In the footsteps of Francis Hutcheson

A family stand on a grassy mount, grazed by cattle, with the river Liffey flowing in the valley below. On the other side, Dublin stretches, look at 18th century Dublin, a low city dotted with steeples.

Francis Hutcheson celebrated his 27th birthday in Dublin, 300 hundred years ago today, probably amid preparation for the upcoming academic year. The precise date on which he established his school in Dublin is unknown, but the 1719 Toleration Act was passed in the latter half of that year. The call to Francis Hutcheson from the Dublin Presbyterian ministers, lead by Boyse would hardly have been made before then, and Scott notes a pupil of Hutcheson arrived for his last year of study in Glasgow in 17221

It would have been the largest city he had ever been in, with a population of around 100,000. It was also the most religiously divided, split roughly three ways between the Established Church, Dissenters and Catholics2. It was not the Georgian city we know, but a city of medieval and baroque churches, the odd Tudor survival and a sea of gable-fronted houses, frequently with shops below, often referred to as Dutch Billies. The large engraving at the top of Brookings map, showing not only the distant gables but multiple windmills could be a view of a Dutch town if not for the Dublin mountains behind it. The featured image above shows a view from the Phoenix Park, showing how compact the city still was, concentrated on the south side of the Liffey, with the old medieval city at its core.

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Iris Murdoch: the virtue of paying attention

Iris Murdoch plaque at Blessington Basin. The houses outside are at the top of Blessington Street where she was born.

Happiness is a matter of one’s most ordinary everyday mode of consciousness being busy and lively and unconcerned with self. To be damned is for one’s ordinary everyday mode of consciousness to be unremitting agonising preoccupation with self.

The Nice and the Good (1968)

I doubt that the description of damnation given by Willie in The Nice and the Good owes anything to that given by CS Lewis in The Great Divorce, but they agree surprisingly well. Lewis’ version of Hell is of an extreme social distancing, of each damned soul retreating from the others to focus on themselves, how they were wronged, how they were misunderstood.

This, of course, is not a state that requires an after-life to experience.  Willie is saying that the difference between damnation and happiness (in the normal run of things) is purely a matter of where attention is directed: internally or externally. As Murdoch pointed out in her philosophical essay “The Sublime and the Good” (1959, Chicago Review, Vol. 13 Issue 3), “love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality”: the recognition of the entire world, not just what is inside ones own head. 

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Adomnán and the Law of the Innocent

…raising his holy hand, making the sign of the cross in the air saying to the beast, “do not advance any further; do not seize the man but quickly depart”. Then indeed the beast, at the command of this holy man, speedily flees trembling.

The dramatic passage above is from the Vita Sancti Columbae, the life of Columba, telling of his encounter with a huge beast with large teeth near Loch Ness1 The 7th of December this year is the 1,500th anniversary of his birth, and this year sees a series of events, including an exhibition by the RIA Library on the Cathach (available here). However this post is not about Columba but the writer of the passage above, Adomnán, who created a law which has been described as the “first Geneva Convention”. 

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Don’t try this at home: Berkeley and tar-water

For Tom Stoneham, Peter West and Clare Moriarty 

Three hundred and thirty-six years ago today, George Berkeley was born in Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny. One year ago today, the first major Covid19 restrictions for Ireland were announced. Living in a time of Covid perhaps gives us a new appreciation of the world in which Berkeley lived. Disease was a constant danger and deaths were common particularly among the young: Berkeley’s contemporary Francis Hutcheson died of a fever in Dublin in 1746, with seven children predeceasing him. Three of Berkeley’s four children born in Cloyne where he was bishop predeceased their father.

Disease was rampant and medical infrastructure close to non-existent in the Cloyne of Berkeley’s time. This was particularly the case in the years following the winter of 1739/40, the Great Frost, an extended period of extreme cold that froze the potatoes in storage pits. Loss of that food, combined with spells of cold and dry weather in the months afterwards causing crops to fail, led to the deaths of between 13% to 20% of the Irish population. No wonder the period was called Bliain an Áir, the Year of Slaughter.

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The signature of Bruno’s ideas in Toland’s Letters to Serena

Toland hadn’t finished upsetting the cosily-stacked Newtonian-Anglican applecart. In 1696 he had unearthed a copy of Lo Spaccio de la Bestia Trifontane by the Italian Renaissance philosopher Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) [known in English as The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast]. This book—Bruno’s most scathing attack on the Roman Church—had a huge influence on Toland. In it Bruno stated that God is the source of all change in matter which is in constant motion. Bruno also believed that the Sun was one of an infinite number of stars, and that life may exist elsewhere in the Universe. […]
The signature of Bruno’s ideas on motion and matter is evident throughout Toland’s Letters to Serena (1704). In Serena, matter is one, motion is inherent in matter, and no void exists. Toland’s matter is the “source of life itself” Toland’s matter is the source of life itself, whereas Newtonian matter is ‘sluggish, inactive, brute and stupid’. 

Philip McGuinness “‘The Hue and Cry of Heresy’ John Toland, Isaac Newton & the Social Context of Scientists”, History Ireland, Volume 4 (Winter 1996), Issue 4, (online)

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Sedulius Scottus: philosopher poet to princes

Depiction in a 12th century manuscript of Donatus writing his grammar.

There could be no more appropriate Irish philosopher to write about at Easter than Sedulius Scottus, at least according to another Irish philosopher Dr George Sigerson. In 1922 Sigerson’s “The Easter song : being the first epic of Christendom, by Sedulius the first scholar-saint of Ireland” was published, and in the introduction to this partial translation of the  “Paschale Carmen” Sigerson stated that Sedulius who composed it was Irish1 While this was not a pure assumption on Sigerson’s part2, and the same attribution has been made before and since, modern scholars see no reason to assume an Irish origin for this 5th century writer3.

There is no such doubt about Sedulius Scottus, whose very name betrays his origins. (Though because nothing is ever simple, he is sometimes confused with another, slightly earlier Irish Sedulius, who is known only for a commentary on Matthew, and is sometimes called Sedulius Senior to avoid confusion4 (fl. 7th–8th cent.) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography].) 

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The Twelve Abuses and Mirrors for Princes

Stained glass depicting St Patrick preaching to the kings of Ireland

Patrick wrote two texts that we can still read today. The first is his Confessio, giving the story of his life and his mission in Ireland. The other, less well-known text is his Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus, in which Patrick roundly condemns their murder and capture of baptised Irish. He repudiates them as countrymen and calls for others to do likewise, and tells them what they can expect as Christians: “Riches, says Scripture, which a person gathers unjustly, will be vomited out of that person’s stomach. The angel of death will drag such a one away, to be crushed by the anger of dragons.”1

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Hutcheson’s Labours Lost?

Th’ internal Senses painted here we see:
They’re born in others, but they live in thee.
O were our Author with thy Converse blest,
Could he behold the Virtues, of thy Breast;
His needless Labours with Contempt he’d view;
And bid the World not read — but copy you!

Constantina Grierson “To the Honourable Mrs. Percival, 
with Hutcheson’s Treatise on Beauty and Order.” Eighteenth Century Poetry Archive

For International Women’s Day, one Irish woman praising another.

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Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real.

Art and morals are…one. Their essence is the same. The essence of both of them is Love. Love is the perception of individuals. Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality.

Iris Murdoch (1959) “The Sublime and the Good” Chicago Review Vol. 13, No. 3, pp. 42-55. See page 51.