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04 May

Orthodox Opinions, Primitive Manners: the dramatic life of Philip Skelton

Early or pre-Christian statue, Boa Island, Loch Erne Wikimedia, Public Domain

Early or pre-Christian statue, Boa Island, Loch Erne, near Pettigo
Wikimedia, Public Domain

In the dead of night, the lady was awoken by voices. The first begged that the household rise and pray for the speaker, a poor sinner. The second, the house-owner Robert Plunket, tried to comfort the first, telling him he was a charitable, pious clergyman, with few or none as good as he. The seeker of prayers was the rector of the parish, Philip Skelton, who rented an earth-floored room from Plunket for lack of a rectory.

It was true that the clergyman toiled for the people in the parish of Templecarn, instructing them in religion (whether they wanted it or not), distributing charity and even acting as doctor when needed. A place of wild moorland surrounding Lough Derg, it was not a place where one would expect to find the author of Deism Revealed, one of the most popular books of the age, already in its second edition1 .

This religious despair was (his biographer suggests) a result of his intellectual isolation. The biography also paints Skelton as a person of strong emotion. Born near Lisburn Co. Antrim, in February 1707, in his youth he was strong and handsome, adept at swords, cudgels and boxing and with a “warm” temper. He reportedly fought at Donnybrook Fair, beating all comers but returning the prize-money so the ladies’ entertainment could continue. At Trinity College (where he graduated BA in 1728), he argued with a fellow student, who then accused Skelton of Jacobitism to the Provost, the student’s relation. This resulted in the Provost’s emity towards Skelton for the rest of his life, almost resulting in Skelton losing his scholarship. Yet Skelton also formed a life-long friendship with his tutor, Patrick Delany, friend of Swift2. This was a repeating pattern in his life – he had warm friendships, but his forthright manner, inability to lie and habit of dissolving friendships when affronted meant he remained in a lowly position in the Church of Ireland hierarchy. Hence “as his opinions were orthodox, his manners were primitive”, a description of him included on his tombstone3.
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10 Mar

Lecture Series, David Berman on Berkeley and neo-Berkeleian thought. 23rd, 25th, 26th March, 10am-12noon, Trinity College Dublin

This three part lecture series on The Essential Berkeley and Neo-Berkeleian Idealism/Empiricism will be given by Prof. David Berman as part of Trinity College’s Berkeley Initiative.

All three lectures will be held in the Neill Hoey Lecture Theatre, Trinity Long Room Hub Building, Fellows’s Square, Trinity College Dublin.

Monday 23 March, 10am–12pm
Wednesday 25 March, 10am–12pm
Thursday 26 March, 10am–12pm.

The lectures are free, but registration is required on Eventbrite.

The Lecture Series Abstract from EventBrite:
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04 Apr

Irish Times Unthinkable: Prof David Berman on George Berkeley

04 Apr

Goldsmith: a coda to the Irish Golden Age of Philosophy

Detail of the Goldsmith statue outside Trinity College Dublin Source: Wikicommons/CC (Edit)

Detail of the Goldsmith statue outside Trinity College Dublin
Source: Wikicommons/CC (Edit)

David Berman places the publishing of Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of The Sublime and Beautiful as marking the end of the Irish Golden Age of Philosophy.

“Irish aesthetics begins in the 1720s with Hutcheson, and it may be said to end in 1757 with Burke” (Berman, p. 129) As well as distinguishing between the terms “sublime” and “beautiful”, Burke also argued against George Berkeley’s utility theory of beauty: “‘…beauty riseth from the appearance of use …’. (Berman, p. 130 (quoting Alciphron, III. 9.) and p. 131) Burke notes

if the utility theory were correct ‘the wedge-like snout of a swine, with its tough cartilage at the end, the little sunk eyes, and the whole make of the head, so well adapted to its office of digging and rooting, would be extremely beautiful’.

In a coda to the Irish aesthetics debate, and to the Golden Age itself, Oliver Goldsmith reviewed Burke’s book in the Monthly Review in which he described the book, and argued against some points in footnotes. In one, he suggested that utility can in fact lead to ideas of beauty:
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01 Jul

The First (un)Known Irish Atheist

A warehouse at Old Bushmills

The Old Bushmills HDR Warehouse (crop)
(c) Ben Kor/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

There was Toland, of course, but given he describes himself as a deist at one point and a pantheist at another, it is not entirely clear that he was an atheist as we understand the term.

However in 1730, Wetenhall Wilkes published a book in Belfast called An Essay on the Existence of God, particularly in answer to Two Atheistic Letters of Mr. I— T— dated from Dublin 1729. As described, JT is unquestionably an atheist. To put the date into context, the man commonly acknowledged as the first atheist to openly deny the existence of gods was Jean Meslier, whose writings were only circulated (mostly in extracts and clandestinely) after his death in 17291.

According to Wilkes, J—h T—r wrote two letters to him dated 13th December 1728 and 3rd May 1729. In the extracts Wilkes quotes, Mr JT outlines his materialistic philosophy. Wilkes also mentions a meeting in which JT and others defended their views to a sympathetic group.

JT’s arguments suggest wide reading in philosophy. In his argument as given by Wilkes the only philosopher he cites by name is Hobbes. However he also seems to draw on Spinoza’s Ethics (Chapter I, see propositions II and II) when he argues that God could not have produced the material world since nothing can confer a quality on another it does not itself possess. The assertion that motion is an ‘internal property’ of matter was also put forward by John Toland in his Letters to Serena and may have its source there 2.
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