Cultivating happiness: Sir William Temple, Confucianism, and the English landscape garden

With his praise of the Chinese garden’s sharawadgi (irregular beauty), Sir William Temple is often seen as the origin of the ‘Chineseness’ in the English landscape garden. What is less known is that Temple himself was a sinophile, referred to as ‘the first English man of letters to be influenced by Confucian thought’ as well as being a libertine neo-Epicurean. Through a focus on Temple’s writings, I aim to reveal that at the fountainhead of English polite culture was a strand of the early Enlightenment ideology of ‘happiness’ in which Epicureanism and Confucianism commingled – the Chinese idea of using the arts to develop moral and affective sensibilities as integrated in politics is a much forgotten, but still present legacy today. 

Whilst there has been continuous debate about the ‘Chinese influence’ on English landscape gardens, that debate has consistently neglected consideration of Europe’s reception of Confucianism. The philosophical and ethical-sociopolitical teachings of Confucius are widely acknowledged to have had a significant impact on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe in the fields of moral philosophy, education and political thought. However, the Confucian emphasis on the arts as a means of developing moral character or tempering passions as integrated in society and politics has not received adequate attention either from modern sinologists or from students of the Enlightenment. This emphasis on the tempering role of the arts featured prominently in missionary translations of Confucian classical texts which reached Europe after the 1650s. Such artistic modulation was materialised by the abundance of commodities like porcelain which represented civility, sensual pleasure, and moderation. Confucian insights were much admired by radical-minded European writers and libertine Epicureans such as the Dutch scholar, Isaac Vossius and the French freethinker, Charles de Saint-Évremond. 

Sir William Temple, Bt, by or after Sir Peter Lely, oil on canvas, c.1660 © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Vossius, Saint-Évremond and Temple were neighbours in the Hague, all on friendly terms with Baruch Spinoza in the later 1660s, and all four were exposed to these cultural dynamics which led to Temple’s essay in 1685 ‘Upon the Gardens of Epicurus’ introducing the term Sharawadgi – merging art, morality and politics. Sharawadgi, as my project argues, was not merely an exotic form. Rather it indicated the entanglement of Temple’s libertine neo-Epicurean and Confucian views of human nature as passions which could be developed by the sensory stimuli provided by the liberal arts. By placing the cultivation of the liberal arts at the core of humanist values, the politics of politeness, and social order, Temple had considerable influence on the rise of English high culture – as John Dryden suggested ‘in Temple himself this new standard (taste) moves harmoniously for the first time in English.’ Temple’s concept of cultivating happiness preceded by thirty years the vision of Shaftesbury, the more commonly credited intellectual source of English high culture. 

During this Research Fellowship I shall study the relations between the European – particularly the neo-Epicurean concepts of moral philosophy and politics – and the Confucian view of personal development through moral and aesthetic cultivation. I shall also examine the links and differences between Temple’s concept of ‘natural reason’ and Shaftesbury’s ‘moral sense’ or ‘sensibility.’ Such early Enlightenment thoughts of cultivating ‘happiness’ contested rising capitalistic values privileging individual rights. They sought to harmonise the happiness of the individual and society. 

Dr Yue Zhuang
University of Exeter
Research Fellowship