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Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Language of Morals in “Mansfield Park”

In my previous post I referred to something I called an “aesthetic theory of morality”, which is often ascribed to moralists such as Shaftesbury. Broadly speaking, an aesthetic theory of morality attempts to equate or, otherwise link conceptually, the Good with the Beautiful.

There is more than one way that this may be done. For example, such a theory may claim that a good action is at the same time a beautiful action, or that our experience in beholding (or performing) a good act is relevantly similar in some way to our experience in beholding (or making) beautiful objects. Or a slightly different claim may be made, that only the sort of finely-tuned mind capable of properly apprehending beauty in objects is at the same time capable of properly apprehending moral good. Such a mind is motivated to act from a sense of appreciation of the beauty or “fittingness” (or in Latin, the decorum) of an action, and can appreciate the value of virtue in itself, independently of rewards and punishments. This view links moral judgment or moral character with aesthetic taste.

In the West in 2017, such a view might seem a bit strange. As judged by our high art, we are, after all, a culture peculiarly unmoved by artistic beauty. But in the 18th century, aesthetic theories of morality found wide acceptance, and not only in the rarefied circles of philosophy. One finds many of the novels of the 18th and early 19th centuries steeped in the ideas of the British moralists, and of these, it is the “aesthetic” moralists who seem to get most play.

I have this year been working through the novels of Jane Austen, a new and highly pleasurable experience for me. Of these novels, Mansfield Park (1814) has been the most interesting for my purposes. It is the one I believe to be most suffused with the language of the British moralists.

 Although Austen was obviously well-read, she didn’t wear her learning on her sleeve. She was not a name-dropper. To discern influences, one be  able to hear their cadences in her works. When it comes to the British moralists, Mansfield Park makes for particularly happy hunting grounds for me in this respect.

The first thing I will say is that the British moralist with the most obvious influence on Austen by far, at least as gauged in terms of language, is Shaftesbury. This is not an original observation. The philosopher Gilbert Ryle noted it back in 1966 when he stated that

“Her stock of general terms in which she describes their minds and characters, their faults and excellences is, en bloc, Shaftesbury’s…. Her people have or lack moral sense, sense of duty, good sense, taste, good-breeding, self-command, spirits and good humour; they do or do not regulate their imaginations and discipline their tempers. Her people have or lack knowledge of their own hearts or their own dispositions; they are or are not properly acquainted with themselves; they do or do not practise self-examination and soliloquy. None of these general terms or idioms is, by itself, so far as I know, peculiar to Shaftesbury and herself. It is the amplitude of the stock of them, and the constant interplays of them which smack strongly of Shaftesbury.” (Ryle 299-300)

Ryle is mostly correct, though his actually understanding of Shaftesbury’s thought was superficial, to put it charitably (he referred to him as an Aristotelian, which is far from the case. Platonist or Stoic would be more apt). In any case, he summed up his paper thus: “I am primarily arguing for the general, if vague, conclusion that Jane Austen was, whether she knew it or not, a Shaftesburean. It is a dispensable sub-hypothesis that she had studied the rather tedious and high-flown writings of Shaftesbury himself…. But I shall put an edge on the issue by surmising, incidentally, that she did know” (Ryle 301).

Like Ryle, I am unable to demonstrate conclusively that Austen read Shaftesbury. And like Ryle, I am nevertheless convinced that she did. To the rather limited evidence that Ryle adduced, I should like to add some more of my own. Much of this evidence is linguistic, and drawn from the pages of Mansfield Park.

(N. B. Since different editions of Mansfield Park seem to vary not only in pagination, but also in chapter numbering, I have opted not to include citations with my quotations from that work. Instead, in the bibliography at the end of the post, the reader is directed to a searchable online text. Happy hunting.)
 

“Character” and “Manners”

The work by which Shaftesbury was mainly known was his collection of treatises published under the title of Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711, 3 volumes). After so many readings I have become accustomed to the regular appearance of certain words in his writings. Indeed, two of them appear in the very title of his work: “manners” and “character” (and variants such as “characteristicks” and “characterize”). Being known as a philosopher of politeness (see Klein 1994), it is not surprising that “manners” occurs frequently in Shaftesbury’s Characteristicks, appearing 108 times, by my count. “Character” and variants appears there a staggering 298 times, almost always in a moral sense. Accounting for length of text, Austen’s use of “manners” in Mansfield Park is actually somewhat more frequent than Shaftesbury’s, with 52 occurrences. “Character”, in the moral sense only — not including, for example, theatrical or literary character — appears there 51 times. These are two Shaftesburean terms par excellence that are also extraordinarily prominent in Austen’s novel.
 

Impartiality and Disinterestedness

There is a cluster of semantically-related terms that appears with striking frequency in Mansfield Park: “impartial”, “disinterested”, “unbiased”, and variants. These occur at points where emotional distance is desirable in order to be able to make accurate moral and aesthetic judgments of people and things. The following are examples from Austen’s book (with key words and phrases in bold):

 “In the calmness of her [Lady Bertram’s] own dressing-room, in the impartial flow of her own meditations, unbiassed by his bewildering statements, she could not acknowledge any necessity for Fanny’s ever going near a father and mother who had done without her so long, while she was so useful to herself.”

“Her [Mary Crawford’s] acceptance must be as certain as his [Edmund’s] offer; and yet there were bad feelings still remaining which made the prospect of it most sorrowful to her, independently, she believed, independently of self.”

“For the purity of her intentions she could answer; and she was willing to hope, secondly, that her uncle’s displeasure was abating, and would abate farther as he considered the matter with more impartiality, and felt, as a good man must feel, how wretched, and how unpardonable, how hopeless, and how wicked it was to marry without affection.”

“Miss Crawford’s countenance, as Julia spoke, might have amused a disinterested observer.”
 

“Impartial” and its variants appears four times in Mansfield Park, and “disinterested” appears ten times. The last of the above quotes is of particular interest, since, rather than invoke Shaftesbury, the phrase “disinterested observer” might instead bring to mind Adam Smith, who in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) made famous the figure of the “impartial spectator”:

“We endeavour to examine our own conduct as we imagine any other fair and impartial spectator would examine it. If, upon placing ourselves in his situation, we thoroughly enter into all the passions and motives which influenced it, we approve of it, by sympathy with the approbation of this supposed equitable judge. If otherwise, we enter into his disapprobation.” (Smith 110)

For Smith, the impartial spectator is a sort of ideal observer, who can accurately assess the moral terrain of a situation because his mind is unclouded by self-interested passions and affections. However, it is important to note that the impartial spectator is not an impassive figure; he feels things, and is capable of sentimental absorption in the Good and the Beautiful. Indeed, the reader of a novel is a sort of impartial spectator, insofar as she reacts emotionally to characters and situations despite having no personal interest in the outcome of the story. The key to the concept of the impartial spectator is not lack of emotion but lack of self-interest. Smith was drawing from his teacher Francis Hutcheson, who himself drew from Shaftesbury, in the realization that one’s emotional reactions may also be disinterested. In Austen’s words, quoted above, the impartial spectator “feels as a good man must feel”. Indeed, this was one of Henry Crawford’s central failings in Fanny Price’s eyes: “‘Will he not feel this?’ thought Fanny. ‘No, he can feel nothing as he ought.’”

