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02 May

Swift, satire and censorship

Clip from The First Georgians, which covers an important but often overlooked time in British and Irish history.

What is said about censorship is true. Britain was freer than most after the legal mechanisms for policing print lapsed in 1695. Still, many works were published anonymously, for fear of public reaction. Swift is an excellent example…even though his satire was so entertaining that Gulliver’s Travels is widely read today without any notion of its satirical intent (nicely explained in this video).

Works judged blasphemous or seditious could still get you arrested. Toland, Emyln and Swift himself (not to mention his printer) could all attest to that.

Still, to steal a title from Swift, this was truly a time when a “Battle of the Books” was first allowed to take place. More on the political and philosophical background to Gulliver’s Travels here on Cliffs Notes.

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02 May

estheryear’s marsh narcissus, dodwell disgustered

Only snuffers’ cornets drifts my way that the cracka dvine chucks out of his cassock, with her estheryear’s marsh narcissus to make him recant his vanitty fair. Foul strips of his chinook’s bible I do be reading, dodwell disgustered but chickled with chuckles at the tittles is drawn on the tattlepage.

Finnegan’s Wake 212.30-4. First published in May 1939.

This extract lives up to the book’s reputation for being impenetrable – would it help to point out there are coded references to Archbishop Narcissus Marsh, and Marsh’s friend Henry Dodwell, the philosopher and theologian?
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02 May

Toland: the republican who argued for (limited) monarchy

Sophia of Hanover

The young Sophia of Hanover
Wikimedia, public domain.

At first glance it may seem bizarre that John Toland, whose first book was burned by Act of Parliament, was a member of Lord Macclesfield’s delegation in 1701, delivering the Act of Succession to the Electress Sophia. This Act named her the heiress to Anne (soon to be Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland), as her closest Protestant relative. (The religious distinction was crucial; there were scores of closer Catholic relatives.)

In fact this was just one piece in an ongoing role advocating for Protestant liberties and the Hanoverian succession, a fact made odder in modern eyes because Toland was a republican. Not merely an armchair republican, Toland was actively engaged in editing and re-publishing English republican works of the 1650s (Milton, Ludlow, Sidney and Harrington). However he was living in a time when republicanism was still vilified and linked to regicide and rebellion; naturally so given the Civil War and rule of Cromwell were events in living memory. To become respectable republicanism became more moderate.

In reviving and reworking republicanism, Toland was not working alone. He moved in Whig circles, supported by figures such as Robert Molesworth (of the Molesworth Circle) and Lord Shaftesbury. In these circles, and for ‘commonwealthsmen’ around Europe “the act that confirmed the succession of Sophia of Hanover was a republican device to exclude both popery and tyranny.” (1). It was, after all, subtitled ‘for the further limitation of the crown and better securing the rights and liberties of the subject’.
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25 Apr

The President of Ireland’s Ethics Initiative

President Michael D. Higgins Source: wikicommons/CC

If you have listened to Baroness Onora O’Neill’s Edmund Burke lecture you will have heard mention of the Irish President’s Ethics Initiative.

At his inauguration, the President stated his intention to hold

Presidency Seminars which may reflect and explore themes important to our shared life yet separate and wider than legislative demand, themes such as the restoration of trust in our institutions, the ethical connection between our economy and society, the future of a Europe built on peace, social solidarity and sustainability.

The second of these seminars is on the topic of ethics and the challenge and invitation of living ethically.
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23 Apr

The Political Importance of Brian Boru

Brian Boru from Geoffrey Keating's General History of Ireland, printed in 1723.

Brian Boru from Geoffrey Keating’s General History of Ireland (1723)
© Marsh’s Library (CC)

The Battle of Clontarf was fought on the 23th April 1014 at Clontarf, near Dublin. The history of early Ireland, Foras Feasa ar Éirinn (literally Foundation of Knowledge on Ireland though often known as The History of Ireland) by Geoffrey Keating gives one of the best known early descriptions of the Battle of Clontarf. A (heavily criticised) 1723 English language translation of the Foras by Dermot O’Connor contains the first printed image of Brian Boru, shown above. The original work was written in Irish.

Apart from its historical interest, the book plays a part in the history of Irish thought. The Feasa is intended not merely to document events but to put forward a particular viewpoint – to defend Ireland against criticisms going back as far as Gerald of Wales, to outline the relationship of Ireland to the English king and define Irish identity.

