The Pearse Putsch and the Wexford Happening

Richard Miller.

Proclaiming The Republic, North Wexford and The 1919 Rising, By Fionntan O Suilleabhain and John O Neill ( Dublin, 2016 ) p 129 E 10

Rebellion in the School House, The 1916 Rising in Ferns, By Christopher Power, ( Ferns, 2016? ) E 10, both of which are available from Zozimus Bookshop in Gorey, see our links

The events of Easter 1916 are seared into the
memory of the Irish. It is a part of our story.  For some in the minority among which I was raised, the Rising was the crucial stone in the avalanche that swept away the British rule on which they relied. For others it has always been a matter of deep pride that a small number of Irish men and women took on the might of the British Empire, and held Dublin for a week. For yet others, perhaps now the majority, the whole episode is the subject of considerable ambivalence. On the one hand there is pride and relief that Ireland won its independence. On the other hand there are doubts about how Irish independence was brought about, doubts about the politicised theology of Patrick Pearse that underlay the rising, and doubts too about the democratic credentials of the attempted putsch. But despite these hesitations the Rising itself was one of those moments which by themselves are so powerful that they eclipse everything else that is going on at the time. Who now remembers that the rising coincided with the British humiliating defeat by the Turks at Kut in what is now Iraq, and the start of the great German offensive against the French at Verdun? The context of the event has been lost.


Harry Patch, the last Tommy, ( 1898- 2009 ) with friend.

With the death of the last of the Tommies some years back the First World War has slipped from memory into history. Its impact is no longer understood.  The war destroyed not just empires, but ways of life. To be involved in that war was to experience change, horror, and dislocation. In August 1914 cavalry was still a major force on the battlefield; but by 1918, advancing British infantry was being supplied by parachute from aircraft controlled by radio. In 1914 observers in primitive aeroplanes were throwing bombs out of the cockpit by hand. In 1918 formations of bombers with four engines were raiding distant targets.

While technology advanced political change was remorseless. The Europe of 1914 was recognisably the same as that of 1815. But by1918 it was very different. The nineteenth century had seen the unification of Italy and of Germany, But the four brief years of the war saw developments which could never have been imagined by those cutting the harvest in 1914. Not only did the boys not come home by Christmas, but even those who did return often came back to a country different from the one they had left. Indeed the French Republic was the only major state playing a role in the struggle which remained even superficially unchanged. The war destroyed the Russian, Austro- Hungarian, German, and Turkish empires. It caused the ( albeit brief ) emergence of The United States on the world stage in a way which prefigured things to come, and it saw the truncation of the United Kingdom. The war enabled the creation of numerous new states of such as Poland, Finland, and, of course, Ireland.

Such change cannot be brought about without psychic dislocation. The geometry or frame within which life had been lived was changed forever. For much of the nineteenth century it had seemed that despite the technical changes  ( the railways, the telephone, and so forth ) life would continue as normal. There were, it is true, hints of things to come before August 1914. It may be no coincidence that Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” was published in the same year ( 1899 ) as Sigmund Freud’s “Interpretation of Dreams.” freud dreamsBut certainly this process of change was accelerated and accentuated by the war. There was fighting on every continent. Science was applied to the process of mass destruction as never before.

The horrors of the Western Front cannot be exaggerated. Hundreds of thousands of men were engulfed in a nightmare of blood and mud. But this cannot be appreciated in the abstract. Let’s glance at a description from the German point of view of the British attacks at the battle of the Somme a few months after the rising in Dublin:

“A mass of shells…burst among the advancing lines. Whole sections seemed to fall, and the rear formations, moving in closer, quickly scattered. The advance rapidly crumpled under this hail of shells and bullets. All along the line, men could be seen throwing their arms into the air and collapsing never to move again. Badly wounded rolled about in their agony, and others less severely injured crawled to the nearest shell hole for shelter…The extended lines though, badly shaken with many gaps, now came on all the faster…With all this were mingled the moans and groans of the wounded, the cries for help and the last screams of death.”

ekstein rites of spring

The quotes are from p.146-155

“The attacker” says Professor Modris Eksteins of the University of Toronto “ became the representative of a world, the nineteenth-century world, which was demolished by this world.”  “Rats the size of cats” he continues a few pages later “were reported in the trenches, although they existed in even larger numbers around rest quarters. They were attracted by food left lying about and by decomposing corpses.” No wonder soldiers fought them with pickaxe handles and spades!

