Posted in William Butler Yeats

In Our Time: Yeats and Mysticism

[soundcloud height=”200″]https://soundcloud.com/in-our-time-culture/yeats-and-mysticism[/soundcloud]

In this episode of In Our Time Melvyn Bragg explores the strange and mystical world of the poet W B Yeats, with Roy Foster (Carroll Professor of Irish History at Oxford University), Warwick Gould (Director of the Institute of English Studies, University of London) and Brenda Maddox (author of George’s Ghosts: A New Life of W B Yeats.

Celtic folklore, the Theosophical society, the Golden Dawn group, seances and a wife who communicated with the spirit world all had a huge effect on the work of this great Irish poet. […]
Yeats the dreamer and the poet was also a mystic, a philosopher and a practitioner of magic. From the occult subcultures of Victorian London to the outlandish folklore of the Irish Peasantry, Yeats’ obsession with the spiritual world infused his poetic mind and even drove him to describe his own religion. Why was the period so alive with spiritualism? And how did the poems reflect the dreams?

Posted in Jonathan Swift William Butler Yeats

Yeats on Swift and Liberty

What was this liberty…served through all his life with so much eloquence? ‘I should think,’ he wrote in the Discourse, ‘that the saying, vox populi, vox dei ought to be understood of the universal bent and current of a people, not of the bare majority of a few representatives, which is often procured by little arts, and great industry and application; wherein those who engage in the pursuits of malice and revenge are much more sedulous than such as would prevent them.’ That vox populi or ‘bent and current,’ or what we even more vaguely call national spirit, was the sole theme of his Drapier Letters; its right to express itself as it would through such men as had won or inherited general consent. I doubt if a mind so contemptuous of average men thought…that it found expression also through individual lives, or asked more for those lives than protection from the most obvious evils.

Yeats on Swift (specifically his favourite tract of Swift’s, the Discourse of the Contests and Dissentions…in Athens and Rome) in Wheels and Butterflies (London, 1934), pp. 23-24

The quote was included in W. B. Yeats, Jonathan Swift, and Liberty, which links Swift and Yeats in their fight for a particular vision of liberty, coupled with elitism:
“He knew that the Irish intellect must continue the fight that Swift had led in Ireland against those perpetuations of seventeenth-century materialism–optimism, faith in utopian schemes, trust in democracy–that lay behind the new pious legislation and hedged about modern life. Outside of Ireland he had been accustomed to the extreme opinions of youth, often outrageous and contrary to his own opinions. But not in Ireland. Therefore Yeats felt mightly obliged to be the Swift of his day and outrage youth itself.”

Yeats’ version of Swift’s epitaph pares the original down to liberty and indignation:

Swift has sailed into his rest;
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his Breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
World-Besotted Traveler; he
Served human liberty.

Posted in Philip Pettit

Oxford Podcast Series: Philip Pettit on “Making Good: The Challenge of Robustly Demanding Values”

Oxford Podcast Series: Philip Pettit on “Making Good: The Challenge of Robustly Demanding Values”

This is a series of three podcasts, each a lecture from the 2011 Annual Uehiro Lecture Series on the theme “Making Good: The Challenge of Robustly Demanding Values” given by Philip Pettit.

Posted in John Toland

John Toland: “Brahminical theology”

© Trustees of the British Museum (reproduced under  standard terms of use
Design for a monument to Sir William Jones. © Trustees of the British Museum (standard terms of use)

From pages 172-3, Sea of Faith (1984) by Don Cupitt:

There is one rather puzzling early example of knowledge of Indian religion. John Toland (1670-1722), an eccentric freelance Anglo-Irish writer and pamphleteer, was a man known to Leibniz. A theological radical, he was the inventor of the word ‘pantheism’, and in quoting precedents for this idea he mentions ‘the Brahminical theology’. Where Toland learnt this, I do not know. It is usually said that the first translations of Indian sacred texts into European languages came much later: Charles Wilke’s version of the Gita(1785), Sir William Jones’s Shakuntala (1789) and The Laws of Manu (1794) and […] Peron’s translation of some fifty of the Upsanisads(1802).”

Intriguing. But even if texts were not available in European languages, there were certainly people from the Indian subcontinent in London, notably Lascars serving on ships from India. He had also spent time in Holland which also had links with East Indies. Might Toland have learned this though word of mouth?

Posted in Events Jonathan Swift

Swift Satire Festival, July 12-13, 2014

Gulliver meets the King of Broddingnag, in Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" Source: Wikicommons/cc
Gulliver meets the King of Broddingnag, in Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels”
Source: Wikicommons/cc

The Swift Satire Festival, held in Trim Co. Meath, celebrates the life, works and legacy of Jonathan Swift. It will take place on July 12-13, 2014. (Trim is the closest large town to Laracor, where Swift was appointed vicar in in 1700.)

More details here.

