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15 Apr

Into the Arms of an Unholy Revolutionism

Burke’s hatred of the French revolutionaries was not, at root, reactionary. He opposed them not so much because he disagreed with their political views, though he certainly did, but because he thought those views spelt the death of political society as such. For Burke, the French revolution was an assault on the very conditions of possibility of political culture, a kind of transcendental error, because in destroying, as he saw it, the institutions of civil society, it did away with the very medium by which political power is tempered and rendered tolerable.

Burke’s conservative colleagues were quick enough to endorse this criticism when it came to France, but hardly when it concerned the miserable colony on their own doorstep. His animus against autocrats was indeed in one sense conservative: he feared that they would breed mass disaffection, and so threaten the status quo. The British, by failing to extend the blessings of the Whig settlement to their Irish colonials, were obtusely driving this traditionalist religious nation into the arms of an unholy revolutionism, just as they did with their American dependents. If Burke did not approve of Irish republicanism, he saw precisely how the British were responsible for creating it.

Terry Eagleton, Saving Burke from the Tories
Magazine article from New Statesman (1996), Vol. 126, No. 4341

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14 Apr

Pettit: Two Extreme Responses to Financial Crisis

There are two extreme responses that the financial crisis and its aftermath have provoked. One is to say that all will be well if our governments stop trying to anticipate and deflect the movements of the tiger by propping up and bailing out the bodies that they judge too big to fail. This approach, exemplified in the stance of the Tea Party in the United States, amounts to pre‐emptive surrender in face of the profit‐seeking ventures of credit and capital. It gives government the task of law and order and calls for the abdication of the state in the sphere of production, commerce and employment.

This first response would downsize and marginalize government, letting the market rule unimpeded in the financial and material economy. The second radical response would recommend the very opposite. It would support a rejection of dependence on the sort of beast that the international financial system constitutes. Where the first approach would give the tiger free range, this would simply kill the animal. Those attracted to the response complain that that so long as the tiger survives, we all live at its mercy. They recommend that we should reject dependency on impersonal market forces and reclaim our status as a democratic people, our standing as rulers of our individual and collective lives.

Because they are simple, these two responses have a natural attraction at a time of extreme crisis. It is comforting to think that all will be well if we can only liberate the power of the market or if we can only re‐assert our will as a people. But because the responses are simplistic, we should back away from each.

Philip Pettit (2011) “Republican Reflections on the 15-M Movement“, Books and Ideas.net.

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13 Apr

A connection to Swift: Handel’s Messiah

Handels Messiah was first performed in Dublin on 13th April, 1742. The video above shows the Messiah being performed as close to the original spot as possible in 2012, 270 years later (and the 21st time the recreation had been done). All that remains of the original location is the white arch on the right that can be seen in the background. (It’s next door to the George Frederic Handel Hotel, if you are looking for the spot.) It was a performance that received mixed reactions from Irish philosophers.

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12 Apr

The High Priest of Satire

Keeping an eye out for a more prosperous living, he began work on the satire A Tale of a Tub, in which he poured contempt on the beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church, particularly the doctrine of transubstantiation, and the practice of selling worthless pardons. […] In Swift’s opinion, the Puritans were little better — they destroyed sacred statues, and were “mad with spleen, and spite, and contradiction”. Many people believed that Swift was attacking Christianity, rather than religious abuses.

[…] Eventually, in April, 1713, he was offered the deanery of St Patrick’s in Dublin, which was in the gift of his friend, the Duke of Ormonde. Commenting on Swift’s promotion, William King, Archbishop of Dublin, said: “A dean could do less mischief than a bishop.”

[…] Dubliners coldly received Swift on the day of his installation, in June 1713. They shouted abuse in the street and posted notes on the cathedral door, taunting him for his criticism of the Church: “I was horribly melancholy while they were installing me, but it begins to wear off, and change to dullness.”

Jonathan Swift was offered the deanery of St Patricks 300 years ago today. It wasn’t his first choice. Neither was he popular at his installation – a situation that changed radically after the Drapier Letters.

From The Irish Examiner, The Reluctant Irishman who became the High Priest of Satire

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12 Apr

The first mention of the Irish in the annals of philosophy

A 17th century Calvinist print depicting Pelagius Wikimedia, Public Domain

A 17th century Calvinist print depicting Pelagius
Wikimedia, Public Domain

This from Vox Hiberionacum, in a post outlining the bad opinion the classical world had of the Irish:

Perhaps the most appropriate example is that of St. Jerome. Writing against an apparently British opponent Pelagius in the early fifth century, he found it most suitable to insult him using scotti subtext; stolidissimus et scotorum pultibus proagravatus, ‘most stupid and heavily weighed down/pregnant with Irish porridge‘ (Jerome CCL 74 Praef. in Jerem., Lib. I and III). Not only was he engaging in the late antiquity equivalent of calling him fat and stupid (‘Yes, Pelagius, your bum DOES look big in that…’) he also found room for a double insult by labelling the bodily excess as tainted with Irish origins/characteristics.

Pelagius had been acclaimed for his piety and learning, but fell foul of Jerome, Augustine and others while opposing the idea of predestination. They understood him as saying that divine aid was not required to perform good works, that human reason was capable of providing implicit knowledge of God and as denying original sin. For Pelagius, sin was a matter of custom and habit rather than an inherent part of fallen human nature. Pelagius was declared a heretic by the Council of Carthage.
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11 Apr

Berkeley: Irish archetype?

