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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.

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11 May

ABC Radio National: Philip Pettit on Freedom

Philip Pettit talks to Joe Gelonesi about freedom. He argues that freedom from government interference is not enough and that ancient ideas could hold clues to a freer future.

Alternatively read the ABC article which outlines many of the ideas from the recording.

You’ve got a big choice: do you think it should be everyone for themselves, a laissez faire, rip it up society? If this is what freedom means for you then you’re looking a free-for-all, with huge inequalities and lots of dependencies, a chaotic place.

For another view on Pettit, see Prof Maeve Cooke (UCD) talking to Irish Times Unthinkable about Freedom (Soundcloud audio here)

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10 May

Just Freedom

In this rigorous distillation of his political philosophy, Philip Pettit, author of the landmark work Republicanism, champions a simple standard for our most complex political judgments, offering a challenging ideal that nevertheless holds out a real prospect for social and democratic progress.

Whereas many thinkers define freedom as the absence of interference—we are left alone to do as we please—Pettit demands that in their basic life choices free persons should not even be subject to a power of interference on the part of others. This notion of freedom as non-domination offers a yardstick for gauging social and democratic progress and provides a simple, unifying standard for analyzing our most entangled political quandaries.

From the description of Just Freedom by Philip Pettit, published by W.W. Norton.

Further information

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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?
Continue reading

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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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