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17 Mar

We Irish think otherwise: The Golden Age of Irish Philosophy

Berkeley and his Entourage, by John Smibert Wikimedia, Public Domain

Berkeley and his Entourage, by John Smibert
Wikimedia, Public Domain

Here is a brief sketch of the philosophical struggle that went on in Ireland over the ideas of the Enlightenment. It is based heavily on part II of David Berman’s Berkeley and Irish Philosophy. (“We Irish think otherwise” is a quote from Berkeley. All links in text are Wiki).

The signing of the Treaty of Limerick had marked the final defeat of the old Irish landowning classes. It also marked the end of wars that since 1642 had seen thousands killed, exiled and dispossessed.

Despite the turmoil, Ireland was not isolated from new ideas from Britain and Europe. William Molyneaux, a natural philosopher and founder of the Dublin Philosophical Society (1683) had given his name to Molyneaux’s Problem in his friend Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Another interested in the new ideas was Robert Molesworth, a Whig, a follower of Lord Shaftsbury. Graduates from Trinity mingled with those from Oxford on the Dublin streets.

John Toland published Christianity Not Mysterious in 1696. Much as Augustinus Hibernicus before him had brought Augustine’s thought to a logical conclusion, Toland did the same with the ideas in Locke’s Essay. He argued that only intelligible ideas could be believed. There could be no religious mysteries, such ideas would have to be nonsense.

This position had both religious and political implications, potentially undermining faiths and the basis of the Penal Laws. Toland arrived in Dublin to hear himself and his book denounced from the pulpit. His book was condemned by the Irish government and he left the country to avoid arrest.

Philosophically, though, Toland’s contention needed an answer. In their efforts to create one the Irish Counter Enlightenment also used the ideas of Locke, and thereby triggered a philosophical programme which saw developments in epistemology, aesthetics, religion, ethics and language.
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17 Mar

Patrick, Augustine and a blackbird

When philosophy and the name Augustine are mentioned, one immediately thinks of the North African bishop, reluctant convert and writer of classic works like the Confessions and The City of God.

At about the same time a man who shared Augustine’s fathers’ name was on a mission to Christianise Ireland. While not in the same literary or philosophical league Patrick’s Confessions mark the start of a long Christian tradition and his Letter is a very early statement of a belief that slavery (of Christians at least) is wrong.

The collapse of the Roman Empire (Augustine died in a city under siege) left turmoil. The works of the ancients were preserved in the East, in the Arab world, and in Ireland.

The monks not only preserved works but also created their own commentaries and treatises. In the 7th century an Irish monk later known as Augustinus Hibernicus (the Irish Augustine) produced a Latin treatise De mirabilibus sacrae scripturae (in English: On the miraculous things in sacred scripture). This treatise was widely circulated (76 copies at least extant) though possibly because they thought it was by the better know Augustine.

The treatise is called a “rationalisation” of the Bible, but this is slightly misleading. To put it in modern terms Augustinus Hibernicus argues that God does not break the rules of nature he has created to perform a miracle. Instead miracles are performed using the natural possibilities within the object. This applied to both Old Testament and New Testament miracles. Both the water turned to blood in Egypt and the water turned to wine in Cana are to Augustinus Hibernicus the performing of a natural process, only greatly accelerated. Water becoming wine (in a vine) or blood (in an animal) is part of nature.
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