The Circulation of Characteristicks in Eighteenth-Century Europe

More than any one of the eight London Characteristicks printed between 1711 and 1758, it was perhaps the Dublin and Glasgow editions (1743; 1758), the Baskerville text with its splendid typography (Birmingham, 1773) and Tourneisen edition (Basel, 1790) which helped to establish Shaftesbury’s name in the eighteenth century. He can lay claim to being one of the most frequently published philosophical writers of the age, second only to John Locke. The thirteen English editions and reissues of Characteristicks were complemented by numerous translations into French and German: Shaftesbury’s thought thus became widely known across Europe.

Even before the first “joint-Edition” appeared in 1711, two of the treatises in it had already been published in French translation by the Earl’s friends in Holland: A Letter concerning Enthusiasm (1709) and Sensus Communis (1710) at The Hague. Denis Diderot’s translation — avec réflexions — of the Inquiry (Paris, 1745 and 1751) introduced the French Enlightenment to Shaftesbury’s thought; the year 1769 saw the publication of the complete Oeuvres in Geneva.

Reception in Germany can be traced back to the reviews written by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in 1709 and 1712. Johann Christoph Gottsched and his circle singled out Shaftesbury’s theories on literature and art, publishing translations of Soliloquy (Magdeburg, 1738; Magdeburg and Leipzig,1746) and Judgment of Hercules (Leipzig, 1748). Meanwhile in Berlin, the theologian Johann Joachim Spalding focused on Shaftesbury as defender of natural religion, translating The Moralists (Berlin, 1745) and Inquiry (ibid. 1747). Two further examples: Friedrich Christoph Oetinger’s German version of passages from The Moralists, Inquiry, and Miscellaneous Reflections (Stuttgart, 1753), and Johann Georg Hamann’s translation of A Letter concerning Enthusiasm and Sensus Communis (Königsberg, 1755).

During this same period, Christoph Martin Wieland was embarking in Bern on a life-long acquaintance with Shaftesbury’s work. The Earl would become a central figure for Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and Moses Mendelssohn, and while Johann Wolfgang Goethe was publishing Werther, his friend Johann Heinrich Merck was translating passages from Characteristicks.

The Leipzig Philosophische Werke — the first complete German text of Characteristicks — was published 1776-79 (transl. Hölty/Benzler), and the century closed for Shaftesbury’s readers with Johann Gottfried Herder’s translation of his hymn to Nature from The Moralists (Gotha, 1800).