web analytics
06 May

Reactionary Prophet

The astonishment Paine expresses in Rights of Man at Burke’s refusal to criticize or even to enumerate the crimes and cruelties of the ancien régime is clearly genuine. So is his scorn at Burke’s concept of the franchise as a reward for property and piety. (Until Paine tried to salvage it, the term “democracy”—like the words “Tory” and, later, “suffragette” and “impressionist”—had been deployed only as an insult.) Paine was a Newtonian and a believer in economic growth and modern technique; Burke was a prisoner of the feudal and the landed conception of society, who employed the words “innovation” and “despotism” as virtual twins. Notice, for example, how the word “economist” in the Marie Antoinette passage is used as a synonym for knavery. Paine was for a written constitution and a carefully designed welfare state (adumbrated in the second half of Rights of Man), whereas Burke was for the semi-mystical “unwritten constitution” of a Crowned Parliament, and spared few thoughts even for the deserving poor.

However often one awards the winning of the longer-term argument to Paine, the fact remains that he and Jefferson and Lafayette never even dreamed of the advent of Bonapartism. They all believed, at the time that the argument was actually taking place, that France would become a constitutional monarchy, or had actually become one already. It was Burke who took this romantic delusion—a delusion shared by Charles James Fox and the leaders of Burke’s own Whig party, and even for a time by William Pitt and the more pragmatic Tories—and mercilessly exploded it. He also showed that the outcome of the French Revolution would be war on a continental scale. The tremendous power of the Reflections lies in this, the first serious argument that revolutions devour their own children and turn into their own opposites.

From Reactionary Prophet, a 2004 book review of “Reflections on the French Revolution” by Christopher Hitchens in Atlantic.

03 May

Giants of the Scottish Enlightenment – Francis Hutcheson

A video (8:30) from the Institute for Humane Studies.

Prof. James Stacey Taylor discusses the contributions of Francis Hutcheson, an intellectual of the Scottish Enlightenment who was instrumental in advancing the sentimentalist approach to morality.

Good despite the random insults to Scotland.

Source: http://www.youtube.com/)

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.

01 May

The Appeal of NeoPlatonism to the Irish

After Yeats’ death I bought for a Jesuit library some of his fine volumes of Classical texts and secondary literature in Greens bookshop in Kildare Street. I do not remember if Stephen MacKenna’s translation of Plotinus On Beauty (1.6), which Yeats used extensively in his discourses to duchesses in London, was among them. […]
[Sean O’Faolain] was frustrated however, by his inability to “lay his hands”, so to speak, on Plotinus and neoPlatonism, for the very good reason that, apart from MacKenna’s inspired but not wholly reliable translation, modern scholarship had not yet done its duty to them. Padraic Colum had already told me of how moved he was by what he gleaned of Neoplatonism from my “Young Augustine” (which treated of the influence of the Neoplatonists on Augustine’s conversion): the mystic in him wanted more. Since the times of Yeats, Colum and O’Faolain both a reliable Greek text and an English translation have become available, and there is now much secondary work on Neoplatonism – some of it done by scholars connected with Ireland. And the interest in Neoplatonic themes endures – as is to be seen, for example, in Thomas Kinsella’s “Out of Ireland”. I have myself been curious about the appeal of Neoplatonism for the Irish throughout the centuries, and notable since the very Neoplatonist Irish scholar, John Scottus Eriugena in the ninth century.

John J. O’Meara (1915-2003), “On the Fringe of Letters”, Irish University Review (Vol. 27, No. 2, 1997, pp. 310-324) available on JSTOR (limited free access on registration).

John O’Meara, one of the great scholars of St. Augustine of Hippo and an early translator of Gerald of Wales muses on the appeal of neoPlatonism to the Irish, focusing on anecdotes about writers O’Meara encountered.