These horrors, fanned by propaganda on both sides, continued for years, and were as pervasive then as popular music and the internet are today. In the First World War horror went viral. What had been unthinkable became normal. “After several weeks of frontline experience” says Ekstein, “ there was little that could shock. Men became immunized rather rapidly to brutality and obscenity.”  He argues that the years 1916 and 1917 were a frontier experience  for Europe beyond which there was something quite new.

What then were the characteristics of this new world that Europe discovered on the Western Front?  What lay beyond the frontier that had been crossed? For evidence of the shift in the European mind during the First World War one has only to look at an interesting and neglected lecture given in  October 1919 by the classical scholar and notable translator of Greek drama, Gilbert Murray. Murray, who was a liberal, a critic of imperialism, and no friend of British rule in Ireland, startlingly entitled his talk “Satanism and the World Order.” Murray an agnostic, carefully distinguishes the “Satanism” about which he was talking from any belief in an objective devil. “ We need pay no attention to the mere name of Satan or Lucifer; the name is a mythological accident. The essence of the belief is that the World Order is evil and a lie.” Murray believed that the war had created an extraordinary outbreak of such beliefs all across Europe. He frankly acknowledged that this “Satanism” was “directed more widely and intensely against Great Britain than against any other Power.”

For Murray this “Satanism” was not simply a proxy for anti- British sentiment (although it did, of course, include it): it was grounded in hatred. He  granted that “ opposition to the present order [ was]  at times right, provided that that the opposition really aim[ed]  at the attainment of a fuller or better order.” But he doubted whether in fact this was often the case: “The better order which the reformer wishes to substitute for the present order must be a fuller realization of the spirit of the existing order itself. This belief does not rule out changes…but it does mean that a change which violates the consciences of men, a change which aims at less justice and more violence, at more hatred and less friendliness, at more cruelty and less freedom, has the probabilities heavily against its ultimate success.”

Murray viewed the hatred and love of violence summoned up by the Satanist in contrast to the liberal tradition. On the one hand there was the bleak fanaticism which sought to incinerate everything in its path. On the other were beliefs grounded in divine order. Murray was no Christian- as his polemic against the eschatological strand in Christianity demonstrates- but he carefully distinguished the Christian tradition in its liberal form from Satanism. According to Murray human goodness expressed itself through the Republican virtues. These virtues reflected God’s activity in the world. “God’s  providence or foresight consists in providing [ for ]  the future Good of the Universe; and it is our business to be to the best of our powers…servants or ministers of the divine foresight. Thus goodness becomes identical with loyalty, or…with faithfulness.” At this point Murray begins to meditate how this faithfulness might find expression in our political lives. The gist of what he says ( although he doesn’t put it like this ) is to contrast the management of practical issues prompted by the liberal tradition with the actions insistently demanded by the hate filled rhetoric of “Satanism.”  “The war” he writes “ has suggested to susceptible minds its own primitive method of healing all wrongs by killing or hitting somebody.”

But what does all this have to do with Ireland? It is certainly true that the Irish nationalist tradition contains many strands. But unquestionably one of these strands is that which found its expression in the Dublin rising of Easter 1916, the centenary of which has recently been celebrated all over the country in numerous events. But who then speaks for 1916? The answer is not difficult. The figure of Patrick Pearse will always be linked with the events of that week, and to prove the point there is the remarkable photograph of Pearse in the very act of his surrendering to the British authorities.pearse surrendering For Irish nationalism Pearse has never had the role attributed to Lenin in the Soviet Union. There was no state ideology of “Pearsism” as there was of Leninism. But in 1916 his was the hand on the plough. How then did Pearse see the First World War? Did he stand in the tradition of western liberalism? Or was he in Murray’s terms a Satanist?

Examining Pearce on these matters is made easier because he explained his position in an important essay entitled “Peace and the Gael” which he wrote in December 1915. He could hardly have been clearer. Pearse was am almost textbook example of what Murray called a Satanist.  Like Murray’s lecture, Pearse’s essay needs to be better known, as it locates the origins of the more extreme Irish nationalism that we have seen in recent years  as much in the horrors of the Western Front as in any authentically Irish experience or tradition.

