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23 Apr

The Political Importance of Brian Boru

Brian Boru from Geoffrey Keating's General History of Ireland, printed in 1723.

Brian Boru from Geoffrey Keating’s General History of Ireland (1723)
© Marsh’s Library (CC)

The Battle of Clontarf was fought on the 23th April 1014 at Clontarf, near Dublin. The history of early Ireland, Foras Feasa ar Éirinn (literally Foundation of Knowledge on Ireland though often known as The History of Ireland) by Geoffrey Keating gives one of the best known early descriptions of the Battle of Clontarf. A (heavily criticised) 1723 English language translation of the Foras by Dermot O’Connor contains the first printed image of Brian Boru, shown above. The original work was written in Irish.

Apart from its historical interest, the book plays a part in the history of Irish thought. The Feasa is intended not merely to document events but to put forward a particular viewpoint – to defend Ireland against criticisms going back as far as Gerald of Wales, to outline the relationship of Ireland to the English king and define Irish identity.

The work also includes the concept of rule by consent, an idea that became very important in the 17th and 18th centuries [FFÉ, p. 183]:

We do not read in the seanchas that there was ever any king of Ireland from the time of Slainghe to the Norman invasion but a king who obtained the sovereignty of Ireland by the choice of the people, by the excellence of his exploits, and by the strength of his hand.

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21 Apr

John Toland: speaking freely

Now if it be a desirable thing to have the Truth told without disguise, there’s but one method to procure such a blessing. Let all men freely speak what they think, without being ever branded or punished but for wicked practices, and leaving their speculative opinions to be confuted or approved by whoever pleases : then you are sure to hear the whole truth; and till then but very scantily, or obscurely, if at all.

John Toland on free speech, in Clidophorus; or, Of the exoteric and esoteric philosophy (1720)

This quote not only gives Toland’s opinion of the importance of free speech but hints at ways to avoid trouble in places where it is not recognised, by speaking the truth obscurely. Toland goes on to speak of a Doctor who spoke of difficulties with religion esoterically though the form of a sermon, which gave a different message exoterically. Thus the one text can be read in two ways: one obscure for initiates and fellow travellers, and one overt and acceptable in public. Clidophorus is read not only for itself but for approaches to use reading Toland’s other works, especially Pantheisticon .

For more on esotericism in philosophical writing see this.

19 Apr

Onora O’Neill: “What would Edmund Burke think of Human Rights” (Annual Burke Lecture, TCD)

The inaugural Edmund Burke Lecture is on the subject of Human Rights. Edmund Burke was sceptical about the Rights of Man, but also deeply interested in what moral codes should underpin society. The (Northern Ireland born) Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve CH CBE FBA will lecture on the topic: “What would Edmund Burke think of Human Rights” as part of the President of Ireland’s Ethics Initiative on Tuesday 22 April 2014 18:00 in the Trinity Long Room Hub. More details here.

The event is free but booking is required.

Also see Joe Humphrey’s interview with Onora O’Neill in the Irish Times.

Her TED talks lecture on “What we don’t understand about trust” is here.

17 Apr

Epitaph for William Molyneaux

William Molyneux epitaph, St. Audoen's Church, Cornmarket, Dublin Via Wikicommons/CC

William Molyneux epitaph, St. Audoen’s Church, Cornmarket, Dublin
Via Wikicommons/CC

William Molyneux (17 April 1656 – 11 October 1698)’s epitaph on the wall of the old chancel (now in the open air) of the Church of Ireland St. Audoen’s Church, Cornmarket, in Dublin, Ireland. The section referring to him starts about halfway down the stone.

WILLIAM MOLYNEUX
whom LOCKE was proud to call his friend
author of The Case Of Ireland Stated
of the Dioprica Nova
long the standard authority in optics
and of many other scientific works.
He died 11th October 1698 at the age of 42 years
to the grief of friends
and to the loss of his country.
His remains with those of
many distinguished ancestors & kinsmen
rest in the adjoining vault of the
USSHER & MOLYNEUX families.
WILLIAM MOLYNEUX married LUCY
daughter of SIR WILLIAM DOMVILE and left
an only son SAMUEL not less distinguished
as a statesman & philosopher. He was secretary
to FREDERICK Prince of Wales and the founder
of the celebrated observatory at Kew.
He married LADY ELIZABETH DIANA CAPEL
and died 1727.

10 Apr

No Shining Star

A nation is but a host of men united by some God-begotten mood, some hope of liberty or dream of power or beauty or justice or brotherhood, and until that master idea is manifested to us there is no shining star to guide the ship of our destinies. […] We have to do for Ireland—though we hope with less arrogance—what the long and illustrious line of German thinkers, scientists, poets, philosophers, and historians did for Germany, or what the poets and artists of Greece did for the Athenians: and that is, to create national ideals, which will dominate the policy of statesmen, the actions of citizens, the universities, the social organizations, the administration of State departments, and unite in one spirit urban and rural life. Unless this is done Ireland will be like Portugal, or any of the corrupt little penny-dreadful nationalities which so continually disturb the peace of the world with internal revolutions and external brawlings, and we shall only have achieved the mechanism of nationality, but the spirit will have eluded us.

