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Ridentem dicere verum quid vetat: Shaftesbury, Horatian Satire, and the Cultural (Ab)uses of Laughter

Patrick Müller
p. 47-71


Cet article s’attache à montrer que l’on ne peut véritablement comprendre les notions d’humour et de rire chez Shaftesbury si l’on ne tient pas compte des différentes situations rhétoriques présentes aussi bien dans les textes publiés que dans les manuscrits inédits. La lecture de la satire et de l’ironie horatiennes par le philosophe fait apparaitre que les tensions sous-jacentes aux différentes fonctions qu’il attribue à l’humour et au rire peuvent être mises sur le compte des difficultés rencontrées par l’application pratique de ses présupposés théoriques. Postulant une utopie whig éclairée, la théorie de Shaftesbury dut cependant se confronter aux circonstances politiques qui prévalaient: dans une période dominée par les querelles entre partis suite à la guerre de succession d’Espagne, son idéal d’un rire satirique modéré et constructif, cultivé par une caste éclairée d’hommes politiques philosophes, finit par devenir une arme de propagande politique largement inefficace.

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1Everything that can be said about Shaftesbury’s theory of laughter has, it might seem, already been said. Although the main focus of scholarship to date has quite naturally been on the role of laughter as an antidote to religious enthusiasm or fanaticism, the psychological, social, political, and literary dimensions of laughter as perceived by Shaftesbury have also attracted their share of critical attention. Both his published writings, assembled in 1711 to form Characteristicks, and passages from the relevant private manuscripts, Pathologia and Askêmata, have been included in such investigations. This broad range of applications shows that the concept of “laughter” or “humour” is no mere appendix to other, more important issues that dominate Shaftesbury’s thought. It in fact occupies a prominent place within a philosophy which attempts to unmask and reform, on multiple levels – comprehensively even – the “characteristics of men, manners, opinions, and times.” For this undertaking, laughter is one, perhaps even the instrument of choice.

  • 1  "Shaftesburys Schriften lassen sich nicht auf philosophische Disziplinen verteilen. Ethik, Ästheti (...)

2However, neither the different thematic strands nor the relationship between the Earl’s published and unpublished writings have ever been brought together for more systematic joint scrutiny, and this although only a broader approach can do Shaftesbury justice. Philosophy proper was, to his mind, an interaction between the different disciplines,1 and he made no real distinction between the rhetorical methods of philosophy and literature, a view which informs most of the texts that were brought together in Characteristicks (Müller, “The Able Designer”). In order to reveal the true scope of Shaftesbury’s theory of laughter, and to provide an adequate explanation for the obvious tensions that underlie its ultimate aim, we must therefore first attempt to chart the different aspects of his notion. Secondly, we need to be aware and mindful of the differing rhetorical intentions within the body of Shaftesbury’s writings before we can begin to comprehend what must otherwise remain a puzzling concept.

The Different Contexts

  • 2  For a concise introduction to the controversy, which revolved principally around the test of ridic (...)

3In his introduction to A History of English Laughter, Manfred Pfister points out that “laughter takes part in, and is part of, social history,” that it is indeed a “litmus test in assessing the state of a given society” (vi-vii). Although Pfister makes a general point here, his remarks could almost have been tailored specifically to encompass the scope of Shaftesbury’s views about laughter. As a phenomenon related, in some way or another, to the emotions, laughter, in the Earl’s view, plays an important role in social life and so requires close intellectual attention. His is, in point of fact, probably the most detailed theory of laughter to have emerged from the long eighteenth century, and it remained, for quite a while, the most controversial one to boot.2

  • 3  All references to the Earl’s writings are to the Standard Edition. Arabic numerals in square brack (...)

4The terminological cluster huddled around the term “laughter” is, of course, a complex one at the best of times. In Shaftesbury, “ridicule,” “wit,” “raillery,” and “humour” are important (and multivalent) co-referents. Michael Billig has, in a perhaps over-simplifying yet useful way, summarized for us the basic meanings of wit and humour at the time: “Wit involved playing with ideas or words, whereas humor occurred when the object of the laughter was a person” (61-62). For Shaftesbury, however, the term “humour,” with its obvious etymological roots in humoral pathology has a more extensive meaning, especially when part of the semantic pair “good humour.” It is a “good disposition” or even “a virtue” for the Earl, and as such its function is twofold: on the one hand “it contributes to governing the action of ridicule,” and, on the other, it disciplines “the passion of laughter.” Laughter, then, was numbered by Shaftesbury among the passions, and it is important to note here that his was a “cognitivist conception of the emotions,” one which holds that “emotions are beliefs, true or erroneous” (Jaffro, “Reading Shaftesbury’s Pathologia” 12 & 6). In keeping with the principal epistemological objective of his thought, to “regulate Fancy, and rectify Opinion” (Miscellaneous Reflections 240 [198-99]),3 it was necessary to direct laughter towards its proper objects, those, that is, which were deserving of it. In consequence, the disciplining of one’s natural disposition to laughter constituted an important aspect of every individual’s character training.

The Therapeutic Context

5It is in his Sensus Communis and Soliloquy that Shaftesbury outlines the character traits one must develop in order that one be able to recognize the proper uses of laughter. The section in his private Askêmata on the “Passions,” however, reveals that the fundamentals of his theory of a “strict inward Economy,” a regimen designed to guide the individual towards a complete knowledge of the self, had been formulated as early as 1698. There, we find him describing “Laughter” as “a Passion” which may potentially “be employd sometimes against […] the Pomp & rediculouse solemnity of human affaires.” Yet he cautions himself that one must be circumspect, for

there [is] nothing more unsafe, or more difficult of management. this was well perhaps heretofore, & might suit with one who was yet unfix’d, & only in a way towards improvement: but it must become a very different kind, ’ere it be suitable with one who understands himself: and it is enough to say, that it is wholly un-manageable whilst any of that impotent sort remains, or that any thing of this kind is in the least degree involuntary in the Temper, & not perfectly under command: and what Strength of Mind, Constancy, & Firmness this implyes, is easy to understand. (Askêmata 245-46)

  • 4  According to Shaftesbury’s understanding of the history of Philosophy, there were no “more than tw (...)

Laughter, then, is only a reliable divining rod in the detection of “Pomp” and “solemnity” for those who are, in a Socratic and Stoic sense,4 masters of their own selves. It is therefore important to define the proper province of laughter: “There is a great difference between seeking how to raise a Laugh from every thing; and seeking, in every thing, what justly may be laugh’d at” (Sensus Communis 102 [128]).

  • 5  In The Moralists, Theocles leads Philocles to declare that “Beauty […] and Good” are “one and the (...)
  • 6  See Weinsheimer 185-86. For Shaftesbury’s projected audience, see also Rivers 104-07.
  • 7  According to Redwood, the dominant conception of laughter at the time (183).

