web analytics
14 Jan

The Deathbed Argument

John Calvin on his deathbed, with members of the Church in attendance. Protestant reformer in Geneva.

The book Death and the Irish: A miscellany is “a medley of 75 perspectives on death and the Irish” edited by Salvador Ryan and published by Wordwell. In a positive review Bridget English makes a minor criticism: “Philosophers have certainly shaped the ways that modern secular society conceives of death, yet there are no entries on the relationship between Ireland and philosophy.”1 Philosophers have also referred to death in arguments, and the review brought one particular philosopher and his “deathbed argument” to mind.

In Francis Hutcheson’s first book (published in 1725) An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, Treatise II argues against Mandeville that there must be motives for benevolent action other than your own pleasure. To illustrate this, Hutcheson uses a thought experiment2
Read More

25 Dec

The Teacher Thomas Drennan

Interior of the First Presbyterian Church, Belfast.

Thomas Drennan was born in Belfast on 25th December 1696. Though he appears in the Dictionary of Irish Philosophers, nothing of any philosophical work he did survives: his sermons were never published. A later biography describes him as “an elegant scholar, a man of fine taste, overflowing benevolence and delicate sensibility”1 His major importance is of a source for the many philosophical friends he had though the preservation of his correspondence by his family, and as a link between the philosophy of the 1720s and the United Irishmen of the 1790s.

Drennan was a friend of James Arbuckle from his childhood2. Like the younger Arbuckle he attended Glasgow University, entering in the penultimate year of study and taught by Gershom Carmichael. He graduated MA in 1716 and then studied divinity under John Simson. His attendance overlapped with Francis Hutcheson, the printer John Smith and James Arbuckle.

Read More

09 Dec

Saving Milton: his friend Lady Ranelagh and his defender John Toland

John Milton dictating 'Paradise Lost' to his daughter due to his blindness

John Milton is most famous today for his epic poem Paradise Lost, a poem that might have been lost itself. In 1660, Milton was best known for his work writing defences of the Commonwealth against Royalist attacks as Secretary of Foreign Tongues to the Council of State (since 1649). These included Eikonoklastes (1649, justifying Charles I’s execution) and The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth (1660, arguing against the Restoration). After the Restoration, Milton had to be hidden by friends: he eventually was arrested and held in custody for a few months. Friends in high places worked to prevent his exclusion from the Act of Pardon. Their success meant that Milton could complete his half-finished epic poem 1.

Milton had first come to attention as a poet. His first published work was Lycidas, an acclaimed pastoral elegy written for Dorothy Moore‘s brother Edward King. It’s plausible that Dorothy Moore met at some point, though as far as I’m aware there is no record of it. In the 1640s Milton became acquainted with members of the Hartlib circle, including Samuel Hartlib, John Durie, Henry Oldenburg and Lady Ranelagh. Milton and Hartlib probably met in 1643 and in 1644 Hartlib circulated Milton’s tract Of Education, To Master Samuel Hartlib2.
Read More

24 Nov

The philosophy in Tristram Shandy

From ABC National Radio’s Philosopher’s Zone (2006) The philosophy in Tristram Shandy. “Tristram Shandy” is a novel that plays, not only with form (the unique handmarbled page, the typography, the fact the narrator digresses so much that he only completes the story of his birth in volume 3), but with philosophy, particularly that of Locke.

For a transcript of the programme and further information, please click here.
Further Reading and Listening

Glasgow University Library (2000) Book of the Month October 2000: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (online)

Karen Harvey (2014) “Nose to nose with Laurence Sterne and Tristram Shandy” OUP Blog (online)

BBC Radio 4: In Our Time (2014) Tristram Shandy (online). Featuring podcast with guests Judith Hawley, John Mullan and Mary Newbould and links to further information.

17 Nov

Toleration in 18th century Ireland

Allegoric statue of "Tolerance", depicted as a seated woman with a torch in her right hand, and a shield on her left with the words "Concordia religionum" (harmony in religions).

This year, World Philosophy Day (17th November 2016) is celebrated immediately after International Day for Tolerance (16th November every year). The theme for World Philosophy Day 2016, therefore, is Tolerance.

In her message on World Philosophy Day 2016, Director-General of UNESCO Irina Bokova has this to say on tolerance and philosophy1:

Philosophy does not offer any ready-to-use solutions, but a perpetual quest to question the world and try to find a place in it. Along this road, tolerance is both a moral virtue and a practical tool for dialogue. It has nothing to do with the naive relativism that claims everything is equally valid; it is an individual imperative to listen, all the more striking because it is founded on a resolute commitment to defend the universal principles of dignity and freedom.

While an accurate description of the ideal of tolerance, it should be remembered that tolerance was not obviously a virtue in the past. It had to be argued for, and the acceptance of toleration waxed and waned over time. 

