Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury

The Genius of the Place

Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713)
The Moralists: A Philosophical Rhapsody, 1709
The essay was later inserted in Shaftesbury's Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711):
Treatise V. The Moralists: A Philosophical Rhapsody. Part III (Excerpts):
Section I / Section II

The Moralists: A Philosophical Rhapsody
A Recital of certain Conversations on natural and Moral Subjects

Part III - Section I

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Philocles to Palemon
Here, Philocles, we shall find our sovereign genius; if we can charm the genius of the place (more chaste and sober than your Silenus) to inspire us with a truer song of nature, teach us some celestial hymn, and make us feel divinity present in these solemn places of retreat.

Haste then, I conjure you, said I, good Theocles, and stop not one moment for any ceremony or rite. For well I see, methinks, that without any such preparation, some divinity has approached us, and already moves in you. We are come to the sacred groves of the Hamadryads, which formerly were said to render oracles. We are on the most beautiful part of the hill; and the sun, now ready to rise, draws off the curtain of night, and shows us the open scene of nature in the plains below. Begin: for now I know you are full of those divine thoughts that meet you ever in this solitude. Give them but voice and accents: you may be still as much alone as you are used, and take no more notice of me than if I were absent.

Just as I had said this, he turned 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 business, receive me in your quiet sanctuaries, and favour my retreat and thoughtful solitude. Ye verdant plains, how gladly I salute ye! Hail all ye blissful mansions! known seats! delightful prospects! majestic beauties of this earth, and all ye rural powers and graces! Blessed be ye chaste abodes of happiest mortals, who here in peaceful innocence enjoy a life unenvied, although divine; whilst with its blessed 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 placed 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! impowered creatress! Or thou impowering divinity, supreme creator! Thee I invoke, and thee alone adore. To thee this solitude, this place, these rural meditations are sacred; whilst thus inspired with harmony of thought, although unconfined by words, and in loose numbers, I sing of nature's order in created beings, and celebrate the beauties which resolve in thee, the source and principle of all beauty and perfection.

Thy being is boundless, unsearchable, impenetrable. In thy immensity all thought is lost; fancy gives over its flight: and wearied imagination spends itself in vain; finding no coast nor limit of this ocean, nor, in the widest tract through which it soars, one point yet nearer the circumference than the first center whence it parted. Thus having oft essayed, thus sallied forth into the wide expanse, when I return again within myself, struck with the sense of this so narrow being, and of the fulness of that immense one; I dare no more behold the amazing depths, nor sound the abyss of Deity.

Yet since by thee (O sovereign mind!) I have been formed such as I am, intelligent and rational; since the peculiar dignity of my nature is to know and contemplate thee; permit that with due freedom I exert those faculties with which thou hast adorned me. Bear with my venturous and bold approach. And since nor vain curiosity, nor fond conceit, nor love of ought save thee alone, inspires me with such thoughts as these, be thou my assistant, and guide me in this pursuit; whilst I venture thus to tread the labyrinth of wide nature, and endeavour to trace thee in thy works."

Here he stopped short, and starting, as out of a dream; now, Philocles. said he, inform me, how have I appeared to you in my fit? Seemed it a sensible kind of madness, like those transports which are permitted to our poets? or was it downright raving?

I only wish, said I, that you had been a little stronger in your Transport, to have proceeded as you began, without ever minding me. For I was beginning to see Wonders in that Nature you taught me, and was coming to know the Hand of your divine Artificer. But if you stop here, I shall lose the Enjoyment of the pleasing Vision. And already I begin to rind a thousand Difficultys in fancying such a Universal Genius as you describe...

