Posted in Peter of Ireland

Peter of Ireland, Teacher of Aquinas

The first biographies of Thomas Aquinas, the immensely influential philosopher and theologian, were written about forty years after his death. In the first (by William of Tocco) it is said that Aquinas was educated at Naples in grammar and logic by Master Martin and in natural philosophy by “Petrus de Ibernia” ie. Peter of Ireland. In the second (by Peter Calo), Aquinas is said to have quickly learnt all that Master Martin could teach him in grammar, leading to his transfer to Master Peter the Irishman who taught him logic and natural philosophy.

This would have been in the time period 1239-44. So who was this Irish teacher of Thomas Aquinas?

Research done in the eighteenth century (by a Dominican Bernardo Rossi de Rubeis) found two potential candidates in Naples at the right time. One, called Magistro Petro de Hybernia, has been excluded by later research, but the second, a Benedictine monk named Petrus de Donis and described as Ultonienis remains a possibility. This man might be the same as a Petrus de Dunis, a member of the Benedictine community of Down, founded about 1177-78 by John de Courcy who brought Anglo-Norman monks there from Chester.

However, we have no evidence that Peter of Ireland was present in the 1240s and he is not mentioned in early accounts of Aquinas. But there seems to be little reason for William of Tocco to invent a story that Martin and Peter taught Aquinas. It is neither colourful nor likely to inflate Aquinas’ standing, and it is information Tocco could have heard it from Aquinas himself.

At this distance it seems very unlikely we can ever know if Petrus de Donis was Peter of Ireland, but we can establish one thing based on the name alone. Peter of Ireland was probably Anglo-Norman, since Peter was not used as a name by the Gaelic population. It is also unlikely that an Irish man of Gaelic race at that time would have had a career that would take him abroad for his university education, most likely to Oxford (there was no Irish university), and from there to Paris and Naples. Peter of Ireland’s presence in the Sicilian court is interesting in its own right; it is plausible he had some connections with Normans in Sicily.

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Posted in Francis Hutcheson

The Pursuit of Happiness

Once the Declaration of Independence was adopted and signed in the summer of 1776, the pursuit of happiness — the pursuit of the good of the whole, because the good of the whole was crucial to the genuine well-being of the individual — became part of the fabric (at first brittle, to be sure, but steadily stronger) of a young nation.

The thinking about happiness came to American shores most directly from the work of John Locke and from Scottish-Irish philosopher Francis Hutcheson. During the Enlightenment, thinkers and politicians struggled with redefining the role of the individual in an ethos so long dominated by feudalism, autocratic religious establishments and the divine rights of kings. A key insight of the age was that reason, not revelation, should have primacy in human affairs. That sense of reason was leading Western thinkers to focus on the idea of happiness, which in Jefferson’s hands may be better understood as the pursuit of individual excellence that shapes the life of a broader community.”

From Free to Be Happy, by Jon Meacham in Time Magazine, on the meaning of happiness in the US constitution.

Hutcheson was primarily concerned with “flourishing” rather than happiness as hedonism, though it should be noted that he was not a puritan and had no problem with luxury or consumption as long as it was not excessive.

Posted in 1690-1800 The Long Eighteenth Century

Wetenhall Wilkes, the poet of the Black Dog, and the First (un)Known Irish Atheist

A warehouse at Old Bushmills
The Old Bushmills HDR Warehouse (crop)
(c) Ben Kor/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

There was Toland, of course, but given he describes himself as a deist at one point and a pantheist at another, it is not entirely clear that he was an atheist as we understand the term.

However in 1730, Wetenhall Wilkes published a book in Belfast called An Essay on the Existence of God, particularly in answer to Two Atheistic Letters of Mr. I— T— dated from Dublin 1729. As described, JT is unquestionably an atheist. To put the date into context, the man commonly acknowledged as the first atheist to openly deny the existence of gods was Jean Meslier, whose writings were only circulated (mostly in extracts and clandestinely) after his death in 17291.

According to Wilkes, J—h T—r wrote two letters to him dated 13th December 1728 and 3rd May 1729. In the extracts Wilkes quotes, Mr JT outlines his materialistic philosophy. Wilkes also mentions a meeting in which JT and others defended their views to a sympathetic group.

