In his post on Virtual Philosopher for World Philosophy Day, Nigel Warburton says, “We are living in a Golden Age for public philosophy, philosophy presented to a general audience rather than a specialised academic one”1. The post includes numerous examples, but omits one which arguably demonstrates this most clearly: the first mainstream television series in which philosophy is front and centre, The Good Place.
The focus of The Good Place is ethics. It is a show where not just the ideas, but the physical books from courses in ethics make an appearance. One of the main characters is even a moral philosopher. Naturally, Consequentialism, Deontology and Virtue Ethics make an appearance, but I’m going to look at one ethical philosophy that does not feature: that of Francis Hutcheson.
It is this inability to wrestle with difficulty which has obliged the arbitrary Assembly of France to commence their schemes of reform with abolition and total destruction. But is it in destroying and pulling down that skill is displayed? Your mob can do this as well at least as your assemblies. The shallowest understanding, the rudest hand, is more than equal to that task. Rage and frenzy will pull down more in half an hour than prudence, deliberation, and foresight can build up in a hundred years. The errors and defects of old establishments are visible and palpable. It calls for little ability to point them out; and where absolute power is given, it requires but a word wholly to abolish the vice and the establishment together.
Edmund Burke (1790/2014) Reflections on the Revolution in France, University of Adelaide (online). Emphasis added.
The Reflections were published on this day in 1790.
Alongside the mercantilist and metrocentic strain in civil philosophy in the 1730s, there was also an anti-imperial and philocolonial strand. This was represented most notably by the Hiberno-Scot Francis Hutcheson’s A System of Moral Philosophy, which he composed between 1734 and 1737, in the period before the anti-Spanish agitations but in the aftermath of the Excise Crisis and the darkest days of Walpole’s premiership. Hutcheson questioned the very foundations in rights of dominium upon which the British Empire rested, and argued that ‘[n]o person or society…can by mere occupation acquire such a right in a vast tract of land quite beyond their power to cultivate’. This denial of the juridical basis on which the British Empire in America was claimed was in its own way as Lockean as that of the author of the Essay on Civil Government, but took seriously Locke’s sufficiency condition for legitimate possession. Hutcheson went even further, and proposed colonial independence should the mother-country impose ‘severe and absolute’ power over its provinces. ‘The insisting on old claims and tacit conventions’, he concluded, ‘to extend civil power over distant nations, and form grand unwieldy empires, without regard to the obvious maxims of humanity, has been one great source of human misery’.
David Armitage (2000) The Ideological Origins of the British Empire, Cambridge University Press, p. 188.
Conservatism is a disposition, not a political doctrine. It is difficult to avoid this implication in statements such as that of Robert Michels (in 1930, as quoted by Richard Bourke) “The Bolsheviks of today are as conservative as the Tsarists of yesterday”. As Bourke points out, “one conserves relative to opposing positions that seem to bring about unwelcome change”1
But if this is the case, why and when did Edmund Burke come to be associated with conservative thought in general, and the British Conservative Party in particular? This happened, as Emily Jones has shown, much later than many would think.
Throughout much of the nineteenth century, Burke was admired more by liberals than by conservatives. Whigs knew him as the man who provided the party manual, the Thoughts on the cause of the present discontents (1770), but also as the man who split the party. The Tories approved of his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) but were deeply aware of his Whig status. “His political legacy was thus divided between Whig exaltation of earlier texts, and Tory adulation of Reflections.” 2
On the Strand in London in 1748, a large clergyman of majestic appearance carrying a weighty manuscript entered the shop of the famous printer and bookseller Andrew Millar. In an accent that marked him as an Ulster man, he asked if Millar would buy the manuscript to print. Millar asked that the manuscript be left in the shop for a few days, so Millar could submit it to an expert who could judge if it was worth the cost of printing. The clergyman did so. Later, (the yet more famous) David Hume came to Millars and examined the manuscript for a few hours, then told Millar, print. It was a good call: the two-volume book was one of the most popular books in its day, requiring a second edition after just over a year. The author got £200 which he spent in book purchases1
The book was Ophiomaches, or Deism Revealed (1749, known as Deism Revealed in the 1751 and subsequent editions) and the writer was Lisburn-born Philip Skelton. The story reveals Hume’s generosity to critics, because the book contains the earliest criticism of Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). Skelton had only seen Hume’s Enquiry when travelling to London with his manuscript of Ophiomaches, a book attacking deism in the form of dialogues. He was shown it by Dr Connebear in Oxford and added replies to Hume’s work at Connebear’s request. One of the most important changes was the reworking of the fifth dialogue of Ophiomaches to address Hume’s essay on miracles2
I have written before about the Irish philosophy connections to Handel’s Messiah, first performed in Dublin on 13th April, 1742. Philosophers Edward Synge and Patrick Delany were captivated by the production that Swift almost had halted. Edward Synge sent a testimonial to Handel praising the music, but also the words. The words, indeed, he believed key to the oratorio’s success1
1 one is the Subject, which is the greatest & most interesting. It Seems to have inspir’d him/
2 Another is the Words, which are all Sublime, or affecting in the greatest degree.
3 a Third reason […] T’is there is no Dialogue […] in this Piece the attention of the Audience is Engag’d from one end to the other […] Many, I hope, were instructed by it, and had proper Sentiments inspir’d in a Stronger Manner on their Minds.
How, in a book for free spirits, should there be no mention of Laurence Sterne, whom Goethe honoured as the most liberated spirit of his century! Let us content ourselves here simply with calling him the most liberated spirit of all time, in comparison with whom all others seem stiff, square, intolerant and boorishly direct.
Nietzsche (1968) Human, All Too Human, p. 238.
In 2017 the Russian Orthodox Church added Patrick to their calendar of saints1 A saint from before the Great Schism and the Reformation, Patrick is venerated by the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Indeed, many have attempted to claim Patrick as particularly their own.
Patrick has also been invoked in bringing different groups together. While Ireland had a recognisable identity from early times, but like ancient Greece or contemporary Germany, that did not suggest a unitary state. The warring of petty states led to a influx of Normans. Henry II’s assertion of his dominance over those Norman lords led to a separation of the inhabitants into “mere Irish” and “Old English.”
The line between “the king’s English subjects” and “the king’s Irish subjects” was, counter-intuitively, a matter of choice. Those adhering to the native customs outlawed by the Statutes of Kilkenny were declaring themselves outlaws, those adopting an English lifestyle were English regardless of background. For “Old English” Norman families outside the Pale, who intermarried and interacted with Irish Gaelic families, a certain amount of fancy footwork must have been required to balance Irish customs with English laws. The borders of the Pale saw constant aggression that Richard Fitzralph’s admonishing sermons gives witness to2.
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.