6As nothing is ridiculous except what is deform’d” (Sensus Communis 102 [128]), only those able to recognize what is genuinely deformed are in a position to identify the proper objects of laughter. The “humour” which allows an individual to laugh at the right things is accordingly difficult to cultivate. In fact, only the purebred philosopher, or virtuoso, can achieve this state of mind. The yardsticks for humour, wit, ridicule, and laughter are beauty, goodness, and truth, concepts which Shaftesbury basically considered identical.5 As an emotion or passion, laughter needs to be made conformable to these yardsticks. Shaftesbury’s theory of decent laughter is thus designed for a cultured caste of “well bred People, those of a finer Make, better Tast & raisd above the Vulgar” (Askêmata 445).6 His urge to define, indeed confine, the number of those qualified to laugh appropriately suggests that he by no means rejected the views of those who regarded laughter as a corrosive social and political force.7 Quite the contrary: his vision of a cultural elite, of a select breed of “Lovers of Beauty” all party to the art of having (or raising) an acceptable laugh, points to his general distrust of “vulgar” laughter and its ramifications.

The Religious Context

7It was heretofore the Wisdom of some wise Nations, to let People be Fools as much as they pleas’d, and never to punish seriously what deserv’d only to be laugh’d at” (Letter concerning Enthusiasm 322 [13-14]). This is a key phrase which summarizes neatly the idea behind one of the most hotly debated concepts of the eighteenth century: the famed test of ridicule. A Letter concerning Enthusiasm and Sensus Communis present the laughter provoked by ridicule as an “innocent Remedy” that can be applied to all sorts of things regarded by Shaftesbury as cultural evils. These could range from harmless aesthetic faux pas to violent distempers such as those he perceived among the Tory zealots who practiced religious persecution. His test of ridicule demands the readiness to screen and, if deserved, laugh both at the preconceptions of others and at one’s own: to examine and, if need be, expose, in other words, those “Idol-Notions, which we will never suffer to be unveil’d, or seen in open light” (Sensus Communis 16-18 [60]).

8Laughter as a weapon in the arsenal of those fighting for toleration is the most thoroughly investigated of the contexts briefly mentioned here. Laurent Jaffro has shown how Shaftesbury turns “la disposition religieuse de Whichcote et de Tillotson en un tribunal pour une critique de la religion” (“Humour et libre pensée” 46). As early as in the anti-Hobbist preface to his edition of Benjamin Whichcote’s sermons (1698), Shaftesbury draws on the Cambridge Platonist’s use of the term “good nature” which, for both Whichcote and the Earl, stands for a religious temper that emphasizes the altruistic potential of man rather than his morose or selfish (and hence anti-social) traits. “The first thing in Religion,” says Whichcote, “is, to refine a Man’s Temper: And the second, to govern his Practice” (Select Sermons 290). Properly understood, “Religion produceth a sweet and gracious Temper of Mind; calm in its self, and loving to Men. It causeth a Universal Benevolence and Kindness to Mankind.” Having listed the several virtues included in his notion of “GOOD-NATURE,” Whichcote concludes that religion proper “causeth the greatest Serenity and Chearfulness to the Mind; and prevents groundless Fears, foolish Imaginations, needless Suspicions, and dastardly Thoughts” (Select Sermons 294).

9In Characteristicks, the good-natured person or Christian is ultimately, to use the terminology of humoral pathology employed by Shaftesbury, one whose religious sensibility is not forged by a “devout Melancholy or Enthusiasm,” but rather by a spirit of joy in the face of divine benignity: “BUT, my Lord [Somers],” A Letter concerning Enthusiasm informs us,

  • 8  See Shaftesbury’s letter to Michael Ainsworth, 29 January 1709: “for never do we more need a just (...)

you may perhaps wonder, that having been drawn into such a serious Subject as Religion, I shou’d forget my self so far as to give way to Raillery and Humour. I must own, my Lord, ‘tis not merely thro’ Chance that this has happen’d. To say truth, I hardly care so much as to think on this Subject, much less to write on it, without endeavouring to put my self in as good Humour as is possible. (A Letter concerning Enthusiasm 332 [21-22])8

  • 9  For the historical background, see Schwartz.

This was Shaftesbury’s panacea against religious fanaticism, the worst expression of which he found in High-Church arguments against religious toleration: these he identified as a threat to the liberalism he considered to be the distinguishing feature of Protestantism. The Tories and their High-Church allies were thus steering a dangerous course on the fringes of Roman Catholicism – the persecution of the French Prophets in their absolutist homeland provided the perfect background for this analogy as it is drawn in the Letter Concerning Enthusiasm.9

The Soci(ologic)al Context

  • 10  For a discussion in the context of religious toleration, see Alvarez.

10Shaftesbury’s stance was that of the Whig, Low Church propagandist, a fact which did not escape one of his earliest Tory critics. Mary Astell urges her readers to “Detect […] the Blasphemy” of the Letter concerning Enthusiasm’s invitation to contemplate God in the spirit of good humour (28). The High-Church feminist’s principal strategy in refuting the Letter’s theses is to chastise, with acid sarcasm, the author of devices such as the test of ridicule for the “Outrageous Profaneness” of the “Bart’lemy Fair Method” he applies to the Christian religion.10 Shaftesbury appears as a man who “shoots his Arrows against Heaven” only to see them “return upon his own Head” (47, 65).

11Astell’s own arrows were shot in order to carry the by then familiar message accusing a Whig author of libertine irreligion and anti-social snobbishness. In doing so, she unwittingly armed Shaftesbury with new ammunition for the arguments brought forth in Sensus Communis and its attack on the Tories as

Gentlemen [...] so full of the Spirit of Bigotry, and false Zeal, that when they hear Principles examin’d [...] with this frankness of Humour, they imagine presently that all Professions must fall to the ground, all Establishments come to ruin, and nothing orderly or decent be left standing in the world. (Sensus Communis 36 [74-75])

  • 11  For the significance of clubs in Shaftesbury, see Schmidt-Haberkamp (132-33).

12At this point, Shaftesbury once again introduces a restriction of the kind we have already seen where laughter is defined as the privilege of an elite wise enough to put it to its proper social use. For him, the worst thing one can do is “to laugh at publick Virtue, and the very Notion of common Good” (Miscellaneous Reflections 214 [174]). When he defends the freedom of humour, what he means is first and foremost “the Liberty of the Club, and that sort of Freedom which is taken amongst Gentlemen and Friends, who know one another perfectly well.”11 It was important that the general “Publick” be not “laugh’d at, to its face.” Dealing with “the Vulgar,” any politician was well advised to treat all matters solemnly, but in “select Companys” Shaftesbury saw “no pretence for any one to be offended at the way of Raillery and Humour, which is the very Life of such Conversations” (Sensus Communis 36-38 [75-76]). Such handpicked gatherings were, then, for him the proper forum in which ultimately to determine (by way of good-humoured dialogue) and, ultimately, control the public good.