The work also includes the concept of rule by consent, an idea that became very important in the 17th and 18th centuries [FFÉ, p. 183]:

We do not read in the seanchas that there was ever any king of Ireland from the time of Slainghe to the Norman invasion but a king who obtained the sovereignty of Ireland by the choice of the people, by the excellence of his exploits, and by the strength of his hand.

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21 Apr

John Toland: speaking freely

Now if it be a desirable thing to have the Truth told without disguise, there’s but one method to procure such a blessing. Let all men freely speak what they think, without being ever branded or punished but for wicked practices, and leaving their speculative opinions to be confuted or approved by whoever pleases : then you are sure to hear the whole truth; and till then but very scantily, or obscurely, if at all.

John Toland on free speech, in Clidophorus; or, Of the exoteric and esoteric philosophy (1720)

This quote not only gives Toland’s opinion of the importance of free speech but hints at ways to avoid trouble in places where it is not recognised, by speaking the truth obscurely. Toland goes on to speak of a Doctor who spoke of difficulties with religion esoterically though the form of a sermon, which gave a different message exoterically. Thus the one text can be read in two ways: one obscure for initiates and fellow travellers, and one overt and acceptable in public. Clidophorus is read not only for itself but for approaches to use reading Toland’s other works, especially Pantheisticon .

For more on esotericism in philosophical writing see this.

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19 Apr

Onora O’Neill: “What would Edmund Burke think of Human Rights” (Annual Burke Lecture, TCD)

The inaugural Edmund Burke Lecture is on the subject of Human Rights. Edmund Burke was sceptical about the Rights of Man, but also deeply interested in what moral codes should underpin society. The (Northern Ireland born) Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve CH CBE FBA will lecture on the topic: “What would Edmund Burke think of Human Rights” as part of the President of Ireland’s Ethics Initiative on Tuesday 22 April 2014 18:00 in the Trinity Long Room Hub. More details here.

The event is free but booking is required.

Also see Joe Humphrey’s interview with Onora O’Neill in the Irish Times.

Her TED talks lecture on “What we don’t understand about trust” is here.

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17 Apr

Epitaph for William Molyneaux

William Molyneux epitaph, St. Audoen's Church, Cornmarket, Dublin Via Wikicommons/CC

William Molyneux epitaph, St. Audoen’s Church, Cornmarket, Dublin
Via Wikicommons/CC

William Molyneux (17 April 1656 – 11 October 1698)’s epitaph on the wall of the old chancel (now in the open air) of the Church of Ireland St. Audoen’s Church, Cornmarket, in Dublin, Ireland. The section referring to him starts about halfway down the stone.

WILLIAM MOLYNEUX
whom LOCKE was proud to call his friend
author of The Case Of Ireland Stated
of the Dioprica Nova
long the standard authority in optics
and of many other scientific works.
He died 11th October 1698 at the age of 42 years
to the grief of friends
and to the loss of his country.
His remains with those of
many distinguished ancestors & kinsmen
rest in the adjoining vault of the
USSHER & MOLYNEUX families.
WILLIAM MOLYNEUX married LUCY
daughter of SIR WILLIAM DOMVILE and left
an only son SAMUEL not less distinguished
as a statesman & philosopher. He was secretary
to FREDERICK Prince of Wales and the founder
of the celebrated observatory at Kew.
He married LADY ELIZABETH DIANA CAPEL
and died 1727.

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10 Apr

No Shining Star

A nation is but a host of men united by some God-begotten mood, some hope of liberty or dream of power or beauty or justice or brotherhood, and until that master idea is manifested to us there is no shining star to guide the ship of our destinies. […] We have to do for Ireland—though we hope with less arrogance—what the long and illustrious line of German thinkers, scientists, poets, philosophers, and historians did for Germany, or what the poets and artists of Greece did for the Athenians: and that is, to create national ideals, which will dominate the policy of statesmen, the actions of citizens, the universities, the social organizations, the administration of State departments, and unite in one spirit urban and rural life. Unless this is done Ireland will be like Portugal, or any of the corrupt little penny-dreadful nationalities which so continually disturb the peace of the world with internal revolutions and external brawlings, and we shall only have achieved the mechanism of nationality, but the spirit will have eluded us.

‘AE’ (George William Russell) on the need for a national reflective tradition. He sees in the Ireland of his time the mistaking of feelings for thought and the overdominance of passion in politics. From The National Being (1916)

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