberty, he went to Holland, where he spent his time in the conversation of Bayle, Le Clerc, and other learned and ingenious men then residing in that country, whose acquaintance induced him to continue there above a twelvemonth, and with whom he probably cultivated that speculative turn which appears in all his writings. When he went to Holland, he concealed his name, as it is said, for the sake of being less interrupted in his studies, pretending only to be a student in physic, and in that character contracted an acquaintance with Bayle. A little before his return to England, being willing to be known to him by his real name, he contrived to have Bayle invited to dinner by a friend, where he was told he was to meet lord Ashley. Bayle accidentally calling upon lord Ashley that morning, was pressed by him to stay; but excused himself, saying, “1 can by no means stay, for I | must be punctual to an engagement, where I am to meet my lord Ashley.” The next interview, as may be imagined, occasioned some mirth; and the incident rather increased their intimacy, for they never ceased corresponding till Bayle’s death. During his absence in Holland, an imperfect edition of his “Inquiry into Virtue” was published at London; surreptitiously taken from a rough draught, sketched when he was but twenty years of age. The person who served him thus unhandsomely, was Toland; on whom he is said to have conferred many favours, and who miserably spoiled both his style and sentiments. The treatise, however, acquired some reputation, and was afterwards completed by the noble author, and published in the second volume of the “Characteristics.

Soon after he returned to England, he became earl of Shaftesbury; but did not attend the house of lords, till his friend lord Somers sent a messenger to acquaint him with the business of the partition treaty, February 1701. On this he immediately went post to London; and though, when lord Somers’s letter was brought to him, he was beyond Briclgwater in Somersetshire, and his constitution was ill calculated for any extraordinary fatigue, he travelled with such speed, that he was in the house of peers on the following day, exhibiting an instance of dispatch, which at that time was less easy to be performed than it is at present. During the remainder of the session, he attended his parliamentary duty as much as his health would permit, being earnest to support the measures of king William, who was then engaged in forming the grand alliance. Nothing, in the earl of Shaftesbury’s judgment, could more effectually assist that glorious undertaking, than the choice of a good parliament. He used, therefore, his utmost efforts to facilitate the design; and such was his success, upon the election of a new house of commons (parties at that crisis being nearly on an equality), that his majesty told him he had turned the scale. So high was the opinion which the king had formed of the earl’s abilities and character, that an offer was made him of being appointed secretary of state. This, however, his declining constitution would not permit him to accept; but, although he was disabled from engaging in the course of official business, he was capable of giving advice to his majesty, who frequently consulted him on affairs of the highest importance. Nay, it is understood that he had a great share | in composing that celebrated last speech of king William, which was delivered on the 31st of December, 1701.

Upon the accession of queen Anne to the throne, lord Shaftesbury returned to his retired manner of life, being removed from the vice-admiralty of the county of Dorset, which had been in the family for three successive generations. This slight, though it was a matter of little consequence, was the only one that could have been shewn him, as it was the single thing which he had ever held under the crown. The measure of taking it from him was supposed to have originated in certain statesmen who resented his services to another party in the preceding reign.

In the beginning of the year after, viz. 1703, he made a second journey to Holland, and returned to England in the end of the year following. The French prophets soon after having by their enthusiastic extravagances created much disturbance throughout the nation, among the different opinions as to the methods of suppressing them, some advised a prosecution. But lord Shaftesbury, who abhorred any step which looked like persecution, apprehended that such measures tended rather to inflame than to cure the disease: and this occasioned his “Letter concerning Enthusiasm,” which he published in 1708, and sent it to lord Somers, to whom he addressed it, though without the mention either of his own or lord Somers’s name. Jan. 1709, he published his “Moralists, a philosophical rhapsody:” and, in May following, his “Sensus communis, or an essay upon the freedom of wit and humour.” The same year he married Mrs. Jane Ewer, youngest daughter of Thomas Ewer, esq. of Lee in Hertfordshire; to whom he was related, and by whom he had an only son, Anthony the fourth earl of Shaftesbury. From his correspondence, it does not appear that he had any very extraordinary attachment to this lady, or that the match added much to his happiness, which some have attributed to a disappointment in a previous attachment. In 1710, his “Soliloquy, or advice to an author,” was printed. In 1711, finding his health still declining, he was advised to leave England, and seek assistance from a warmer climate. He set out therefore for Italy in July 1711, and lived above a year after his arrival; dying at Naples, Feb. 4, 1713.

