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04 Apr

Here lies our good Edmund

Here lies our good Edmund, whose genius was such,
We scarcely can praise it, or blame it too much;
Who, born for the universe, narrow’d his mind,
And to party gave up what was meant for mankind:
Tho’fraught with all learning, yet straining his throat
To persuade Tommy Townshend to lend him a vote;
Who, too deep for his hearers, still went on refining,
And thought of convincing, while they thought of dining;
Though equal to all things, for all things unfit;
Too nice for a statesman, too proud for a wit;
For a patriot, too cool; for a drudge, disobedient;
And too fond of the right to pursue the expedient.

From “Retaliation” (1774) by Oliver Goldsmith (full poem here, notes here).

The actor Garrick suggested that he and Goldsmith should compare their skill at epigrams by writing each others epitaph. Goldsmith went further and wrote this poem, containing epitaphs for Garrick and ten others, with a prologue where they meet at table bringing food. Goldsmith brings the gooseberry fool.

The extract above is the epitaph for Edmund Burke.

23 Jun

Berkeley’s Foray into Experimental Philosophy

Curiosity leading [Berkeley] one day to see an execution, he returned home pensive and melancholy and could not forbear reflecting on what he had seen. He desired to know what were the pains and symptoms a malefactor felt […] in short he resolved to tuck himself up for a trial; at the same time desiring his companion to take him down at a signal agreed upon […]
Berkeley was, therefore tied up to the ceiling, and the chair taken from under his feet, but soon losing the use of his senses, his companion it seems waited a little too long for the signal agreed upon, and our enquirer had like to have been hanged in good earnest; for as soon as he was taken down he fell senseless and motionless upon the floor.

From Memoirs of the late Dr. Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, as it appeared in Volume 6 of the Annual Register for the Year 1763. It was originally printed in the Weekly Magazine (1759/60) and reprinted/pirated in The British Plutarch in 1762.
Continue reading

19 May

The Wild Times of Oliver Goldsmith

At Trinity, Goldsmith was a poor student, in both senses of the word: he didn’t have the money for full fees and therefore had to carry out various menial duties in front of other students. He hated it, and was lucky not to be expelled after playing a role in one of the most infamous events in Trinity’s history, the Black Dog riot.

This was provoked by the arrest of a student. A group of fellow students, led by one Gallows Walsh, set the student free and captured the bailiff who had arrested him, dunking him in the college trough. They then decided to storm Newgate Prison (which was known as the Black Dog), and were joined in the process by a city mob. The prison guards fired on them and two of the mob were killed. For their troubles, four of the ringleaders were expelled from Trinity; Goldsmith was lucky merely to be disciplined.

From “The good die young: the wild times of Oliver Goldsmith” by Colin Murphy in the Irish Independent (18 May 2014).

The Black Dog riot took place on 21st May 1747. Goldsmith was disciplined for his part in it as the piece mentions. It has been suggested that Edmund Burke was also there and that a passage in Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757) refers to the experience of being in the riot and being drawn to identify with the emotions of the crowd:

The shouting of multitudes has a similar effect; and by the sole strength of the sound, so amazes and confounds the imagination, that in this staggering, and hurry of the mind, the best established tempers can scarcely forbear being bor[n]e down, and joining in the common cry, and common resolution of the croud.

04 Apr

Goldsmith: a coda to the Irish Golden Age of Philosophy

Detail of the Goldsmith statue outside Trinity College Dublin Source: Wikicommons/CC (Edit)

Detail of the Goldsmith statue outside Trinity College Dublin
Source: Wikicommons/CC (Edit)

David Berman places the publishing of Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of The Sublime and Beautiful as marking the end of the Irish Golden Age of Philosophy.

“Irish aesthetics begins in the 1720s with Hutcheson, and it may be said to end in 1757 with Burke” (Berman, p. 129) As well as distinguishing between the terms “sublime” and “beautiful”, Burke also argued against George Berkeley’s utility theory of beauty: “‘…beauty riseth from the appearance of use …’. (Berman, p. 130 (quoting Alciphron, III. 9.) and p. 131) Burke notes

if the utility theory were correct ‘the wedge-like snout of a swine, with its tough cartilage at the end, the little sunk eyes, and the whole make of the head, so well adapted to its office of digging and rooting, would be extremely beautiful’.

In a coda to the Irish aesthetics debate, and to the Golden Age itself, Oliver Goldsmith reviewed Burke’s book in the Monthly Review in which he described the book, and argued against some points in footnotes. In one, he suggested that utility can in fact lead to ideas of beauty:
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23 May

The Logicians Refuted

Read by Gregg Margarite. Written by Jonathan Swift (or Oliver Goldsmith, see note).

Very much in the tradition of Diogenes, who on hearing Plato had defined humans as “featherless bipeds”, presented him with a plucked chicken, the poet satirically punctures humanity’s supposed elevated status.

He explicitly argues against Aristotle and Smiglesius (1564 – 1618, Polish Jesuit philosopher, known for his 1618 Logica, commonly used as a textbook), and implicitly against those in his own time who presented reason as all important. The poet retorts that man is weak and erring, and instinct is a better guide. He makes a long list of man’s follies and foibles (including a dig at Sir Robert Walpole or “Bob”, who employed party-writers to write his praises). He claims animals avoid these errors (though his knowledge of beasts is not as accurate as that of man). He finally notes human similarity to apes, and that humans at court yet manage to out-ape the apes.

Full text of the poem.

Note: This video attributes the authorship of this work to Jonathan Swift, but it is also attributed to Oliver Goldsmith. Continue reading

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.