30 Apr

Toland: face of faction

Faction Displayed

Faction Displayed (1709) © The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

“A satire on factions within the Church of England. A beast with seven human heads:  Richard Baxter a label attached to his neck reading, “A shove to ye heavy arst Christian” (the title of a book supposed to have been written by him); Matthew Tindal, labelled “Rights of ye Christian Ch. asserted”; Benjamin Hoadly, “H – y on Governmt.”; a pope, “Solemn League & Covenant”; Daniel Defoe, “Review” (referring to his journal of that name); John Tutchin or George Ridpath, “Observator” (referring to their journal of that name); and, John Toland, “Milton” (referring to his biography of the poet).” (Links are to Wikipedia)

This print shows the difficulties inherent in building a single Established Church in both Britain and Ireland. Even leaving aside the generic pope (whose head is in the centre), there are a wide range of views among Protestantism that the Established Church was struggling to accommodate. Two of the heads depicted have Presbyterian leanings (Baxter, Defoe); Hoadly and Tutchin were Whiggish Anglicans; Tindal and Toland were deists. An Irish link besides John Toland: Toland’s patron Robert Molesworth was a friend of fellow “Old Whigs” Matthew Tindal and Benjamin Hoadly.
Continue reading

29 Apr

philosophy bites: Philip Pettit on Group Agency

27 Apr

Hutcheson: the Reality of We

By correctly appreciating Hutcheson’s own project, Mautner is able to show clearly what has eluded so many Hutcheson (and Hume) scholars of a less historical bent: while Hobbes and Mandeville may be the most often named antagonists, the real opponent is that particularly bleak culture of orthodox Scottish Calvinism, a faith that makes a mockery of human free will, that emphasizes the utter corruption of human nature, and that celebrates a theodicy in which humans are held accountable to a standard of moral conduct that is acknowledged to be impossible for us to meet.

David Fate Norton has reminded us that Hutcheson, Hume, and their like-minded colleagues aligned themselves as defenders of the “reality” of ‘We.’ By this they meant that ethical egoism and psychological egoism are both false. Ethical egoism is false because to reduce virtue to self-interest is a mean-spirited mockery of the nobility of virtue. And psychological egoism is false because we can in fact act upon benevolent, non-egoistic motives. Hence, it is possible for human beings truly to be morally virtuous. Thus, virtue is “real.”

Thomas Mautner. Francis Hutcheson: Two Texts on Human Nature reviewed by Mark H. Waymack (pdf)  (originally in Hume Studies , Volume XX, No 2 (November, 1994), pp. 296-297)

Waymack’s review suggests that the main importance of the book is its outline of what Hutcheson believes a moral theory should do. The extract above highlights Hutcheson’s moral project: against both virtue seen as self-interest and the pessimistic belief that people will always act in a self-interested way.

26 Apr


Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

Edmund Burke, Speech to the Electors of Bristol, 3rd November, 1774 (Full text available from University of Chicago).

A man who would not have approved by government by kite-flying, focus group and opinion poll. The whole piece is short and worth reading. The quote in context:

Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

26 Apr

In Our Time: Edmund Burke

In Our Time: Edmund Burke,
from 3 June 2010. Melvyn Bragg and his guests Karen O’Brien, Richard Bourke and John Keane discuss the work of the eighteenth-century philosopher, politician and writer Edmund Burke.

The broadcast can be listened to from this page which has additional information on Burke, or downloaded from iTunes.

25 Apr

Richard FitzRalph: crime, murder and tribalism

[FitzRalph] singled out two faults for special denunciation, and it would appear that he had identified them in the course of a year’s close scrutiny of his flock and its mores — firstly, the civil war ‘inter Anglicos et Hibernicos’ and secondly, general theft and dishonesty. In the former case he pointed out to his hearers, most of whom we can presume were ‘Anglici’, that both rival communities in Ireland were under the impression that it was lawful not merely to rob and plunder those of the opposing community, but also to kill them, and he issued a stem warning that to kill was always gravely sinful except in self-defence. Only an officer of the law, acting in accordance with the prescriptions of that law, had such power. […]

In the same vein as his rejection of injury to life and limb by private persons in the name of loyalty to the Crown, he also condemned injury to property on the same pretext: theft, rapine, and plunder were always sinful, according to FitzRalph and the only adequate form of penitence for such a sin was proper and full restitution. This is a theme which he had frequently mentioned in his Avignon sermons, and he was to return to it again and again, sometimes in exhaustive detail, in the course of his work in Ireland. He was obviously capable of a shrewd appreciation of the manner in which racial dissension could be made the pretext for self-interest and greed, above all in the name of professed loyalty to the king and allegedly justifiable opposition to his unfaithful Irish rebels.

A description of Richard FitzRalph’s sermon denouncing murder and criminal behaviour, and the tribalism which saw it as no murder or crime  if undertaken against the “other side”. The sermon was preached in Drogheda, 25th March 1349.

Quoted from Richard FitzRalph in Oxford, Avignon and Armagh, Katherine Walsh (1981), pages 285-286.