The Literary Context

13This brings us to the rhetorical strategies underlying Characteristicks, and what is of particular relevance here is the Earl’s theory of satire. As a genre designed to expose aberrations from truth, or what he calls “deformity,” its connection to his intended reform of laughter is obvious. The consummate Shaftesburian satirist is the well-bred gentleman-virtuoso who participates in the shaping of public welfare. George Austin Test has pointed out that

to think that the laughter of satire is transforming or cathartic and that it will produce those effects in all individuals fails to recognize the complexity of what causes laughter. Laughter after all is both personal and social. Society may define and determine what may or may not be laughed at, but no individual will laugh at all the things that society allows that individual to laugh at, nor will that person necessarily refrain from laughing at what is socially unacceptable. In fact, laughter is determined not only by society but is more narrowly defined by social class […] educational background […] and by community or geographical region. (Test 25)

Within his particular parameters, Shaftesbury’s theory of satire seeks to find a remedy for such differences (and that means recognizing them in the first place). It attempts nothing less than to establish a common basis for the laughter of those responsible for their country’s chosen standards and ideals.

  • 12  Shaftesbury to Lord Somers, 30 March 1711 (The National Archives: PRO 30/24/22/4, fols 355-6).

14Miscellaneous Reflections, an almost postmodern jeu d’esprit with an edge (written in 1710/11), helps us understand the Earl’s conception of the satiric mode. As he wrote to Lord Somers, “your Ldp will find that if my Good-Humour be quite spent, I have Courage however left to attack & provoke a most malignant party.” The High Churchmen are now taken to task not as Corrupters merely of Morals & publick Principles; but as the very Reverse or Antipodes to Good Breeding Scholarship, Behaviour, Sense & Manners.”12

  • 13  For my interpretation of the engraving and the unauthorized changes in the right-hand panel (by ei (...)

15The juxtaposition between the kind of satire produced by the High Churchmen (who stand for a Tory, absolutist regime) on the one side, and on the other by the moderate, Latitudinarian champions of toleration (in Shaftesbury’s eyes the Whig champions of liberty) determines the emblematic language of the engraving designed by the Earl for Miscellaneous Reflections (Fig. 1): the High-Church side displays all the paraphernalia of oppression and entrapment, whereas the satyr on the right-hand side is capable of testing the established doctrine of his own church, and is therefore able to laugh at his own whims.13

Figure 1 Engraving for Miscellaneous Reflections vol. 3.

Figure 1 Engraving for Miscellaneous Reflections vol. 3.
  • 14 Illustration accompanying “Miscellaneous Reflections », p.3.

Online Library of Liberty. 24 July 2016​pages/​shaftesbury-s-illustrations-for-characteristicks-173214

16In Soliloquy, Shaftesbury had already warned authors against sharp satiric outbursts in public, discharges untempered by “the wholesom Regimen of Self-Practice” (56 [167]) he personally submitted himself to in his Askêmata. He argues that British satire knows no restraint, the country’s satirists being “Slaughter-men” (186 [270]) whose “scurrilous, buffooning” satirical mode is “without Morals or Instruction; which is the Majesty and Life of this kind of writing” (180 [266]). Their ill-humoured, “splenetick” attacks betray a mind “thrown out of Good Humor” (Miscellaneous Reflections 138 [109]). By applying the language of humoral pathology to his theory of satire, Shaftesbury seeks to find a remedy for what he regarded as a vicious circle, that is, the mutual fertilization of religious fanaticism and the spirit of persecution that leads to ever new heights of ill will. The inspection of one’s own religious views in the spirit of good (or spleen-free) humour is a possibility open to someone who has whetted his or her intellectual skills in polite conversation and thus arrived at proper, fixed conclusions regarding the need for a liberal constitution and for toleration of other beliefs. Shaftesbury saw the fatal exchange between ill-directed enthusiasm and persecution as potentially destructive rather than constructive, and so as a very real threat to liberty and sociability – as a pernicious force that had to be exorcised.

  • 15  Shaftesbury’s terminological imprecision is examined briefly in Schmidt-Haberkamp 126-27.

17The obvious literary tool for this exorcism was satire, its principal weapons being raillery and ridicule.15 Satire proper could only flourish among “real Gentlemen,” those, that is, who were willing to have their own views examined and put to the test. Such an illustrious audience makes the task of the satirist an all the more delicate and difficult one: the application of the weapons “Wit and Humour” must needs be highly refined and customized. Shaftesbury mockingly advises the Tory humorists to polish their style lest the subjects of their satire:

Discover not the least Feature of their real Faces in your Looking-glass, nor know themselves, in the least by your Description; they will hardly be apt to think they are refuted. How wittily soever your Comedy may be wrought up, they will scarce apprehend any of that Wit to fall upon themselves. They may laugh indeed at the Diversion you are pleas’d to give ’em: But the Laugh perhaps may be different from what you intend. They may smile secretly to see themselves thus encounter’d; when they find, at last, your Authority laid by, and your scholastick Weapons quitted, in favour of this weak Attempt, To master them by their own Arms, and proper Ability. (Miscellaneous Reflections 346 [295-96])

  • 16  See Askêmata 445, and note 2.
  • 17  For the superiority theory, see Billig 50-56. In this broader context of the taxonomy of humour, S (...)

18To laugh people out of their (religious) follies is, then, an arduous task, requiring substantial intellectual and rhetorical skills of the very kind exemplified by Shaftesbury’s own polite style. It seems that, for once, the Earl agrees with Hobbes. Reflecting on the sources of laughter in Askêmata, Shaftesbury identifies Schadenfreude or the “malicious delight at another’s misfortune” (445)16 to be at bottom, a view which corresponds (roughly at least) with that of Hobbes. Although the latter clearly advocates a “superiority theory” of laughter according to which it is the facial expression caused by a feeling of “Sudden glory,” the overarching purpose of Leviathan – to produce stability and peace – leads him to advise the future King Charles ii that he ought to purge himself of this feeble expression of emotion, “one of the proper works” of “great minds” being “to help and free others from scorn; and compare themselves only with the most able” (Hobbes 38, Shaftesbury, then, is putting Hobbes’s admonition to practical use in Characteristicks.

Satire and Politics in the Unpublished Writings: Pathologia, the Horace-letters, and Askêmata

19The conversational tone of the Earl’s published writings masks, at least to a certain extent, the unease about the (ab)uses of laughter that is more evident in some of his private manuscripts. Throughout his writing career, Shaftesbury was very much interested in the cultural uses of laughter; in fact, his policy of ridicule amounts to nothing less than a detailed cultural critique. In his Pathologia, a manuscript text recently edited for the first time in print, we find a typology of the passions as found in Socratic-Stoic thought, and within that a distinction which is of remarkable significance for the Earl’s theory of satire. He differentiates there between two kinds of laughter: jocositas or “mockery” and hilaritas or “mirth.” Jocositas is defined as “immoderate, uncontrollable, loud laughter,” as “pleasure about some ugliness in external things and other people, as if it was a good for us” (Jaffro, “Pathologia” 10). In the light of the Earl’s views on the relationship between beauty, truth, and goodness (or virtue), it is clear that he regards jocositas as ill-directed laughter which exaggerates its object’s importance for our lives – it is laughter motivated by mere “malice or malignity.” Hilaritas, by contrast, is “moderate and controllable laughter” defined as “a species of admiration.” Applied to external objects, it is “a kind of overwhelming pleasure in view of or upon the examination of an external thing fancied beautiful.” When applied to oneself, however, “either by acquisition or as inherent to us, it becomes immediately a boasting pleasure, i.e. a form of pride” (Jaffro, “Pathologia” 10).