Thus I continue then, said Theocles, addressing myself, as you would have me, to that Guardian-Deity and inspirer, whom we are to imagine present here; but not here only. For "O mighty genius! sole-animating and inspiring power! Author and subject of these thoughts! Thy influence is universal: and in all things thou art inmost. From thee depend their secret springs of action. Thou movest them with an irresistible unwearied force, by sacred and inviolable laws, framed for the good of each particular being; as best may suit with the perfection, life, and vigour of the whole. The vital principle is widely shared, and infinitely varied: dispersed throughout; nowhere extinct. All lives: and by succession still revives. The temporary beings quit their borrowed forms, and yield their elementary substance to new-comers. Called in their several turns, to life, they view the light, and viewing pass; that others too may be spectators of the goodly scene, and greater numbers still enjoy the privilege of nature. Munificent and great, she imparts herself to most; and makes the subjects of her bounty infinite. Nought stays her hastening hand. No time nor substance is lost or unimproved. New forms arise: and when the old dissolve, the matter whence they were composed is not left useless, but wrought with equal management and art, even in corruption, nature's seeming waste, and vile abhorrence. The abject state appears merely as the way or passage to some better. But could we nearly view it, and with indifference, remote from the antipathy of sense; we then perhaps should highest raise our admiration: convinced that even the way itself was equal to the end. Nor can we judge less favourably of that consummate art exhibited through all the works of nature; since our weak eyes, helped by mechanic art, discover in these works a hidden scene of wonders; worlds within worlds, of infinite minuteness, though as to art still equal to the greatest, and pregnant with more wonders than the most discerning sense, joined with the greatest art, or the acutest reason, can penetrate or unfold.

But it is in vain for us to search the bulky mass of matter: seeking to know its nature; how great the whole itself, or even how small its parts.

If knowing only some of the rules of motion, we seek to trace it further, it is in vain we follow it into the bodies it has reached. Our tardy apprehensions fail us, and can reach nothing beyond the body itself, through which it is diffused. Wonderful being! (if we may call it so) which bodies never receive, except from others which lose it; nor ever lose, unless by imparting it to others. Even without change of place it has its force: and bodies big with motion labour to move, yet stir not; whilst they express an energy beyond our comprehension.

In vain, too we pursue that phantom time, too small, and yet too mighty for our grasp; when shrinking to a narrow point, it escapes our hold, or mocks our scanty thought by swelling to eternity: an object unproportioned to our capacity, as is thy being, O thou ancient cause! older than time, yet young with fresh eternity.

In vain we try to fathom the abyss of space, the seat of thy extensive being; of which no place is empty, no void which is not full.

In vain we labour to understand that principle of sense and thought, which seeming in us to depend so much on motion, yet differs so much from it, and from matter itself, as not to suffer us to conceive how thought can more result from this, than this arise from thought. But thought we own pre-eminent, and confess the reallest of beings; the only existence of which we are made sure, by being conscious. All else may be but dream and shadow. All which even sense suggests may be deceitful. The sense itself remains still: reason subsists: and thought maintains its eldership of being. Thus are we in a manner conscious of that original and eternally existent thought whence we derive our own. And thus the assurance we have of the existence of beings above our sense, and of thee (the great exemplar of thy works) comes from thee, the alltrue, and perfect, who hast thus communicated thyself more immediately to us, so as in some manner to inhabit within our souls; thou who art original soul diffusive, vital in all, inspiriting the whole!

All Nature's wonders serve to excite and perfect this idea of their author. It is here he suffers us to see, and even converse with him, in a manner suitable to our frailty. How glorious is it to contemplate him, in this noblest of his works apparent to us, the system of the bigger world!

Here I must own, it was no small comfort to me, to find that, as our meditation turned, we were likely to get clear of an entangling abstruse philosophy. I was in hopes Theocles, as he proceeded, might stick closer to Nature, since he was now come upon the borders of our world. And here I would willingly have welcomed him, had I thought it safe at present to venture the least interruption.

