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30 Nov

The quotable Swift – is that his only relevance today?

Jonathan Swift, by Francis Bindon, oil on canvas, circa 1735.

Three and a half centuries after his birth, we’re still quoting Swift. “Burn everything that comes from England except their people and their coal” was a byword in Ireland during the Anglo-Irish trade war of the 1930s, and his advice to “hang up half a dozen bankers every year” was revived after the Celtic Tiger collapsed. In these days of Brexit, both leavers and remainers quote him, perhaps pointing out that “[i]t is the folly of too many to mistake the echo of a London coffee-house for the voice of the kingdom” or that “falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it”.

While Swift might provide a quote for all seasons, some applications of his words might have enraged him. The reworking of “[r]easoning will never make a Man correct an ill Opinion, which by Reasoning he never acquired” against religion is a case in point: Swift made the remark against freethinkers (such as the man who shared his birthday, John Toland.) Yet it would not have surprised him. Swift was as cynical about the world he lived in as he was hostile to the forces he saw stirring within it.

It may seem strange that the father of microcredit and the father of mental health care in Ireland should have been hostile to progress. Perhaps his family motto Festina Lente (Swiftly, Slowly) gives a clue. Swift saw the wisdom of the past being rejected in favour of the new philosophy (much of which we would call the new science.) All too swiftly, traditional ideas in politics, religion and society were being overturned indiscriminately.
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21 Nov

Voltaire and Swift

SIR,

I sent the other day a cargo of French dulness to my lord lieutenant. My lady Bolingbroke has taken upon herself to send you one copy of the Henriade. She is desirous to do that honour to my book; and I hope the merit of being presented to you by her hands, will be a commendation to it. However, if she has not done it already, I desire you to take one of the cargo, which is now at my lord lieutenant’s. I wish you a good hearing; if you have got it, you want nothing. I have not seen Mr. Pope this winter; but I have seen the third volume of the Miscellanea; and the more I read your works, the more I am ashamed of mine. I am, with respect, esteem, and gratitude, sir, your most humble and most obedient servant,

VOLTAIRE.

John Nichols (ed) 1801 The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift, DD, Dean of St Patricks Dublin, arranged by Thomas Sheridan, Volume 12, London, p. 269.
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16 Nov

The Mindful Asking of Essential Questions

The charge of lack of progress can also be equivocal. If philosophy is the mindful asking of essential questions, perhaps there are never ready-made answers that can be encapsulated in univocal categories, hence packaged and transmitted through time, like mail handled through the post. […] No genuine philosopher can accept answers ready-made from others: this is simply the nature of the philosophical enterprise as a metaxological dialogue. This may seem to confirm the prejudice that philosophy is just sophisticated, not to say sophistical garrulousness. The deeper meaning is that each age and every individual must struggle, in the overdetermined ambiguity of the middle, to renew for itself a mindfulness of the essential questions. Nothing, not even scientific method, can stand proxy for this struggle.

William Desmond (1990) Philosophy and Its Others, Albany NY: State University of New York Press, pp. 31-2.
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31 Oct

Perspectives on Ireland and the Reformation

Luther stands in front of the church doors as his theses are nailed to it. A watching crowd has mixed reactions: friars leave angrily, one well-dressed man cheers, most look on in curiosity.

Luther sent his ninety-five theses to the Archbishop of Mainz, Albert of Brandenburg, on 31 October 1517. He may also have fixed them to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg on that day, but there is no contemporary evidence of it. The first reference to the supposed nailing of the theses is in 1558 (twelve years after Luther’s death) from Philip Melanchthon, an ally of Luther who was not in Wittenberg in 1517. If the theses was fixed to the church door, a practice at the time, one would have expected in line with that practice that they would have been fixed by wax1

Very early in the history of Protestantism, history became important. Confronted with the question of “where was your church before Luther” a succession of scholars set out to establish that their church was not new, starting with Magdeburg Centuries (1559-1574) 2 Luther was not the first to call for reform in the Church, and forebears could be traced: Jan Hus and John Wycliffe. And before Wycliffe, at least according to John Foxe (born in 1517), an Irishman: Richard FitzRalph.
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25 Oct

Character of the Invisible

What if the beautiful itself be the expression of something behind this material world, some character of the Invisible of which the visible is the revelation?

