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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.
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06 Apr

Belief and the Blind Man

Painting of a line of blind men leading each other

The blind leading the blind. Oil painting after Pieter Bruegel. Wellcome Library, London (CC BY 4.0)

It may sometimes seem to readers of this blog that too many Irish philosophers of the past were far too interested in religion. However an argument that is first outlined in a religious context may have applications elsewhere.

The thesis of John Toland’s Christianity Not Mysterious is clearly outlined in its subtitle: “A treatise shewing that there is nothing in the gospel contrary to reason, nor above it: and that no Christian Doctrine can be properly call’d a mystery.” Toland’s position is that “reason is the only Foundation of all Certitude” against the Divines who “gravely tell us, we must adore what we cannot comprehend”1. It is impossible, says Toland, to believe what we cannot understand2:

A man may give his verbal assent to he knows-not-what…but as long as he conceives not what he believes, he cannot sincerely acquiesce in it

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24 Jun

The Middle Edward Synge, Archbishop of Tuam

St Mary's Cathedral, Tuam (c) Valeria Luongo/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

St Mary’s Cathedral, Tuam
(c) Valeria Luongo/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Writing about Bishop Edward Synge requires some care. There were three of them, all related. The Edward Synge who is the subject of this post was the son of Edward Synge, bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross. He was also the nephew of George Synge (1594–1653), bishop of Cloyne; and the father of Bishops Edward Synge (1691–1762) and Nicholas Synge (1693–1771).

Edward Synge the Elder, as we will distinguish him from his father and son, was born in Inishannon, Cork on 6 April 1659. After his education in Cork, Oxford and Dublin he was rector in Laracor, Co. Meath (1682–6) and then vicar of Holy Trinity and prebendary of Christ Church, Cork (1686-1706). In that period he wrote his first major work A Gentleman’s Religion (1693), originally published anonymously.

After the challenge of John Toland’s Christianity Not Mysterious (1696), Edward Synge added an appendix to later editions of Gentleman’s Religion (David Berman suggests as a direct response.) Toland had argued that religious mysterious such as the Holy Trinity could not be properly part of Christianity since they could not be believed, since they were contrary to or above reason.
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