It is fitting, then, that every 16 June the Irish should commemorate a day on which nothing much happened. Like many modernist works, Ulysses revolves on a botched revelation or bungled epiphany, as Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus finally meet to no momentous effect. Nothingness is a traditional topic of Irish writing, all the way from the negative theology of the great medieval schoolman John Scottus Eriugena to the vision of hell of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman. It is true that nothing, like something, happens anywhere, but it tends to happen more in a down-at-heel colony (‘an afterthought of Europe’, Joyce scornfully called it) than it does on Wall Street or in Whitehall. Riba’s parental home strikes him as ‘more and more Irish’ precisely because nothing ever happens there. It is full of ghosts, as indeed Dublinesque is as a whole. Ireland, too, is haunted by a history which is dead but won’t lie down.
Quoted from “Irishness is for other people”, LRB. A review by Terry Eagleton of Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas, trans. by Anne McLean and Rosalind Harvey
Scholastic philosophy is considered to begin with John Scotus Erigena who flourished about the year 860, and who must not be confused with the Duns Scotus of a later date. We do not quite know whether he belonged to Ireland or to Scotland, for Scotus points to Scotland, and Erigena to Ireland. With him true philosophy first begins, and his philosophy in the main coincides with the idealism of the Neo-Platonists. […]
Scotus was also the author of some original works, which are not without depth and penetration, upon nature and its various orders (De naturæ divisione), &c. Dr. Hjort, of Copenhagen, published an epitome of the writings of Scotus Erigena, in 1823. Scotus Erigena sets to work philosophically, expressing himself in the manner of the Neo-Platonists, and not freely, and as from himself, Thus in the method of expression adopted by Plato, and also by Aristotle, we are rejoiced to find a new conception, and on bringing it to the test of philosophy, to find it both correct and profound; but here everything is ready to hand, cut and dry. Yet, with Scotus, theology is not yet built on exegesis, and on the authority of the Church; the Church in many cases rejected his writings. Thus Scotus is reproached by a Lyons church council […] Scotus Erigena hence even said: “The true Philosophy is the true Religion, and the true Religion is the true Philosophy. The separation came later on. Scotus then made a beginning, but properly he does not belong to the scholastics
From Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy: Part Two. Philosophy of the Middle Ages. This second section covers The Scholastic Philosophy.
The entire lecture, including an unabridged version of the quote above is available here.
[FitzRalph] singled out two faults for special denunciation, and it would appear that he had identified them in the course of a year’s close scrutiny of his flock and its mores — firstly, the civil war ‘inter Anglicos et Hibernicos’ and secondly, general theft and dishonesty. In the former case he pointed out to his hearers, most of whom we can presume were ‘Anglici’, that both rival communities in Ireland were under the impression that it was lawful not merely to rob and plunder those of the opposing community, but also to kill them, and he issued a stem warning that to kill was always gravely sinful except in self-defence. Only an officer of the law, acting in accordance with the prescriptions of that law, had such power. […]
In the same vein as his rejection of injury to life and limb by private persons in the name of loyalty to the Crown, he also condemned injury to property on the same pretext: theft, rapine, and plunder were always sinful, according to FitzRalph and the only adequate form of penitence for such a sin was proper and full restitution. This is a theme which he had frequently mentioned in his Avignon sermons, and he was to return to it again and again, sometimes in exhaustive detail, in the course of his work in Ireland. He was obviously capable of a shrewd appreciation of the manner in which racial dissension could be made the pretext for self-interest and greed, above all in the name of professed loyalty to the king and allegedly justifiable opposition to his unfaithful Irish rebels.
A description of Richard FitzRalph’s sermon denouncing murder and criminal behaviour, and the tribalism which saw it as no murder or crime if undertaken against the “other side”. The sermon was preached in Drogheda, 25th March 1349.
Quoted from Richard FitzRalph in Oxford, Avignon and Armagh, Katherine Walsh (1981), pages 285-286.
This from Vox Hiberionacum, in a post outlining the bad opinion the classical world had of the Irish:
Perhaps the most appropriate example is that of St. Jerome. Writing against an apparently British opponent Pelagius in the early fifth century, he found it most suitable to insult him using scotti subtext; stolidissimus et scotorum pultibus proagravatus, ‘most stupid and heavily weighed down/pregnant with Irish porridge‘ (Jerome CCL 74 Praef. in Jerem., Lib. I and III). Not only was he engaging in the late antiquity equivalent of calling him fat and stupid (‘Yes, Pelagius, your bum DOES look big in that…’) he also found room for a double insult by labelling the bodily excess as tainted with Irish origins/characteristics.
Pelagius had been acclaimed for his piety and learning, but fell foul of Jerome, Augustine and others while opposing the idea of predestination. They understood him as saying that divine aid was not required to perform good works, that human reason was capable of providing implicit knowledge of God and as denying original sin. For Pelagius, sin was a matter of custom and habit rather than an inherent part of fallen human nature. Pelagius was declared a heretic by the Council of Carthage.