"Besides the neighbouring plants (continued he, in his rapturous strain) what multitudes of fixed stars did we see sparkle, not an hour ago, in the clear night, which yet had hardly yielded to the day? How many others are discovered by the help of art? Yet how many remain still, beyond the reach of our discovery! Crowded as they seem, their distance from each other is as unmeasurable by art, as is the distance between them and us. Whence we are naturally taught the immensity of that being, who through these immense spaces has disposed such an infinite of bodies, belonging each (as we may well presume) to systems as complete as our own world: since even the smallest spark of this bright galaxy may vie with this our sun; which shining now full out, gives us new life, exalts our spirits, and makes us feel divinity more present.

Prodigious orb! Bright source of vital heat, and spring of day! - soft flame, yet how intense, how active! How diffusive, and how vast a substance; yet how collected thus within itself, and in a glowing mass confined to the center of this planetary world! - mighty Being! Brightest image, and representative of the Almighty! Supreme of the corporeal world! Unperishing in grace, and of undecaying youth! Fair, beautiful, and hardly mortal creature! By what secret ways dost thou receive the supplies which maintain thee still in such unwearied vigour, and unexhausted glory; notwithstanding those eternally emitted streams, and that continual expense of vital treasures which inlighten and invigorate the surrounding worlds?

Around him all the planets, with this our earth, single, or with attendants, continually move; seeking to receive the blessing of his light, and lively warmth! Towards him they seem to tend with prone descent, as to their center; but happily controlled still by another impulse, they keep their heavenly order and just numbers, and exactest measure, go the eternal rounds.

But, O thou who art the author and modifier of these various motions! O sovereign and sole mover, by whose high art the rolling spheres are governed, and these stupendous bodies of our world hold their unrelenting courses! O wise economist, and powerful chief, whom all the elements and powers of nature serve! How hast thou animated these moving worlds? What spirit or soul infused? What bias fixed? Or how encompassed them in liquid ether, driving them as with the breath of living winds, thy active and unwearied ministers in this intricate and mighty work?

Thus powerfully are the systems held entire, and kept from fatal interfering. Thus is our ponderous globe directed in its annual course; daily revolving on its own centre: whilst the obsequious moon with double labour, monthly surrounding this our bigger orb, attends the motion of her sister-planet, and pays in common her circular homage to the sun.

Yet is this mansion-globe, this man-container, of a much narrower compass even than other its fellow-wanderers of our system. How narrow then must it appear, compared with the capacious system of its own sun? And how narrow, or as nothing, in respect of those innumerable systems of other apparent suns? Yet how immense a body it seems, compared with ours of human form, a borrowed remnant of its variable and oft-converted surface? although animated with a sublime celestial spirit, by which we have relation and tendency to thee our heavenly sire, centre of souls; to whom these spirits of ours by nature tend, as earthly bodies to their proper centre. O did they tend as unerringly and constantly! But thou alone composest the disorders of the corporeal world, and from the restless and fighting elements raisest that peaceful concord, and conspiring beauty of the ever-flourishing creation. Even so canst thou convert these Jarring motions of intelligent beings. and in due time and manner cause them to find their rest; making them contribute to the good and perfection of the universe, thy all-good and perfect work."...

... The wildness pleases. We seem to live alone with nature. We view her in her inmost recesses, and contemplate her with more delight in these original wilds, than in the artificial labyrinths and feigned wildernesses of the palace. The objects of the place, the scaly serpents, the savage beasts, and poisonous insects, how terrible soever, or how contrary to human nature, are beauteous in themselves, and fit to raise our thoughts in admiration of that divine wisdom, so far superior to our short views. Unable to declare the use or service of all things in this universe, we are yet assured of the perfection of all, and of the justice of that economy, to which all things are subservient, and in respect of which, things seemingly deformed are amiable; disorder becomes regular; corruption wholesome; and poisons (such as these we have seen) prove healing and beneficial.

