web analytics
29 Jan

1916 and Ideal Ethics

I have found few people in Ireland deeply concerned about the ethics of civil war or revolution. The majority accept the principle that it is lawful to use physical force in support of high ideals. Their questioning is about the justice of the cause; and if that be admitted, they seem to think the right to use physical force to secure its triumph follows in logical and unquestionable sequence. I will not discuss the morality of civil war or revolution. I remember a man, tired of ideal ethics, who cried out at a meeting many years ago: “Let us hear no more of the good man or the bad man. Let us speak of the wise man and the foolish man.” I am like that man.

Æ George Russell (1923) “Lessons of Revolution” in Studies Vol. 12, No. 45 (Mar., 1923), pp. 1-6 [JSTOR]

This piece was written just after the War of Independence, as the Civil War was looming. This opening paragraph gives Russell’s view of the majority opinion about the ethical status of the Rising and subsequent warfare. The rest of the article gives Russell’s opinion of how successful those events were in producing the type of state he and others had hoped for (not at all).

25 Jan

Boyle’s Corpuscular Philosophy

That both parties agree in deducing all the Phaenomena of Nature from Matter and Local motion; I esteem‘d that notwithstanding those things wherein the Atomists and the Cartesians differ’d, they might be thought to agree in the main, and their Hypotheses might by a Person of a reconciling Disposition be look’d on as, upon the matter, one Philosophy. Which because it explicates things by Corpuscles, or minute Bodies, may (not very unfitly) be call’d Corpuscular.

Robert Boyle, The Physiological Essays, 1661.

Robert Boyle’s attempt to redraw the 17th century lines of debate about nature. For Boyle the major dividing line is between the scholastics who invoke forms to explain nature, while the Cartesians and the Atomists agree that the effects of nature can be explained using the principles of matter and motion. The latter two he therefore groups together under the Corpuscular Philosophy. Boyle argues that the differences between Cartesians and Atomists are either purely metaphysical or of minor theoretical importance. One such difference was that the Cartesians argued for a plenum (an entirely “full” world with no gaps) while the atomists believed the world was particles in a vacuum. Boyle describes himself as a corpuscularian, avoiding the term atomist which had become strongly linked to atheism.

This essay was the subject of correspondence between Henry Oldenburg and Spinoza, with Boyle participating at second hand in certain of the letters. Spinoza explicitly disagreed on some points of Boyle’s, for example the existence of vacuum, and even Boyle’s attempt at broad agreement between Cartesians and atomists was problematic for his philosophy. For more on the correspondence and the differences in position of Spinoza and Boyle see:

Filip Buyse (2013) Boyle, Spinoza and the Hartlib Circle: The Correspondence Which Never Took Place (online)

Filip Buyse (2010) Spinoza and Robert Boyle’s Definition of Mechanical Philosophy, Historia Philosophica, 8:73-89. (Academia)

Also see:
Peter Millican (2009) Robert Boyle’s Corpuscularian Theory, YouTube.

21 Jan

Dorothy Moore: Building Networks in the Republic of Letters

A room of 17th century women in conversation

The digital humanities project Six Degrees of Francis Bacon is holding an add-a-thon on 23rd January 2016 aimed at increasing the number of women (Early Modern Britain, 1500-1700) included in the project (see the Six Degrees of Francis Bacon site here.) Participate in person or online. Further details here or on Twitter via @6Bacon.


In 1639 Johan van Beverwijck published his book On the Excellence of the Female Sex [1] which argued for the intellectual abilities of women. One of the examples included was Dorothy Moore [2]:

the widow of an English nobleman, not yet twenty-seven years of age, adorned with all the graces of body and soul. In a short time she learned Italian and French to such an extent that she could read works written in both languages and spoke French fluently. This encouraged her to study Latin, which she also mastered soon. Not stopping there, she embarked on the study of Hebrew, in which she progressed so far in a few months that she could read the Bible in that language. In addition she is so devout that, in between her studies, she sets aside a special time each day to spend piously, reading and meditating.

Read More

20 Jan

Debating the ethics of 1916

A painting depicting the GPO on fire in 1916.

Dublin 1916 Painting
(c) KMAN999/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

2016 has started with a debate over the ethics of the 1916 Rising, primarily in the Irish Times. The first shot was fired by Patsy McGarry [1] who argued that the Rising was “an immoral and anti-democratic act organised by a minority within a minority, who, looking into their own souls, saw there what they deemed was right for the Irish people.” McGarry pointed to the messianic leanings of Pearse and the unilateral nature of the violence.

Diarmaid Ferriter wrote a reply [2] regarding Pearse’s self-image as a Christ-figure and pointing out its parallels in the 1966 (printed 1972) critique of Fr Francis Shaw [3]. But what of the suggestion that the Rising was immoral?

