William Molyneux was invoked over and over again after his death by people he would not have acknowledged and for reasons he would not have approved. His afterlife is far more important than his biography.
He was a wealthy Irish protestant who founded the Dublin Philosophical Society in 1683. He had wide ranging interests in both natural and speculative philosophy and did his darndest to keep up with the latest developments in European science. His correspondence reveals a desperate need to become a close friend of John Locke. But he’s most famous for a book published in the year of his death.
The Case of Ireland’s being Bound by Acts of Parliament in England. Stated (1698) is a book that asserts a version of national self-determination. The identity of the “nation” that is to be determined is less than generous and inclusive. Much of the book is very dull indeed, consisting of endless nuggets of case law dealing with the meanings of old statutes. What emerges from this scholarship is a conviction that Ireland is not a conquered or a colonised country but a nation that has compacted with England (Britain, we recall, did not yet exist in 1698).
William Molyneux’s Treatise of Dioptrics, 1692. This copy was given to Narcissus Marsh by Molyneux himself (as evidenced by Molyneux’s inscription, see left.) This 300 page book was the first English language book about optics. (For more on the Dioptrics of William Molyneux and his son, see “When an Eye is armed with a Telescope: The Dioptrics of William and Samuel Molyneux.” by Peter Abrahams.)
In the general consciousness, philosophy is more associated with the arts than with science. The nesting of philosophy under “literature” in the Oxford Reference timeline tool is one example. In the case of Irish philosophy it’s understandable given great writers such as Swift, Wilde and Yeats fit into the category of Irish philosopher. But Irish philosophy (as all philosophy) also includes people who are interested in the natural world, mathematics and technology.
AE wrote in 1925 (Irish Statesman): “Ireland has not only the unique Gaelic tradition, but it has also given birth, if it accepts all of its children, to many men who have influenced European culture and science, Berkeley, Swift, Goldsmith, Burke, Sheridan, Moore, Hamilton, Kelvin, Tyndall, Shaw, Yeats, Synge and many others of international repute.” Four of those names unequivocally played a role in the history of STEM. Three of those were also philosophers.
Continue reading “Root and STEM”
how acceptable I thought it might be to the Learned World, upon a second edition of Mr. Newton’s Phil. Nat. Princ. Math. to receive some further Elucidations upon those sublime thoughts therein containd. I do not know how far Mr Newton himself may be inclinable to undertake such a task, I am apt to think he may not conceive it worth his While, but may rather leave it to others to build on that Foundation that he has laid. If therefore by your Advice and Incouragement any of the Curious Witts of Lond[on] could be put upon such an undertaking, I should think it very wel worth his Pains. We have in some Measure already an Instance of the Relish Many would have of such a Work in what Mr Whiston has Publishd in his New-Theory. Which you know has had an abundance of Mr Newtons doctrine in it, and has invited a Multitude of Readers that would hardly ever have lookd into Mr Newtons own Work, By reason of the Difficulty of the One, and the Familiarity of the Other.
From a letter dated November 13, 1697, from William Molyneux (born 17th April 1656) to Hans Sloane (born 16th April 1660). Sloane MS 4036, fol. 367, as quoted in Science and the Shape of Orthodoxy: Intellectual Change in Late Seventeenth Century Britain by Michael Hunter.
This letter is characteristic of the roles both men played: Molyneux (one of the few who could appreciate Newton’s Principia without assistance, per Hunter) seeking to disseminate Newtonian physics more widely, and seeking the support of Sloane, editor of the Philosophical Transactions and centre of a network of those “witts” interested in natural philosophy. The book Molyneux recommended emulating is A New Theory of the Earth. At the time of writing the spread, let alone the widespread acceptance, of Newton’s physics had only just begun.
William Molyneux (17 April 1656 – 11 October 1698)’s epitaph on the wall of the old chancel (now in the open air) of the Church of Ireland St. Audoen’s Church, Cornmarket, in Dublin, Ireland. The section referring to him starts about halfway down the stone.
whom LOCKE was proud to call his friend
author of The Case Of Ireland Stated
of the Dioprica Nova
long the standard authority in optics
and of many other scientific works.
He died 11th October 1698 at the age of 42 years
to the grief of friends
and to the loss of his country.
His remains with those of
many distinguished ancestors & kinsmen
rest in the adjoining vault of the
USSHER & MOLYNEUX families.
WILLIAM MOLYNEUX married LUCY
daughter of SIR WILLIAM DOMVILE and left
an only son SAMUEL not less distinguished
as a statesman & philosopher. He was secretary
to FREDERICK Prince of Wales and the founder
of the celebrated observatory at Kew.
He married LADY ELIZABETH DIANA CAPEL
and died 1727.
I am now to address a free people. Ages have passed away , and this is the first moment in which you could be distinguished by that appelation. I have spoken on the subject of your liberty so often, that I have nothing to add, and have only to admire by what heaven-directed steps you have proceeded, until the whole faculty of the nation is braced up to the act of her own deliverance. I found Ireland on her knees – I watched over her with an eternal solicitude, and have traced her progress from injuries to arms, and from arms to Liberty. Spirit of Swift – spirit of Molyneaux – your genius has prevailed – Ireland is now a nation – in that new character I hail her; and bowing to her august presence, I say, Esto perpetua.
Printed version of the speech of Henry Grattan, 16th April 1782 in the event of the Irish Parliament gaining legislative independence. (It’s likely the invocation of William Molyneux and Jonathan Swift was not in the original spoken version.) Eighteen years later “Grattan’s Parliament” ended with the Act of Union.