Posted in Iris Murdoch

The (Moral) Persuasiveness of Narrative

For Murdoch, the most crucial moral virtue was a kind of attentiveness to detail, a wise, trained capacity for vision, which could see what was really going on in a situation and respond accordingly. The sort of psychological insight and attentiveness to detail necessary for writing fiction was also, for Murdoch, what enables a person to live a morally good life. ‘It is obvious here,’ she wrote, ‘what is the role, for the artist or spectator, of exactness and good vision:
unsentimental, detached, unselfish, objective attention.
It is also clear that in moral situations a similar exactness is called for.’

For Murdoch, what so often keeps us from acting morally is not that we fail to follow the moral rules that tell us how to act; rather, it is that we misunderstand the situation before us.[…] As [Jonathan] Dancy once described it, to give one’s justifications for responding in a certain way
‘is just to lay out how one sees the situation…The persuasiveness here is the persuasiveness of narrative: an internal coherence in the account which compels assent. We succeed in our aim when our story sounds right.’
Murdoch the novelist would have approved.

From Godless yet good, a piece on secular ethics by Troy Jollimore in Aeon Magazine.

Posted in John Ponce

Who sharpened Occam’s Razor?

The back label on a bottle of "Occam's Razor" wine (c) David McLeish/Flickr  (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The back label on a bottle of “Occam’s Razor” wine
(c) David McLeish/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Occam’s (or Ockham’s) Razor is a form of the principle of parsimony (broadly, that theories should be as simple as possible but not simpler.) It states: ‘Entities should not be multiplied without necessity.’ (In Latin, Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem.) However it seems that William of Occam never said it. As the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy reports:

Although the sentiment is certainly Ockham’s, that particular formulation is nowhere to be found in his texts. Moreover, as usually stated, it is a sentiment that virtually all philosophers, medieval or otherwise, would accept; no one wants a needlessly bloated ontology. The question, of course, is which entities are needed and which are not.

The other question is, who did originally say it? In 1918, William Thorburn published the result of his investigations into this question in Mind. The paper is available from Mind 27 (1918), 345-353; and on wikisource. That research suggested the origin lay with an Irish scholastic, John Punch.

Continue reading “Who sharpened Occam’s Razor?”

Posted in 1689 & earlier: Medieval and Early Modern

Tradition of Scotist Scholars

What kind of works in Philosophy did Scotus leave us? […] What is the current status of his works? The Opera omnia was first edited by my countryman of origin, Luke Wadding, who in the terrible seventeenth century departed Ireland and labored in Italy to edit Scotus and other Franciscan writers. Another Irishman, Maurice O’Fehily, living in Padua, Italy, had edited Scotus’s Commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle in 1497, and published the work in Venice. But then, these and some Englishmen were continuing a tradition of scholars who, like Scotus, had gone to Paris in the early fourteenth century, scholars who with John Duns Scotus refused to obey Philip the Fair and with Scotus, had to leave Paris and go back to Oxford in the early fourteenth century namely Ricardus Hibernensis, Odo Hibernensis and Thomas Anglicus.

From Duns Scotus: A Brief Introduction to his Life and Thought by Jeremiah Hackett in “Studies in Scottish Literature” (1991).
Continue reading “Tradition of Scotist Scholars”

Posted in MOC Drury

Philosophical Clarity versus Scientific Clarity

An examiner once said to me: ‘Sir Arthur Keith once remarked to me that the reason why the spleen drained into the portal system was of the greatest importance; but he never told me what that importance was, now can you tell me?’ I had to confess that I couldn’t see any anatomical or physiological significance in this fact. The examiner then went on to say: ‘Do you think there must be a significance, an explanation? As I see it there are two sorts of people: one man sees a bird sitting on a telegraph wire and says to himself: “Why is that bird sitting just there?”, the other man replies “Damn it all, the bird has to sit somewhere”

The reason why this story pleased Wittgenstein was that it made clear the distinction between scientific clarity and philosophical clarity.[…] Scientific explanations lead us on indefinitely from one inexplicable to another, so that the building grows and grows and grows, and we never find a real resting place. Philosophical clarity puts a full-stop to our enquiry and restlessness by showing that our quest is in one sense mistaken. “

From Maurice O’Connor Drury’s “The Danger Of Words” (1973).

Posted in Jonathan Swift

Swift Matters

One of the claims Damrosch makes near the beginning of his book to explain the need for a new biography is that “Swift matters”. This is, I think, justifiable. “Burn everything that comes from England except their people and their coal” used to be his most famous (and most misquoted) soundbite but in recent years changed priorities and transformed relationships have pushed another of his statements to the fore, one in which Swift calls for a law to be passed that would make it mandatory to “hang up half a dozen bankers every year”. Swift matters not just because he said some things which, taken out of context, can be readily assimilated to modern populist sentiment. He perfected the art of crafting phrases snappy enough to become slogans but which, on closer inspection, yield disturbing and contradictory meanings. He also (naturally) had an epigrammatic statement for this reading process, likening satire to “a sort of glass” in which beholders are likely to discern everyone’s face but their own. Not all his reflections will appeal. “

From “This life a long disease” by James Ward in The Dublin Review of Books, reviewing a new biography of Swift, Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World, by Leo Damrosch