John Todhunter (1872) The Theory of the Beautiful, p. 17. Quoted in Jane Elizabeth Wright (2002) “Todhunter, John” in Thomas Duddy (ed) The Dictionary of Irish Philosophers, Thoemmes, pp. 329-30.

Todhunter’s idealist aesthetics saw the beautiful as an expression of the “Kosmical Order”, of which the Sublime was another expression. The essence of beauty for Todhunter was harmony, and the emotion produced by it was love.

19 Oct

Test of toleration: Abernathy and Swift

Mural of two Celtic warriors in battle

John Abernathy was born on 19th October, 1680. Jonathan Swift sailed into his rest on 19th October, 1745. In the 1730s they locked horns over the issue of religious toleration.

In 1719, the Toleration Act was passed in the Irish Parliament. This confirmed that Irish Dissenters (protestants who were not members of the Established Church, the Church of Ireland) were free to practice their religion and to have their own schools. This act allowed Francis Hutcheson to run an academy in Dublin, for example. But there were still restrictions on dissenters in other spheres. A clause in the Act to prevent the further growth of popery (1704) laid down a requirement that all crown and municipal office holders should qualify themselves by taking communion in the established church. This was not altered by the 1719 Act. Since most dissenters refused to take communion as required the result had been the ousting of dissenters from civil and military office.

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11 Oct

The Case of Ireland. The anniversary of the death of William Molyneux (1698).

Detail of pamphlet cover - visible words read "The Case of Ireland's"
Guest Post: Conrad Brunstrom.

This post was first published on Conrad Brunstrom‘s blog on October 11, 2017, and is reproduced here with permission.


Engraving of William Molyneux

William Molyneux. Line engraving by P. Simms, 1725.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images ( CC BY 4.0)

William Molyneux was invoked over and over again after his death by people he would not have acknowledged and for reasons he would not have approved.  His afterlife is far more important than his biography.

He was a wealthy Irish protestant who founded the Dublin Philosophical Society in 1683.  He had wide ranging interests in both natural and speculative philosophy and did his darndest to keep up with the latest developments in European science.  His correspondence reveals a desperate need to become a close friend of John Locke.  But he’s most famous for a book published in the year of his death.

The Case of Ireland’s being Bound by Acts of Parliament in England. Stated (1698) is a book that asserts a version of national self-determination.  The identity of the “nation” that is to be determined is less than generous and inclusive.  Much of the book is very dull indeed, consisting of endless nuggets of case law dealing with the meanings of old statutes.  What emerges from this scholarship is a conviction that Ireland is not a conquered or a colonised country but a nation that has compacted with England (Britain, we recall, did not yet exist in 1698).

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20 Sep

In Our Time: Annie Besant

Melvyn Bragg and his guests; Lawrence Goldman (University of Oxford), David Stack (University of Reading) and Yasmin Khan (University of London); discuss the life of the prominent 19th-century social reformer Annie Besant (1 October, 1847 – 20 September 1933).

In 1893 Annie Besant wrote: “it has always been somewhat of a grievance to me that I was born in London, ‘within the sound of Bow Bells”, when three-quarters of my blood and all my heart are Irish”1.
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15 Sep

A New World

08 Sep

Onora O’Neill on Trust

UCD honored Onora O’Neill by awarding her the UCD Ulysses Medal, on 8th September 2017.

The video above is of a TED talk given by Onora O’Neill in June 2013 entitled “What we don’t understand about trust.” The talk explores misapprehensions about trust and points out that what we really want is more trustworthiness. A link to the talk including transcript is here.
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