Monday, November 4, 2019

Tim Stuart-Buttle's "From Moral Theology to Moral Philosophy"

Tim Stuart-Buttle is Lecturer in the Department of Politics at the University of York, UK. The appallingly titled From Moral Theology to Moral Philosophy: Cicero and Visions of Humanity from Locke to Hume is his first book, and a revised and extended version of his doctoral thesis. He is currently at work on a monograph that reconstructs an early modern debate to which practically every philosopher of note contributed, but which has received relatively little scholarly attention: on mankind’s desire for esteem and its social, moral, theological and political consequences.

Stuart-Buttle applied the “Page 99 Test” to From Moral Theology to Moral Philosophy and reported the following:
The Page 99 Test finds us midway through Chapter 2, which explores the moral theory of Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713), the author of the highly influential Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711; 1714). Page 99 invites us to consider Shaftesbury’s treatment of issues – whether the soul is immortal; whether a future state of rewards and punishments is required to motivate us to behave morally; and what the philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome had to say on these questions – that are central to the work as a whole. It explains that, in denying that virtue relies upon a belief in immortality and divine judgment, Shaftesbury’s primary objective was to repudiate the moral theory of his ‘friend and foster-father’: John Locke (1632-1704). Shaftesbury did so by labouring the superiority of the moral philosophy of the ancient Stoics (notably Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and Horace) when compared to Christian moral theology. Like a number of more recent moral philosophers (such as Alasdair MacIntyre), Shaftesbury understood “modern” moral philosophy to have taken a horribly ‘wrong turn’ in the seventeenth century, as the methodologies of the new experimental sciences were increasingly applied to ethical subjects. Here, Thomas Hobbes was implicated alongside Locke: if recent natural philosophers reduced the world to atoms without any intelligent design, Locke and Hobbes stood accused of similarly denying any order and meaning in the moral universe. Shaftesbury claimed to find in the writings of the ancient Stoics a vision of human nature that was consistent with the existence of a truly good (non-Christian) God, who created man in such a way as to allow him to identify the good (through reason), and to discipline himself so as to pursue it. Philosophy, for the Stoics as for Shaftesbury, was a ‘way of life’ – a vision of philosophy recently revived by Pierre Hadot; and the truly virtuous individual does not require the sanctions of either civil law or divine judgment in order to live as they ought. They live virtuously because they recognise that it is only by doing so that they embrace what truly makes them human: moral autonomy, and the responsibility for making the right choices.

The page 99 test works well: it shows why early-modern philosophers identified their philosophies (and their antagonists’) with late Hellenistic philosophical traditions. Shaftesbury portrayed Locke and Hume as Epicureans of a degenerate kind: they deny that human beings are naturally sociable creatures, inclined to virtue; they portray mankind as captive to passions over which they have no rational control; and they depict God as a capricious being uninterested in human life and worthy only of fear, not love. Shaftesbury indicates the polemical advantages of identifying with an alternative philosophical tradition (Stoicism) to expose and correct such philosophical errors. But Shaftesbury’s interpretation of Locke was jaundiced: as Chapter 1 shows, Locke professed his admiration for an alternative late Hellenistic tradition – academic scepticism, identified with Cicero – which he presented as mediating between the rival errors of the Stoics and Epicureans. In Chapters 4 and 5, we see how two other influential eighteenth-century philosophers – the heterodox Anglican clergyman Conyers Middleton (1683-1750), and David Hume (1711-76) adopted a strikingly similar (Ciceronian) approach. Meanwhile Chapter 3 reveals how Shaftesbury’s most acute critic, Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733), employed Epicurean motifs and sources in his attack on Shaftesbury’s philosophy.

The central objective of the book is to show how the claim of moral theology – that the moral quality of human actions must be understood in the light of God’s intentions for His created beings – increasingly came under the microscope ca. 1650-1750. This is not a triumphalist origins story of secular modernity; nor is it a MacIntyre-style narrative of the pathogenesis of ‘modern’ moral philosophy. I am attentive to the losses, as well as gains, that this development involved: if it resulted in an emaciated conception of justice, it foregrounded the importance of social relations in the shaping of individual identity. Here, the book challenges the notion that the supposed forefathers of modern liberalism – Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Adam Smith – focused on the ‘atomised’ individual (to borrow from Charles Taylor). Instead, they offer us a much richer vision of human nature and human life than is often recognized. The richness and complexity of their thought might alert us to our own need to think rather harder about the challenges we face if we are to live together in such ways as contribute to our shared pursuit of happiness and meaning.
Learn more about From Moral Theology to Moral Philosophy at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue