John Locke in Ireland

In 1692 John Locke’s Essay concerning Human Understanding was put on the curriculum of Trinity College Dublin by the provost St George Ashe. This was the first university to do so, unsurprising given the book was only published two years before.

The book was added on the recommendation of William Molyneux, founder of the Dublin Philosophical Society and first translator of Descartes’Meditations into English. In 1692 Molyneux made a flattering reference to Locke in the dedication of his own book, the Dioptrica Nova. He sent a copy to Locke, sparking a correspondence that only ended when Molyneux died. Molyneux was immortalised on a later edition of Locke’s Essay as the creator of Molyneux’s Problem.

When, in 1695, John Toland published his Christianity Not Mysterious, which applied Lockean ideas to religion, Locke was by then known well enough for the arguments refuting Toland to employ the same Lockean ideas. The Irish Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment, described by David Berman, produced new theological positions, such as Theological Representationalism, and some important philosophers. “Without Locke’sEssay“, says Berman, “there would hardly have been a Berkeley, Hutcheson or Burke.” Much of Irish philosophy in this “Golden Age” rests on Lockean foundations, and Berkeley’s philosophy is rooted in disputes between different positions based on Locke.

William Molyneux
Wikimedia, public domain

Another early adoption of Locke in Ireland was in the use of his Second Treatise on Government. This was published anonymously in 1689. When Molyneux started his correspondence with Locke, one of the questions he asked was whether this work was indeed Locke’s. Though Locke dodged the question, Molyneux attributed the Treatise to him in Molyneux’s The case of Ireland’s being bound by acts of parliament in England, stated to Locke’s chagrin. Up to this point the Treatises on government had been generally overlooked. This was to end when Molyneux used them along with his account of Irish history to argue that Ireland, though bound to the English crown, had a right to legislative independence.

Moreover, Molyneux was the first to see the application of Locke’s natural rights and that the need for consent to be governed should apply universally: “It is the cause of the whole race of Adam that I argue’ said Molyneux, ‘liberty seems to be the inherent right of all mankind’.(Locke himself probably did not agree with this application of his ideas, remaining silent when other friends of his criticised Molyneux’s work. Locke only admitted authorship in his will).

These ideas were referred to by Swift in his Drapier letters (also in the cause of Irish legislative independence), and by Charles Lucas, but interest in the ideas of the Treatise and Molyneux’s interpretation of them rose again in Ireland of the 1770s. At this time the Second Treatise joined the Essay on the Trinity College curriculum. In the 1790s, the use of Locke’s arguments reached its height, being linked in general opinion with the French and American Revolutions. Given Molyneux’s position regarding Ireland’s link to the English Crown, this would probably have been a shock to him.

Locke was also an influence on Francis Hutcheson, though tempered by Hutcheson’s exposure to Grotius and Pufendorf through the works of Glasgow professor Gershom Carmichael. Following Carmichael, Hutcheson cites Locke as an authority against chattel slavery, ironically since the evidence suggests that Locke was not opposed to the practice. Hutcheson also cites the importance of the consent of the governed and highlights the right of the governed to rebel if misruled. In his views on property and morality, however, he departs from Locke’s position.

Locke can rightly be called the father of Irish 18th century philosophy. But Irish philosophy also lead to the wider spread of his ideas, albeit altered, by successors like Berkeley, Hutcheson and Molyneux. Some of the most interesting alternations are those by Toland, Molyneux and Hutcheson, where Locke’s arguments are taken at face value and brought to their logical conclusion.

Bust of John Locke in the Long Room, TCD (c) Keith Ewing/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Featured Image: Bust of John Locke in the Long Room, TCD (detail).
(c) Keith Ewing/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).


The Influence of John Locke’s works (SEP)

Patrick Kelly, “Perceptions of Locke in Eighteenth-Century Ireland” [JSTOR, limited free access]

“William Molyneaux of Dublin”, John V. Luce (Trinity Monday Memorial Discourse 1985)

Jim Smyth (2003) “Robert Emmet’s copy of John Locke’s; Two treatises of government” in History Ireland, Vol 11, Issue 3. [Online] – a late 18th century reading of Locke by Emmet, United Irishman.

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