At the core of Pearse’s essay is an enthusiastic  glorification of what was going on the Western Front. “The last sixteen months [ i.e. since the start of the war. ] have been the most glorious in the history of Europe  Heroism has come back to the earth…Each fights for the fatherland. It is policy which moves the governments; it is patriotism that stirs peoples. ..It is good for the world that such things should be done. The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with red wine of the battlefields. Such august homage was never before offered to God as this, the homage of millions of lives given gladly for love of country. War is a terrible thing, and this is the most terrible of wars. But this war is not more terrible than the evils which it will end or help to end. What if the war sets Poland and Ireland free? If the war does these things will not war have been worth while?… We must not faint at the sight of blood…”

This is horrifying, and even psychologically disturbed material; and the man who produced it does not deserve a place in Irish pantheon. It is indeed troubling that Pearce’s example has been held so high, and that his writings have played the role that they have in moulding and sustaining the Irish nationalist tradition for so long.

Nevertheless Pearse’s contribution to the technique of revolution in Ireland is of great interest.  Pearse was the Irish revolutionary “par excellence”-  he was of course executed for his role in the Rising. In him there meet two strands of political thought that were widespread in the nineteenth century, woven together into a piece of highly coloured Irish tweed. In some ways he was a typical late nineteenth century Jingo, convinced that his country, and above all those who acted in its name, could do no wrong. Another part of his intellect reflects what Murray’s Satanism. For Pearse was a good hater, and an especially good hater of established institutions, obsessed with the damage they could do, but blind to benefits that they brought. For him a fact only existed if it showed England in a bad light. To him a man’s Irish patriotism was measured by his hatred of England.  For Pearse the thought, even the possibility, that Ireland could suffer any ill which was not England’s fault was quite alien. Ireland was the heavenly city, unblemished by time or circumstance. Ireland had only to be free of England to be happy.

These general ideas were allied to two operational insights  which were to have a great importance in Irish history. Pearse’s thought was crude. But it was very definitely thought. He may have been wrongheaded, but he was no fool. He was a focussed and reflective man. He knew a distraction when he saw it. Since his only objective was to remove England from Ireland he realised that any discussion of how Ireland should be governed was likely to reinforce, if not the Union, then the case for some Home Rule solution, which as a separatist, he dreaded. Pearse did not “do” detail. ( It is worth recalling here that for Murray detail was the field upon which virtue expressed itself.)

Pearse’s  relative lack of interest in the mechanics of governing Ireland, ( except in so far as education was concerned where he had real expertise )  allowed him to concentrate his formidable intellect on how the link between Ireland might be broken. He had a shrewd grasp of both English and Irish psychology, and this led to his greatest and most profound operational insight, namely that in order to achieve Irish independence he had first to win over the Irish people, and to do this he had to manipulate the English authorities in Ireland into perpetrating an act or series of actions which justified his separatist analysis.

It was from this foundation that he derived his idea that a “rising” in Ireland should be used to provide a sacrificial death ( or deaths ) which would demonstrate to the Irish people that British rule in Ireland could not be reformed. This notion was behind everything he did, and it was to be the key to his success. It meant that the Rising he led was not to be a conventional military operation or even a coup. As a military operation the rising would certainly have failed even if the German arms had arrived and been distributed. But from Pearse’s perspective this failure was to be welcomed. For him the details of making a success of the Rising, whether the capture of the Dublin telephone exchange which was bungled, or the blocking of Kingstown Harbour which was apparently not even thought of, would have been distractions. His real political aim was not to win a battle, or even a war, but was to gain support for  separatism by immolating himself and others. And, of course, General Maxwell fell into the trap…

The Rising in Dublin was then predicated upon the shape of Pearse’s character and his conclusions about how his objective could be achieved. And he was to a considerable extent successful because he was right about the British response to his plans. And this is why his bravery, and that of his friends, his ability to inspire others, his eloquence ( if not always his veracity ) and his dignity in defeat are all now being celebrated by Irish nationalists one hundred years after his heroic, although ( I believe ) profoundly misguided  actions.

The Rising however was not limited to Dublin. There was fighting in North Dublin. There was some action in East Galway, and above all there was the concurrent rising which took place in North Wexford- the part of Ireland in which I am privileged to live. These last events are important because they show another face of Irish nationalism, a face less moulded by the ideals of Patrick Pearse than was the case in Dublin.

2000px-Island_of_Ireland_location_map_Wexford_svgIt is true that Pearse gave a long remembered speech in the old town hall in Gorey in which he almost certainly preached his gospel of sacrifice; as he did also in Enniscorthy. But the events south of Gorey suggest that in Co. Wexford, at least, Pearse was regarded more as a commander than as an ideologue. In military terms the events in question were simple.  The town of Enniscorthy, in central Wexford was occupied by rebel forces, as was a village a little further north called Ferns. The ostensible purpose of this manoeuvre was to cut the railway line between Wexford and Dublin, thus preventing the British garrison in Dublin being reinforced by way of the route between Wales and the south east tip of Ireland. Michael Collins may have given the order. But what can he have been thinking of? Anyone who looks at the map can see that the obvious route for such reinforcement went through Holyhead and Kingstown since the railway north from Kingstown, leads directly into the main field of military operations in Dublin.