  • 18  It can in fact be applied to the (traditional) one between the satires of Juvenal and Horace as sk (...)

20It is important to note here that the distinction is made within the context of Horatian satire:18 it follows Shaftesbury’s reflections on the (ironic) style of Horace, and the various paradoxes that suffuse not only his favourite poet’s writings, but also the Stoic theory of the passions. Pondering the question as to how Horace came to call himself virtutis verae custos rigidisque satelles, the Earl concludes that the answer is to be found in the different forms of satirical laughter (Epistles I.i.17). While jocositas is generally condemned as “immoderate,” hilaritas is definitely to be rejected if it leads to self-infatuation. As admiration (admiratio) of external objects, however, “mirth” is not dismissed out of hand, although it is generally “the greatest cause of all vices, and that which increases and strengthens them” (Jaffro, “Pathologia” 5). A passage from Askêmata shows that Shaftesbury regarded admiration as the yardstick for establishing the divine attributes, at least for the true philosopher:

Divest ye Deity of all wch we esteem Happiness & Good […] wch way can we admire or respect such a Being but so much as in comparison with some great Prince or dignifyed Man? Now, where is the Remedy? What Cure? – Nothing but this. To consider what is Excellent & Good; what Not. for, where we imagine this to be, thither our Admiration will be turn’d; where we think this is wanting, thither our Contempt […] In Short: if we would truly own or worship Deity; if we would leave room for any true & sincere Veneration, Honour, Admiration or Esteem; we must either ascribe those things to Him wch we admire as excellent & Good: or we must no longer admire as Excellent or Good, those things wch we cannot ascribe to Him. (Askêmata 107-08)

As the embodiment of all that is good and true and beautiful, Deity is the proper object of enthusiastic admiration, a rapture which finds expression in Theocles’ imaginary journeys in The Moralists. This kind of mirth is an appropriate one, elicited as it is by those objects which alone deserve our admiration: in moral terms virtue, in social terms the public good, in aesthetic terms beauty, and in epistemological terms truth. It is here that we find the source of what has been called “Shaftesbury’s attempt at satiric reform,” an endeavour which “sought to refine and redirect – rather than wholly to subvert – the destructive impulses of the genre” (Wolf 585). For the aggressive intentions behind satire, admiratio seems to be too mild an impulse; it therefore needs to be redirected in two steps. Firstly, the philosophical regimen, the Stoic exercises performed by Shaftesbury in Askêmata, must ensure that we do not admire the wrong objects. This is part of the process of regulating “Fancy” and rectifying “Opinionwhich then, in a second step, leads to the apprehension of those objects embodied by Deity. For Shaftesbury, the philosopher-satirist is an admirer of everything that is proper and becoming in (human) nature, and the good-humoured disposition exemplified by this admiration is the ideal to which he aspires.

  • 19  For the significance of “criticism” in Shaftesbury’s theory of satire, see Schmidt-Haberkamp 126, (...)
  • 20  Shaftesbury to Pierre Coste, 15 November 1706 (The National Archives: PRO 30/24/45/80 Part 3, fols (...)

21As the motto for the Letter concerning Enthusiasmridentem dicere verum quid vetat – betrays, Horace is certainly the single most important classical author for any understanding of the Earl’s theory of laughter and satire (Satires I.i.24-25). The Earl’s reading of Horace illustrates for us his perception of the right kind of satirical writing. In autumn 1706, Shaftesbury wrote two letters to his friend Pierre Coste in which Horace’s life and writings are dissected. Horace possessed, the Earl notes, the critical spirit necessary for self-inspection, for “Never was a man more honestly bold with himself, more plain, frank, ingenuous, beyond imagination in laying himself open.”19 He would “say of himself all the sharp, severe, bitter things, which the greatest Enemy coud say against him” and therefore provides the perfect example of an individual applying the test of ridicule to his own principles.20 Horace was properly qualified to be a satirist insofar as he did not shy away from becoming the object of auto-aggressive scorn: only those who can bear to inspect their own views may become true satirists.

22Shaftesbury detects three “principal States and Periods” in the poet’s life: the first Horace’s “original Free Republican State,” also termed the “Socratick, Civil, or Social,” the second the poet’s “Debauchd, slavish, courtly State,” and the third his “Returning, Recovering State, and his Recourse to his first Philosophy and Principles.”21 Grappling with André Dacier’s reading of Epistle I.xxiv, Shaftesbury praises “Horace’s Irony” for its “so just a measure,” its simplicity and honesty”: “There is a due Proportion in Irony well known to all polite Writers especially Horace who so well coppy’d that noted Socratick kind.” While Dacier read the epistle as “une raillerie continuelle contre les Stoïciens” (1.377-78)22 Shaftesbury favours an interpretation which sees none of the “infamouse sort of strain’d Irony” in the epistle, no

  • 23  Shaftesbury to Pierre Coste, 1 October 1706 (Part 3, fol. 423r); the quotations are from Odes I.xx (...)

scurrilouse Mockery or Buffoonery against the Socratick Philosophy; against vertue, against Religion or the establish’d Religious Rites of his Country: but that it was actually a Truth, and a sincere one in his mouth, that he had been to his sorrow Parcus Deorum Cultor et infrequens, by having falln from his first Principles, with wch he began the World: but that in process of Time after having experiencd all yt Pleasures & a Court with looser Morals & a more flattering Philosophy coud afford him, he did at last – retrorsum Vela dare, atque iterare Cursus relictos.23

  • 24  Shaftesbury to Pierre Coste, 15 November 1706 (Part 3, fol. 431r).
  • 25  Shaftesbury to Pierre Coste, 1 October 1706 (Part 3, fol. 422r).

Horace’s frankness reflects “a simplicity […] little suitable to this Age, and therefore little intelligible in it.”24 In this way, Horace is turned into the impersonation of all that Shaftesbury would himself later attempt to achieve with Characteristicks, and he even went so far as to claim Horace for his own party, calling him an “Old Whigg.”25

  • 26  The latter in the sense of an excessive “pride” in the merits of British culture as opposed to tho (...)
  • 27  According to Abigail Williams, England’s “political and cultural history was analogous to the hist (...)

23Shaftesbury sees in Horace the perfect opposite to current British satire. Like “the early Poets of Greece” praised in Soliloquy, the Roman poet “form’d [his] Audience; polish’d the Age; refin’d the publick Ear, and framed it right; that in return [he] might be rightly applauded.” British authors, by contrast, are chastised for being “turn’d and model’d (as they themselves confess) by the publick Relish, and current Humour of the Times […] In our Days the Audience makes the Poet” (178-80 [263-64]). Unrefined by profound thought, self-discourse, and polite conversation, British satire only too easily degenerates into an instrument of jocositas or of hilaritas.26 The political context is important here: Shaftesbury associated different forms of satire with different political (and therefore also religious) views and systems: the “Old Whigg” Horace was for him the poet who still embodied the virtues of the Roman Republic at the threshold to the Roman Empire. Horace’s satire, as the model of refined writing, is the ideal recommended by Shaftesbury. Contemporary British satire is vulgar in nature and as such reflects the oppressive, ill-directed, and vicious laughter which the Earl associated with the worst of the Roman emperors. The distinction between the two types was used by him as a foil for early eighteenth-century Britain:27 the (Low-Church) Whigs stood for the educated, enlightened liberalism of the Roman Republic, the (High-Church) Tories for a kingdom of darkness and absolutism.