But behold! through a vast tract of sky before us, the mighty Atlas rears his lofty head, covered with snow, above the clouds. Beneath the mountain's foot, the rocky country rises into hills, a proper basis of the ponderous mass above: where huge embodied rocks lie piled on one another, and seem to prop the high arch of heaven. See! with what trembling steps poor mankind treads the narrow brink of the deep precipices! From whence with giddy horror they look down, mistrusting even the ground which bears them; whilst they hear the hollow sound of torrents underneath, and see the ruin of the impending rock; with failing trees which hang with their roots upwards, and seem to draw more ruin after them. Here thoughtless men, seized with the newness of such objects, become thoughtful, and willingly contemplate the incessant changes of this earth's surface. They see, as in one instant, the revolutions of past ages, the fleeting forms of things, and the decay even of this our globe; whose youth and first formation they consider, whilst the apparent spoil and irreparable breaches of the wasted mountain show them the world itself only as a noble ruin, and make them think of its approaching period. - But here rnid- way the mountain, a spacious border of thick wood harbours our wearied travellers: who now are come among the evergreen and lofty pines, the firs, and noble cedars, whose towering heads seem endless in the sky; the rest of trees appearing only as shrubs beside them. And here a different horror seizes our sheltered travellers, when they see the day diminished by the deep shades of the vast wood; which closing thick above, spreads darkness and eternal night below. The faint and gloomy light looks horrid as the shade itself: and the profound stillness of these places imposes silence upon men, struck with the hoarse echoings of every sound within the spacious caverns of the wood. Here space astonishes. Silence itself seems pregnant; whilst an unknown force works on the mind, and dubious objects move the wakeful sense. Mysterious voices are either heard or fancied: and various forms of deity seem to present themselves, and appear more manifest in these sacred sylvan scenes; such as of old gave rise to temples, and favoured the religion of the ancient world. Even we ourselves, who in plain characters may read divinity from so many bright parts of earth, choose rather these obscurer places, to spell out that mysterious being, which to our weak eyes appears at best under a veil of cloud."

Here he paused a while, and began to cast about his eyes, which before seemed fixed. He looked more calmly, with an open countenance and free air; by which, and other tokens, I could easily find we were come to an end of our descriptions; and that whether I would or no, Theocles was now resolved to take his leave of the sublime: the morning being spent, and the forenoon by this time well advanced.

Part III - Section II

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... O Theocles! said I, well do I remember now the terms in which you engaged me, that morning when you bespoke my love of this mysterious beauty. You have indeed made good your part of the condition, and may now claim me for a proselyte. If there by any seeming extravagance in the case, I must comfort myself the best I can, and consider that all sound love and admiration is enthusiasm: "The transports of poets, the sublime of orators, the rapture of musicians, the high strains of the virtuosi; all mere enthusiasm! Even learning itself, the love of arts and curiosities, the spirit of travellers and adventurers; gallantry, war, heroism; all, all enthusiasm!" It is enough: I am content to be this new enthusiast, in a way unknown to me before.

And I, replied Theocles, am content you should call this love of ours enthusiasm allowing it the privilege of its fellow-passions. For is there a fair and plausible enthusiasm, a reasonable ecstasy and transport allowed to other subjects, such as architecture, painting, music; and shall it be exploded here? Are there senses by which all those other graces and perfections are perceived? and none by which this higher perfection and grace is comprehended? Is it so preposterous to bring that enthusiasm hither, and transfer it from those secondary and scanty objects, to this original and comprehensive one? Observe how the case stands in all those other subjects of art or science. What difficulty to be in any degree knowing! How long e'er a true taste is gained! How many things shocking, how many offensive at first, which afterwards are known and acknowledged the highest beauties! For it is not instantly we acquire the sense by which these beauties are discoverable. Labour and pains are required, and time to cultivate a natural genius, ever so apt or forward. But who is there once thinks of cultivating this soil, or of improving any sense or faculty which nature may have given of this kind? And is it a wonder we should be dull then, as we are, confounded, and at a loss in these affairs, blind as to this higher sense, these nobler representations? Which way should we come to understand better? which way be knowing in these beauties? Is study, science, or learning necessary to understand all beauties else? And for the sovereign beauty, is there no skill or science required? In painting there are shades and masterly strokes which the vulgar understand not, but find fault with: in architecture there is the rustic, in music the chromatic kind, and skilful mixture of dissonancies: and is there nothing which answers to this, in the whole?