The Rising in Wexford was not then launched for any military reasons. Rather it was, I suspect, more a tribute to the Wexford Rising of 1798. No one should underestimate the importance of continuity in Ireland. This is particularly true in the countryside where memories are long, and oral traditions lovingly maintained.  There were no angst driven fanatics in Wexford. Those who rose in Wexford in 1916 certainly made use of the language supplied to them by Pearse and his colleagues. There can be no doubt about that. But other factors were also in play. An important clue that something else may have been happening was the way in which, alongside the fire arms, large numbers of pikes were manufactured, by a blacksmith in Enniscorthy evidently for the use by the rebels.

But can this have been serious? Did anyone seriously propose that the boys of Wexford armed  with pikes should have taken on the British army which was potentially equipped with armoured cars ( not yet tanks ) machine guns, and field artillery firing eighteen pound rounds of shrapnel? Frankly this seems unlikely. The far more likely, and flattering, explanation is that the events in Wexford were never really intended to become violent. It is true that there was some sniping at the police in Enniscorthy, and there was an engagement on the railway line in which a policeman was shot through the cap.Irish Volunteers GWF But the only rebel in Ferns who fired on the forces of the crown was court martialled by his own side. Undoubtedly the rebels in Wexford would have given as good account of themselves as they could had they been forced to do so. But they showed little desire to initiate violence. Their dispositions were defensive, and their real motive was probably to provide moral support to the rebels in Dublin. In this reading of the events in Wexford the pikes were symbols, not weapons. Their real purpose was to express continuity with the legacy of 1798, when pikes had been used in battle.

This is not, of course, to suggest that what happened in Wexford was not serious. To argue thus is to make the error of thinking what is not violent is not serious. Those who rose in Wexford were serious, but theirs was a seriousness which was not influenced either by the Satanism described by Murray or by the impulse to self sacrifice articulated by Pearse. These two little books, both written from within the Nationalist tradition, are therefore of great significance because they make clear that the Irish nationalist tradition is something far wider than either its exponents or its founders ever really appreciated. Loyalty to Ireland is a complicated thing. It may take many divergent forms that cannot easily be reconciled. Above all it does not always reflect the darker hatreds, the self-destructive impulses, and the politics of manipulation which were supreme in Dublin at Easter 1916.


When I blithely announced that I was going to add this section later I didn’t realise that it was going to make the site curiously incomplete as I made the additions. So this will be as brief as possible, partly so that I can move on to other things. heart of darknessThe point about “The Heart of Darkness” and “The interpretation of Dreams” being published in the same year ( 1899 ) is a steal from my old Prof Harold T. Parker, who emphasised that in Europe at least there were indications of the changes to come before the end of the nineteenth century. I am going to put the exact references to Ekstein’s book in the caption to the illustration. The description of the fighting on the Somme- a little later than the Rising it is true come from Winston Churchill’s “World Crisis 1911- 1918 ” ( London, abridged edition, 1960 ) p. 740- incidentally a book praised by Herman Kahn. Gilbert Murray’s lecture can be found in his “Essays and Addresses” ( London, 1921,)  p 202 ff. The material from Pearse comes from the “Collected Works of Padraic H. Pearse, Politcal Writings and Speeches” ( Dublin, Cork, and Belfast, 1924 ). The long citation comes from p.216, however the last sentence I have quoted comes from p 218.

Interesting in this connection is John Garth,  “Tolkien and the Great War The Threshold of Middle Earth” ( London, 2003 ) Pearse was not alone in finding heroism in the Great War. But what was remarkable about his reaction was its lack of ETHICAL reflection, and doubt. He would never have understood Nurse Edith Cavell’s remark about Patriotism not being enough. For Pearce the only value, and indeed the only source of values was the nation. Plainly though he was not the only one to talk about the value of self sacrifice. Pearse saw the war solely as a political opportunity.