24In the philosophical exercises based on what the Earl regarded as the “Socratic Stoicism” of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, he devised an anatomy or short cultural history of laughter. In the section “Nomoi,” written during his second period of retreat in Holland (1703/4), he included a chapter on “Laughter” in which he distinguishes between its two manifestations in history: the one based on malice, such as the laughter of those who visit Bedlam to see and enjoy the entertainments there (445, 447), and the other the “Divine Facetiousness” (449) represented by Socrates with his irony and fitting for “Decorum” and the “ΤΟ ΚΑΛΟΝ” (445). Shaftesbury draws in each case a direct line between these kinds of laughter and the political systems they represent. The first stands for “Savageness. Barbarity. Immanity. […] Brutality. Tyranny,” the examples he cites being Caligula (as portrayed by Suetonius) and Domitian (445-46), two of the Roman emperors whose principles he believed perverted the achievements of the Roman republic. This kind of laughter is a disruptive force, whereas nothing “can be sweeter, gentler, milder, more sociable, or more humane” than Socratic irony (424).

  • 28  Shaftesbury to Pierre Coste, 1 October 1706 (Part 3, fol. 419r).

25The distinction which informs this dichotomy is once again the difference between the destructive and constructive forces of laughter. In its excessive form, the passion acquires propagandistic strength; it enables those who define the conventional sources of laughter to ostracize those at whose expense a laugh is raised. Such laughter (in the sense of jocositas) is idiosyncratic and, what is worse, socially coercive. In contrast to this, Socratic irony, in the words of the first of the Horace letters to Pierre Coste, is the mark of a “civil, social, Theistick” constitution, one based on the belief “that Society, Right and Wrong was founded in Nature, and that Nature had a meaning, and was her self, that is to say, in her Witts, well governed and administered by one simple and perfect Intelligence.”28 Such controlled, reasonable laughter therefore reflects the true republican spirit and its penchant for tolerance and sociability.

The first Roman Miscellanys, or Satyrick Pieces”: Rhetoric and Shaftesbury’s Satire

  • 29  I find Jaffro’s and Maurer’s comparison between Pathologia on the one hand and the Letter and Sens (...)

26There are certainly inconsistencies in the Earl’s arguments about laughter, and these have in the past been subjected to detailed critical examination, in particular where his concept of satire might be seen to oppose what he says about ridicule. With regard to satire, Richard B. Wolf sees a discrepancy between the private writings with their cautions and Characteristicks with their occasional aggressiveness. He attributes it to the Earl’s stoicism, that is, his attempt to bring the passions under the control of reason. Especially in Miscellaneous Reflections, Wolf argues, Shaftesbury partially abandoned “one of the most interesting satiric experiments of the early eighteenth century” in favor of a “more direct and less moderate approach to satiric targets ranging from religious priesthoods in general to Tory High Churchmen in particular” (582). The problem with this contention is that Wolf does not give due thought to the different rhetorical modes employed throughout the private writings and in Characteristicks.29

  • 30  See Sensus Communis 110 [134]: “Let the solemn Reprovers of Vice proceed in the manner most sutabl (...)

27In Pathologia (conceived as a systematic exposition of the Socratic-Stoic theory of the passions), the private letters, and Askêmata (exercises of the kind Shaftesbury found it “very indecent for any one to publish” Soliloquy 54 [164]), the emphasis is either on the systematic exposition of his reading of Stoic texts or on the therapeutic value of a Stoic regimen. The reflections on the social (ab)uses of laughter in these writings provide the historical, sometimes even the theoretical framework requisite for our understanding of their author’s true thoughts on the nature of laughter and its implications for social interaction. In his Characteristicks, however, he had to put his own theory to (convincing) literary and philosophical use in order to be able to persuade his readers – the difference is one between private examination and public application. A full grasp of his notions about laughter and humour is, then, contingent on the proper distinction between, on the one hand, his philosophical ideals, his religious and political convictions, and on the other the way in which the different rhetorical requirements of his writings respectively shaped the expression of his views.30

28If we follow John Hayman, Shaftesbury’s persona in Miscellaneous Reflections serves as an example ex negativo, the Miscellany writer “embodying the ‘faulty’ [mode of writing]” and thus being exposed “to satirical effect” (Hayman 499). A quotation from Soliloquy, which identifies the miscellaneous as the proper satiric mode, corroborates this view:

The only Manner left, in which Criticism can have its just Force amongst us, is the antient Comick; of which kind were the first Roman Miscellanys, or Satyrick Pieces: a sort of original Writing of their own, refin’d afterwards by the best Genius, and politest Poet of that Nation [Horace]; who, notwithstanding, owns the Manner to have been taken from the Greek Comedy above-mention’d. And if our Home-Wits wou’d refine upon this Pattern, they might perhaps meet with considerable Success. (Soliloquy 172 [258-59])

Shaftesbury admired Horace above all for his candidness, for his willingness to “lay himself open,” and for a “simplicity […] little suitable to this Age, and therefore little intelligible in it.” And one significant part of Earl’s personal programme is to relocate to his own age the manner practiced by the Roman poet in his “Satyrick Pieces.”

Almost every Creature wore a Mask”: The Ethiopian in Europe, Bakhtinian Carnival, and the Satirical Persona

29This explains why the example of the Ethiopian in Sensus Communis is of such importance for the overall structure of Characteristicks. Shaftesbury transports “a Native of Ethiopia” to “Paris or Venice at a time of Carnival,” that is, “when the general Face of Mankind was disguis’d, and almost every Creature wore a Mask.” Shaftesbury imagines that the Ethiopian would be perplexed until

he discover’d the Cheat: not imagining that a whole People cou’d be so fantastical, as upon Agreement, at an appointed time, to transform themselves by a Variety of Habits, and make it a solemn Practice to impose on one another, by this universal Confusion of Characters and Persons.

After a while, he would not be able to help laughing

when he had perceiv’d what was carrying on. The Europeans, on their side, might laugh perhaps at this Simplicity. But our Ethiopian wou’d certainly laugh with better reason. ‘Tis easy to see which of the two wou’d be ridiculous. For he who laughs, and is himself ridiculous, bears a double share of Ridicule.

However, if after the carnival, when the Europeans have changed their habit, the Ethiopian should, at

the sight of a natural Face and Habit, laugh just as heartily as before; wou’d not he in his turn become ridiculous, by carrying the Jest too far; when by a silly Presumption he took Nature for mere Art, and mistook perhaps a Man of Sobriety and Sense for one of those ridiculous Mummers? (46-48 [82-83])

  • 31  See, however, the section on “The Literary Context” above.
  • 32  In Miscellaneous Reflections, Shaftesbury numbers Ethiopia among the traditional hotbeds of supers (...)