Now, as I said, one might be tempted to see in Austen’s language of the impartial spectator the influence of Adam Smith. However, I believe it equally likely the influence is Shaftesbury’s, for the figure of the impartial spectator, if not the precise wording, is already present in his works, as in the following passage:

“The Mind, which is Spectator or Auditor of other Minds, cannot be without its Eye or Ear; so as to discern Proportion, distinguish Sound, and scan each Sentiment or Thought which comes before it. It can let nothing escape its Censure. It feels the Soft and Harsh, the Agreeable and Disagreeable, in the Affections; and finds a Foul and Fair, a Harmonious and a Dissonant, as really and truly here, as in any musical Numbers, or in the outward Forms or Representations of sensible Things.” (II.29)

Similarly, “impartial” and “disinterested” are terms Shaftesbury deployed fairly heavily, perhaps more so than did Smith. “Impartial” appears nine times in Characteristicks, including in such phrases as “impartial regard to merit” (I.226), “impartial censure of themselves” (I.277), and “impartial use of his reason” (I.36). “Disinterested” appears 17 times, in phrases such as “disinterested friendship” (I.101), “disinterested love of God” (II.271), “disinterested judges” (III.72), “a disinterested view” (III.221), and “disinterested authors” (III.242).

Soliloquy and Self-Examination

One of the individual treatises that comprise Shaftesbury’s Characteristicks is entitled “Soliloquy, or Advice to an Author”. In it, Shaftesbury recommends the practice of soliloquy, literally talking to oneself out loud, as a method of becoming a better writer, and indeed, a better person. The practice of such open and honest self-dialogue is a route to moral improvement. One gains self-understanding through allowing one’s inner voice to speak. Those who write or speak only for an audience, without stopping to listen to what they are saying, make for poor writers and shallow people. “Soliloquy” — the concept and the word — is prominent in Shaftesbury.

Interestingly, it is also appears at least three times in Mansfield Park. In two of these occurrences, the person doing the soliloquizing is Fanny Price, seemingly the only character consistently undeluded and capable of sound moral judgment:

“‘I must be a brute, indeed, if I can be really ungrateful!’ said she, in soliloquy. ‘Heaven defend me from being ungrateful!’”

“Such sensations, however, were too near akin to resentment to be long guiding Fanny’s soliloquies.”

Fanny’s moral core benefits from regular introspection; although others rarely listen to her, she certainly listens to herself. Henry Crawford, on the other hand, is the other soliloquizer, but he lacks the capacity for introspection and honesty. His soliloquy is a performance for public consumption, and as such, is not really soliloquy at all:

“Was not that well done of me? He brightened up directly. Now for my soliloquy.”

Crawford’s “soliloquy” comes in the context of preparing for an amateur theatrical, but I do believe Austen was trying to create a contrast between his character and Fanny’s. Acting in a play is probably Crawford’s only occasion for soliloquy, and he is only play-acting at it.

Another conspicuous feature of Jane Austen’s language in Mansfield Park is its heavy use of “self” words. These are words that have “self-” as a prefix and are almost invariably used to express some reflexive act of examination, regulation, evaluation, or other moral attitude towards the self. As with “soliloquy”, the use of these terms implies introspection, and a capacity for moral self-regulation. Below is a list of these words and their frequency in Austen’s novel:

          Self-command (3)
          Self-denial (3)
          Self-reproach (2)
          Self-deceit (2)
          Self-denying (2)
          Self-willed (2)
          Self-consequence (2)
          Self-knowledge
          Self-condemnation
          Self-inquiry
          Self-distrust
          Self-respect
          Self-government
          Self-conceit
          Self-engrossed
          Self-possession

I believe that this (over)use of “self” words is, again, an indicator of Shaftesbury’s influence on Austen, for it is also a very prominent usage in Characteristicks, occurring there 128 times (not counting examples such as “self-same”, which merely express identity). Indeed, two such words appearing in Shaftesbury’s writings — “self-disparagement” and “self-governed” — pre-date the OED’s earliest citation (Hall 252). This reflexive moral language is to be expected in an author who recommends soliloquy as a method of moral self-governance. She who talks to herself, better governs herself, as Austen’s Fanny Price demonstrates.

Rhapsody and Rhapsodizing

Another of the individual treatises included in Shaftesbury’s Characteristicks is one called “The Moralists, a Philosophical Rhapsody”. It is an extended philosophical dialogue related in a letter from Philocles to his friend Palemon. The main characters of the dialogue are Philocles and Theocles. Without getting into too much detail, Philocles is a sceptic who is gradually brought round to a more positive philosophical viewpoint by the wiser Theocles.

Much of Theocles’ moral and philosophical doctrine is conveyed in the form of rhapsody, long ecstatic raptures on the beauty of nature and the order and harmony of the universe. He gets carried away with enthusiasm and finds a willing audience in Philocles. The following is a truncated example of one of Theocles’ rhapsodies:

“Just as I had said this, he [Theocles] turn’d away his Eyes from me, musing a-while by himself: and soon afterwards, stretching out his Hand, as pointing to the Objects round him, he began.
     ‘Ye Fields and Woods, my Refuge from the toilsome World of Meditation. Business, receive me in your quiet Sanctuarys, and favour my Retreat and thoughtful Solitude. — Ye verdant Plains, how gladly I salute ye! — Hail all ye blissful Mansions! Known Seats! Delightful Prospects! Majestick Beautys of this Earth, and all ye Rural Powers and Graces! — Bless’d be ye chaste Abodes of happiest Mortals, who here in peaceful Innocence enjoy a Life un-envy’d, tho Divine; whilst with its bless’d Tranquillity it affords a happy Leisure and Retreat for Man; who, made for Contemplation, and to search his own and other Natures, may here best meditate the Cause of Things; and plac’d amidst the various Scenes of Nature, may nearer view her Works.
     ‘O glorious Nature! supremely Fair, and sovereignly Good! All loving and All-lovely, All-divine! Whose Looks are so becoming, and of such infinite Grace; whose Study brings such Wisdom, and whose Contemplation such Delight; whose every single Work affords an ampler Scene, and is a nobler Spectacle than all which ever Art presented! — O mighty Nature! Wise Substitute of Providence! Impower’d Creatress! Or Thou impowering DEITY, supreme Creator! Thee I invoke, and Thee alone adore. To thee this Solitude, this Place, these Rural Meditations are sacred; whilst thus inspir’d with Harmony of Thought, tho unconfin’d by Words, and in loose Numbers, I sing of Nature’s Order in created Beings, and celebrate the Beautys which resolve in Thee, the Source and Principle of all Beauty and Perfection.’” (II.344-345)


This is just an excerpt; it goes on (and on). I find this style rather tedious, and it was not universally admired in Shaftesbury’s own day. Indeed, Pope satirized the above-quoted passage in The Dunciad. Nevertheless, it had its fans, and I suspect that Jane Austen was one of them. Compare the cadences of Theocles’ rhapsody with Fanny Price’s:

“Fanny spoke her feelings. ‘Here’s harmony!’ said she; ‘here’s repose! Here’s what may leave all painting and all music behind, and what poetry only can attempt to describe! Here’s what may tranquillise every care, and lift the heart to rapture! When I look out on such a night as this, I feel as if there could be neither wickedness nor sorrow in the world; and there certainly would be less of both if the sublimity of Nature were more attended to, and people were carried more out of themselves by contemplating such a scene.’
     ‘I like to hear your enthusiasm, Fanny. It is a lovely night, and they are much to be pitied who have not been taught to feel, in some degree, as you do; who have not, at least, been given a taste for Nature in early life. They lose a great deal.’
     ‘You taught me to think and feel on the subject, cousin.’”


