seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


Leave a comment

Birth of Philosopher Francis Hutcheson

francis-hutchesonFrancis Hutcheson, Scotch-Irish philosopher and major exponent of the theory of the existence of a moral sense through which man can achieve right action, is born on August 8, 1694 in Saintfield, County Down, Ulster. He is remembered for his book A System of Moral Philosophy. He is an important influence on the works of several significant Enlightenment thinkers, including David Hume and Adam Smith.

The son of a Presbyterian minister, Hutcheson is educated at Killyleagh in modern day Northern Ireland and studies philosophy, classics, and theology at the University of Glasgow (1710–1716). While a student, he works as tutor to William Boyd, 3rd Earl of Kilmarnock. Following his return to Ireland, he founds a private academy in Dublin in 1719 and teaches there for ten years. In 1729 he returns to Glasgow to succeed his old master, Gershom Carmichael, as Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow, a position he holds until his death.

Hutcheson is licensed as a preacher in 1719 by Irish Presbyterians in Ulster, but in 1738 the Glasgow presbytery challenges his belief that people can have a knowledge of good and evil without, and prior to, a knowledge of God. His standing as a popular preacher is undiminished, however, and the celebrated Scottish philosopher David Hume seeks his opinion of the rough draft of the section “Of Human Morals” in Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature.

Hutcheson’s ethical theory is propounded in his Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725), in Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections (1728) and Illustrations upon the Moral Sense (1728), and in the posthumous A System of Moral Philosophy (1755). In his view, besides his five external senses, man has a variety of internal senses, including a sense of beauty, of morality, of honour, and of the ridiculous. Of these, Hutcheson considers the moral sense to be the most important. He believes that it is implanted in man and pronounces instinctively and immediately on the character of actions and affections, approving those that are virtuous and disapproving those that are vicious. His moral criterion is whether or not an act tends to promote the general welfare of mankind. He thus anticipates the utilitarianism of the English thinker Jeremy Bentham, even to his use of the phrase “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” Hutcheson is also influential as a logician and theorist of human knowledge.

Hutcheson spends time in Dublin, and dies while on a visit to the city on August 8, 1746, his fifty-second birthday. He is buried in the churchyard of Saint Mary’s, which is also the final resting place of his cousin William Bruce. Today Saint Mary’s is a public park located in what is now Wolfe Tone Street. He lies in what is now an unmarked grave in the Dublin he loved and where his best work was done.


Leave a comment

The Birth of John Toland, Philosopher & Freethinker

john-tolandJohn Toland, Irish rationalist philosopher and freethinker, and occasional satirist, is born in Ardagh on the Inishowen peninsula, a predominantly Catholic and Irish-speaking region in northwestern Ireland, on November 30, 1670. He writes numerous books and pamphlets on political philosophy and philosophy of religion which are early expressions of the philosophy of the Age of Enlightenment.

Very little is known of Toland’s early life. His parents are unknown. He later writes that he had been baptised Janus Junius, a play on his name that recalls both the Roman two-faced god Janus and Lucius Junius Brutus, reputed founder of the Roman Republic. According to his biographer, Pierre des Maizeaux, he adopts the name John as a schoolboy with the encouragement of his school teacher.

Having formally converted from Catholicism to Protestantism at the age of 16, Toland gets a scholarship to study theology at the University of Glasgow. In 1690, at age 19, the University of Edinburgh confers a master’s degree on him. He then gets a scholarship to spend two years studying at Leiden University in the Netherlands, and subsequently nearly two years at the University of Oxford in England (1694–95). The Leiden scholarship is provided by wealthy English Dissenters who hope Toland will go on to become a minister for Dissenters.

In Toland’s first and best known book, Christianity not Mysterious (1696), he argues that the divine revelation of the Bible contains no true mysteries. Rather, all the dogmas of the faith can be understood and demonstrated by properly trained reason from natural principles. For this argument he is prosecuted by a grand jury in London. As he is a subject of the Kingdom of Ireland, members of the Parliament of Ireland propose that he should be burned at the stake. In his absence three copies of the book are burned by the public hangman in Dublin as the content is contrary to the core doctrines of the Church of Ireland. Toland bitterly compares the Protestant legislators to “Popish Inquisitors who performed that Execution on the Book, when they could not seize the Author, whom they had destined to the Flames.”

After his departure from Oxford, Toland resides in London for most of the rest of his life, but is also a somewhat frequent visitor to Continental Europe, particularly Germany and the Netherlands. He lives on the Continent from 1707 to 1710.

John Toland dies in Putney on March 10, 1722. Just before he dies, he composes his own epitaph: “He was an assertor of liberty, a lover of all sorts of learning … but no man’s follower or dependent. Nor could frowns or fortune bend him to decline from the ways he had chosen.” The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica says of him that at his death in London at age 51 “he died… as he had lived, in great poverty, in the midst of his books, with his pen in his hand.”

Very shortly after his death a lengthy biography of Toland is written by Pierre des Maizeaux.

(Pictured: The only known image of John Toland)