The Irish Enlightenment
By Michael Brown
Harvard University Press – £25.00/$39.95
The poor creatures we meet in the streets seem to know the avenue to the humane breast better than our philosophers.
Francis Hutcheson – ‘Reflections on the Common Systems of Morality,’ 1724
Undoubtedly, philosophers are in the right when they tell us, that nothing is great or little other wise than by comparison.
Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, 1726
Broken into three very distinct parts (The Religious Enlightenment, 1688-ca. 1730, The Social Enlightenment, ca. 1730-ca. 1760 and The Political Enlightenment, ca. 1760-1798), Michael Brown has herein written a book that is commendable, even if just for the introduction and reiteration of just how fractured Irish society was and, perhaps until recently, remains: ”The Irish Enlightenment opened up the possibility of a tolerant society, but it was short-lived. Divisions concerning methodological commitments to Empiricism and rationalism resulted in an increasingly antagonistic conflict over questions of religious inclusion.”
At 472 pages (excluding a very considerable selection of Notes, Acknowledgements and Index), this vast canvas of a book covers an even wider terrain of the Irish Enlightenment within that of its rather dexterous depth of complexity. A partial reckoning of which is (somewhat) addressed at the very outset of the book’s Introduction, where Brown quotes James Arbuckle: ”Many of our gentry seem to think learning not only a needless but an impertinent qualification; and it has been made a remark that the state of conversation among us is such as to require a well-furnished wine cellar much more than a library for its support.” (The Tribune, Dublin, 1729).
At the vanguard of this hefty book is a move to a more peripheral, national, and Atlantic Enlightenment, while its twin ambition is to reconstruct the role(s) of Irish thinkers, writers, and actors, all of whom invariably played significant parts within the Enlightenment project (and delineated an explicitly Irish Enlightenment). Thereby, situating the country’s intellectual heritage within the wider context of British, as well as European and Atlantic history.
In all, this is a more than cohesive book that never takes its eye off the literary ball, which, given the era it covers, could well have been so easy to do within the hands of a less gifted writer. There again, Michael Brown is Chair of Irish, Scottish and Enlightenment History at the University of Aberdeen – so it ought hardly be surprising that The Irish Enlightenment makes for such incisive and well constructed reading.
Each of its nine chapters (from ‘The Presbyterian Enlightenment and the Nature of Man’ to ‘Languages of Civility’ to ‘Communities of Interest’ to the final chapter, ‘An Enlightened Civil War’), does in some way or another, make for a veritable vortex of surprisingly enlightened reasoning itself – the outcome of which, can at times, be more entertaining than informative. For instance, in the aforementioned sixth chapter,’ ‘Community of Interest,’ Brown writes: ”Club life constituted the central praxis of the Enlightenment. It institutionalised the debate that emerged in mid-century concerning how Ireland might best meet the challenges of dearth and was the outcome of a public sphere that emerged in the salons, coffeehouses, taverns, and theatres of Irish society. The club was an ambition and a location; an agenda and a rendezvous. Clubs provided the Enlightenment with a means of determining and implementing a course of action. They provided the Enlightenment with social capital, bringing together unrelated actors for shared, commonly nonpolitical, ends.”
A segment of writing, prefaced by quoting Laurence Dermott:
Whilst thus in unity we join,
Our hearts still good and true;
Inspired by the grace divine,
And no base ends in view;
We friendly meet, ourselves employ,
To improve the fruitful mind;
With blessings which can never cloy
But dignify mankind.
(Song XLII, Ahiman Rezon: Or, A Help to All that Are (or Would Be) Free and Accepted Masons, 1764).
Perhaps like the Enlightenment itself, one never really knows where one is going to end up within the pages of The Irish Enlightenment; which in and of itself, ensures that all and any assumptions, if not foregone conclusions, are to be readily and wholeheartedly left to one side.