The capacity for appreciating the beauty and order of nature is a virtue in itself in both Shaftesbury and in Mansfield Park, and it is the source — or at least the token — of all the other virtues. Characters who cannot, Theocles-like, be moved to rhapsody by nature tend also to be lacking in other moral qualities. Rhapsody forms a basis of contrast between Fanny Price and Mary Crawford in the following passage:

“‘I am so glad to see the evergreens thrive!’ said Fanny, in reply. ‘My uncle’s gardener always says the soil here is better than his own, and so it appears from the growth of the laurels and evergreens in general. The evergreen! How beautiful, how welcome, how wonderful the evergreen! When one thinks of it, how astonishing a variety of nature! In some countries we know the tree that sheds its leaf is the variety, but that does not make it less amazing that the same soil and the same sun should nurture plants differing in the first rule and law of their existence. You will think me rhapsodising; but when I am out of doors, especially when I am sitting out of doors, I am very apt to get into this sort of wondering strain. One cannot fix one’s eyes on the commonest natural production without finding food for a rambling fancy.’
     ‘To say the truth,’ replied Miss Crawford, ‘I am something like the famous Doge at the court of Lewis XIV.; and may declare that I see no wonder in this shrubbery equal to seeing myself in it. If anybody had told me a year ago that this place would be my home, that I should be spending month after month here, as I have done, I certainly should not have believed them. I have now been here nearly five months; and, moreover, the quietest five months I ever passed.’”


Mary Crawford is unable to lose herself in nature because she is already lost to herself. She, like her brother, is the type of person who requires the noise and distraction of the city. Quietude only brings her disquiet.

The subject of rhapsody points to an interesting tension throughout the novel: On the one hand, the ideal moral agent is expected to feel, and to participate in nature and in the feelings of others. On the other hand, the ideal moral agent is also expected to be “impartial”, “unbiased”, “disinterested” and, like Fanny Price, something of a spectator. Austen “pits the absorption that marks the picturesque views against the detachment, distance, and impartiality her third-person narrative suggests constitute the proper standard of reflection” (Valihora 278). There is often a struggle in Fanny over the extent to which she can permit herself to participate in the drama of those around her. Like Adam Smith’s impartial spectator, she feels for those around her, but not to the same extent they feel for themselves.

The moral theory espoused by Austen in Mansfield Park is an aesthetic one. Virtue requires a capacity to appreciate and participate in beauty. The Good and the Beautiful are inextricably linked through concepts such as harmony, elegance, and proportion:

“The elegance, propriety, regularity, harmony, and perhaps, above all, the peace and tranquillity of Mansfield, were brought to her remembrance every hour of the day, by the prevalence of everything opposite to them here.”

And a person of good character is also a person of taste and finer sentiments:

“It was a picture which Henry Crawford had moral taste enough to value. Fanny’s attractions increased — increased twofold; for the sensibility which beautified her complexion and illumined her countenance was an attraction in itself. He was no longer in doubt of the capabilities of her heart. She had feeling, genuine feeling.”

I hope to have shown more thoroughly than Ryle did that the language of morals in Mansfield Park is largely the language of Shaftesbury.

Bibliography

AUSTEN, Jane. Mansfield Park.

HALL, Roland. “Shaftesbury: Some Antedatings and New Words,” Notes and Queries 206 (1961), 251-253.

KLEIN, Lawrence E. Shaftesbury and the Culture of Politeness: Moral Discourse and Cultural Politics in Early Eighteenth-Century England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

RYLE, Gilbert. “Jane Austen and the Moralists,” in Collected Papers (Vol. I). London: Routledge, 2009.

SHAFTESBURY, Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of. Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (3 vols.). London, 1711 (facsimile, Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1978).

SMITH, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. D. D. Raphael and A. L. Macfie (eds.). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979.

VALIHORA, Karen. Austen’s Oughts: Moral Judgment after Locke and Shaftesbury. Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 2010.


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

William Wollaston (1659-1724)

In writing about the 18th-century British moralists, there is a certain point of controversy that comes up again and again in their writings, and which will therefore be next to impossible for me to avoid. In some ways, the topic was controversial because it was rather vague and ill-defined. I suspect that in my effort to explain it clearly and succinctly for the non-expert, I too will fall into that trap. But here goes…

Stated at its most vague, the question that exercised the British moralists so much was this: Does morality have its source in reason, or in sentiment? Those who believed the former came to be called moral rationalists, while those who believed the latter were called moral sentimentalists. The terminology is somewhat unfortunate, because it is very easy to find sentimentalist ideas in rationalist writers, and vice versa.

In any event, the debate seems muddled. I believe a large part of the reason for this is that when we talk about morality’s source lying in either reason or sentiment, we can mean any of at least four things by “source of morality”:

     1.    The source of moral knowledge.
     2.    The source of moral motivation.
     3.    The source of moral obligation.
     4.    The source of moral judgments.

Our answer to the vague question of morality’s source may change depending on which of these we’re talking about. For example, if we’re talking about moral knowledge, it would be natural to see this as based in reason. However, if we’re talking about motivation, then we might — à la Hume — believe that reason is of itself inert and cannot move us to action without the motive force of the passions. We might know our duty, but performing it is a different matter. Dr. Johnson expressed the knowledge/action gap rather eloquently when he wrote that


“It very commonly happens that speculation has no influence on conduct. Just conclusions, and cogent arguments, formed by laborious study, and diligent enquiry, are often reposited in the treasuries of memory, as gold in the miser’s chest, useless alike to others and himself. As some are not richer for the extent of their possessions, others are not wiser for the multitude of their ideas.” (Rambler No. 98)

It’s even trickier when we talk about moral judgments. For example, one might conceive of judgment as a matter of arriving at a conclusion from premises through a process of ratiocination; in which case it would be natural to see judgment as connected with knowledge, and by extension, with reason (even while accepting that reason may err). However, if one conceives of judgment as unmediated assent to a proposition, akin to intuition, then there may be room here for sentiment to play a role.

One anecdote neatly illustrates this confusion of concepts. In the first edition of John Brown’s (1715-1766) Essays on the Characteristics of the Earl of Shaftesbury (1751), the title of the second essay was “On the Obligations of Man to Virtue”. In the same year, a second edition of the book was printed, in which the essay’s title had been changed to “On the Motives to Virtue”. In every other respect, the essay remained unchanged. Now, obligations and motives are very different things. One can be obligated without being motivated, and vice versa. One can be both obligated and motivated, even though one’s motivation may come from venal and very immoral reasons. The change of title suggests that much of the core of what the British moralists were arguing about was not very clear even to themselves. It was, however, a muddle that proved very fruitful in new ideas. This weakness was, paradoxically, advantageous for discourse on morals in 18th-century Britain.

Putting aside for the moment the various confusions that often caused rationalists and sentimentalists to talk past one another, let us turn to our next British Moralist.