In the religious wars of 16th and 17th century Europe, toleration was generally a term of insult. The Thirty-Year War and the Eighty-Year War sought to establish right religion within Europe. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 saw all countries recognise the 1555 Peace of Augsburg in which each ruler would have the right to determine the religion of his own state while allowing other Christians to worship privately and (limitedly) in public. This had some strange ramifications in Ireland.
Read More

08 Nov

Eternal Vigilance

[F]rom the history of the early periods of this corporation, and a view of its charters and bye-laws, it appears that the Commons had, from the earliest periods, participated in the important right of election to that high trust ; and it was natural and just that the whole body of citizens, by themselves or their representatives, should have a share in electing those magistrates who were to govern them, as it was their birthright to be ruled only by laws which they had a share in enacting. The Aldermen, however, soon became jealous of this participation, encroached by degrees upon the Commons, and at length succeeded in engrossing to themselves the double privilege of eligibility and of election; of being the only body out of which, and by which the Lord Mayor could be chosen.

Nor is it strange that, in those times, a board consisting of so small a number as twenty-four members, with the advantages of a more united interest, and a longer continuance in office, should have prevailed, even contrary to so evident principles of natural justice and constitutional right, against the unsteady resistance of competitors so much less vigilant, so much more numerous, and, therefore, so much less united. It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance, which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime, and the punishment of his guilt.

“Election of Lord Mayor of Dublin,” speech before the Privy Council, July 10, 1790.
From Thomas Davis (ed) (1847) The Speeches of the Right Honorable John Philpot Curran, pp. 103-131 (archive.org). Quote is from p. 105.

John Philpott Curran was one of the best-known lawyers of his time. He had associations with the United Irishmen and defended Archibald Rowan Hamilton. The above quote is from one of his political speeches made on the occasion of a disputed election. The agreement of both Aldermen and the Common Council was required to elect a Lord Mayor but the aldermen disputed the validity of the Common Council’s rejection of their selection. Curran’s famous linking of liberty and vigilance was made while reviewing the background to the dispute as the extended quote above makes clear.

The last two sentences are the ones most commonly quoted and Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (1980, 15th ed, p. 397, footnote 8) gives them as the source of “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” .

05 Nov

Who called it a “Glorious Revolution”?

On the 5th November 1688 William of Orange landed at Torbay, a key event in the “Glorious Revolution”. It has been said of the Glorious Revolution that it was not glorious and not a revolution. But who called it that in the first place?

The first history of the events which culminated in the crowning of William and Mary was written in 1689. The title called the change in ruler a revolution (“The history of the late revolution in England”). The first person recorded adding the adjective “Glorious” was a Whig radical, John Hampden Jr, who used the term while giving testimony to a committee of the House of Lords in the autumn of 1689. “When that term appeared again it was in 1706 in sermons by Bishop Gilbert Burnet (a friend and confidant of King William and Queen Mary) and nonconformist preachers.”1

Read More

07 Oct

His Native Potatoes

NPG D12313; Edmund Burke ('Cincinnatus in retirement') by James Gillray, published by  Elizabeth d'Achery

by James Gillray, published by Elizabeth d’Achery, hand-coloured etching, published 23 August 1782
© National Portrait Gallery, London

For National Potato Day, a satirical portrait of Edmund Burke eating potatoes. The caption reads “Cincinnatus in retirement falsely supposed to represent Jesuit Padre driven back to his native potatoes. See Romanish Commonwealth.”
Continue reading

24 Sep

Molyneux’s Treatise of Dioptrics

molyneux-dioptricks

molyneux-dioptricks-sig

William Molyneux’s Treatise of Dioptrics, 1692. This copy was given to Narcissus Marsh by Molyneux himself (as evidenced by Molyneux’s inscription, see left.) This 300 page book was the first English language book about optics. (For more on the Dioptrics of William Molyneux and his son, see “When an Eye is armed with a Telescope: The Dioptrics of William and Samuel Molyneux.” by Peter Abrahams.)

Among the other copies that Molyneux gave away was one sent to John Locke, which triggered a correspondence and a friendship that lasted until Molyneux’s death in 1698.

Source of images: Marsh’s Library on Facebook (Creative Commons).

04 Sep

Descartes vs Toland

Toland also argues that there is no benefit in making a distinction between what is inconsistent with reason and what merely appears to be inconsistent with reason, and then accepting that we may be required by divine revelation to believe what appears to be irrational. Toland’s answer to this is remarkably similar to Descartes’s: if we relax the criterion of what is credible to admit propositions that at least appear to be irrational, then there is no limit to what we may be invited or required to believe. […]

However in contrast to Descartes, Toland seems to establish reason not only as a criterion of what we can believe, but also as a criterion of what is possible for God.

Desmond M. Clarke (1997)”Toland on Faith and Reason” in Philip McGuinness, Alan Harrison and Richard Kearney (eds) John Toland’s Christianity not Mysterious: Text, Associated Works and Critical Essays, Dublin: Lilliput Press, pp. 293-301.
Continue reading