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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


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,


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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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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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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29 Aug

Locke: Key to Irish Philosophy

John Locke’s Essay concerning Human Understanding (London, 1690) is, without doubt, the most important external influence on Irish philosophy[…] Without Locke’s Essay there would hardly have been a Berkeley, Browne, Hutcheson, or Burke; at least, they could not have been the philosophers we know them to be. Apart perhaps from Molyneux, no Irish thinker entirely accepted Locke’s philosophy, or described himself as a follower of Locke. Indeed, the Hibernian contribution was in large measure to criticize creatively and reinterpret Locke’s diverse philosophical investigations.[…]

There are two main tendencies in Irish philosophy: one liberal, the other traditional. Molesworth and Shaftesbury follow squarely in the former. They represent the Enlightenment, especially in their sympathy for toleration and in their criticism of the priestly and dogmatic aspects of religion. Locke, as I shall try to show, was employed by both tendencies or movements, but most imaginatively by the forces of tradition.

David Berman (2005) Berkeley and Irish Philosophy, Continuum, pp. 80-1.

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08 Aug

Francis Hutcheson: the Ulster Stoic

Against a dark background, a hand emerges from a flowing white cuff, holding a book: Cicero's 'De Finibus'

That Stoicism was an influence on Francis Hutcheson is well known. He translated the lions share of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (his co-translator James Moor was responsible for two of the twelve books), which was published anonymously by Foulis in Glasgow in 17421 He told Thomas Drennan by letter than he hoped the translation would be a public good, and in the Preface he wrote to the work, he said the Meditations inspired “a constant inflexible charity, and good-will and compassion toward our fellows.”2
Hutcheson said he “took the first hints of [his opinions] from some of the greatest Writers of Antiquity” in his Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725) and referenced Aurelius in An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections. Stoicism informs all his work. This is not surprising given the influence of Shaftesbury on Hutchesons moral theory: Shaftesbury was also influenced by Stoicism.
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15 Jun

Edmund Burke on Magna Carta

The common law, as it then prevailed in England, was in a great measure composed of some remnants of the old Saxon customs, joined to the feudal institutions brought in at the Norman Conquest. And it is here to be observed, that the constitutions of Magna Charta are by no means a renewal of the laws of St. Edward, or the ancient Saxon laws, as our historians and lawwriters generally, though very groundlessly, assert. They bear no resemblance, in any particular, to the laws of St. Edward, or to any other collection of these ancient institutions. Indeed, how should they? The object of Magna Charta is the correction of the feudal policy, which was first introduced, at least in any regular form, at the Conquest, and did not subsist before it. It may be further observed, that in the preamble to the great charter it is stipulated that the barons shall hold the liberties there granted to them and their heirs, from the king and his heirs; which shows that the doctrine of an unalienable tenure was always uppermost in their minds. Their idea even of liberty was not (if I may use the expression) perfectly free; and they did not claim to possess their privileges upon any natural principle or independent bottom, but just as they held their lands from the king. […]
All these were marks of a real and grievous servitude. The great charter was made not to destroy the root, but to cut short the overgrown branches of the feudal service[.]

Edmund Burke An Essay towards an Abridgement of English History, written between 1757 and c. 1763. From Edmund Burke (1852) The Works and Correspondence of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, in Eight Volumes, Vol. IV, London: F. & J. Rivington, pp. 358-9 (Google Books)
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12 Mar

Berkeley’s Pragmatism

So far from denying the external world which we know, Berkeley corroborated it. It was the scholastic notion of a material substance unapproachable by us, BEHIND the external world, deeper and more real than it, and needed to support it, which Berkeley maintained to be the most effective of all reducers of the external world to unreality. Abolish that substance, he said, believe that God, whom you can understand and approach, sends you the sensible world directly, and you confirm the latter and back it up by his divine authority. Berkeley’s criticism of ‘matter’ was consequently absolutely pragmatistic. Matter is known as our sensations of colour, figure, hardness and the like. They are the cash-value of the term. The difference matter makes to us by truly being is that we then get such sensations; by not being, is that we lack them. These sensations then are its sole meaning. Berkeley doesn’t deny matter, then; he simply tells us what it consists of. It is a true name for just so much in the way of sensations.

William James (1907/1981) Pragmatism Hackett Publishing, p. 44.

28 Feb

Student Politics – Choosing the Rector in Glasgow, 1716-1726

The post of Rector in the University of Glasgow dates back to 1452. Today the Rector is elected for a term of three years by the matriculated students of the University of Glasgow, with an election taking place this year (2017)1. Though the Rector was always supposed to be selected by the students, in the past this didn’t always happen. In the 1690s the annual election of the Rector was taken over first by the faculty and then by the Principal and his inner circle.

In Praise of Liberty – Francis Hutcheson

In 1716, the faculty outside the Principal’s circle urged the students to regain their voting rights, including Gershom Carmichael who made a speech to the students “in one of the publick Halls in Praise of Liberty”2 A Royal Commission was held but it was dominated by the university’s managers and found against the students. The rebel staff secured lawyers and when the Principal pushed through the appointment of a new Rector later in 1716 a committee of six divinity students and three undergraduates collected signatures and brought the university to court. The committee included two from Ireland: Peter Butler from Waterford and Francis Hutcheson from Down. Two of the students (including Butler) acted as litigants: the university reacted by refusing their readmission to the divinity school. Further court action to ensure their reinstatement ensued with Francis Hutcheson appearing as one of the witnesses3.
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