William Wollaston (1659-1724) was a thinker who, as we will see, fell into the rationalist camp. Of the man himself, there is little to say. He was born into a not-very-wealthy branch of an old family. He attended Cambridge, after which he was a schoolmaster for a time. Subsequently he took holy orders and became a curate, a lowly position in the Anglican Church. He toiled away in this relative obscurity until, at the age of 29, he inherited the estate of a wealthy uncle. From that time, he took up the — in my opinion perfect — life of an independent scholar-gentleman. He married and had children. In 1722 he privately published the book for which he achieved his allotted degree of fame, The Religion of Nature Delineated. In 1724 it was released publicly, and in the same year, Wollaston died.

Though almost unread now, The Religion of Nature Delineated (hereinafter referred to as RND) was extraordinarily popular in the 18th century, going through 22 editions by 1800. Benjamin Franklin was in London working for Wollaston’s publisher, Samuel Palmer, when he typeset an edition of the book in 1726.

Broadly speaking, RND was a rather idiosyncratic attempt to provide a theory of morals without relying upon revealed religion. For our purposes, the meat of the book is really contained in its first 20 pages or so. Wollaston develops the foundations of his theory in a series of propositions, the first of which is, “That act, which may be denominated morally good or evil, must be the act of a being capable of distinguishing, choosing, and acting for himself: or more briefly, of an intelligent and free agent” (p. 7). Already, we see one sense in which his theory is rationalist, since he is essentially saying that only an intelligent agent is capable of performing actions that may be denominated right or wrong, because only such an agent is capable of distinguishing moral truth. And only a free agent is capable of choosing to act based on that distinction.

So far there is nothing particularly new or controversial. In the next proposition, he expresses what he basically means by truth: “Those propositions are true, which express things as they are: or, truth is the conformity of those words or signs, by which things are exprest, to the things themselves” (p. 8). Put in the technical language of current philosophy, Wollaston adheres to an old school correspondence theory of truth, which essentially holds a proposition to be true which corresponds with the facts it expresses. Again, nothing particularly new or remarkable about this claim, certainly not by the standards of the time, anyway.

It is his third proposition that is really at the core of what made Wollaston’s theory distinctive. He asserts that “A true proposition may be denied, or things may be denied to be what they are by deeds, as well as by express words or another proposition” (p. 8). Our actions may be characterized as signs or propositions that assert facts or states of affairs. To put it in the terms of modern logic, an action can have a truth-value, in the same way that a spoken or written proposition may be true or false.

So, for example, by appropriating your laptop without your permission, my action affirms a certain state of affairs, namely that the laptop belongs to me rather than to you. Since this is not the case, I have in effect affirmed something that is false. That is what makes the action immoral, according to Wollaston.

Furthermore, just as with a stated proposition, an action affirms something that is true or false regardless of whether the agent knows it: “The truth or falsehood of [an] affirmation doth not depend upon the affirmer’s knowledge or ignorance: because there is a certain sense affixt to the words, which must either agree or disagree to that, concerning which the affirmation is made. The case is the very same still, if into the place of words, be substituted actions” (p. 9). So, whether I knew the laptop was yours or mistakenly believed it to be mine, my action would be wrong — or false — regardless.

Not only may truths be expressed in deeds as well as in words, but deeds can be even more expressive than words. To illustrate, Wollaston used the biblical story of Isaac and Abimelech. Isaac went to dwell among the Philistines with his wife, Rebekah. In order to keep her safe (don’t ask), he passed her off as his sister. But the jig was up when King Abimelech looked out a window and saw Isaac “sporting” with Rebekah. Wollaston continues,

"In the Jewish history we read, that when Abimelek saw Isaac sporting with Rebekah, and taking conjugal liberties, he presently knew her to be Isaac’s wife; and if she had not been his wife, the case had been as in the preceding instance. If it be objected, that she might have been his mistress or a harlot; I answer, that so she might have been, tho Isaac had told him by words that she was his wife. And it is sufficient for my purpose, and to make acts capable of contradicting truth, if they may be allowd to express things as plainly and determinately as words can. Certainly Abimelek gave greater credit to that information which passed through his eye, than to that which he received by the ear; and to what Isaac did, than to what he said. For Isaac had told him, that she was not his wife, but his sister." (p. 11)

When given the choice between believing the spoken affirmation “Rebekah is the sister of Isaac” or the action-affirmation “Rebekah is the wife of Isaac”, Abimelech believed the latter. In other words, not only do actions speak like words; they sometimes speak louder than words.

Here is a summary outline of Wollaston’s rationalist theory of morals:


     1. There are eternal moral truths. 
     2. Actions may affirm or deny these truths. 
     3. When our actions affirm these truths, they are good. 
     4. When our actions deny these truths, or affirm their opposite, they are bad. 
     5. Such actions are good or bad regardless of whether or not the agent intends to affirm or deny these truths. 

Much of the rest of RND is spent in demonstrating our rights and duties and how these are conformable to these claims.

(As a matter of fact, this is a pattern one finds in most of the works of the British moralists: a theory is laid out, sometimes relatively quickly, and then rights and duties are derived from the theory. This last latter part is often the least interesting, since the various writers rarely disagree fundamentally on what these rights and duties are. In fact, it is remarkable that such lively debates in moral philosophy could take place when, on what really matters — conduct, — they were in violent agreement. 18th-century Britain was after all still a society with a large set of shared moral values.)

Some Objections to Wollaston’s Theory.

Given the above admittedly oversimplified outline of Wollaston’s theories, a few objections may immediately come to mind.

First, Wollaston seems to essentially reduce moral obligation to the obligation to tell the truth (or avoid falsehood) in our words and deeds. But reducing all moral obligations to this single one means that we still have this one obligation that remains ungrounded. We have a duty to always tell the truth, but why? And remember, Wollaston’s aim was to explain morality without reliance on revealed religion, so he can’t simply say “Because God wills it”.

I think John Brown, who was mentioned earlier, was pointing to the same problem when he wrote that “’Virtue, saith this learned Writer [Wollaston], consists in a Conformity of our Actions with Truth; in treating every thing as being what it is.’ Well: be it so. Yet the Question still recurs, what is moral Truth? And this demands a Definition no less than Virtue, which was the Thing to be defined” (pp. 119-120). In other words, for Wollaston, “moral truth” seems to play the same role as “virtue”. So saying that we have a duty to conform our actions to moral truth is the same as to say that we have a duty to be virtuous, which is not very enlightening. For one thing, how do we know what is morally true/virtuous? For another, what makes it true/virtuous? Wollaston evades the really important questions.

Second, Wollaston seems to reduce all moral wrong to falsehood, as if vices were mistakes in math or logic. But isn’t there a fundamental difference in kind between morals wrongs and, say, errors in arithmetic?

A third possible objection stems from this perennial philosophical question: What, if any, is the relationship between the True, the Good, and the Beautiful? Shaftesbury had taken much heat from his critics for (supposedly) trying to reduce the Good to the Beautiful, and promoting what some later writers (e.g. Valihora) would call an “aesthetic theory of morality”. One can see how someone holding an aesthetic theory of morality might fall naturally into the sentimentalist camp: if moral good is a form of beauty, and if beauty is rather felt than thought, then morality becomes largely a matter of feeling. But is the Good reducible to the Beautiful? And can sentiment produce reliable moral judgments without the interposition of rational thought? No, said Shaftesbury’s critics. (In truth, this is merely a cartoonish oversimplification of Shaftesbury.)

