Aesthetics: the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury and hot chicks in the woods

Any time you start talking about a philosophy of beauty, it is important to ask the right questions. The 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury can bring it with some eloquent prose stylings. In a lovely little essay called “The Moralists”, he sets up a dialogue between Philocles and Theocles. They are having a stroll in the countryside and discussing art and beauty.

Master Philocles is the student master Theocles, and Philocles has grown rhapsodic about the beauty of the woods. He asks the first big question,

“But tell me, I entreat you, how comes it that, excepting a few philosophers of your sort, the only people who are enamoured in this way, and seek the woods, the rivers, or seashores, are your poor vulgar lovers?”

Why don’t philosophers like the woods? Well, if you’re like me, you might expect Theocles to respond, “For starters, you have to go to the bathroom on the ground, there are bugs, and dangerous wild beasts. It’s kind of hard to philosophize when your constantly wondering if you remembered to bring toilet paper with you.”

Theocles actually says, “Say not this…of lovers only. For is it not the same with poets, and all those other students in nature and the arts which copy after her?”

So, the lovely, dark and deep woods aren’t just for vulgar lovers. Poets and artists like it too. Maybe the poets and the artists are also the vulgar lovers. In any case, the people that like the woods are “looked upon…as a people either plainly out of their wits, or overrun with melancholy and enthusiasm.”

Well, master Philocles says that even though he doesn’t always understand it, he really does love the woods and the oceans. Theocles then says, “If you love the water so much, why don’t you marry it?” In Shaftesbury’s prose it sounds more elegant.

“The next thing I should do, ‘tis likely, upon this frenzy, would be to hire some bark and go in nuptial ceremony, Venetian-like, to wed the gulf, which I might call perhaps as properly my own.”

Theocles then basically says, “Don’t stop there. If you’re going to have a real philosophy of art and beauty, there is something even more complicated than pledging your troth to the Gulf of Mexico: What about hot chicks? Where do they fit in to your philosophy?”

Poor Philocles knew it was coming and gives a helpless response.

“I feared, said I, indeed, where this would end, and was apprehensive you would force me at last to think of certain powerful forms in human kind which draw after them a set of eager desires, wishes, and hopes; no way suitable, I must confess, to your rational and refined contemplation of beauty. The proportions of this living architecture, as wonderful as they are, inspire nothing of a studious or contemplative kind. The more they are viewed, the further they are from satisfying by mere view.”

Ah, the pretty girl! The bane of the philosopher’s existence. It's awfully difficult to think about them dispassionately. What was it Socrates said after Xanthippe dumped the chamber pot on his head? “Marry, or marry not. In any case, you’ll regret it.”

As one friend remarked, “With a name like Shaftesbury, he probably had to cover that subject.”

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