JT’s arguments suggest wide reading in philosophy. In his argument as given by Wilkes the only philosopher he cites by name is Hobbes. However he also seems to draw on Spinoza’s Ethics (Chapter I, see propositions II and II) when he argues that God could not have produced the material world since nothing can confer a quality on another it does not itself possess. The assertion that motion is an ‘internal property’ of matter was also put forward by John Toland in his Letters to Serena and may have its source there 2.
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Posted in Iris Murdoch

No God but The Good

When the great Irish novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch took up the old ontological argument that Anselm and Spinoza wrestled with, she came out not with Anselm’s God the Father, or Spinoza’s Nature, but, simply, Good. For her, “No existing thing could be what we have meant by God”; the God of religions is just a shadow of what beauty points us toward. (“Only an atheist can believe in what is unintended,” a novelist friend once told me.) What are we left with? “The unavoidable nature of morality,” Murdoch says. No matter how we try to avoid them, right and wrong pervade the universe. The Good exists, which is precisely why she believed that God does not.

Quote from 10 Proofs That Will Change How You Think About God, by in the Huffington Post. An excellent summary of ethical and religious beliefs of the only Irish philosopher mentioned (a more technical post on Murdoch’s position is here).

The whole piece is worth a read.

Posted in Robert Boyle

Robert Boyle and the decline of teleology in science

No longer did scientists think in terms of organisms: they thought in terms of machines. […] The 17th-century English chemist and philosopher Robert Boyle realised that as soon as you start to think in the mechanical fashion, then talking about ends and purposes really isn’t very helpful. A planet goes round and round the Sun; you want to know the mechanism by which it happens, not to imagine some higher purpose for it. In the same way, when you look at a clock you want to know what makes the hands go round the dial — you want the proximate causes.

But surely machines have purposes just as much as organisms do? The clock exists in order to tell the time just as much as the eye exists in order to see. True, but as Boyle also saw, it is one thing to talk about intentions and purposes in a general, perhaps theological way, but another thing to do this as part of science. You can take the Platonic route and talk about God’s creative intentions for the universe, that’s fine. But, really, this is no longer part of science (if it ever was) and has little explanatory power. “

Anglo-Irish chemist and philosopher if you please. And look out for theRobert Boyle Summer School.

From Does life have a purpose?, by Michael Ruse in Aeon Magazine, on the move away from teleology (the focus on the purpose of things) in science.

Posted in Jonathan Swift

A Swift solution for Irish banking

The lowness of interest, in all other countries a sign of wealth, is in us a proof of misery, there being no trade to employ any borrower. Hence alone comes the dearness of land, since the savers have no other way to lay out their money.
[…]
I have sometimes thought, that this paradox of the Kingdom growing rich, is chiefly owing to those worthy gentlemen the BANKERS, who, except some custom-house officers, birds of passage, oppressive thrifty squires, and a few others that shall be nameless, are the only thriving people among us: And I have often wished that a law were enacted to hang up half a dozen bankers every year, and thereby interpose at least some short delay, to the further ruin of Ireland.”

Jonathan Swift on banking in his 2008 1728 Tract, A short view of the state of Ireland.

His account of rising prices, and Dublin being full of new buildings as builders hire each other is oddly familiar.

Posted in Libraries and Archives

Philosophy in Marsh’s Library

Marsh's Library, © Janetmck on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Gate to Marsh’s Library © Janetmck on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The current exhibition in Marsh’s Library (ends 30th June 2013) displays science books from their collection. Given that “science” as a term only replaced “natural philosophy” in the mid 19th century, there are many books by philosophers included. So as well as treatises by Johannes and Elisabetha Hevelius, Galileo, Kepler, Tycho, and a 14th century Irish translation of an astronomical treatise based on Arab works, there are also books of Aristotle (translated and with a commentary from Averroes), Lucretius’ Epicurean poetry, Pascal, Descartes and Gassendi. Robert Boyle’s complete works can been seen, as well as William Molyneaux’s (1690) Treatise on Dioptricks, dedicated in the author’s handwriting to Narcissus Marsh himself.

