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17 Mar

Appropriating Patrick: Keating, Ussher, Toland and the Early Irish Church

A statue of St Patrick in an antique shop window (c) david perry/flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A statue of St Patrick in an antique shop window
(c) david perry/flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The very oldest texts in any language written in Ireland that have survived relate to St Patrick. One, the Confessio, outlines his own account of his life. To the modern reader, it may seem sparse. There is no mention of Pascal fires, of shamrock or of snakes.

The tale of St Patrick developed over time, and to fulfil different purposes. Muirchú’s Latin Life of Saint Patrick, compiled around the year 680 which includes tales of wonders, was written to confirm Armagh’s pre-eminent place in the Irish Church. Patrick was said to have arrived in Ireland in 432AD to undermine the earlier Palladius who was documented to have arrived in 431AD. The development of the myth continued into the 15th century, with examples to be found in the Book of Lismore and the Leabhar Breac. This tradition emphasised St Patrick as a wonder worker and a prophet. At the same time secular writings such as the 12th century Acallamh na Senorach include stories of Patrick meeting the Fianna.

The Norman invasion saw a parallel tradition emerge, starting with Gerald of Wales’ outline of Patrick’s life in Topographia Hibernica, which included a debunking of the legend of the banaishment of the snakes. Jocelin of Furness’ account, based on resources some of which are now lost, was written as part of the Anglo-Norman attempt to appropriate the saint. Written at the same time as the shrine in Downpatrick was established, it portrays Patrick as a miracle-working prophet, whose mother was related to St. Martin of Tours.
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06 Mar

Damned Scotus Eriugena

Eriugina was not understood in his time
“which explains, perhaps, the delay in condemning him”
And they went looking for Manicheans
And found, so far as I can make out, no Manicheans
So they dug for, and damned Scotus Eriugina
“Authority comes from right reason,
never the other way on”
Hence the delay in condemning him
Aquinas head down in a vacuum,
Aristotle which way in a vacuum?

From Canto XXXVI by Ezra Pound.

Poster poems: light in the Guardian, on the role played by light in the work of various poets: “For Pound, light was the informing principle of the universe, a view best summarised in the phrase ‘all things that are, are lights’ which he attributed to the Irish philosopher John Scotus Eriugena in the Pisan Cantos.”

25 Jan

In Our Time: Robert Boyle

Melvyn Bragg discusses the life and work of Robert Boyle with Simon Schaffer, Michael Hunter and Anna Marie Roos.

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the life and work of Robert Boyle, a pioneering scientist and a founder member of the Royal Society. Born in Ireland in 1627, Boyle was one of the first natural philosophers to conduct rigorous experiments, laid the foundations of modern chemistry and derived Boyle’s Law, describing the physical properties of gases. In addition to his experimental work he left a substantial body of writings about philosophy and religion; his piety was one of the most important factors in his intellectual activities, prompting a celebrated dispute with his contemporary Thomas Hobbes.

For more “In Our Time” relating to Robert Boyle, see the programme on alchemy and the “In Our Time” blog.

23 Nov

Eriugena without any gaps

John Scottus Eriugena

John Scottus Eriugena,
Wikicommons

The podcast series The History of Philosophy without any Gaps has arrived at the early medieval period. The first major philosopher to be covered is Irishman John Scottus Eriugena.

Episode 197: “Charles in Charge: The Carolingian Renaissance” gives an introduction to the growth of learning in France in the years before Eriugena. The focus is on the star of Charlemagne’s court, the philosopher Alcuin of York. The court was also home to many Irish scholars such as Clemens Scotus (teacher, at court before Alcuin), Joseph Scottus (a poet and scholar who probably accompanied Alcuin), Dungal of Bobbio (teacher and astronomer), Dicuil (geographer), Donatus of Fiesole (teacher), Cruindmelus (teacher), and Cadac-Andreas (scholar). This reflects the focus the Carolingian Court had on education and learning, which drew in scholars from all over Europe. It also shows the wide range of learning held by Irish monks.
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21 Oct

Why Study…James Ussher

Why Study…James Ussher with Professor Alan Ford, University of Nottingham.