I must confess, said I, I have hitherto been one of those vulgar, who could never relish the shades, the rustic, or the dissonancies you talk of. I have never dreamt of such master-pieces in nature. It was my way to censure freely on the first view. But I perceive I am now obliged to go far in the pursuit of beauty; which lies very absconded and deep: and if so, I am well assured that my enjoymerits hitherto have been very shallow. I have dwelt, it seems, all this while upon the surface, and enjoyed only a kind of slight superficial beauties; having never gone in search of beauty itself, but of what I fancied such. Like the rest of the unthinking world, I took for granted that what I liked was beautiful; and what I rejoiced in, was my good. I never scrupled loving what I fancied; and aiming only at the enjoyment of what I loved, I never troubled myself with examining what the subjects were, nor ever hesitated about their choice.

Begin then, said he, and choose. See what the subjects are; and which you would prefer; which honour with your admiration, love, and esteem. For by these again you will be honoured in your turn. Such, Philocles, as is the worth of these companions, such will your worth be found. As there is emptiness or fulness here, so will there be in your enjoyment. See therefore where fulness is, and where emptiness. See in what subject resides the chief excellence: where beauty reigns: where it is entire, perfect, absolute; where broken, imperfect, short. View these terrestrial beauties, and whatever has the appearance of excellence, and is able to attract. See that which either really is, or stands as in the room of fair, beautiful, and good: "A mass of metal; a tract of land; a number of slaves; a pile of stones; a human body of certain lineaments and proportions:" Is this the highest of the kind? Is beauty founded then in body only; and not in action, life, or operation?

Hold! hold! said I (good Theocles!) you take this in too high a key, above my reach. If you would have me accompany you, pray lower this strain a little; and talk in a more familiar way.

Thus then, said he, (smiling) whatever passion you may have for other beauties; I know, good Philocles, you are no such admirer of wealth in any kind, as to allow much beauty to it; especially in a rude heap or mass. But in medals, coins, embossed work, statues, and well-fabricated pieces, of whatever sort, you can discover beauty, and admire the kind. True, said I; but not for the metal's sake. It is not then the metal or matter which is beautiful with you. No. But the art. Certainly. The art then is the beauty. Right. And the art is that which beautifies. The same. So that the beautifying, not the beautified, is the really beautiful. It seems so. For that which is beautified, is beautiful only by the accession of something beautifying: and by the recess or withdrawing of the same, it ceases to be beautiful. Be it. In respect of bodies therefore, beauty comes and goes. So we see. Nor is the body itself any cause either of its coming or staying. None. So that there is no principle of beauty in body. None at all. For body can no way be the cause of beauty to itself. No way. Nor govern nor regulate itself. Nor yet this. Nor mean nor intend itself. Nor this neither. Must not that therefore, which means and intends for it, regulates and orders it, be the principle of beauty to it? Of necessity. And what must that be? Mind, I suppose; for what can it be else?

Here then, said he, is all I would have explained to you before: "That the beautiful, the fair, the comely, were never in the matter, but in the art and design; never in body itself, but in the form or forming power." Does not the beautiful form confess this, and speak the beauty of the design, whenever it strikes you? What is it but the design which strikes? What is it you admire but mind, or the effect of mind? It is mind alone which forms. All that is void of mind is horrid: and matter formless is deformity itself....

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Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury
The Moralists ; A Philosophical Rhapsody, 1709 (Treatise V, Part III, Sections I & II)
Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, vol. 2 (1711)
Based on the 6th ed. London: Printed by J. Purser, 1737-1738

Indianapolis : Liberty Fund Inc., 2001 (pp. 193-226)