A Philosophy of Beauty: Shaftesbury on Nature, Virtue, and Art
By Michael B. Gill. 
Princeton University Press, 2022.
Hardcover, 248 pages, $39.95.

Reviewed by Lee Trepanier.

Now neglected in the Western canon, Shaftesbury’s Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times was one of the most important philosophical works of the eighteenth century. Its ideas and influence paved the path forward for the later emergence of Romanticism and Transcendentalism. Prior to the eighteenth century, nature was seen as grotesque and dangerous, art as of questionable moral value, religion as dictated by a punitive God, and morality was defined as to combat human sin and selfishness. After Shaftesbury, Europeans changed their views: unvarnished nature was the pinnacle of beauty, beautiful art was intrinsically valuable, religion was conceived to pray to a God of love and goodness, and morality was identified with “a beautiful soul attuned to the good of humanity.”

But when reading Characteristicks, one finds a deployment of literary techniques rather than a typical philosophical treatise, such as letters about Shaftesbury’s visits to London meetinghouses, essays on “wit and humour,” and a soliloquy that gives “advice to advice-givers.” This type of writing made Shaftesbury’s work accessible to the readers of his time, but it has the opposite effect today. In his book, A Philosophy of Beauty: Shaftesbury on Nature, Virtue, and Art, Michael B. Gill, a professor of philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, hopes to overcome our contemporary prejudice of how philosophy should be read and reveal the lingering and unacknowledged influence of Shaftesbury today.

Behind the title “Shaftesbury” was Anthony Ashley Cooper. Born in 1671, Shaftesbury was educated by John Locke until, at the age of 12, he was sent to boarding school, which he loathed. Afterwards he had his grand tour of Europe, and then returned to England in 1689 and resumed the responsibilities of his father, who was an invalid. Throughout his twenties he continued an infrequent correspondence with Locke and was elected as member of Parliament in 1695. Because of his grandfather, who was instrumental in founding the Whig Party, Shaftesbury was closely associated with Whig commitments, such as Protestant succession, religious toleration, and the power of Parliament. 

Poor health forced him to retire from Parliament in 1698, but he remained involved in politics while overseeing his family estate. He married Jane Ewer in 1709 and focused on philosophy, publishing the three-volume Characteristicks in 1711. He and his family departed to Naples in the hope that the climate would restore his health. It did not. Shaftesbury died in Naples in 1713 and a revised edition of Characteristicks appeared in 1714.

Eleven editions of the Characteristicks were published by 1790. According to Gill, Shaftesbury was “a giant on the philosophical scene,” with Astell, Mandeville, Balguy, and Berkeley all writing books “devoted to refuting him.” But in the second half of the century, Shaftesbury’s influence dimmed. Gill points out that his style of writing was a major factor in “his fall from philosophical grace.” While Gill admits that Shaftesbury’s writing is “perversely indirect, overly elaborate, meretricious” and “cogent ideas sometimes appear in danger of being strangled by pomposity and cleverness,” he still believes Characteristicks is worth reading because of Shaftesbury’s ideas about beauty and what we can learn from them. 

Because of the difficulty of discerning Shaftesbury’s meaning, Gill resorts to taking long block quotes from the author and then explaining in his own words what is meant. This approach has the benefit of showing Shaftesbury’s style for itself, but it also allows the reader to see whether he or she agrees with Gill’s interpretation. The result is a dialogue among three parties: Shaftesbury, Gill, and the reader.

Shaftesbury’s view of nature as sublime, beautiful, and precious still resonates with us today. This view was contrary to the predominant perspective of his time, found in such writings as those of Thomas Burnet and John Locke, in which nature was a threat to human survival. Shaftesbury instead argued that nature is beautiful, but he does it in an indirect and meandering way, or, as Gill explains, “his view emerged as a solution to a problem he took to be of the deepest philosophical and personal importance: the problem of how worship of God can be both transportingly emotional and entirely rational.”

Shaftesbury’s solution to this problem is beauty. To accomplish this, Shaftesbury argues that we need to cultivate an attitude towards nature that is appreciative of its beauty rather than frightened of its power. According to Shaftesbury, beauty is a “Unity of Design”—or, as Gill states, “A beautiful thing is beautiful because all of its parts ‘concur in one.’” Shaftesbury believes we are naturally designed to have a positive response to beauty which is both emotional and rational. Appreciation of architecture is an example: a person sees how the building is proportionally designed and delights in knowing these facts. Nature, likewise, invokes such a response when the person’s knowledge of nature leads to a greater and deeper appreciation of the beauty of God’s creation. Thus our worship of God is at the same time both rational and emotional.

If we come to love God because we appreciate the beauty of nature, then likewise we come to love humanity because we appreciate the moral beauty of virtue. For Shaftesbury, internal harmony, or integrity, is a key attribute of moral beauty, i.e., when one acts according to one’s own principles and “all of one’s psychological aspects cohering with each other.” But internal harmony is not enough. A person must be in harmony with the rest of humanity so that morally beautiful people harmonize with each other. For Shaftesbury, no person is an island entirely of oneself. 

Our appreciation of moral beauty is not merely aesthetic but also moral. Shaftesbury argues for this equivalence—moral beauty and moral goodness—on two grounds. First, “the happiness of a life of moral beauty is based on moral beauty’s being constant and in our control.” Second, “the happiness of a moral beauty is based on moral beauty’s naturalness.” As long as moral beauty is constant, by our choice, and rooted in our nature, then it is moral. What we should avoid are the dangers of egoism and partiality because egoism destroys internal harmony while partiality ruins one’s relationship with humanity.

To cultivate our moral senses, Shaftesbury turns to art to promote virtue. An appreciation of beauty in one area “can carry over to the sensitivity of beauty to another.” But this view of art can make it only instrumental in its purpose. Gill reviews both the “instrumentalist” and “non-instrumentalist” debate on this question and comes down on the side of the latter with the qualification that appreciation of art is “categorically inferior” to an appreciation of moral beauty.

This is an erudite and beautifully written book about a neglected thinker who deserves more attention in this age of ugliness and vulgarity. Gill gives us a marvelous book that is engaging and thoughtful about what constitutes beauty and why we need it. If anyone were to ask, Shaftesbury’s Characteristicks and Gill’s interpretation of it is the place to start. 

Lee Trepanier is Chair and Professor of Political Science at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He is author of numerous books and is the editor of the Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film. His Twitter handle is @lee_trepanier.

Support the University Bookman

The Bookman is provided free of charge and without ads to all readers. Would you please consider supporting the work of the Bookman with a gift of $5? Contributions of any amount are needed and appreciated