Ussher (1581-1656) is now principally remembered for just one thing: giving the date of the creation as 4004 B.C. (on “the entrance of the night preceding the twenty third day of Octob[er]”). The chronology from which this date comes has become a foundational text of creationists; as Prof Alan Ford writes

It is a neat irony that one of Ussher’s greatest works of scholarship, the summation of a lifetime’s investigation of biblical chronology, which combined the latest scientific and astronomical discoveries of his day with the profoundest scriptural and historical research, should now be upheld by those who reject the consensus of contemporary biblical and scientific studies.

Stephen J. Gould argued that, while obviously wrong, “I shall be defending Ussher’s chronology as an honourable effort for its time and arguing that our usual ridicule only records a lamentable small-mindedness based on mistaken use of present criteria to judge a distant and different past.” Those adopting and those dismissing Ussher both tend to break the rule that the context in which a philosopher worked should not be ignored; another irony is that Ussher did the same when exploring the history of the early Christian Church in Ireland, as the video explains.

16 Oct

“Old Luke Wadding…said Welcome”

Oil painting of Luke Wadding by Carlo Maratta held in the National Gallery of Ireland (public domain)

Oil painting of Luke Wadding by Carlo Maratta held in the National Gallery of Ireland (public domain)

He was born in Waterford and became a great scholar. He died in the 17th century after spending most of his adult life abroad. Religion was central to his life. Some of his work is still used today. However, unlike Robert Boyle, to whom this description could also apply, Luke Wadding has been almost forgotten.

In the 16th and 17th century, scholasticism saw a second flowering. The works of Thomas Aquinas were studied by scholars of the Dominican and Carmelite orders. The Franciscans tended to study the work of Franciscan Duns Scotus, with the school proper emerging as Scotus’ works were collected and edited in the 16th century. The Jesuits drew from both, the philosopher Suárez being the most influential example (Suarezianism was effectively another school). There was variation within this broad outline: an individual philosopher in any of these schools might draw on many philosophers. Corkman John Punch for example was primarily a Scotist scholar but also drew on Ockham and Aquinas.

This was the world Luke Wadding moved in. Born eleventh in a family of fourteen, he was named for “Luke” after the feastday on the 18th October two days after his birth. His mother was related to the archbishop of Armagh, his brother Ambrose became a Jesuit as did cousins Peter and Michael Wadding, and another cousin Richard became an Augustinian. Little surprise then that Luke Wadding entered a seminary in Portugal in 1604 after studying in Kilkenny College. He joined the Franciscan order and was ordained in 1613. That was the start of a long and illustrious career: professor in Salamanca, theologian in Rome, founder of the Irish College of St Isidore in Rome (1625), rector of the college, founder of the Ludovisian College for Irish secular priests, Procurator of the Franciscans at Rome, 1630-34, and Vice-Commissary of the order from 1645-48.
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25 Sep

Catholic Scholasticism in Marsh’s Library

Title page from "Collegii Salmanticensis ... theologicus Angelici Doctoris Diui Thomae complectens", 1637 © Marsh's Library (CC)

Title page from “Collegii Salmanticensis … theologicus Angelici Doctoris Diui Thomae complectens”, 1637
© Marsh’s Library (CC)

This book, Collegii Salmanticensis … theologicus Angelici Doctoris Diui Thomae complectens published in Madrid in 1637, is a collection of commentaries on the theology of the “Angelic Doctor”, Thomas Aquinas.  It was originally owned by Narcissus Marsh and is now part of the Marsh’s Library collection. The first Irish Colleges were set up with the support of Irish Jesuit priest James Archer in Salamanca (where this book was written) and Madrid (where it was printed) during the late 16th century.

18 Sep

The Great Scottish Debate: Duns Scotus and Eriugena

Stained glass depicting monks battling demons

Debates over national dividing lines can get heated. Consider the 17th century discussions over the two philosophers John Duns Scotus and John Scottus Eriugena.

