During the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, Scotland and England produced such well-known figures as David Hume, Adam Smith, and John Locke. Ireland’s contribution to this revolution in Western thought has received much less attention. Offering a corrective to the view that Ireland was intellectually stagnant during this period, The Irish Enlightenment considers a range of artists, writers, and philosophers who were full participants in the pan-European experiment that forged the modern world.
Michael Brown explores the ideas and innovations percolating in political pamphlets, economic and religious tracts, and literary works. John Toland, Francis Hutcheson, Jonathan Swift, George Berkeley, Edmund Burke, Maria Edgeworth, and other luminaries, he shows, participated in a lively debate about the capacity of humans to create a just society. In a nation recovering from confessional warfare, religious questions loomed large. How should the state be organized to allow contending Christian communities to worship freely? Was the public confession of faith compatible with civil society? In a society shaped by opposing religious beliefs, who is enlightened and who is intolerant?
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. This fracturing of the Irish Enlightenment eventually destroyed the possibility of civilized, rational discussion of confessional differences. By the end of the eighteenth century, Ireland again entered a dark period of civil unrest whose effects were still evident in the late twentieth century.
[Brown] demonstrates the existence of a significant Enlightenment project in Ireland in the 18th century, a project premised on the basic humanist principle that ‘man, not God, is the starting point of understanding.’ In so doing, Brown recommends that we go beyond the received view of Ireland as a culture crippled by sectarian politics and restore its intellectual heritage within a more capacious horizon of European and Atlantic history. Against the colonial prejudice that saw Ireland as a place of mayhem and barbarism, Brown constructs a counter-narrative of a vibrant intellectual culture informed by ideas of civility and tolerance. He claims that an important Irish Enlightenment flourished for a period between the War of the Two Kings (James and William, 1688–1691) and the 1790s, before regressing into conflicts of ethnic and religious identity in the 19th century… This controversial reading of the modern Irish mind is a very welcome addition to the ongoing 2016 debates about where Ireland comes from and where it hopes to go.
As Michael Brown points out in The Irish Enlightenment, Jonathan Swift, George Berkeley, and Edmund Burke are among several writers who gave the age of reason a distinct Irish accent.
Masterfully guided by Brown, whose comprehensive gaze embraces books both canonical and obscure, texts written in Gaelic as well as those written in English, works written by women and men, and writings emerging from all fractions of society, we are led to see traces of Enlightenment in the most unlikely places. This is exemplary history. It both reformulates an important problem, and draws swathes of new material into the scholarly conversation.
The Irish Enlightenment has always been seen as something of a poor relation to its English and Scottish siblings. Michael Brown’s groundbreaking book explodes the caricature, revealing how Irish thinkers and writers had a passionate ‘commitment to a life of the mind’ that matched anything elsewhere in Europe or the Americas. Bold engagement with social, religious and political issues revealed an Ireland that was most certainly not ‘in a moribund, catatonic state.’
Impressively detailed scholarship…Brown…has written a big, brave and important book. He has authoritatively shown that a debate about enlightenment took place in Ireland and that the debate was in part constitutive of the phenomenon itself.
A comprehensive survey of this understudied field.
With The Irish Enlightenment, Brown has produced a distinctive, illuminating and often challenging synthesis, with which historians both of Ireland and of the wider Enlightenment need to engage… Above all, The Irish Enlightenment leaves its readers enlightened.
- 640 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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