It is no coincidence that the Ethiopian is transported to either Venice or Paris: in Sensus Communis, Shaftesbury juxtaposes his own philosophy with that of Hobbes, who, as the theorist of absolutism, represented the antithesis to almost all the libertarian ideals espoused by the Earl.31 As the true Whig propagandist, Shaftesbury did of course associate absolutism with Catholicism: “The higher the Slavery, the more exquisite the Buffoonery.”32

  • 33  When he was writing Miscellaneous Reflections, Shaftesbury had recently been implicated in the Sac (...)

30This propagandistic aphorism from Sensus Communis (32 [72]) draws a direct line between political systems and the modes of raillery these encourage. Shaftesbury has been chastised for the “large helping of British chauvinism” with which his theory of humour is served (Critchley 84), but his remark that “the greatest Buffoons are the Italians” needs to be seen within this political and religious context. Those who suffer under “the spiritual Tyranny” Shaftesbury believed was exerted by the Italian and French systems can only laugh under the mask of “Buffoonery and Burlesque” (Sensus Communis 34 [71-72]). What he therefore does in Miscellaneous Reflections, wearing the mask of the satirist, is to insinuate that Britain was in danger of losing its liberties if the High-Church Tories, those men the Earl associated with Jacobitism and absolutist tendencies, were to prevail at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession. It was exceedingly difficult to employ “the genteelest Wit” against “the most scurrilous Buffoonery” (Sensus Communis 22 [63]) in such a potentially oppressive climate.33 He was now paying his political enemies and critics such as Astell back in their own coin – that of open, vitriolic attack.

  • 34  Critchley rightly interprets the episode as an “argument against the alleged subversive potential (...)

31It is tempting and actually fitting to reconsider the carnival episode in a Bakhtinian context. For Bakhtin, carnival is at the same time subversive and conservative, destructive and constructive: “It asserts and denies, it buries and revives.” He applies this ambivalence to the theory of satire, distinguishing between laughter’s carnivalesque and satirical functions: while “festive laughter” sees the individual include itself in “the wholeness of the world […] the satirist whose laughter is negative places himself above the object of his mockery, he is opposed to it;” this means that “that which appears comic becomes a private reaction” (Bakhtin 12). In Sensus Communis, however, this view finds its reversal: the masked subversion that ostensibly characterizes the carnival is the slavish antithesis to the free, mildly satirical intercourse among gentlemen in the club.34 The context of (inter)subjectivity (Sigler) that pervades the Ethiopian episode juxtaposes the vulgar laughter generated by carnivalesque buffoonery with the subtly ironic laughter of the libertarian, gentlemanly variety, which is based on mutual consent. The reforming power of masked and therefore distorted laughter, covering “the Spirit of Bigotry, and false Zeal,” fizzles out; for Shaftesbury, the carnivalesque persona of satirical comedy merely stifles the desperate cry of an enslaved people. At the same time, however, the manner of the Horatian Satyrick Pieces” includes precisely the rigorous self-inspection executed in Miscellaneous Reflections: applying the program of a “self-discoursing Practice” (Soliloquy 54 [164]) to the views espoused over the course of the foregoing treatises. Under a persona, the satirical miscellany becomes for Shaftesbury the literary mode in which to conduct in public the private self-inspection of the Askêmata, and to apply the test of ridicule to his own writings.


  • 35  Shaftesbury to Pierre Coste, 25 July 1712 NS (The National Archives: PRO 30/24/23/9, fols 130v-131 (...)

32Leibniz famously criticized the Letter concerning Enthusiasm, “particularly in what relates to the too great Concessions of [Shaftesbury] in favour of Raillery and the way of Humor.”35 In reply to this charge, the Earl says that he “seems to despise himself” for returning, in the Miscellanies, “to his mix’d Satyrical Way of Raillery and Irony, so fashionable in our Nation,” and I believe he is making a rather complex point here. At the end of his Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, a work designed both to identify and to redefine current standards of beauty, truth, and virtue, he holds up the satirical mirror to contemporary society. Miscellaneous Reflections is a carnivalesque text in its own right; it enables him not only to practice, under a satirical persona, Horatian self-inspection, but also to show his readers the distorted taste of the times – the text is at the same time constructive and destructive. It is precisely this seesawing between the positive and negative aspects of laughter that permeates the three volumes of Characteristicks. The laughter envisioned in the first volume, laughter in the spirit of Socratic irony, turns into pure spite in the last volume – a shift indeed from construction to destruction.

33To point out that the Earl did clearly see himself as a Horatian satirist, one attacking an empire that was in danger of degenerating into a hotbed of superstition and oppression, is, then, to acknowledge the tension underlying his views on laughter and humour. Obviously, Shaftesbury’s characterization of Horace is the key to any interpretation of his own views:

  • 36  Shaftesbury to Pierre Coste, 15 November 1706 (Part 3, fols 430v-431r).

All these woud be endless Contradictions, and must appear so to any one, if the Periods of Horace’s Life and his Revolutions be not understood together with the Revolutions in the Roman State and Horace’s Engagements both there and in the Court, with the natural Effect, which such Originall Principles together with time and Age, and a Love of Studdy and Philosophy must necessarily have had on such a Man.36

  • 37  For the Earl’s reflections about his ‘public mask’ in Askêmata (for example 142, 356), see Klein 9 (...)
  • 38  This may explain why, in the unpublished Plasticks (see 165-68), Shaftesbury pondered at some leng (...)
  • 39  Lord Ashley to John Locke, 29 September 1694 (Bodleian Library, MS Locke c.7, fols 112-13).

Only the various contexts in which Shaftesbury found himself immersed throughout his writing career help us understand his theory of laughter and its seemingly “endless Contradictions.” He may have attempted himself to give humour free play, advocating that others follow suit, and to liberate the satirist from his carnivalesque persona, but at the same time he postulated that this could be done only in private or in select circles from whence the laughter would not pass beyond carefully defined boundaries. Moreover, he obviously felt the need to hide in public behind an authorial mask which he simultaneously looked on as a symbol of oppression;37 he was not able to circumvent the necessity of devising elaborate rhetorical guises (or “to exchange the Tragick Buskin for an easier and more natural Gate and Habit” Sensus Communis 36 [74]), artifices which seem to belie his ideal of plainness and simplicity.38 These points reflect the limitations of Shaftesbury’s theory when it came down to a practical application in the face not only of prevailing social circumstances, but also of the more destructive, “Irrationall & Brutall” aspects of human nature.39 Such considerations hindered the implementation of a demanding theory which, despite its undeniable appeal, also had a darker side: when Billig speaks of laughter’s “disciplinary function in the interests of creating the good society” in Shaftesbury (78), he points out its almost Foucauldian scope – its “disciplinary function” is, at least in Miscellaneous Reflections, redeployed from the religious fanatics to the political enemies. These could not be tickled into virtue, but only whipped.