In 1620, a book by the bishop of Ossory David RotheBrigida thaumaturga, was published in Paris. It was on the surface an account of the life of St Brigid of Kildare, but that life is used as a metaphor by Rothe for the medieval mission of the Irish to Europe and of the mission of clergy to Ireland (a Catholic country under Protestant rule). The latter required financial security for Irish seminary students, which was their due (according to Rothe) given the huge contribution the Irish had made to France in the past, scholastically and religiously, including the work of John Scottus Eriugena.

Not the type of thing that would have the writer called a “devil”, one might think, but that was not all Rothe wrote. The work also targets Scottish scholar Thomas Dempster who claimed a large number of Irish saints and scholars for Scotland. As the historian Liam Chambers points out, this claim undermined Rothe’s argument for French aid for the Irish and left the Irish Counter-Reformation without native saints. Roth systematically rebutts Dempster’s claims, even going so far as to say all described as “Scotia” or Scots in the Middle Ages are Irish.
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11 Aug

Robert Boyle’s To-Do List for Future Scientists

Boyle wish 1

Boyle Papers 8, fol. 208, The Royal Society. Via Anna Marie Roos, © The Royal Society (with permission).

Boyle wish 2

Boyle Papers 8, fol. 209, The Royal Society. Via Anna Marie Roos, © The Royal Society (with permission).

The two pictures above are a to-do list for future scientists written by Robert Boyle in his own beautiful hand. Click to see the originals on Anna Marie Roos’ blog post, together with a list of to-dos for future scientists compiled by scientists of today. She notes that, “As part of a charter granted by King Charles II, the Society charged itself, in that delightfully immodest manner characteristic of the Restoration, to ‘extend not only the boundaries of the Empire, but also the very arts and sciences.’ So, the list Boyle left us was all about boundary breaking, and a successful list it was.”

The “desiderata” are:

The Prolongation of Life.
The Recovery of Youth, or at least some of the Marks of it, as new Teeth, new Hair colour’d as in youth.
The Art of Flying.
The Art of Continuing long under water, and exercising functions freely there.
The Cure of Wounds at a Distance.
The Cure of Diseases at a distance or at least by Transplantation.
The Attaining Gigantick Dimensions.
The Emulating of Fish without Engines by Custome and Education only.
The Acceleration of the Production of things out of Seed.
The Transmutation of Metalls.
The makeing of Glass Malleable.
The Transmutation of Species in Mineralls, Animals, and Vegetables.
The Liquid Alkaest and Other dissolving Menstruums.
The making of Parabolicall and Hyperbolicall Glasses.
The making Armor light and extremely hard.
The practicable and certain way of finding Longitudes.
The use of Pendulums at Sea and in Journeys, and the Application of it to watches.
Potent Druggs to alter or Exalt Imagination, Waking, Memory, and other functions, and appease pain, procure innocent sleep, harmless dreams, etc.
A Ship to saile with All Winds, and A Ship not to be Sunk.
Freedom from Necessity of much Sleeping exemplify’d by the Operations of Tea and what happens in Mad-Men.
Pleasing Dreams and physicall Exercises exemplify’d by the Egyptian Electuary and by the Fungus mentioned by the French Author.
Great Strength and Agility of Body exemplify’d by that of Frantick Epileptick and Hystericall persons.
A perpetuall Light.
Varnishes perfumable by Rubbing.

27 May

Who sharpened Occam’s Razor?

The back label on a bottle of "Occam's Razor" wine (c) David McLeish/Flickr  (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The back label on a bottle of “Occam’s Razor” wine
(c) David McLeish/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Occam’s (or Ockham’s) Razor is a form of the principle of parsimony (broadly, that theories should be as simple as possible but not simpler.) It states: ‘Entities should not be multiplied without necessity.’ (In Latin, Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem.) However it seems that William of Occam never said it. As the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy reports:

Although the sentiment is certainly Ockham’s, that particular formulation is nowhere to be found in his texts. Moreover, as usually stated, it is a sentiment that virtually all philosophers, medieval or otherwise, would accept; no one wants a needlessly bloated ontology. The question, of course, is which entities are needed and which are not.

The other question is, who did originally say it? In 1918, William Thorburn published the result of his investigations into this question in Mind. The paper is available from Mind 27 (1918), 345-353; and on wikisource. That research suggested the origin lay with an Irish scholastic, John Punch.

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