Philosophical Lecture

Philosophical Lecturer (1829) – detail
© Trustees of the British Museum

This section from a satirical print from 1829 is held in the British Museum, who describe it as follows:

The lecturer, wearing breeches and top-boots, stands on the edge of his platform gesticulating to an audience of men and women who register amusement, horror, or stupidity: ‘It’s all a farce! I tell you it’s all a farce—there are no clouds, no mountains, no trees, no water—I’ve proved it, it’s nothing, depend on it—nothing—bona fide nothing’. Behind him is a terrestrial globe on a table, and on the wall a paper: ‘Bishop Berkley’.

Philosophical Lecturer © Trustees of the British Museum

This print is one of four vignettes. Another is called “Irish Character”, the third, called ‘March of Intellect’, features an Irish accent (being corrected) and the fourth is a picnic where all have brought legs of mutton. It seems plausible that the set is a set of satires of the Irish.

This is interesting in light of the discussion about Irishness in Richard Kearney’s “Post-Nationalist Ireland”. Kearney reports a claim that Berkeley can’t be Irish since he is included in books as an English philosopher. (That, despite Berkeley’s famous use of “we Irish” in his writing.) It certainly appears that eighty years after his death, Berkeley wasn’t English yet…

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10 Apr

Johannes Scottus Erigena

Searching for material on John Scotus Eriugena, I was surprised to learn Pope Benedict XVI had made an address about him on 10th June 2009. It’s a solid summary in 2 minutes; the text is available for those who prefer it.

Today I would like to speak of a noteworthy thinker of the Christian West: John Scotus Erigena, whose origins are nonetheless obscure. He certainly came from Ireland, where he was born at the beginning of the ninth century, but we do not know when he left his Island to cross the Channel and thus fully enter that cultural world which was coming into being around the Carolingians, and in particular around Charles the Bald, in ninth-century France. Just as we are not certain of the date of his birth, likewise we do not know the year of his death but, according to the experts, it must have been in about the year 870.

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09 Apr

Iris Murdoch on the Good, God and religion

Murdoch’s negative view of prevailing moral discourse may thus be summed up in four points:

1. The Utilitarian definition of moral goodness is inadequate, even as qualified by J.S. Mill or by Richard Hare (Antonaccio 1996, 84-95), because of lack of substance in that conception of the Good. This inadequacy was only partly remedied by G.E. Moore’s indefinability condition.

2. Murdoch alleged that a natural consequence of ‘Oxford philosophers’ not recognising the Good as real was an undue emphasis on ‘ordinary language’ analysis or on ‘language games’ played within the court rules of a Kantian morally autonomous will or freedom of choice.

3. She considered Gilbert Ryle’s (1949} behaviourist picture of the mind unreal and unhelpful in understanding or advancing moral life.

4. ‘Oxford philosophy’ had failed to develop a defensible theory of moral motivation; she asked: if the moral quality of an action depended on choice, should not what prepares a person to make that choice be important? (1970, 53). For Murdoch it was the quality of consciousness (Vision) that does and should determine the choice. A discriminating Vision of the Good is achieved by attending.

From Joseph Malikail, “Iris Murdoch on the Good, God and Religion”, Minerva, Vol 4 (online).

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09 Apr

New Avatar

As you can see the avatar has been changed. The new image is of a salmon leaping so that it grasps its own tail.
The salmon was a symbol of wisdom and knowledge in Irish myth. The Fiannaidheacht (Fenian cycle of stories) include a tale where Fionn mac Cumhaill (anglicised to Finn McCool) was set by his master, the druid Finnegas to catch the salmon of knowledge who lived in a pool on the Boyne. Whoever ate the salmon would gain all the world’s knowledge. Finn caught the fish and was set to cook it for his master. However Finn burned his thumb on the fish and instinctively put the thumb into his mouth, swallowing a tiny piece of fish, and gaining the knowledge.
The image is based on a drawing in a manuscript (Royal MS 13 B VIII, c. 1196-1223) in the British Library. The manuscript is a copy of Gerald of Wales’ Topography of Ireland (pdf), with other works of his, dedicated to King Henry II. There is a blog post here, including the original image of a salmon leaping.

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08 Apr

Francis Hutcheson’s ill-fated Sermon

Ulster Presbyterianism, at this time, was embroiled in controversy. Believers who were reluctant to subscribe to the ‘man-made’ doctrinal formulations of the Westminster Confession of Faith were clashing with those for whom the Confession embraced all that was sound and crucial in Reformed theology. These ‘Non-subscribing’ presbyterians were to become known as ‘New Light’ believers. They generally put less stress on the ‘biblical’ dogma of ‘sinful human nature’ and more emphasis on the broad human imperative to lead a good and charitable life. Into this theological row stepped the young Francis Hutcheson, fresh from Glasgow. We know that he deputised, one wet and cold Sunday, for his father in the Armagh church. (Mr Hutcheson senior, a sufferer from arthritis, did not wish to risk a soaking) The rain cleared and the father decided to risk a short walk in the direction of the meeting house in order to meet with his son on his return journey. However he met up, first of all, with one gloomy-looking member of the congregation, who said to him….

Your silly loon, Frank, has fashed a’ the congregation wi’ his idle cackle, for he has been babbling this ‘oor about the good and benevolent God, and that the souls o’ the heathen
themsel’s will gang to heaven, if they follow the licht o’ their ain consciences. Not a word does the daft boy ken nor say aboot the gude auld comfortable doctrines o’ election, reprobation, original sin and faith…

An early ill-fated sermon of Francis Hutcheson.

Excerpt from an article on the life of Francis Hutcheson, written by Philip Orr, a local historian and expert on Francis Hutcheson. It was published in the Down Survey in the year 2000 by the Down County Museum

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