Those interested in exploring how and how not to organise a coup should look at Edward Luttwak,”Coup D’etat, a Practical Handbook,” ( London, 1968 ). For those who want to look at the pre-history of the events in Enniscorthy and Ferns, there can be nothing better that Daniel Gahan “The People’s Rising, Wexford, 1798”  ( Dublin, 1995 ), a great book, made even better by excellent maps! Curiously in 1798 Ferns was largely inhabited by loyalists, see p. 45.Loyal-Dublin-Volunteers-Badge-Small

Realism and its relevance

Richard Miller

At about this time of year there died in the year 1274 one of the greatest thinkers that our western culture has ever produced. His name was Thomas and he was born near a village in the South of Italy called Aquino



where his father was the local squire. His achievements were multiple, and made all the more astonishing as he was less than fifty when he died. He is probably best known for working out what have become known as “the five ways” or arguments for God’s existence. He is also important because of the manner in which he integrated the then newly rediscovered thought of Aristotle into the Christian view of the world he had inherited. He is commonly called Thomas Aquinas and the philosophy he developed is called Thomism.

His integration of Greek and Christian ideas means that his work was in fact one of the most crucial pathways through which the achievements of the ancient world became part of our culture. It is thanks to Thomas that Christians have been able and willing to account for their faith in front of the sometimes harsh tribunal of reason. Perhaps most crucially Thomas was an ardent defender of the view that human beings could get a direct knowledge of the stuff around them.

The answer to the questions of how and to what extent we can understand reality, is of great importance, as if we cannot get such a grip then the range of what we can attempt to do as human beings is greatly limited. If we cannot know reality, we are left only with the ideas that we have about reality. And some philosophers have relished this conclusion. For example John Locke, believed, or said that he believed, that what we knew were not the objects themselves, but merely images of them. The obvious difficulty with this is that it seems to multiply entities for no good reason. Moreover Locke fails to explain why if we cannot experience an object, why it is that we are able to acquire an accurate picture of an image.

In any event, Thomas was having none of it. For him the philosopher’s task was not to deny or ridicule the way in which ordinary people look at and describe the world. Rather it was to explain in more detail exactly how such knowledge was gained, and to draw out the implications of the intellectual operations involved in this acquisition.


Thomas being realistic.

For Thomas- and here I am plagiarizing  Martin Walsh’s book “A History of Philosophy”- all our experiences are experiences of something real. We express our experiences in affirmations of our experiential and conceptual knowledge of reality. Thus for example we say “this thing exists,” this thing is hard,” and so forth.

According to Thomas our knowledge of reality is neither of ideas, nor of the representation of things, but of things themselves. How can this be?  Because plainly the pictures ( the being as imaged ) that we have in our heads when we make an affirmation are not the same as the thing itself. I can have a picture of the front gate of TCD when I am in Seattle. How then does this differ from the idea of the front gate present in my mind according to the Lockean view that all I can ever have in my head are representations?

Here it gets technical. The point is not that the “phantasm” postulated by realist thinkers appears different from the “idea” of the Lockeans. For Locke the representation is all that we have to rely on. But for the realist the phantasm is the means by which we have to understand reality. For Thomas the phantasm was the bridge by which we get to know the object itself- not just a representation of it. According to Mortimer Adler writing about Aristotle, and the same is true for Thomas, “the mind is the place where the forms that are in things become our ideas of them.” But how do we get at the core of the object?  According to the neo- Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain,maritain book human beings possess what he has described as a kind of intellectual x- ray. This so to speak, extracts the object from the phantasm and then allows us to identify its essence.

According to Maritain there are only two ways in which the mind might be able to do this. The first would be if the objects concerned had a kind of extension that penetrated into the mind of those who know them. ( This incidentally was the explanation that I came up with as a child!) The obvious difficulty here is that we have no sense that such material extensions exist. The chair that I see does not in any material way exist within my mind. In Maritain’s analysis the second way in which we might be able to know external objects would be if these objects were to be present in some other immaterial way within the human mind. And this is the view Thomas adopted.