If the reduction of the Good to the Beautiful is the original sin of the sentimentalists, then perhaps the reduction of the Good to the True is the original sin of rationalists such as Wollaston. Is the Good reducible to the True? If so, why do we not get worked up about arithmetical error in the same way we get worked up about moral error (our second objection, above)? Although we may theorize about it, morality is fundamentally practical, and not merely theoretical.

Fourth, Wollaston seems to make out all forms of immorality to be akin to acts of lying or of ignorance, of denying what is true or of affirming what is false, whether intentionally or mistakenly. But isn’t the moral wrongness of telling a lie different in both kind and degree from, say, the wrongness of murder? More on this below…

Clarke’s Objections to Wollaston.

The year after RND was published and Wollaston died, a 63-page pamphlet appeared entitled An Examination of the Notion of Moral Good and Evil, Advanced in a late Book entitled, the Religion of Nature delineated (1725). Its author was an obscure grammar school teacher named John Clarke (1687-1734). Despite his rather turgid prose style, it turns out that Mr. Clarke was an able and perceptive critic of Wollaston. I will offer below some of his objections, which supplement the ones we have already considered.



First, Clarke notes a fallacy in Wollaston’s claims that our actions may affirm or deny truths:

"I desire the Reader to take notice, that Affirming and Denying are Actions, which in strict Propriety of Language are only applicable to Agents; so that Actions, whether Words or Deeds, can not be properly said to affirm or deny any thing; the Agent only can be properly said to affirm or deny Truth by his Actions, whether Words or Deeds…. Thus for Instance, a Person that should pronounce, in the hearing of others, Words in the Greek Tongue, which he understands not, equivalent to this Proposition in English, There is no God, could not be said to deny the being of God." (pp. 6-9, misnumbered)
 

Put another way, Wollaston writes as if words and deeds are disembodied and free-floating entities with an independent truth-value of their own. The agent is just the occasion from which they issue, and when they are false, the agent has “done” something morally culpable, regardless of what was going on in his head when the said entities issued forth.

Clarke, on the other hand, is saying that whatever immorality there is in in one’s action, it must come from the agent’s understanding of what he is doing. If I babble a bunch of foreign words I do not understand, I cannot be said to have told a lie, since I haven’t really “told” anything. Whereas, Wollaston’s theory makes no allowance for such a case, and must treat a man as immoral who says something untrue, even unintentionally, or even if he is incapable of understanding what he has said. I would further add, that in the case of deeds, the same absurdity would seem to hold: if I am coerced into doing an immoral deed, I must be just as culpable as if I did it voluntarily, as far as Wollaston is concerned. Accepting that actions can be said to deny or affirm propositions independently of the intentions of the agent, as Wollaston seems to do, is to ascribe the same moral culpability to someone who does not intend to deny truth as to one who does (p. 12). In other words, it fails to distinguish between a lie and an error.

Clarke also notes that many of the worst kinds of immoral actions do not seem to involve any denial of truth or affirmation of falsehood at all. Indeed, using the example of a highwayman demanding money at gunpoint (p. 11), Clarke says that the demand, backed by threat of violence, is neither a denial of the true proposition that the money belongs to the victim, nor an affirmation of the false proposition that the money rightfully belongs to the highwayman. Quite the opposite, in fact. The violence of his act speaks volumes about whom the money really belongs to. And in any case, be cannot be said to be affirming or denying any proposition. He is imply making coercive threat; he is not trying to convince the victim that his money is not his own.

We might go further here than Clarke. We might say that, even if the highwayman were affirming a proposition, it might be the proposition “I will shoot you if you don’t give me your money”. Assuming that the highwayman intends to carry through on his threat, then on Wollaston’s theory, the highwayman is behaving virtuously in affirming what is true!

When we talk of actions as affirming or denying propositions, Clarke notes that there is always the problem of interpretation, of figuring out precisely which proposition is being affirmed or denied. Deeds, like words, may be misinterpreted. Clarke argues that in many cases deeds may lack the eloquence of words:

"Does a Man break a Bargain? this is, according to Mr. Wollaston, denying the Truth by Action, denying there was any Bargain: Tho’ if another might take the same Freedom, or pretend to the like Skill for the finding out the Sense and Meaning of Actions, he would be apt to think it perhaps not a Denial of the Bargain, as tho’ there had been none, but of the Obligation only to keep it. Another Critic in Actions would perhaps find it out to be a Denial of neither, but an affirmation rather of this Proposition, that the Breach of the Bargain was a likely means to rook his Chapman of some Money…" (p. 13)

There is an indeterminacy of meaning to words and deeds.

Finally, to the list of objections to Wollaston’s theory, we can add the following humorous reductio ad absurdum from Clarke. If, as Wollaston claims, virtue lies in always affirming truth in our words and deeds, then “it will then be a glorious Exercise for a Man to spend his Time in thrumming over such worthy and weighty Propositions as these, A Man’s no Horse, a Horse no Cow, a Cow no Bull, nor a Bull an Ass” (p. 19). The most reliable road to moral sainthood would, then, seem to be to spend several hours a day sitting in an armchair and rattling off as many true propositions as come to mind.

Although Wollaston’s book sold extremely well, his theory cannot be said to have had many professed adherents. The general opinion seems to have been that the theory was ingenious but utterly wrong. In retrospect, like Hobbes before him, Wollaston’s most lasting contribution to 18th-century moral theory came from the various refutations it spawned.

Bibliography

BROWN, John. Essays on the Characteristics. London: C. Davis, 1751 (facsimile, Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1969).

CLARKE, John. An Examination of the Notion of Moral Good and Evil, Advanced in a late Book entitled, the Religion of Nature delineated. London: A. Bettesworth, 1725.

VALIHORA, Karen. Austen’s Oughts: Moral Judgment after Locke and Shaftesbury. Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 2010.

WOLLASTON, William. The Religion of Nature Delineated. London: Samuel Palmer, 1724 (facsimile, Delmar, NY: Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints, 1974).



Monday, June 26, 2017

The Cambridge Platonists

Benjamin Whichcote (1609-1683)
As mentioned in my previous post, this is the first of a series on the great period of the British moralists, extending from roughly 1650 to 1800.

Professional philosophers make a living by arguing against one another, and society has decided, for its own reasons, that it would like to pay certain people to make a profession out of disagreeing. And yet, strangely, the fact is that modern Anglo-American academic philosophers are really birds of a feather. The majority of them, it seems, share the following beliefs in some form: free will is an illusion; truth is subjective or is a function of power; veridical knowledge about the world is not possible (scepticism); morality is largely a matter of either subjective feeling (emotivism, non-cognitivism) or group agreement (cultural relativism), or an illusion (nihilism); the universe is reducible to force acting on passive matter ; the human agent is a causally determined machine made of flesh and propelled by desires and appetites; human beings are not special, but are just animals with somewhat more complicated brains; there is no such thing as objective beauty; there is no such thing as a soul; there is no such thing as a God.

This list is not exhaustive, but it is certainly depressing. And looking at it, one is struck by how much the modern philosopher is the direct heir of her famous 17th-century predecessors. During the middle of that century, Descartes was arguing that the universe was reducible to matter pushed by matter. At the same time, Hobbes was arguing that men were nothing more than meat puppets motivated by selfish appetites, and that right and wrong had no basis in reality other than a sovereign’s ability to impose them by force.

