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13 Jun

The world is a vision, the state is a tree

In Gaelic literature we have something that the English-speaking countries have never possessed – a great folk literature. We have in Berkeley and in Burke a philosophy on which it is possible to base the whole life of a nation. That, too, is something which England, great as she is in modern scientific thought and every kind of literature, has not, I think. The modern Irish intellect was born more than two hundred years ago when Berkeley defined in three or four sentences the mechanical philosophy of Newton, Locke, and Hobbes, the philosophy of England in his day, and I think of English up to our day, and wrote after each, “We Irish do not hold with this”, or some like sentence. Feed the immature imagination upon that old folk life, and the mature intellect upon Berkeley and the great modern idealist philosophy created by his influence, upon Burke who restored to political thought its sense of history, and Ireland is reborn, potent, armed and wise. Berkeley proved that the world was a vision, and Burke that the State was a tree, no mechanism to be pulled in pieces and put up again, but an oak tree that had grown through centuries.

Speech to Irish Literary Society, 30 Nov. 1925; in The senate speeches of W. B. Yeats, Donald R. Pearce (eds), p.171-72.

A forerunner to his celebration of the 18th century philosophers in his poetry. This outlines the intellectual tradition he wished to resuscitate, which would feed the Irish intellect as the old Gaelic tales would feed the Irish imagination.

04 Apr

Here lies our good Edmund

Here lies our good Edmund, whose genius was such,
We scarcely can praise it, or blame it too much;
Who, born for the universe, narrow’d his mind,
And to party gave up what was meant for mankind:
Tho’fraught with all learning, yet straining his throat
To persuade Tommy Townshend to lend him a vote;
Who, too deep for his hearers, still went on refining,
And thought of convincing, while they thought of dining;
Though equal to all things, for all things unfit;
Too nice for a statesman, too proud for a wit;
For a patriot, too cool; for a drudge, disobedient;
And too fond of the right to pursue the expedient.

From “Retaliation” (1774) by Oliver Goldsmith (full poem here, notes here).

The actor Garrick suggested that he and Goldsmith should compare their skill at epigrams by writing each others epitaph. Goldsmith went further and wrote this poem, containing epitaphs for Garrick and ten others, with a prologue where they meet at table bringing food. Goldsmith brings the gooseberry fool.

The extract above is the epitaph for Edmund Burke.

12 Jan

Burke, Beauty and the Sublime

Burke on the difference between Beauty and the Sublime (Youtube). Narrated by Harry Shearer and scripted by Nigel Warburton for the BBC Radio 4 series A History of Ideas.

Burke was not the first to write about the sublime, but in his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756) he suggested for the first time that the sublime and the beautiful are mutually exclusive. For Burke, the sublime could be ugly, and thus ugliness was not merely a lack of form as Augustine and others had suggested. Unlike the pleasure invoked by beauty, Burke suggested that the sublime evoked a “negative pain” which he called delight. The sublime evokes fear and attraction. Overcoming fear to confront the sublime removes the pain, producing the intense feeling of delight.

David Berman sets the end of the Irish Golden Age of Philosophy at the publication of The Sublime and the Beautiful, the last great work of the period. For more on the idea of the Sublime see this In Our Time episode. Also see this from Existential Comics on the sublime.

25 Apr

Onora O’Neill on “What would Edmund Burke Think of Human Rights”

The inaugural Annual Edmund Burke Lecture delivered by Baroness Onora O’Neill as part of the President of Ireland’s Ethics Initiative, 22 April 2014

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:
Read More

22 Mar

Jesse Norman on Edmund Burke

From My Favourite Political Thinker series on Daily Politics. Giles Dilnot talks to Jesse Norman about Irish philosopher Edmund Burke, who shaped the UK politics of today according to Norman. 

Source: BBC.

