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02 May

Sentimentalism: Moral Theory from the Celtic Fringe

With the exception of Shaftesbury, none of the moralists we have been examining was English. In fact, the English are in as short supply among this group as they are in the ranks of so-called English literary modernism. Almost all of the thinkers we have been discussing stemmed from the Gaelic margins of the metropolitan nation, a fact that may not be insignificant. Gaels like Burke, Hume, Hutcheson, Smith, Fordyce and Ferguson, along with figures like Goldsmith, Steele, Brooke and Sterne who were born in Ireland or of part-Gaelic provenance, were no doubt more inclined to the cult of sentiment and benevolence than their Anglo-Saxon counter-parts. This is not because Gaels are genetically more genial than the English, but because Scotland and Ireland both had powerful traditions of clan- or community-based allegiances.

It is true that kinship structures, binding customs, unwritten obligations and so-called moral economy had long been under siege in both nations from a colonially imposed system of contractual relations and possessive individualism. But aspects of this traditional way of life survived precariously alongside more modem institutions, and in the political militancy of
small tenants, crofters and labourers could offer such modernity some ferocious resistance throughout the Age of Reason.

From Terry Eagleton (2008) Trouble with Strangers, p. 77.

The first section of this book explores Sentimentalism, also known as Moral Sense Theory. Moral sentimentalists argue against the theory that human motivation is based on self-interest but also deny that morality can be derived from pure reason. Instead they hold the position that morality and altruism are based in sentiment: in the feelings human beings have for one another and their concern for each others welfare.

Of the names Eagleton mentions, Burke, Hutcheson, Goldsmith, Steele,Brooke and Sterne are Irish-born (all links to the Irish Compendium of Biography, 1878). How happy the Scottish philosophers Hume, Smith, Fordyce and Ferguson would be to be called “Gaels”, I am not entirely sure.

26 Apr


Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

Edmund Burke, Speech to the Electors of Bristol, 3rd November, 1774 (Full text available from University of Chicago).

A man who would not have approved by government by kite-flying, focus group and opinion poll. The whole piece is short and worth reading. The quote in context:

Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

26 Apr

In Our Time: Edmund Burke

In Our Time: Edmund Burke,
from 3 June 2010. Melvyn Bragg and his guests Karen O’Brien, Richard Bourke and John Keane discuss the work of the eighteenth-century philosopher, politician and writer Edmund Burke.

The broadcast can be listened to from this page which has additional information on Burke, or downloaded from iTunes.

21 Apr

Burke as Don Quixote

Edmund Burke caricature Don Quixote

As noted previously, there was criticism of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution. Thomas Paine in his “Rights of Man” condemns the book. “It is difficult not to believe that Mr. Burke is sorry, extremely sorry”, says Paine, “that arbitrary power, the power of the Pope, and the Bastille are pulled down”. Paine is unimpressed with Burke’s lament for the age of chivalry, and says, “in the rhapsody of his imagination, he has discovered a world of windmills, and his sorrows are, that there are no Quixotes to attack them.”

Paine’s criticisms are illustrated in the caricature above (from the Library of Congress). Burke is depicted riding a donkey whose head is human and adorned with the papal crown. In his part as Don Quixote Burke is armoured and bears a shield labelled “Shield of Aristocracy and Despotism”, bearing illustrations of torture, death, and the Bastille. Tied to his saddle is a copy of his “Reflections”, and the door he is emerging from is “Dodsley Bookseller” the publisher of the book.
Continue reading

15 Apr

Into the Arms of an Unholy Revolutionism

Burke’s hatred of the French revolutionaries was not, at root, reactionary. He opposed them not so much because he disagreed with their political views, though he certainly did, but because he thought those views spelt the death of political society as such. For Burke, the French revolution was an assault on the very conditions of possibility of political culture, a kind of transcendental error, because in destroying, as he saw it, the institutions of civil society, it did away with the very medium by which political power is tempered and rendered tolerable.

Burke’s conservative colleagues were quick enough to endorse this criticism when it came to France, but hardly when it concerned the miserable colony on their own doorstep. His animus against autocrats was indeed in one sense conservative: he feared that they would breed mass disaffection, and so threaten the status quo. The British, by failing to extend the blessings of the Whig settlement to their Irish colonials, were obtusely driving this traditionalist religious nation into the arms of an unholy revolutionism, just as they did with their American dependents. If Burke did not approve of Irish republicanism, he saw precisely how the British were responsible for creating it.

Terry Eagleton, Saving Burke from the Tories
Magazine article from New Statesman (1996), Vol. 126, No. 4341