Some brave souls struggled, however vainly, against this reductionist impulse. Imagine for a moment a time and place where there were English-language academic philosophers who (i) wrote in elegant and beautiful prose (almost inconceivable now); who (ii) believed that Right and Wrong, Good and Evil, were distinctions with a sound basis in the nature of things; who (iii) defended the concepts of free will and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions; who (iv) believed that rather than being an inert, passive collection of matter, the universe is alive and active; and who (v) similarly believed that the mind is an active power that makes knowledge as much as it passively receives it.

This broad and unfashionable-sounding philosophical profile is characteristic of a group of 17th-century thinkers associated with Cambridge University, and particularly with Emmanuel College, a group that later came to be labelled “the Cambridge Platonists”. It is precisely this broad and unfashionable profile that makes these figures rather difficult to explain today.

To be honest, in discussing the Cambridge Platonists, I’m not quite sure where to begin. I suppose we might start with style, with their elegant prose. The first thing to keep in mind is that although they were academics, they were also clergymen. In other words, the course of their professional duties required a lighter touch, since they had to deliver sound theological doctrine, moral exhortation, and religious inspiration to congregations who were not academics themselves, or indeed were illiterate. Hence, to a professional academic philosopher of today, their writings — many of which appear in the form of sermons — can seem flaky and eccentric. But they are often extremely poetic. Take, for example, this characterization of the spiritually deadening effects of excessive self-interest offered by Peter Sterry (1613-1672): “A little Bird ty’d by the Leg with a String, often flutters and strives to raise itself; but still it is pull’d down to the Earth again: Thus a Soul fixt in a Self-Principle, may make attempts to Pray and Offer at the Bosom of God; but still it is snatch’d down by that String of Self, which ties it to the Ground” (Pinto 169). I admit there is great charm in this little simile. The author has that poetic eye, which sees the very great in the very small.

Not all of Sterry’s imagery was equally felicitous. For example, there is something rather improper in this one: “There is not the lowest thing, which hath not God in it; for God fills all: Yet as the Sun-Beams fall on a Dunghill, and are not polluted; so God is still himself to himself, high and glorious in the lowest Things” (Pinto 150). Put charitably, this might be characterized as the author’s poetic eye seeing the very small in the very great, to ill effect.

Another choice little gem comes from the lyrical pen of John Smith: “When we look unto the Earth, then behold darkness and dimness of anguish, that I may use those words of the Prophet Esay [Isaiah 8:22]: But when we look towards Heaven, then behold light breaking forth upon us, like the Eye-lids of the Morning, and spreading its wings over the Horizon of mankind sitting in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace [Luke 1:79]” (Patrides 151).

Interestingly, among the Cambridge Platonists, Sterry was a bit of an oddball. For one thing, he was a Puritan. As a matter of fact, he was Oliver Cromwell’s chaplain. Most of the other Cambridge Platonists were Anglican, though of a latitudinarian persuasion. Also, while the others had their poetic flights, they usually succeeded in remaining firmly grounded in reason. Sterry, on the other hand, was a mystic, and some of his flights, though somehow quite dazzling, were also utterly incomprehensible if one stopped to reflect on them for too long, as in this example: “A bright or light Body, like the Sun, sends forth millions of Beams round about from every Point of itself. Such a Brightness, such a Fruitfulness is there in the Person of Christ; Millions of Angels every Moment spring and sparkle forth from him” (Pinto 153). This is a beautiful gem, but one isn’t quite sure what to do with it.

At his mystical best, Sterry was a poet of those little contemplative silences, where God is to be found: “Put out then every Spark of Creature Light or Life in your Spirits, and you shall find yourselves immediately in the Light of God. A deep Silence of all created Objects ushers in the Appearances of God in the Soul” (Pinto 184). And consider this, which he wrote in a letter to his son: “As musick is conveyed sweetest and furthest upon a river in ye Night: so is ye Musick of ye heavenly voice carried most clearly, pleasantly to ye understanding, when all ye outward senses ly wrapt up in darkness, and ye depth of night” (Pinto 184).

Sterry was a sort of poet who wrote in prose. Not all of the Cambridge Platonists were excellent stylists. Henry More (1614-1687), for instance, was a wretched writer. He also tried his hand at actual poetry, to embarrassing effect. Two things were mainly responsible for making More’s poetry bad. First, his favourite poet was Edmund Spenser, particularly the latter’s Faerie Queen, which was written in a peculiar stanza form, and used language that was self-consciously archaic and hearkened back to Middle English verse. With Spenser it has a certain charm, and certainly it flows. Here’s the effect when More employs (perpetrates?) a similar style:

     Nor Ladies loves, nor Knights brave martiall deeds,
     Ywrapt in rolls of hid Antiquitie;
     But th’inward Fountain, and the unseen Seeds,
     From whence are these and what so under eye
     Doth fall, or is record in memorie,
     Psyche, I’ll sing. Psyche! from thee they sprong.
     O life of Time, and all Alterity!
     The life of lives instill his nectar strong,
   My soul t’inebriate, while I sing Psyches song.
(“Psychozoia,” Canto I, stanza 1, in Philosophicall Poems, p. 1).

Secondly, More uses this poetical form to express very abstract philosophical concepts, deploying a Greek-derived philosophical inkhorn jargon. Long Greek words tend not to sit very naturally within English versification, partly because they don’t scan well, and partly because the reader must stop the flow to mentally construe the meaning of such terms:

    “Plain death’s as good as such a Psychopannychie.”

Wretched stuff. None of this is to say that More wasn’t a good philosopher; he was just a terrible writer, bad enough to make Kant proud. I could say much more about style, but I’d rather move on to content.


Active Minds

I mentioned above that unlike Hobbes and Descartes (and later Locke), who saw the human mind along the lines of a lump of wax passively receiving sensory impressions, the Cambridge Platonists conceptualized the mind as an active power that makes knowledge rather than merely receiving it. On this, the best spokesperson is probably Ralph Cudworth (1617-1688). Cudworth insisted that one way the active nature of the human mind manifests itself is in the integration of the various sensory impressions it receives: “The Sight cannot Judge of Sounds which belong to the Hearing, nor the Hearing of Light and Colours; wherefore that which judges of all the Senses and their several Objects, cannot be it self any Sense, but something of a superior Nature” (Treatise 70). In other words, there must be some active intellectual power that actively integrates and interprets information from all the various senses, and which cannot itself be a sense, but is something that is prior to sensory knowledge.

It is not just that the sensationalist psychology leaves unexplained how the various passively received sensory impressions get integrated without the active power of the mind. Hobbes and his ilk, in their rush to reduce knowledge to sensory impressions, effectively reduce all sense impressions to impressions of one sense — touch, since all sense is a reducible to matter impacting upon the sensory organs. Thus, they lose the basis for differentiation between the various senses (e.g. touch versus taste), and between different sensations within a sensory dimension (hard versus soft). Again, it is the active powers of the mind that make these discriminations (ibid. 60).

And since, says Cudworth, knowledge cannot be reduced to passively acquired sense-impressions without positing an active integrating and discriminating power, “Knowledge is not a Knock or Thrust from without, but it consisteth in the Awakening and Exciting of the Inward Active Powers of the Mind” (ibid. 99-100). Thus, he says, “It must needs follow from hence, that Knowledge is an Inward and Active Energy of the Mind it self, and the displaying of its own Innate Vigour from within, whereby it doth Conquer, Master and Command its Objects…” (ibid. 126).


