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Lecture 2b: Scottish Enlightenment

February 6, 2014

3.) The final change to be noted here is the idealization of marriage and family life as based on affection. The turn to true companionship and devotion within the couple owes in large part to the ongoing individualization and internalization active at this time. If one’s marriage and family life do not simply owe to the natural order and the way of the word, then this implies that one chooses one’s companion and, in turn, that there is a much greater personal and emotional commitment to that person. We are encouraged to choose the right person, to marry for love and enter into marriage willingly. Without a doubt, the increased importance of personal commitment also brings with it the increased potential for and rationale behind divorce. (And this is certainly not to suggest that people at this time did not marry for commercial, diplomatic reasons, but simply that there was less expectation to do so.)

This owes to two related developments within the sphere of family life. On one hand, from 1.), (the demise of the cosmic order,) we can see that there follows therefrom a rebellion against patriarchal authority. There is a push for further personal freedom, and marrying for love and the contentment that this is thought to bring as an important part of human nature. On the other, this period is witness to the progressive withdrawal of the family from wider society. Prior to the 18th century, it was quite common that the entirety of one’s village known one’s personal business. For, at this time, there is no such thing as one’s personal business or private affairs. If I do the work that would normally be done by my wife, I am likely to be subject to public and collective ridicule because I have enabled an inversion of the larger cosmic order in which all the members of my community shares. This second aspect is further brought out in the increased emphasis lent to individual independence and intimate, personal or private relations. Even the organization of domestic and household spaces comes to reflect this change. Formerly, the poor were always in presence of parents and children, the rich in the presence of their hired help. Similarly, the kings of this period never knew a moment’s piece. Yet, with the changes of this period, we see the first private rooms, dining rooms and hidden corridors.

4.) There is a new importance accorded to sentiment and feeling. Notably, the affection that parents bear towards their children changes in tone. It is not that parents did not love their children before. Indeed, the place of their affection has remained much the same. on the contrary, it is that the importance given to feeling or emotion takes on a central, organizing role within everyday life as morally relevant and central to human fulfillment. That which makes one’s life worth living is precisely love, family and relationships. As the world outside becomes alien and hostile, that inside the home becomes one of warmth and safety. It is also perhaps at this time that heaven begins to take on the familiar shape that it has for us today as a sort of family reunion. As we shall see next week, sentiment becomes a reliable indicator of morality, virtue and value.

b. To return to the central storyline: the place of the divine and the world-order

Last week, we left off with Locke’s understanding of the cosmic order (or lack thereof) and divine command theory, which effectively left us free to act within the world within the bounds of communal practice and custom. It should be noted that this view, i.e. divine command theory, was not unchallenged in its time and that there was considerable push-back to Locke on this issue, particularly from the so-called Cambridge Platonists of the early 18th century, as well as various figures within the Scottish Enlightenment. If the first group initiated this critique, it will only reach its culmination with the second.

More simply, there were those who wished to restore a divine order to the world, among which is, perhaps most notably, the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713), the pupil of John Locke. Like his grandfather the 1st Earl, the 3rd Earl was a Whig politician but was also a well known scholar of the classics. Indeed, he was able to read Greek and Latin by the age of eleven. Although influential, he was never as active in politics as his grandfather due to his ongoing health problems, including his asthma, to which the polluted London environment was not conducive. Accordingly, he spent much time on the Shaftesbury Estate, locked away in his Philosopher’s Tower.

How does Shaftesbury find himself at odds with Locke, more precisely? Generally, we might say that Shaftesbury’s views anticipate in important ways the perspective of Deism and divine providentialism to which Locke’s point of view was strongly opposed. Broadly speaking, deism attempts to restore an order to the world that diverges nevertheless from the order ascribed by the classical world. It remains to be seen in what way precisely this holds true for Shaftesbury.

To come back to Locke’s view, Shaftesbury opposes it principally for the reason that it offers an incoherent view of God. The latter is not a person like one of us. God is neither jealous nor petty and feels no personal desire or need to command. God requires no help from us nor feels the need to right his honor by punishing us. God is not worried about his own freedom in the way that Locke’s view seems to imply, as though God were a human attempting to retain the maximum area of free activity for himself. In short, although God’s goals might prove close to our own in the end, God’s means of attaining those goals are beyond our comprehension. There is little that we can know about God, but we do know this: God is the perfect embodiment of reason and love and so cannot but have ordered the world in the best way possible. (This view recalls, of course, that of Leibniz.) This is the only possible outlook for an omniscient, benevolent being; securing general happiness is simply what it does. 

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