‘AE’ (George William Russell) on the need for a national reflective tradition. He sees in the Ireland of his time the mistaking of feelings for thought and the overdominance of passion in politics. From The National Being (1916)

04 Apr

Irish Times Unthinkable: Prof David Berman on George Berkeley

04 Apr

Goldsmith: a coda to the Irish Golden Age of Philosophy

Detail of the Goldsmith statue outside Trinity College Dublin Source: Wikicommons/CC (Edit)

Detail of the Goldsmith statue outside Trinity College Dublin
Source: Wikicommons/CC (Edit)

David Berman places the publishing of Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of The Sublime and Beautiful as marking the end of the Irish Golden Age of Philosophy.

“Irish aesthetics begins in the 1720s with Hutcheson, and it may be said to end in 1757 with Burke” (Berman, p. 129) As well as distinguishing between the terms “sublime” and “beautiful”, Burke also argued against George Berkeley’s utility theory of beauty: “‘…beauty riseth from the appearance of use …’. (Berman, p. 130 (quoting Alciphron, III. 9.) and p. 131) Burke notes

if the utility theory were correct ‘the wedge-like snout of a swine, with its tough cartilage at the end, the little sunk eyes, and the whole make of the head, so well adapted to its office of digging and rooting, would be extremely beautiful’.

In a coda to the Irish aesthetics debate, and to the Golden Age itself, Oliver Goldsmith reviewed Burke’s book in the Monthly Review in which he described the book, and argued against some points in footnotes. In one, he suggested that utility can in fact lead to ideas of beauty:
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01 Apr

de Selby, the philosopher preserved by Flann O’Brien

Human existence being an hallucination containing in itself the secondary hallucinations of day and night (the latter an insanitary condition of the atmosphere due to accretions of black air) it ill becomes any man of sense to be concerned at the illusory approach of the supreme hallucination known as death.

de Selby. An epigraph from the frontispiece of The Third Policeman

de Selby is included in Wikipedia’s Irish Philosopher category. We have no good evidence for his being Irish but due to the fact the vast majority of the evidence of his existence comes from an Irish source, I believe he deserves inclusion here.

Despite living a good twenty centuries later, de Selby has suffered the same fate as the preSocratics, with his original books being completely lost. In addition all original copies of the copious secondary literature on de Selby is no longer available. The vast majority of what remains is the material, both original and secondary, collected in a series of footnotes in a quasi-autobiographical work credited to a Flann O’Brien (1). Due to the patchwork nature of the references in this tertiary work it is impossible to trace the development of de Selby’s thought or get a sense of his system, if he had one. However we can piece together a small account of the theories of de Selby with a few of his epigrams and get a sense of the interest and controversy surrounding his work.(2)
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24 Mar

Newton in the Letters to Serena

The signature of Bruno’s ideas on motion and matter is evident throughout Toland’s Letters to Serena (1704). In Serena, matter is one, motion is inherent in matter, and no void exists. Toland’s matter is the source of life itself, whereas Newtonian matter is ‘sluggish, inactive, brute and stupid’. Toland fully accepted Newton’s physics. In fact he was one of the first writers to bring word of Newton’s science into France. However, he argued that Newton’s interpretation of his own laws was not the only possible interpretation.

The acceptance of Newton’s physics in Letters to Serena by the most notorious freethinker of the time had the effect of making Newton somewhat suspect to orthodox Anglicans. The first edition of Opticks (1704) had only sixteen queries; Newton added seven more between 1704 and the 1706 Latin version. However, there is in existence an early draft of the twenty-third query which differs significantly from the later (published) version. Thus Newton wrote and rewrote this query between the publication of Serena, and the Latin edition of Opticks in 1706. Here he tried to grapple with the significance of Toland’s hylozoism [the doctrine that all matter has life]. The draft version of the twenty-third query states:

it seems to have been an ancient opinion that matter depends upon a Deity for its laws of motion as well as for its existence. These are passive laws and to affirm that there are no others is to speak against experience. …all matter duly formed is attended with signes of life.

This text does not appear in the final version of query twenty-three. As the person who had given the English ruling class its ideological justification, publicly stating that ‘all matter duly formed is attended with signes of life’ would have undermined the status quo and aligned Newton with Toland and the heretic Bruno! One suspects that Newton may have become a prisoner of his own ideology, trapped in the cul-de-sac of orthodoxy.

From Philip McGuinness (1996) ‘The Hue and Cry of Heresy’ John Toland, Isaac Newton & the Social Context of Scientists, History Ireland, Issue 4.

23 Mar

Irish Times Unthinkable: Dr Ian Leask on the legacy of John Toland