“Connate” Knowledge and the Moral Sense

So, knowledge does not come solely — or even primarily — from the senses. The mind is active and, in a sense, creates knowledge using its own pre-existing resources. There is, then, such a thing as innate knowledge, prior to sensory experience. It is in this claim of innate knowledge that we find the Platonism of the Cambridge Platonists on display. However, instead of using the word “innate” they often prefer to use the term “connate” or “connatural”. Indeed, this latter terminology is so frequent in the writings of the Cambridge Platonists, and infrequent enough elsewhere, that it can almost serve as an identifier of the group. (As we’ll see, there are two other terms that also serve this purpose.) “Connatural” is not always used in the same way in their writings. For example, there are many places where it is synonymous with “innate”, in the sense of a kind of knowledge that is in the mind ab initio, not acquired. In other places it serves to describe knowledge that, though not necessarily present from the very first, develops early on and necessarily, as a function of the life form and history of the species. And sometimes for the Cambridge Platonists, “connatural” is used in the sense of “consistent with one’s nature”, as when Benjamin Whichcote (1609-1683) writes that “Man, as Man, is Averse to what is Evil and Wicked; for Evil is unnatural, and Good is connatural, to Man” (Moral & Religious Aphorisms #42).

Whichcote’s words show that moral knowledge is among that body of knowledge which is connate to man. Although we learn to make finer moral distinctions through experience, human beings have an innate understanding of right and wrong, good and evil. For the Cambridge Platonists, this understanding is sometimes ascribed to reason, and sometimes to “conscience”, though the latter term is often used as if it were the same thing as reason. This is because for them, reason is more akin to a sort of intuition; it is not necessarily ratiocinative. Again, here their Platonism is on display: understanding is often more a matter of directly grasping the truth rather than arriving at it by a process of explicit reasoning, of consciously moving stepwise from premises to conclusion.

For the Cambridge Platonists, there is a normative dimension to reason that allows for this identification of reason with conscience. Whichcote notes that reason has a directing force, because it is the voice of God. Therefore, “To go against Reason, is to go against God: it is the self same thing, to do that which the Reason of the Case doth require; and that which God Himself doth appoint: Reason is the Divine Governor of Man’s Life; it is the very Voice of God” (ibid. #76). The moral person listens to this voice and follows it. Disobedience to it is immorality. And when we ignore it, says Whichcote, we not only pay the price in terms of suffering the worldly consequences of error, we also suffer the sting of conscience: “If Reason may not command; it will condemn” (Select Sermons, p. 63; Moral & Religious Aphorisms #98).

Placed within the tradition of the British moralists, it is easy to see how this view of conscience as an intuitive grasping of moral truth leads naturally to the notion that we have a moral sense, which gives us access to moral truths much as sight grasps colours and shapes, and hearing grasps sounds. In other words, we can see in the Cambridge Platonists the beginnings of a “moral sense” school of thought. Shaftesbury, usually accredited as the founder of the moral sense school, edited — with a lengthy preface — an edition of Whichcote’s sermons (Select Sermons). As a matter of fact, this was Shaftesbury’s first published work. To credit Shaftesbury with inventing the moral sense is to ignore the fact that in the very volume that Shaftesbury edited, Whichcote wrote, “Man by his Nature and Constitution, as God made him at first, being an intelligent Agent, hath Sense of Good and Evil, upon a Moral account” (Select Sermons 232). Elsewhere, Whichcote wrote in a similar strain, “Man, by Reason, has apprehensions of Moral Good and Evil; as Animals, by Sense, distinguish Natural Good and Evil” (Moral & Religious Aphorisms #146). Of Shaftesbury’s two most prominent followers, Hutcheson preferred the language of “moral sense”, while Butler seems to have preferred “conscience”, the term more commonly used among the Cambridge Platonists.


“The Candle of the Lord”

So, in the Cambridge Platonists, we have a view of the mind as active, and as directing conduct through reason or conscience. This “reason-or-conscience” is connatural to man. I also said that the use of the word “connatural” is often a telltale sign that one is reading the Cambridge Platonists (Shaftesbury used it too). This is a good place to introduce another phrase peculiar to the Cambridge Platonists. They seem to have had an obsession with Proverbs 20:27: “The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord.” This image of the mind as the candle of the Lord is recurrent throughout the writings of this group.

Whichcote uses it when he writes that “The Spirit of a Man is the Candle of the Lord; Lighted by God, and Lighting us to God” (Moral & Religious Aphorisms #916). Nathaniel Culverwell (1619-1651) is often mentioned in connection with the Cambridge Platonists, because he taught at Emmanuel College, but he is usually considered not to be one of them, because his philosophical opinions are more heterodox — in his writings there is a heavy natural law influence, and he often cites Descartes with approval. However, I do consider him a Cambridge Platonist, largely on the grounds that he too was a heavy user of the “candle of the Lord” metaphor, as when he writes, “But the publishing and manifestation of this Law which must give notice of all this, does flow from that heavenly beame which God has darted into the soul of man; from the Candle of the Lord, which God has lighted up for the discovery of his owne Lawes; from that intellectual eye which God has fram’d and made exactly proportionable to this light” (Elegant and Learned Discourse 71).

What do Cambridge Platonists mean when they say that the mind is the “candle of the Lord”? Well, first, God is the source of all intellectual light (again, this is Platonism). But a finite portion of this infinite light has been placed in each of us, on purpose, that we may shed some of its rays to cut through darkness and illuminate His works. Recall John Smith’s words, quoted earlier: “But when we look towards Heaven, then behold light breaking forth upon us, like the Eye-lids of the Morning, and spreading its wings over the Horizon of mankind sitting in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” We are surrounded by darkness, and all we have is this little candle to guide us and prevent us from stumbling around blindly.

Henry More has an interesting take on the “candle of the Lord” image. He seems to include our passions and affections as part of this luminous candle: “Nevertheless, we do not pretend, in the least, to have the Passions of the Mind exterminated. We rather account of them… as of the very Organs of the Body, and as distinctly useful… Wherefore if we can but skill our Passions aright, They are as Lamps or Beacons, to conduct and excite us to our Journey’s end” (Account of Virtue 82-83). This is a truly remarkable passage. Most philosophers in the Western tradition, Descartes included, viewed the passions with deep suspicion, since they were seen to interfere with reason, clouding or distorting it. More, on the other hand, does not distrust the passions as such. Rather, since the passions are natural, we must have them for a purpose. The passions, “rightly skilled” or trained, are guides to the understanding of good and evil, or are at least tokens of such understanding. This acceptance of our passionate nature is another foreshadowing of Shaftesbury’s philosophy.


“Plastick Nature”

I mentioned earlier that the Cambridge Platonists set themselves against those philosophers, such as Hobbes, who viewed the universe as an inert, passive collection of matter bounces against other matter in the void, to no particular purpose. For the Cambridge Platonists, by contrast, the universe is active and purposive, a sort of living organism. Instead of simply existing, with its component parts bouncing against each other endlessly, the Cambridge Platonist universe can be said to be in a process of unfolding. Since the universe is God’s creation, it can even be said to be a thought in God’s mind, with a logic to it, much as there is with a chain of reasoning in the mind. We’ve already seen that minds are active. As with minds, so with larger nature. Everything is active, unfolding according to its own internal principles.




