Intermission: A Reflection on Shaftesbury

I'll admit that if I were Alice in Wonderland, eighteenth-century texts would be my little white rabbit, the chasing of which always leads to a precipitate and absurdly long fall into a magical world. Reflecting on Burney's Mrs. Ellis has led me to the Earl of Shaftesbury and his part in the debate about where, exactly, morality comes from.

In his "Inquiry Concerning Virtue and Merit" he makes the claim that a man's virtue is determined by his "natural temper." His word choice suggests that morality is an innate quality: it is natural to each subject. Not so, he clarifies. At his plainest, Shaftesbury states that "worth and virtue depend on a knowledge of right and wrong and on a use of reason sufficient to secure a right application of the affections."

One of the many beauties of the eighteenth century is that it is the era in which morality can be separated (at least by some) from religious beliefs and attached to reason and education, thereby putting everyone from atheists to devout practitioners on the hook for behaving morally (which Shaftesbury defines as acting in such a way as to uphold society and the species). We should be so lucky.

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