Posted in Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke: the Man in the Moon

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Not everyone disliked Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France” as much as Paine did. Yet even the positive reviews suggested Burke’s position as regards the revolution in France was inconsistent with his previous support for the American Colonists. As “The Critical Review” (Vol 60, p. 529) puts it, “revolutions, or the calamities of kings, have not formerly been odious to Mr Burke”.

This argument is illustrated in the caricature above (from the Library of Congress). Edmund Burke is the Man in the Moon, writing a pamplet seated at a table placed on a crescent moon. The table is covered with a cloth, bearing the words “French Revolution” and a figure with a liberty cap in one hand and a crown in the other. The figure is trampling a man holding broken chains and torture implements.

Broken chains hang from Burkes wrists. He says, “By Vision Celestial and Fury Infernal I’ll give them a Crown Touch”. In each corner Burke’s (changing) principles are listed (based on speeches):
Continue reading “Edmund Burke: the Man in the Moon”

Posted in Edmund Burke

Reactionary Prophet

The astonishment Paine expresses in Rights of Man at Burke’s refusal to criticize or even to enumerate the crimes and cruelties of the ancien régime is clearly genuine. So is his scorn at Burke’s concept of the franchise as a reward for property and piety. (Until Paine tried to salvage it, the term “democracy”—like the words “Tory” and, later, “suffragette” and “impressionist”—had been deployed only as an insult.) Paine was a Newtonian and a believer in economic growth and modern technique; Burke was a prisoner of the feudal and the landed conception of society, who employed the words “innovation” and “despotism” as virtual twins. Notice, for example, how the word “economist” in the Marie Antoinette passage is used as a synonym for knavery. Paine was for a written constitution and a carefully designed welfare state (adumbrated in the second half of Rights of Man), whereas Burke was for the semi-mystical “unwritten constitution” of a Crowned Parliament, and spared few thoughts even for the deserving poor.

However often one awards the winning of the longer-term argument to Paine, the fact remains that he and Jefferson and Lafayette never even dreamed of the advent of Bonapartism. They all believed, at the time that the argument was actually taking place, that France would become a constitutional monarchy, or had actually become one already. It was Burke who took this romantic delusion—a delusion shared by Charles James Fox and the leaders of Burke’s own Whig party, and even for a time by William Pitt and the more pragmatic Tories—and mercilessly exploded it. He also showed that the outcome of the French Revolution would be war on a continental scale. The tremendous power of the Reflections lies in this, the first serious argument that revolutions devour their own children and turn into their own opposites.

From Reactionary Prophet, a 2004 book review of “Reflections on the French Revolution” by Christopher Hitchens in Atlantic.

Posted in Francis Hutcheson

Giants of the Scottish Enlightenment – Francis Hutcheson

A video (8:30) from the Institute for Humane Studies.

Prof. James Stacey Taylor discusses the contributions of Francis Hutcheson, an intellectual of the Scottish Enlightenment who was instrumental in advancing the sentimentalist approach to morality.

Good despite the random insults to Scotland.

Source: http://www.youtube.com/)

Posted in Edmund Burke Francis Hutcheson Laurence Sterne Oliver Goldsmith

Sentimentalism: Moral Theory from the Celtic Fringe

With the exception of Shaftesbury, none of the moralists we have been examining was English. In fact, the English are in as short supply among this group as they are in the ranks of so-called English literary modernism. Almost all of the thinkers we have been discussing stemmed from the Gaelic margins of the metropolitan nation, a fact that may not be insignificant. Gaels like Burke, Hume, Hutcheson, Smith, Fordyce and Ferguson, along with figures like Goldsmith, Steele, Brooke and Sterne who were born in Ireland or of part-Gaelic provenance, were no doubt more inclined to the cult of sentiment and benevolence than their Anglo-Saxon counter-parts. This is not because Gaels are genetically more genial than the English, but because Scotland and Ireland both had powerful traditions of clan- or community-based allegiances.

It is true that kinship structures, binding customs, unwritten obligations and so-called moral economy had long been under siege in both nations from a colonially imposed system of contractual relations and possessive individualism. But aspects of this traditional way of life survived precariously alongside more modem institutions, and in the political militancy of
small tenants, crofters and labourers could offer such modernity some ferocious resistance throughout the Age of Reason.

From Terry Eagleton (2008) Trouble with Strangers, p. 77.

The first section of this book explores Sentimentalism, also known as Moral Sense Theory. Moral sentimentalists argue against the theory that human motivation is based on self-interest but also deny that morality can be derived from pure reason. Instead they hold the position that morality and altruism are based in sentiment: in the feelings human beings have for one another and their concern for each others welfare.

Of the names Eagleton mentions, Burke, Hutcheson, Goldsmith, Steele,Brooke and Sterne are Irish-born (all links to the Irish Compendium of Biography, 1878). How happy the Scottish philosophers Hume, Smith, Fordyce and Ferguson would be to be called “Gaels”, I am not entirely sure.

Posted in John J. O'Meara

The Appeal of NeoPlatonism to the Irish

After Yeats’ death I bought for a Jesuit library some of his fine volumes of Classical texts and secondary literature in Greens bookshop in Kildare Street. I do not remember if Stephen MacKenna’s translation of Plotinus On Beauty (1.6), which Yeats used extensively in his discourses to duchesses in London, was among them. […]
[Sean O’Faolain] was frustrated however, by his inability to “lay his hands”, so to speak, on Plotinus and neoPlatonism, for the very good reason that, apart from MacKenna’s inspired but not wholly reliable translation, modern scholarship had not yet done its duty to them. Padraic Colum had already told me of how moved he was by what he gleaned of Neoplatonism from my “Young Augustine” (which treated of the influence of the Neoplatonists on Augustine’s conversion): the mystic in him wanted more. Since the times of Yeats, Colum and O’Faolain both a reliable Greek text and an English translation have become available, and there is now much secondary work on Neoplatonism – some of it done by scholars connected with Ireland. And the interest in Neoplatonic themes endures – as is to be seen, for example, in Thomas Kinsella’s “Out of Ireland”. I have myself been curious about the appeal of Neoplatonism for the Irish throughout the centuries, and notable since the very Neoplatonist Irish scholar, John Scottus Eriugena in the ninth century.

John J. O’Meara (1915-2003), “On the Fringe of Letters”, Irish University Review (Vol. 27, No. 2, 1997, pp. 310-324) available on JSTOR (limited free access on registration).

John O’Meara, one of the great scholars of St. Augustine of Hippo and an early translator of Gerald of Wales muses on the appeal of neoPlatonism to the Irish, focusing on anecdotes about writers O’Meara encountered.