Continue reading “The first mention of the Irish in the annals of philosophy”
Searching for material on John Scotus Eriugena, I was surprised to learn Pope Benedict XVI had made an address about him on 10th June 2009. It’s a solid summary in 2 minutes; the text is available for those who prefer it.
Today I would like to speak of a noteworthy thinker of the Christian West: John Scotus Erigena, whose origins are nonetheless obscure. He certainly came from Ireland, where he was born at the beginning of the ninth century, but we do not know when he left his Island to cross the Channel and thus fully enter that cultural world which was coming into being around the Carolingians, and in particular around Charles the Bald, in ninth-century France. Just as we are not certain of the date of his birth, likewise we do not know the year of his death but, according to the experts, it must have been in about the year 870.
Born in Dundalk around 1300 to an Anglo-Norman family, Richard FitzRalph was educated in Oxford and became chancellor of the University in 1332. His tenure was turbulent and lasted only two years, directly leading to his first visit to Avignon. His contribution to debates there on the beatific vision made him a prominent figure in the papal court. A successful ecclesiastical career both in England and in Ireland followed.
He became archbishop of Armagh in 1347. He was known for great preaching ability and care of his flock. His sermons that survive show keen awareness of social tensions and economic problems. His major focus was on two issues: the war (overt and covert) between the English and Irish elements, and the general prevalence of theft and dishonesty. He denounced the tendency to view theft against “the other side” as a minor issue and defended the cause of the weak (Walsh, p. 258):
[FitzRalph] singled out two faults for special denunciation, and it would appear that he had identified them in the course of a year’s close scrutiny of his flock and its mores — firstly, the civil war ‘inter Anglicos et Hibernicos’ and secondly, general theft and dishonesty. In the former case he pointed out to his hearers, most of whom we can presume were ‘Anglici’, that both rival communities in Ireland were under the impression that it was lawful not merely to rob and plunder those of the opposing community, but also to kill them, and he issued a stem warning that to kill was always gravely sinful except in self-defence. Only an officer of the law, acting in accordance with the prescriptions of that law, had such power.
A look at the history of Irish philosophy shows that a rather high proportion of our well known philosophers worked abroad. But we do know that bishops capable of debate were around before John Toland aggravated Bishops Edward Synge and William King.
Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis) came to Ireland to visit his Barry relatives in 1186-7. He wrote a description of the country in his Topography of Ireland. As in his works about Wales, Gerald is less than complimentary about the nonNormans he encounters. In his Topography (pp 79-81) he argues that the Irish people have many failings, and attributes this to the failure of prelates to preach to them. To support that preaching was lacking he cites the unparalleled lack of martyrs in the story of Ireland’s conversion to Christianity. If there had been a “voice like a trumpet” preaching to this uncivilised nation, says Gerald, there should have been martyrs.
He once (he tells us) put this argument to Maurice, archbishop of Cashel, (probably Muirges Ua hÉnna) “a discreet and learned man” who retorted:
Continue reading “Giraldus Cambrensis and the necessity of martyrs”
A book by Leonard O’Brian exploring the work of five Irish philosophers.
- John Scottus Eriugena
- John Toland
- George Berkeley
- Francis Hutcheson
- Iris Murdoch
When philosophy and the name Augustine are mentioned, one immediately thinks of the North African bishop, reluctant convert and writer of classic works like the Confessions and The City of God.
At about the same time a man who shared Augustine’s fathers’ name was on a mission to Christianise Ireland. While not in the same literary or philosophical league Patrick’s Confessions mark the start of a long Christian tradition and his Letter is a very early statement of a belief that slavery (of Christians at least) is wrong.
The collapse of the Roman Empire (Augustine died in a city under siege) left turmoil. The works of the ancients were preserved in the East, in the Arab world, and in Ireland.
The monks not only preserved works but also created their own commentaries and treatises. In the 7th century an Irish monk later known as Augustinus Hibernicus (the Irish Augustine) produced a Latin treatise De mirabilibus sacrae scripturae (in English: On the miraculous things in sacred scripture). This treatise was widely circulated (76 copies at least extant) though possibly because they thought it was by the better know Augustine.
The treatise is called a “rationalisation” of the Bible, but this is slightly misleading. To put it in modern terms Augustinus Hibernicus argues that God does not break the rules of nature he has created to perform a miracle. Instead miracles are performed using the natural possibilities within the object. This applied to both Old Testament and New Testament miracles. Both the water turned to blood in Egypt and the water turned to wine in Cana are to Augustinus Hibernicus the performing of a natural process, only greatly accelerated. Water becoming wine (in a vine) or blood (in an animal) is part of nature.
Continue reading “Patrick, Augustine and a blackbird”