I would also argue that the poetical imagination in art is one that opens up an ethical sensitivity in us. It opens us to other ways of thinking, living, and being. Here I am, an Irishman in Boston in 2012 reading Anna Karenina, for example, and suddenly I’m a woman in nineteenth-century Russia, and I’m committing suicide. That’s what imagination can do. The artistic imagination can, as King Lear says, expose oneself to “feel what wretches feel.” And that vicarious literary imagining, it seems to me, is already protoethical in that it’s opening us up to acts of sympathy, to living as others lived, and to living as if we were them. And that’s an ethical sensitivity that I think can help us to live better.
Of course, there are misuses of imagination as well. We can go the other way and close ourselves off from others, and then it can become voyeuristic, egotistical. It can generate a kind of narcissism that feeds upon itself, and then we believe, as the serpent says to Adam and Eve, that we shall be as gods, that is, sufficient unto ourselves (see Gen. 3:4). It seems to me that the imagination that thinks it is sufficient unto itself and has no other beyond, no vis-à-vis outside of itself, is on an unethical path.
[Hypatia], he educated not only in all the qualifications belonging to her sex; but caused her likewise to be instructed in the most abstruse sciences, which are reputed the proper occupation of men, as requiring too much labor and application for the delicate constitution of women.
That this notion is a vulgar prejudice, the vast number of ladies who have in every age distinguished themselves by their professions or performances in learning, furnishes an unanswerable argument. Whole volumes have been written containing nothing else but the lives of such women, as became eminent in all kinds of Literature, especially in Philosophy; which, as it is the highest perfection, so it demands the utmost effort of human nature.
But leaving these heroines to the search of the curious, I shall confine myself at present to one object worthy all admiration; in doing justice to whom I may be deemed to write the panegyric of the whole sex.
John Toland arguing for female education in “Hypatia”
Imperial history is taken as a standard for all national history, as if nations that have been the target of invasion, conquest, and colonisation cannot have histories appropriate to themselves — histories that tell a story of disruption, displacement, and discontinuity. […]
There is, of course, such a thing as Irish intellectual thought but it can’t be characterized in imperially nationalistic terms.
From the Preface of A History of Irish Thought, Thomas Duddy. via @judystout1
I was intrigued by these quotes from Jorge-Luis Borges in Richard Kearney’s Post-Nationalist Ireland.
My father introduced me to Berkeley’s philosophy at the age of ten. Before I was even able to read or write properly he taught me to think. He was a professor of psychology and every day after dinner he would give me a philosophy lesson. I remember very well how he first introduced me to Berkeley’s idealist metaphysics and particularly his doctrine that the material or empirical world is an invention of the creative mind: to be is to be perceived/esse est percipi. It was one day after a good lunch when my father took an orange in his hand and asked me: ‘What colour is this fruit?’ ‘Orange’, I replied. ‘Is this colour in the orange or in your perception of it?’ he continued: ‘And
the taste of the sweetness—is that in the orange itself or is it the sensation on your tongue that makes it sweet?’ This was a revelation to me: that the outside world is as we perceive or imagine it to be. It does not exist independently of our minds. From that day forth, I realised that reality and fiction were betrothed to each other, that even our ideas
are creative fictions.
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.
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.