29 Jul

The Seven Sages

The First. My great-grandfather spoke to Edmund Burke
In Grattan’s house.
The Second. My great-grandfather shared
A pot-house bench with Oliver Goldsmith once.
The Third. My great-grandfather’s father talked of music,
Drank tar-water with the Bishop of Cloyne.
The Fourth. But mine saw Stella once.
The Fifth. Whence came our thought?
The Sixth. From four great minds that hated Whiggery.
The Fifth. Burke was a Whig.
The Sixth. Whether they knew or not,
Goldsmith and Burke, Swift and the Bishop of Cloyne
All hated Whiggery; but what is Whiggery?
A levelling, rancorous, rational sort of mind
That never looked out of the eye of a saint
Or out of drunkard’s eye.
The Seventh. All’s Whiggery now,
But we old men are massed against the world.
The First. American colonies, Ireland, France and India
Harried, and Burke’s great melody against it.
The Second. Oliver Goldsmith sang what he had seen,
Roads full of beggars, cattle in the fields,
But never saw the trefoil stained with blood,
The avenging leaf those fields raised up against it.
The Fourth. The tomb of Swift wears it away.
The Third. A voice
Soft as the rustle of a reed from Cloyne
That gathers volume; now a thunder-clap.
The Sixth. What schooling had these four?
The Seventh. They walked the roads
Mimicking what they heard, as children mimic;
They understood that wisdom comes of beggary.

Yeats’ poem (published 1933) in praise of Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, George Berkeley (the Bishop of Cloyne) and Jonathan Swift. All wrote about oppression and dispossession; Berkeley and Swift in the Irish context (The Querist and A Modest Proposal), Goldsmith in the context of the rich evicting the poor in The Deserted Village, and Burke on the widest canvas of all (India, the American colonies and Ireland).

Yeats’ affiliation with the Georgian (protestant, intellectual) past first emerged in “The Tower” (1928) and “Blood and the Moon” (1929). Yeats also makes reference to the 1798 Rising, “the trefoil stained with blood”, which he previously referred to (“Emmet, Fitzgerald, Tone”) in “The Funeral of Parnell” (1932).

It is a little strange to see four men who attended Trinity College Dublin, three of whom (Swift, Berkeley and Burke) were pillars of the Establishment, described as walking the roads and knowing that “wisdom comes of beggary”. However in Yeats’ 1931 introduction to Hone and Rossi’s Bishop Berkeley1 Yeats argued that the Georgian society they all belonged to was one that allowed “solitaries to flourish” – essentially the same premodern society that supported hermit monks, or Indian sages with begging bowls, or literal beggars and wanderers.
Continue reading

27 May

philosophybites: Richard Bourke on Edmund Burke on Politics

This episode of philosophybites features Richard Bourke of Queen Mary, London University, putting Edmund Burke into his historical context and outlining his key ideas. More here including abstracts of articles by Richard Bourke on Edmund Burke.

Particularly interesting are his comments towards the end of the nine minutes on where Burke was shown empirically to be wrong, and on where Burke is relevant today.

09 May

What you see is what you get

This, too, is a feature of Irish thought. A nervousness of abstraction underlies the conservative politics of Berkeley, Swift and Burke, leading them to belabour impious rationalists and idle utopianists. It is not surprising that Burke, with his passion for the particular, should have produced one of the first great works of aesthetics in these islands. It fitted well with his hatred of revolutionary rationalism across the Channel. It may seem odd to say that Berkeley was wary of abstractions when he produced such a wildly speculative doctrine as esse est percipi, but the truth is that he thought it no more than common sense. It was, he thought, what the man in the street believed too. The common people were not metaphysically inclined, and so did not subscribe to the notion that there was some mysterious ‘substance’ that supposedly underlay our sensory impressions of things. For them as for Berkeley himself, what you see is what you get.

From “What you see is what you get” in the LRB, Terry Eagleton’s review of “The Correspondence of George Berkeley”, edited by Marc Hight (subscription required).

The piece is 90% Eagleton on Irish thought, and 10% the volume being reviewed, but none the worse for that.

26 Apr

Representation

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.