The only pieces which he finished, after he came to Naples, were, “The Judgement of Hercules,” and the “Letter concerning Design;” which last was first published | in the edition of the Characteristics, 1732. The rest of his time he employed in arranging his writings for a more elegant edition. The several prints, then first interspersed through the work, were all invented by himself, and designed under his immediate inspection: and he was at the pains of drawing up a most accurate set of instructions for this purpose, which are still extant in manuscript. In the three volumes of the Characteristics, he completed the whole of his writings which he intended should be made public. The first edition was published in 1711; but the more complete and elegant edition, which has been the standard of all editions since, was not published till 1713, immediately after his death. But though lord Shaftesbury intended nothing more for the public, yet, in 1716, some of his letters were printed under the title of “Several Letters written by a noble lord to a young man at the university:” and, in 1721, Toland published “Letters from the late earl of Shaftesbury to Robert Molesworth, esq.” Lord Shaftesbury is said to have had an esteem for such of our divines (though he treated the order very severely in general) as explained Christianity most conformably to his own principles; and it was under his particular inspection, and with a preface of his own writing, that a volume of Whichcot’s sermons was published in 1698, from copies taken in short hand, as they were delivered from the pulpit. This curious fact was some years ago ascertained on the authority of Dr. Huntingford, the present bishop of Gloucester, who had his information from James Harris, esq. of Salisbury, son to a sister of the earl of Shaftesbury. Her brother dictated the preface to this lady, and it is certainly a proof that he had at least a general belief in Christianity, and a high respect for many of the divines of his time, and particularly for Whichcot. Dr. Huntingford’s account was communicated to the last edition of the Biographia Britannica; and in a copy of this volume of sermons now before us, the same is written on the fly leaf, as communicated by Dr. Huntingford to the then owner of the volume, the late Dr. Chelsum.

But lord Shaftesbury’s principal study was the writings of antiquity; and those which he most admired, were the moral works of Xenophon, Horace, the Enchiridion of Epictetus, with Arrian’s Commentaries, and Marcus Antoninus. From these he formed to himself the plan of his philosophy: and the idea which he framed to himself of | philosophy in general, may be best comprehended from the following words of his, where addressing himself to a correspondent, he says: “Nor were there indeed any more than two real distinct philosophies; the one derived from Socrates, and passing into the old academic, the peripatetic, and stoic; the other derived in reality from Democritus, and passing into the Cyrenaic, and Epicurean. For as for that mere sceptic or new academic, it had no certain precepts, and so was an exercise of sophistry, rather than of philosophy. The first therefore of these two philosophies recommended action, concernment in civil affairs, religion, &c. the second derided all this, and advised inaction and retreat. And good reason for the first maintained, that society, right, and wrong, were founded in nature, and that nature had a meaning, and was herself; that is to say, in her wits, well governed, and administered by one simple and perfect intelligence. The second again derided this, and made providence and dame nature not so sensible as a doting old woman. So the Epicurean in Cicero treats providence, Anus fatidica stoicomm Kfoma. The first therefore of these philosophies is to be called the civil, social, and theistic: the second the contrary.

