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Shaftesbury and the Stoic Roots of Modern Aesthetics

Norton, Brian Michael

Rather than reading Shaftesbury in anticipation of later forms of disinterestedness, this essay seeks to unpack the larger significance of his aesthetics by tracing his ideas back to their ancient sources. This essay looks to the venerable tradition of world contemplation. It argues that Shaftesbury advances a specifically Stoic model of world contemplation in The Moralists. The text’s principal concern is not with this or that beautiful object but with the whole of which it and the viewer are indivisibly a part; its aim is not so much to account for how we perceive beauty as to foster a characteristically Stoic orientation toward the world, one in which we overcome our egocentric view of things and align ourselves with the natural workings of the world or universe in its entirety. Far from being ‘autonomous’ from the rest of life, the Stoic world contemplation Shaftesbury advocates entails a robust affirmation of existence, clear-eyed gratitude for being part of the universe, whatever the challenges and however fleeting our time in it may be.

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