34Despite these reservations, such a notion of laughter includes, one might say, a utopian element: the vision of a society governed by liberal virtuoso-gentlemen who would also set its standards of humour and laughter – a vision which was to remain, as time has all too drastically shown, a figment of Shaftesbury’s philosophical imagination. However, seen purely within the context of his writings and of his times, the Earl’s theory of laughter is, as a “litmus test in assessing the state of a given society,” uncommonly effective (Pfister vii). It reflects the status quo of a society that was, towards the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, torn between the claims of conservative and progressive forces, between an absolutist past and an enlightened future. The paradoxes arising from this tension are by no means resolved in Characteristicks, but they pervade and shape Shaftesbury’s thought to an extraordinary degree.

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Alvarez, David. “Reason and Religious Tolerance: Mary Astell’s Critique of Shaftesbury.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 44 (2011): 475-94.

Ashley-Cooper, Anthony, Third Earl of Shaftesbury. Standard Edition: Complete Works, Selected Letters and Posthumous Writings. Ed. Wolfram Benda, et al. Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt: Frommann-Holzboog, 1981-2015.

Astell, Mary. Bart’lemy Fair: or, an Enquiry after Wit. London: R. Wilkin, 1709.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and his World. Trans. Hélène Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984.

Billig, Michael. Laughter and Ridicule: Towards a Social Critique of Humour. London: Sage, 2005.

Collections of Passages Referr’d to by Dr. Henry Sacheverell in his Answer to the Articles of his Impeachment. London: Henry Clements, 1710.

Critchley, Simon. On Humour. London: Routledge, 2002.

Dacier, André. Remarques Critiques sur les Œuvres d’Horace. 10 vols. Paris: Denys Thierry and Claude Barbin, 1681-89.

Docherty, Thomas. Criticism and Modernity: Aesthetics, Literature, and Nations in Europe and its Academies. Oxford: OUP, 1999.

Gilmore, Thomas B. “The Eighteenth-Century Controversy over Ridicule as a Test of Truth: A Reconsideration.” School of Arts and Sciences Research Papers 25 (1970): 1-37.

Hayman, John G. “Shaftesbury and the Search for a Persona.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 10 (1970), 491-504.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Ed. J. C. A. Gaskin. Oxford: OUP, 1996.

Jaffro, Laurent. “Humour et libre pensée: Shaftesbury et le rire du daimôn.” Lumière et Vie 230 (1996): 37-51.

Jaffro, Laurent, & Christian Maurer. “Reading Shaftesbury’s Pathologia: An Illustration and Defence of the Stoic Account of the Emotions.” History of European Ideas 39.2 (2013): 207-20. DOI:10.1080/01916599.2012.679795.

Jaffro, Laurent, Christian Maurer, & Alain Petit. “Pathologia, a Theory of the Passions.” History of European Ideas 39.2 (2013): 221-40. DOI: 10.1080/01916599.

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

Müller, Patrick. “Mapping a Tory’s ‘Prostitute Pen and Tongue’: Satire, Criticism, and the Political Dimension of Shaftesbury’s Aversion to Swift.” ’The First Wit of the Age’: Essays on Swift and his Contemporaries in Honour of Hermann J. Real. Ed. Kirsten Juhas, Patrick Müller & Mascha Hansen. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2013. 297-314.

Müller, Patrick. “ ’The able Designer, who feigns in behalf of Truth’: Shaftesbury’s Philosophical Poetics.” ’New Ages, New Opinions’: Shaftesbury in his World and Today. Ed. Patrick Müller. Frankfurt: Peter Lang. Forthcoming.

Pfister, Manfred. “Introduction: A History of English Laughter?” A History of English Laughter: Laughter from Beowulf to Beckett and Beyond. Ed. Manfred Pfister. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994. v-x.

Recueil de diverses pièces, sur la philosophie, sur la religion naturelle, l’histoire, les mathématiques, par Mrs. Leibniz, Clarke, Newton & autres auteurs célèbres. 2 vols. Amsterdam: H. du Sauzet, 1720.

Redwood, J. A. Reason, Ridicule and Religion: The Age of Enlightenment in England, 1660-1750. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1976.

Rivers, Isabel. “Shaftesbury and the Defence of Natural Affection.” Reason, Grace, and Sentiment: A Study of the Language of Religion and Ethics in England, 1660-1780. vol. 2: Shaftesbury to Hume. Cambridge: CUP, 2000. 85-152.

Schmidt-Haberkamp, Barbara. “Shaftesbury’s Concept of Ridicule as an Antecedent to Scriblerian Satire.” Swift Studies 17 (2002): 125-34.

Schwartz, H. The French Prophets: A Study of a Millenarian Group in Eighteenth-Century England. Berkeley: U of California P, 1980.

Sigler, David. “Shaftesbury Takes an Ethiopian to the Carnival: Foreignness, Subjectivity, and Intersubjectivity in Sensus Communis.” The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 53 (2012): 23-40.

Test, George Austin. Satire: Spirit and Art. Gainesville: U of Florida P, 1991.

Uehlein, Friedrich A. “Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftsbury: Bibliographie der Schriften (Erstausgaben; Ausgaben des 18. Jahrhunderts; moderne Ausgaben; Übersetzungen) – Doxographie – Wirkung.” Grundriß der Geschichte der Philosophie: Die Philosophie des 18. Jahrhunderts. Ed. Helmut Holzhey & Villim Mudroch. Vol. 1. Basel: Schwabe, 2004. 51-56, 62-89, 164-68.

Weinsheimer, J. “Shaftesbury in our Time: The Politics of Wit and Humour.” The Eighteenth Century 36 (1995): 178-88.

Williams, Abigail. Poetry and the Creation of a Whig Literary Culture 1681-1714. Oxford: OUP, 2005.

Wolf, Richard B. “Shaftesbury’s Just Measure of Irony.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 33 (1993): 565-85.

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1  "Shaftesburys Schriften lassen sich nicht auf philosophische Disziplinen verteilen. Ethik, Ästhetik, Erkenntnislehre, Politik sowie anthro-pologische und religionsphilosophische Gedankengänge werden zusammen vorgetragen” (Uehlein 62).

2  For a concise introduction to the controversy, which revolved principally around the test of ridicule, see Gilmore.

3  All references to the Earl’s writings are to the Standard Edition. Arabic numerals in square brackets refer to page numbers in the 1714/15 edition of the Characteristicks. The treatises are: Soliloquy: or, Advice to an Author and Letter concerning Enthusiasm (I.1); Miscellaneous Reflections (I.2); Sensus Communis (I.3); Notes to Characteristicks (I.4); Second Characters including Plasticks (I.5); Select Sermons and Ainsworth Correspondence (II.4); Askêmata (II.6).

4  According to Shaftesbury’s understanding of the history of Philosophy, there were no “more than two real distinct Philosophys” in antiquity: “one deriv’d from Socrates & passing into the old Academick, ye Peripatetick & Stoick” (for him “the Socratick, Civil, or Social”) and “the other deriv’d […] from Democritus and passing into the Cyrenaick and Epicurean,” which he calls “meer Sceptick and new Academick” and dismisses as “an Exercize or Sophistry, rather than a Philosophy” (Shaftesbury to Pierre Coste, 1 October 1706 (The National Archives: PRO 30/24/45/80 Part 3, fol. 419r). The editors of the Standard Edition are currently preparing an edition of the Earl’s complete correspondence: I cite the manuscript texts as they will be shown there.