It remains now to notice more particularly the writings of lord Shaftesbury, which by one class of critics, have received the most extravagant applause, and, by another, have been the subjects of indiscriminate condemnation. They have been examined with a critical eye, and in rather an elaborate manner, by Dr. Kippis, to whose article, in the Biographia Britannica, we refer the reader, contenting ourselves with a brief outline. Lord Shaftesbury’s “Letter on Enthusiasm” was written from excellent motives it contains many admirable remarks, delivered in a neat and lively strain but it wants precision conveys but little information and contains some exceptionable passages. The same character may be given, with truth and justice, of “The Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Huphour,” designed to defend the application of ridicule to subjects of speculative inquiry, and among others to religious opinions. His “Soliloquy, or Advice to an Author,” met with more general approbation. It contains a variety of excellent matter; and what the noble lord has advanced in recommendation of self-examination, and in defence of critics and criticism, is particularly valuable: it is evidently the result of the author’s knowledge and refined | taste in books, in life, and manners. Lord Shaftesbury’s “Enquiry concerning Virtue” obtained more general applause, although in some points it is liable to objection. It is ably and finely written, and maintains with great force the important truth, that virtue -is the greatest happiness, and vice the greatest misery of men. In this “Enquiry,” the noble author appeared in the close, the logical, and the didactic form. But in the “Moralists,” he is the emulator of Plato, in the boldest poetic manner of that eminent philosopher. Bishop Hurd ranks it among the best compositions of the kind in our language. Its matter is highly valuable and important, and presents us with a truly argumentative and eloquent defence of the doctrines of a Deity and a Providence. The “Miscellaneous Reflections on the preceding treatises, and other critical subjects,” are intended as a sort of defence and explanation of his former works; but, although they contain a variety of just and ingenious remarks, they abound with many exceptionable passages concerning revelation. With respect to the style of lord Shaftesbury, we may quote the opinion of Dr. Blair, which is at once accurate and judicious. “His language has many beauties; it is firm and supported in an uncommon degree; it is rich and musical. No English author has attended so much to the regular construction of his sentences, both with respect to propriety and with respect to cadence. All this gives so much elegance and pomp to his language, that there is no wonder it should sometimes be highly admired. It is greatly hurt, however, by perpetual stiffness and affectation. This is its capital fault. His lordship can express nothing with simplicity. He seems to have considered it as vulgar, and beneath the dignity of a man of quality, to speak like other men. Hence he is ever in buskins, full of circumlocutions and artificial elegance. In every sentence we see the marks of labour and art; nothing of that ease which expresses a sentiment coming natural and warm from the heart. Of figures and ornaments o/ every kind he is exceedingly fond; sometimes happy in them; but his fondness for them is too visible, and having once laid hold of some metaphor or allusion that pleased, he knows not how to part with it. What is most wonderful, he was a professed admirer of simplicity; is always extolling it in the ancients, and censuring the moderns for want of it, though he departs from it himself as far as any one modern whatever. Lord Shaftesbury possessed | delicacy and refinement of taste to a degree that we may call excessive and sickly; but he had little warmth of passion; few strong or vigorous feelings; and the coldness of his character led him to that artificial and stately manner which appears in his writings. He is fonder of nothing than of wit and raillery; but he is far from being happy in it. He attempts it often, but always awkwardly: he is stiff even in his pleasantry, and laughs in form like an author, and not like a man.” Lord Shaftesbury sometimes professed himself a Christian; but his writings, in many parts, render his faith in the divine mission of Christ very questionable. The noble lord left one son, Anthony Ashley Cooper, the fourth earl, of whom the learned Bp. Huntingford says, “there never existed a man of more benevolence, moral worth, and true piety.” He was the author of the life of his father, in the great General Dictionary, including Bayle. It may not be improper to add in this place, that the translator of Xenophon’s Cyropedia was the honourable Maurice Ashley Cooper, brother to the third earl. 1


Gen. Dict. vol. IX. art. Shaftesbury. Biog. Brit, first and second editions, &c. Collins’s Peerage, by sir E. Brydges. -Park’s Orford, vol. IV.- —Leland’s Deistical Writers.