Smith Snark on Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury)

shaftesbury lord shaftesbury smith snark

Doug Den Uyl for AdamSmithWorks

The first entry in a new series on Adam Smith getting snarky. We're looking at people and ideas that Adam Smith disagreed with vehemently. What were the issues and did Smith play fair in his criticisms? First up, Lord Shaftesbury.
The issue at hand is Adam Smith’s treatment of Shaftesbury found in Smith’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (LRBL). The problem is not that Smith might disagree with Shaftesbury on some things, or that the treatment of Shaftesbury is harsh. Smith disagrees with many people, and he can be quite merciless in his diagnosis of their mistakes and misconceptions. One is immediately reminded in this connection of his discussion of Bernard Mandeville at the end of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. But virtually all readers of Smith see something a good deal more scathing, indeed arguably unfair, in his discussion of Shaftesbury. Remarkably, Smith’s attacks upon Shaftesbury are not about some substantive doctrine in economics or morals, but rather over Shaftesbury’s writing style!

Why should we be concerned about Smith’s opinion of Shaftesbury? Shaftesbury’s Characteristiks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times published early in the 18th century (1711) was second only to John Locke’s Second Treatise in the number of times it was reprinted during that century. Shaftesbury was first among a line of thinkers that included such notables as Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, and Adam Smith who were later identified as part of what is known as the Scottish Enlightenment. It was in the areas of morality, social, economic and political ideas that Shaftesbury exerted his influence upon these and other thinkers who followed him. Thus one would certainly expect a commentary on Shaftesbury by these later thinkers, such as Smith; but one would expect such commentaries to be substantive in terms of ideas, and not about a writing style. Further, one would not expect explanations of intellectual failings in terms of a person’s health—which one also finds in Smith.

As to writing style, the main principle Smith uses to evaluate writing is as follows: 
the perfection of stile consists in Expressing in the most concise, proper and precise manner the thought of the author, and that in the manner which best conveys the sentiment, passion or affection with which it affects…him and which he designs to communicate to his reader.
(LRBL i.133) 
With this general principle, or “Rule” as Smith calls it, in mind, the problem with Shaftesbury is that 
the author seems not at all to have acted agreably to the Rule we have given above but to have formed to himself an idea of beauty of Stile abstracted from his own character, by which he proposed to regulate his Stile.
(LRBL i.138) 
Smith does not like Shaftsbury’s style because it violates his principle rule and in doing so it leads to an overly ornate and pompous use of language. Such use of language is an impediment to understanding the thoughts of an author. That in turn results in a lack of precision in conveying the message and thereby also a lack of constraints upon the responsibility of author to be clear in the message. If this were the whole story, we might move on and simply formulate our own opinions on whether and to what extent Shaftesbury violates Smith’s Rule (and whether that matters). Yet within this perhaps plausible criticism of Shaftesbury’s style, we find a number of other not so plausible “arguments” in support of the notion that Shaftesbury’s style leads him down some wrong paths. The first is the suggestion that Shaftesbury’s style is unfocused because he has no real substantive commitments, secondly that he is a kind of ideologue who chooses his friends on the basis of some abstract commitments rather than the merits of genuine arguments or sentiments, and thirdly that he is not completely trustworthy because he is drawn to fringe groups rather than the common core of the established church. 

But that is not all. Shaftesbury was in fact a shallow and weak reasoner, according to Smith,  because Shaftesbury was 
of a very puny and weakly constitution, always either under some disorder or in dread of falling into one. Such a habit of body is very much connected, nay almost continually attended by, a case of mind in a good measure similar. Abstract reasoning and deep searches are too fatiguing for persons of this delicate frame.
(LRBL i.139) 
Such men, Smith points out, can indulge their sensibilities without taxing their minds or constitutions. Finally, Smith claims that Shaftesbury 
shews a great ignorance of the advances [science] had then made and a contempt for its followers” because “it did not afford the amusement his disposition required and the mathematicall part particularly requires more attention and abstract thought than men of his weakly habit are generally capable of.
(LRBL i.140-141) 
If Shaftesbury had had some training in science, perhaps his reasoning would have been better and his style clearer. 

Smith is thought to have been significantly influenced by Shaftesbury, so these ad hominem attacks are all the more surprising. Why Smith takes this attitude towards Shaftesbury no one really knows. There have been speculations, for example, “Das Shaftesbury Problem,” and responses in The Adam Smith Review yet in the end, all is really still just that, speculation.