Marsh’s Library was the first public library in Ireland. Marsh had long contemplated a library for “publick use, where all might have free access seeing they cannot have it in [Trinity] College”. The library (the tour guide informed us) was open to all, regardless of religion.

Interior of Marsh's Library © Marsh's Library (CC)
Interior of Marsh’s Library © Marsh’s Library (CC)

Marsh donated his entire collection of over 10,000 volumes, including the collection of Bishop Edward Stillingfleet which he had bought for £2,500, to the public library. The first librarian, Dr. Elias Bouhereau, a Huguenot refugee who fled France in 1695, was the first librarian, and also donated his library. An additional bequest was made in 1745 by John Sterne Bishop of Clogher.
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Posted in Edward Synge b. 1659

The Middle Edward Synge, Archbishop of Tuam

St Mary's Cathedral, Tuam (c) Valeria Luongo/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
St Mary’s Cathedral, Tuam
(c) Valeria Luongo/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Writing about Bishop Edward Synge requires some care. There were three of them, all related. The Edward Synge who is the subject of this post was the son of Edward Synge, bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross. He was also the nephew of George Synge (1594–1653), bishop of Cloyne; and the father of Bishops Edward Synge (1691–1762) and Nicholas Synge (1693–1771).

Edward Synge the Elder, as we will distinguish him from his father and son, was born in Inishannon, Cork on 6 April 1659. After his education in Cork, Oxford and Dublin he was rector in Laracor, Co. Meath (1682–6) and then vicar of Holy Trinity and prebendary of Christ Church, Cork (1686-1706). In that period he wrote his first major work A Gentleman’s Religion (1693), originally published anonymously.

After the challenge of John Toland’s Christianity Not Mysterious (1696), Edward Synge added an appendix to later editions of Gentleman’s Religion (David Berman suggests as a direct response.) Toland had argued that religious mysterious such as the Holy Trinity could not be properly part of Christianity since they could not be believed, since they were contrary to or above reason.
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Posted in 1801-1922 Union and Rebellion

Blended with Catholics

The youth of the Kingdom too, they who in a few years must determine this question, they have decided for the emancipation, with a liberality which is natural to youth, and a sagacity which is peculiar to years — and they will sit soon in these seats, blended with Catholics, while we, blended with Catholics, shall repose in the dust. Another age shall laugh at all this.

In 1793 the Catholic Relief Act was passed, allowing Catholics who took an oath and fulfilled the other criteria to vote. This was the latest step in a long slow process eroding the Penal Laws. However it still fell a great deal short of what Tone had argued for in his Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland.

On 4th May 1795 Henry Grattan proposed “A bill for the relief of His Majesty’s Roman Catholic Subjects”. This would have allowed Catholic MPs. The young that Grattan refers to are the students of Trinity, who presented an address in favour of Catholic emancipation. The bill was rejected 155 to 84.

Full Catholic Emancipation had to wait until 1829, nine years after Grattan’s death.

Posted in Theobald Wolfe Tone

Wolfe Tone’s Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland

Theobald Wolfe Tone and the frontispiece of "Argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland"
Theobald Wolfe Tone and the frontispiece of “Argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland”

In 1724 Swift asked in the Drapier Letters, “Were not the People of Ireland born as Free as those of England?”  In 1791 Theobald Wolfe Tone answered, “We are free in theory, but slaves in fact.”

Theobald Wolfe Tone was born in Dublin 250 years ago (on 20th June, 1763). He is not an original thinker, nor a systematic one. But he does act as a “lightning conductor” (as Thomas Duddy puts it), bringing together ideas about liberty, independence and popular sovereignty and applying them to the Irish situation. These ideas picked up over time were incorporated in pamphlets, writings and finally in Wolfe Tone’s actions. He died in prison in Dublin, after arrest for his part in the failed 1798 Rising, on 19th November, 1798.

Tone’s best argued piece is probably Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland, published in 1791. It is an argument based on justice, liberty and the rights of man. In the preface To the Reader he appeals directly to the work of Thomas Paine. Tone does not, he says, make an argument about “the abstract right of the people to reform their legislature; for after PAINE, who will, or who need, be heard on the subject?”
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