Shaftesbury on Liberty and Self-Mastery

International Journal of Philosophical Studies 27 (5):731-752 (2019)
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The aim of this paper is to show that Shaftesbury’s thinking about liberty is best understood in terms of self-mastery. To examine his understanding of liberty, I turn to a painting that he commissioned on the ancient theme of the choice of Hercules and the notes that he prepared for the artist. Questions of human choice are also present in the so-called story of an amour, which addresses the difficulties of controlling human passions. Jaffro distinguishes three notions of self-control that are present in the story of an amour. Although I agree with many aspects of Jaffro’s interpretation, I question his conclusion that self- control in the Stoic sense is best reserved for ‘moral heroes.’ I propose an alternative developmental interpretation, according to which all human beings are on an intellectual journey aimed at personal and moral improvement. My interpretation takes seriously that for Shaftesbury philosophy is meant to be practical and help improve our lives. I end by arguing that rather than trying to situate Shaftesbury’s concept of liberty within debates among compatibilists and incompatibilists it is more promising to understand it in terms of self- mastery and thus regard it as a version of positive liberty.

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Ruth Boeker
University College Dublin


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