A piece from 2014 in the Unthinkable column had already featured an argument from James G Murphy that the Rising failed the “Just War” test, where to be justified wars must (have: “1) just cause, (2) competent authority, (3) comparative justice, (4) right intention, (5) reasonable prospect of success, (6) last resort, and (7) proportionality.” Murphy concluded: “Private individuals have no business or right to go to war. Leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising take note” [4]. Murphy extended the case in 2016, arguing that aspects of the commemoration are deeply problematic, setting the Rising up as the key moment in the establishment of the Irish State, without questioning its violence and divisiveness. He reiterates the key issue regarding the legitimacy of the Rising [5]: Read More

14 Jan

Ideas about Berkeley

Berkeley, in his lifetime, was regarded as a disciple of Malebranche. Subsequently he came to be regarded as a Lockian. The new opinion was a natural growth. In the course of time British acquaintance with Malebranche sank, and the fame of Berkeley rose. National sentiment adopted him as the English philosopher in succession to Locke. It may therefore be in place here to mention the danger of over-estimating the degree to which the young Berkeley was anglicized.

There are two national sentiments to be considered, and to hold the balance is not easy. To speak of him, without qualification, as an English philosopher cannot be right. Leslie Stephen’s statement ‘Berkeley always considered himself an Englishman’, is misleading, if not mistaken. Berkeley was born and bred in Ireland. His education was entirely Irish. He speaks of himself as an Irishman several times in the Commonplace Book. Newton to him was ‘a philosopher of a neighbouring nation’. As with many his sentiments were necessarily mixed and his loyalties divided. But credit must go where it is due. Berkeley’s system in so far as it forms part of the heritage of international philosophy was complete before he set foot in England, and in England he wrote little or no philosophy.

The changing views of Berkeley’s influences and nationality. From A. A. Luce (1934) Berkeley and Malebranche, Oxford University Press, pp. 10-11. (archive.org)

12 Jan

Burke: no conservative?

Conservatives have either ignored Burke’s support for colonial rebellion, or maintained that his career was split between two phases: an early period of support for the ‘liberal’ cause of America and a later ‘conservative’ reaction to the Revolution in France. Burke certainly changed his opinions over the course of his career, but these shifts cannot be captured by presuming a contradiction between his support for American resistance and his aversion to the revolution in France. Representations of Burke as a renegade from early idealism are based on the dogmatic assumption that the American and French revolutions were fundamentally ‘the same’. Yet for Burke these two events were absolutely different, and in fact he had good reasons for insisting on their difference.

from Richard Bourke (2015) “Burke was no conservative” in Aeon Magazine (online).

06 Jan

Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington: Feminist Republican

Prof Bryan Fanning (2015) “Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington: Feminist Republican”, UCD Youtube.

For more on Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, see Women’s Museum of Ireland: Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington (includes links to other resources), the review of the 1999 “Hanna Sheehy Skeffington: a Life” by Margaret Ward on History Ireland, and Margaret Ward (on Hanna’s House) The Political Career of Hanna Sheehy Skeffington – Challenging Feminism and Republicanism (pdf).

04 Jan

“Too Gentle a Soul”: James Ussher

A historian, a scholar and a key figure in the religious debates of the 16th century, Ussher was born in Dublin (either on Nicholas St[1] or 57 High St[2] across from the old Christchurch Synod Hall) on the 4th January 1581 and baptised in the Church of Ireland St Nicholas Within. He was born into a prosperous merchant family, but one that was torn by the religious divisions of the time. Most of the Usshers conformed to the Church of Ireland, notably Henry Ussher, Church of Ireland archbishop of Armagh from 1595 to 1613, who played an important role in the creation of Trinity College, Dublin in 1592. His mother remained Catholic; her brother was the famous historian Richard Stanyhurst (1547-1618), in later life a Jesuit priest [3].

James Ussher was one of the first to attend Trinity College Dublin, gaining his BA c. 1597 and MA in 1601. He was ordained by his uncle Henry Ussher in December 1601 and in 1602 took his first trip of many to England, in search of books for Trinity College Library. During his trips to London he made many antiquarian connections with figures such as Henry Savile and John Seldon. He graduated in Divinity in 1607, immediately becoming Professor of Theological Controversies. In 1613 he married Phoebe Challoner, daughter of the vice-provost of Trinity Luke Challoner, and published his first work, Gravissimae Quaestionis, de Christianarum ecclesiarum, in occidentis praesertim partibus, ab apostolicis temporibus, ad nostram usque aetatem, continua successione & statu, historica explicatio (London, 1613). This work gave an account of medieval heretical groups drawing on original sources; however it also had the polemical purpose of tracing the rise of the Anti-Christ in Roman Catholic church, and the identification of groups such as the Cathars as proto-protestants[4].

Ussher graduated DD in 1614 and became vice-chancellor of Trinity in 1615. He is also credited with playing a large part in the creation of the Church of Ireland’s first full Confession of Faith. These articles were an advance on the 39 Articles on which they were based, they allowed more accommodation of puritan ideas than the equivalent in the Church of England (for example, allowing more leeway on the question of bishops) and did not require subscription. Ussher became Bishop of Meath and Clonmacnoise in 1621 and finally was appointed Archbishop of Armagh by James I of England in 1625[5]. It should be noted that of the twenty-five bishops James I placed in the Church of Ireland in his lifetime, Ussher was the only one born in Ireland and educated at Trinity [6]

Read More