This brings us to the third of those terms — along with “connatural” and “candle of the Lord” — that are identifiers of Cambridge Platonist writing. This activity, this “unfolding of nature according to its internal principles” is called the universe’s “plastic nature”. Although the phrase, and variants of it, is common among all the writers in this group, it is especially prominent in Ralph Cudworth and John Smith. Cudworth, for example, complains of the inertness of the materialist philosophers’ universe in the following terms: “They make a kind of Dead and Wooden World, as it were a Carved Statue, that hath nothing neither Vital nor Magical at all in it. Whereas to those who are Considerative, it will plainly appear, that there is a Mixture of Life or Playstick [sic.] Nature together with Mechanism, which runs through the whole Corporeal Universe” (Patrides 290). The universe is not a mere machine. It is an organism that grows and develops: “[T]he World was not made by any whatsoever, after such a manner as an Artificer makes an House, by Machins and Engins, acting from without upon the Matter, Cumbersomly and Moliminously, but by a certain Inward Plastick Nature of its own” (Patrides 296).

John Smith makes an important point that serves to tie much of this metaphysics together with the concept of free will, for he says that as with nature, so too with the mind. Neither nature as a whole, nor the mind as a subset of nature, is wholly compelled by extraneous forces. Rather, it moves towards ends proposed by its own internal force: “There is a Plastick Virtue, a Secret Energy issuing forth from that which the Mind propounds to itself as its End, to mold and fashion it according to its own Model. The soul is alwaies stamp’d with the same Characters that are engraven upon the End it aims at; and while it converses with it, and sets it self before it, it is turned as Wax to the Seal, to use that phrase in Job [Job 38:14]” (Patrides 166). Where a Hobbist sees the motions of the mind as being caused by contingent, occurrent wants and desires, Smith sees the mind as active in proposing ends to itself, and that there is a “fit” between agent and ends. Note too the reversal here of the Cartesian image of the mind as wax passively receiving sensory impressions from the external world. Instead, Smith proposes that the mind is itself the seal, which leaves its impression upon the external world, through willing and acting.

A living and unfolding universe with meaning, free and active minds, an innate moral faculty, a sense of beauty, the reality of good and evil, the acceptance and celebration of our passionate nature… these things are the philosophical legacy of the Cambridge Platonists. Unfortunately, it is a legacy we have mostly squandered.


Bibliography

CUDWORTH, Ralph. A Treatise concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality. London: James and John Knapton, 1731 (facsimile, New York: Garland, 1976).

CULVERWELL, Nathaniel. An Elegant and Learned Discourse of the Light of Nature. Robert A. Greene and Hugh McCallum (eds.). Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2001.

MORE, Henry. Philosophicall Poems. Cambridge: Roger Daniel, 1647 (facsimile, Menston, UK: Scolar Press, 1969).

An Account of Virtue. Edward Southwell (trans.). London: Benjamin Tooke, 1690 (facsimile, New York: Facsimile Text Society, 1930).

PATRIDES, C. A. (ed.). The Cambridge Platonists. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

PINTO, Vivian de Sola (ed.). Peter Sterry, Platonist and Puritan, 1613-1672: A Biographical and Critical Study with passages selected from his Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1934.

WHICHCOTE, Benjamin. Select Sermons of Dr. Whichcot [sic.]. Edinburgh: G. Hamilton and J. Balfour, 1742 (facsimile, Delmar, NY: Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints, 1977).

Moral and Religious Aphorisms. London: Mathew Elkins and Marrot, 1930.


Friday, May 12, 2017

The British Moralists: Introductory

In the many university philosophy courses I took in my time — undergraduate and graduate — there were interesting figures who, for whatever reason, got left out of the canon. I went through my entire education without hearing the names of Thomas Reid or the Earl of Shaftesbury uttered in class. These are two figures who ended up having an important influence on my thinking, but about whom I had to learn for myself. Regular readers of this blog will know that the latter was beyond influential for me; without exaggeration, I can say that he was life-changing. So it is perhaps understandable that I feel I was shortchanged when it comes to my formal philosophical education.

Now, Western philosophy has a 2,500-year-old history, so perhaps we can be charitable and accept that the neglect of certain figures is inevitable; not everybody can be fit into the curriculum. But it is also true that that curriculum is itself partly a product of the whims, fancies, and tenure-seeking aspirations of a given generation of professional philosophers. The teachers of my generation unfortunately seemed to have been obsessed with Rawls, Wittgenstein, and Hume. Most of Rawls is really just obvious stuff, pilfered from other disciplines, mixed with some over-processed Kant, and packaged in the fashionable liberalism of mid-20th century America. Wittgenstein truly was a genius, but that genius was sadly wasted on a narrow set of philosophical problems that seems to outsiders a bit lacking in real-world relevance. And Hume, well, as a philosopher he was presented to me stripped of all philosophical or historical context except for his relation to Berkeley and Locke. His moral philosophy especially was therefore distorted beyond all recognition, because the people teaching it had no familiarity with Shaftesbury, Butler, or Wollaston (nor with Fielding, Richardson, or Johnson, for that matter).

These three names — Shaftesbury, Butler, Wollaston — demonstrate that sometimes it is not just isolated figures but entire movements and traditions that get left off philosophy’s curriculum. This is less excusable. The extraordinary flowering of moral philosophy in Britain between, say, 1650 and 1800 to me deserves to be considered almost as important an achievement as that more famous eruption of philosophical activity that occurred in ancient Athens. Hume was a Johnny-come-lately to that flowering, and frankly of lesser importance when set in his place within the tradition. In terms of their influence on thought, on literature, and on the arts of the long 18th century, certainly Shaftesbury and Bernard Mandeville must be rated the more important moralists. And yet, neither of these latter names was ever heard in a philosophy course that I attended. Instead, we were stuffed to overflowing with Hobbes and Hume.


(Why? I'm not sure. Perhaps the deep scepticism and non-cognitivism of these two men accorded more with the temper of mid- to late 20th-century academic moral philosophy.)

It was not always thus. There was still much interest in this heterogeneous group of philosophical moralists when L. A. Selby-Bigge published his two-volume anthology British Moralists in 1897. By 1969 they were still of enough importance that a new two-volume collection was thought to be warranted, The British Moralists, 1650-1800, edited by D. D. Raphael. Since then, there have been occasional monographs published on the subject, most prominent of which perhaps is Stephen Darwall’s 1995 book The British Moralists and the Internal ‘Ought’: 1640-1740. However, Darwall’s is characteristic of many of these, at least of the ones written by philosophers, which tend to present these thinkers as modern philosophers, using modern philosophical concepts to engage in modern philosophical debates, and stripped of their close connections to the broader artistic and literary context of their times.

I have commonplace books full of notes on these British moralists, and I have decided that I would like to make some use of them in this blog. I shall therefore periodically profile some of these people under the label “British moralists”. I will not bother with such figures as Hobbes and Hume, since they are not neglected in the schools and stand in no need of resurrection; in any case, I have nothing to say about them that hasn’t been said already. Instead I will profile the unsung heroes, such as David Fordyce, John Brown, Richard Cumberland, and the Cambridge Platonists. In doing so, I hope to be able to show that I am not engaging in hyperbole when I compare this flowering of philosophy to that of ancient Athens. I also hope to demonstrate what philosophy may be when (i) it deigns to engage with the real world, and (ii) when it does so in elegant literary prose, for many of these philosophers were also writers of real merit.

If this topic bores you, I promise that these posts will be only occasional, and I envision them being fairly brief.