5  In The Moralists, Theocles leads Philocles to declare that “Beauty […] and Good” are “one and the same” (324 [399]), whereas in Sensus Communis we learn that “all Beauty is Truth” (120 [142]).

6  See Weinsheimer 185-86. For Shaftesbury’s projected audience, see also Rivers 104-07.

7  According to Redwood, the dominant conception of laughter at the time (183).

8  See Shaftesbury’s letter to Michael Ainsworth, 29 January 1709: “for never do we more need a just Cheerfulness Good Humour & Alacrity of Mind than when we are Contemplating God & Vertue” (Ainsworth Correspondence 379). Mikhail Bakhtin has pointed out that carnivalesque or “festive laughter” aims at “the highest spheres,” being rooted in the “most ancient rituals of mocking at the deity” (12). Shaftesbury clearly had something very different in mind: the Deity is for him not the object of mockery but, as the embodiment of all that he thought of as good and true, a cause of all joy and mirth.

9  For the historical background, see Schwartz.

10  For a discussion in the context of religious toleration, see Alvarez.

11  For the significance of clubs in Shaftesbury, see Schmidt-Haberkamp (132-33).

12  Shaftesbury to Lord Somers, 30 March 1711 (The National Archives: PRO 30/24/22/4, fols 355-6).

13  For my interpretation of the engraving and the unauthorized changes in the right-hand panel (by either Shaftesbury’s literary executor Thomas Micklethwaite or the engraver Simon Gribelin), see “Mapping a Tory’s ‘Prostitute Pen and Tongue.’ ”

14 Illustration accompanying “Miscellaneous Reflections », p.3.

15  Shaftesbury’s terminological imprecision is examined briefly in Schmidt-Haberkamp 126-27.

16  See Askêmata 445, and note 2.

17  For the superiority theory, see Billig 50-56. In this broader context of the taxonomy of humour, Shaftesbury’s theory has been classified as belonging to “incongruity theories” which stress that laughter is a “real action […] within the cognitive processes of the mind that is combining disparate ideas” (Billig 74).

18  It can in fact be applied to the (traditional) one between the satires of Juvenal and Horace as sketched in the Earl’s Plasticks, another unfinished manuscript. Here, Shaftesbury postulates that the “more conceal’d & not the obviouse staring notoriouse Faults in Manners” are the proper targets of satiric wit. This requires a “finer & more delicate Imitation,” that is, Horace’s “nicest slightest Touches.” By contrast, Juvenal’s coarser satire is based on “Exageration Amplification straining highting over-charging” (181).

19  For the significance of “criticism” in Shaftesbury’s theory of satire, see Schmidt-Haberkamp 126, 129.

20  Shaftesbury to Pierre Coste, 15 November 1706 (The National Archives: PRO 30/24/45/80 Part 3, fols 430r-v).

21  Shaftesbury to Pierre Coste, 1 October 1706 (Part 3, fols 418v-419v).

22  This edition was in the Earl’s library.
<>. 9 December 2013.

23  Shaftesbury to Pierre Coste, 1 October 1706 (Part 3, fol. 423r); the quotations are from Odes I.xxxiv.1 (“A niggardly and irregular worshipper”) and I.xxxiv.3-5 (“to sail back and again go over / The course I’d left behind”).

24  Shaftesbury to Pierre Coste, 15 November 1706 (Part 3, fol. 431r).

25  Shaftesbury to Pierre Coste, 1 October 1706 (Part 3, fol. 422r).

26  The latter in the sense of an excessive “pride” in the merits of British culture as opposed to those of the ancients (see Soliloquy 180-86 [264-71]).

27  According to Abigail Williams, England’s “political and cultural history was analogous to the history of Rome” for Shaftesbury (228).

28  Shaftesbury to Pierre Coste, 1 October 1706 (Part 3, fol. 419r).

29  I find Jaffro’s and Maurer’s comparison between Pathologia on the one hand and the Letter and Sensus Communis on the other problematic for the same reasons. Their assertion that “Shaftesbury […] changed his mind in the space of a few months on whether, firstly, laughter is or is not a passion (or the facial expression of a passion) and whether, secondly, laughter may be used as a philosophical tool against religious ‘enthusiasm’ ” (“Reading Shaftesbury’s Pathologia” 11-12) ignores the different rhetorical circumstances. Moreover, it is important not to underestimate (as they do) the context of Horatian satire.

30  See Sensus Communis 110 [134]: “Let the solemn Reprovers of Vice proceed in the manner most sutable to their Genius and Character […] I know not, in the mean while, why others may not be allow’d to ridicule Folly, and recommend Wisdom and Virtue (if possibly they can) in a way of Pleasantry and Mirth. I know not why Poets, or such as write chiefly for the Entertainment of themselves and others, may not be allow’d this Privilege.”

31  See, however, the section on “The Literary Context” above.

32  In Miscellaneous Reflections, Shaftesbury numbers Ethiopia among the traditional hotbeds of superstition (74-76 [48-49]), which makes the Ethiopians laughter all the more scathing.

33  When he was writing Miscellaneous Reflections, Shaftesbury had recently been implicated in the Sacheverell affair, six passages from the Letter being quoted during the trials under the headings “Blasphemy, Irreligion, and Heresy” and “The Church and Clergy abus’d” (Collections 23-24 and 28).

34  Critchley rightly interprets the episode as an “argument against the alleged subversive potential of carnivalesque, buffonic comedy” (82). Thomas Docherty draws a similar analogy as Shaftesbury sends the Ethiopian to Europe “during one of those carnivalesque rituals of proto-Bakhtinian comic masking in which social regulation is ostensibly called into question” (74).

35  Shaftesbury to Pierre Coste, 25 July 1712 NS (The National Archives: PRO 30/24/23/9, fols 130v-131r). See Recueil de diverses pièces 2.269-86.

36  Shaftesbury to Pierre Coste, 15 November 1706 (Part 3, fols 430v-431r).

37  For the Earl’s reflections about his ‘public mask’ in Askêmata (for example 142, 356), see Klein 91-96.

38  This may explain why, in the unpublished Plasticks (see 165-68), Shaftesbury pondered at some length about the proper rhetorical strategies for his next philosophical project, Second Characters. I am indebted to Mark-Georg Dehrmann for this insight.

39  Lord Ashley to John Locke, 29 September 1694 (Bodleian Library, MS Locke c.7, fols 112-13).

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Patrick Müller, « Ridentem dicere verum quid vetat: Shaftesbury, Horatian Satire, and the Cultural (Ab)uses of Laughter », XVII-XVIII, 70 | 2013, 47-71.

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Patrick Müller, « Ridentem dicere verum quid vetat: Shaftesbury, Horatian Satire, and the Cultural (Ab)uses of Laughter », XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 70 | 2013, mis en ligne le 01 août 2016, consulté le 21 novembre 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/1718.508

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Patrick Müller

Friedrich-Alexander-Universität, Erlangen-Nürnberg

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