The case is given greater precision by Edward Feser in his book about Aquinas. According to Feser, Aquinas distinguished between the passive and active intellects in man. The passive intellect is that faculty that we have which senses the existence of objects other than ourselves. The existence, though, of a chair is shown to us by the passive intellect. The existence though of chairs in general, considered as things upon which it is possible to sit, is shown to us by the active intellect. “Producing ideas,” Adler explains, “is the very opposite of producing things; we put the ideas [ of a chair for example ] that we have in our minds into [ making ] things…In producing ideas, our minds, [ by way of the active intellect ]… turn them [ i.e. the objects we observe ] into ideas whereby we understand the nature of things that have this or that form.”adler book

In other words our active intellect- Maritain’s x ray- gives us access to universals. “Universals” is the term given by realist philosophers to the characteristic that links all objects of a particular kind together. Our passive intellect sees a chair; then if we are so predisposed our active intellects, as Feser puts it “strips away all particularizing or individualizing features of a phantasm so as to produce a truly universal concept.” In other words our active intellect extracts from the phantasm of the chair which we have in our minds, the universal which links all chairs together namely the fact that they are objects on which it is possible for human beings to sit which have backs to them. This universal of the chair has no physical existence outside the multiplicity of existing chairs but is nevertheless as real as they are.

To those raised on an intellectual diet of modern scepticism and aggressively secularised science, these universals must seem very dubious propositions – perhaps no more than the product of the merest mumbo-jumbo. But are these doubts well founded? In discussing this it is as well to remember Churchill’s famous remark about democracy, namely that it was the worst form of government except for all the alternatives. There are in essence only two alternatives to the realist position. There is empiricism, and there is idealism. The empiricists, and this is, of course, to simplify horribly, believe that the only statements which count are those which can, at least in theory, be tested by some kind of scientific procedure. The difficulty here is that this proposition fails the test that it itself demands for meaningful discourse. How can the claim that only testable claims are justified itself be verified?

There are as many forms of idealism as there are idealists. But all forms of idealism lay a great stress on the role that the mind plays in structuring experience. There is obviously much truth here. There is clearly a higher degree of subjectivity about our perceptions than the scholastic realists sometimes implied. Getting at the truth can be difficult. But there is there not surely though an over subtlety in idealism too? Are we really just describing our ideas or representations in our minds when we talk about “chairs?” Or do we have access to the reality of them. Of course the idealists want to have both their representational theories and access to reality, but the very multiplicity of their proposed solutions, suggests to me that there may well something fundamentally wrong with their approach. This seems to be the implication of what the existentialists are saying with their focus on choice and authenticity rather than acquisition of any objective knowledge of reality. Despite its optimistic packaging idealism in practice leads only to angst, because a philosophy which identifies the truth not with the knower rather than the known, cannot distinguish between truth and falsehood.

For my money, Thomistic realism, or something quite like it, is the sounder view. It explains the sense that we have that we are indeed in touch with reality and not just with representations. The realist account seems to make more sense than empiricism does of our ability to get a grip on underlying realities. But I think we need to be careful here too. Getting at the truth is difficult; and we are not all equally good at it. Some cultures are better at some things, others at others. It is, though, the realist approach that is important, not so much the details of the argument.

I think we should look at realism in much the same way that we look at evolution.Wallace and Darwin Between them Wallace and Darwin revolutionised our understanding of the world. Natural selection working within vast epochs of time has obviously moulded what has gone on in our planet. No fully informed human being can now seriously approach geological and above all biological reality without taking what Darwin had to say into account . Evolution must be the background to all our enquiries in such fields. But is this to say that natural selection can explain all the changes to biological structures that they have undergone or will ever undergo? That seems to me to go beyond the evidence. Similarly I think that realism is the most productive single way of understanding the world, and it should always be in the background as we face the multitude of competing ideas about how we should live, most of them today grounded in the notion that truth is unattainable, and that in effect we should invent it for ourselves.

Philosophical realism reveals a world very different from that prevalent in our mass culture. The realist description of how we view the world implies a high but not hubristic understanding of human nature. Realism says that man can gain an understanding not simply of the objects around him but of their relationships with one another, and the underlying realities ( i.e. the universals ) that unite them. This understanding is derived from the objects themselves and not from structures within the human mind. In so far as human beings impose a truth on the world which is not be found within it they are deluded. If their actions are based on these delusions they are certain to prove harmful, and perhaps disastrous. Realism teaches further that our knowledge of the world can only be accounted for by the fact that we have capacities which point beyond the material reality, and this in turn tells us that our nature itself is not exclusively a material one. A realist account of our knowledge is then consistent with the immortality of man, and all the implications that this has about how we should live.

All this has social and political importance.  We must ever be mindful of the fact that while the immateriality inherent in our understanding provides powerful confirmation that we are free, this same immateriality allows us to make real ethical discoveries which are not just personal choices. Consequently our politics need to reflect both these insights. The freedom to explore and to make mistakes is important. There can be no virtue without freedom. But if we can understand the essence of things there are inescapable implications, implications that, for example, must be deeply significant for the debate about the right to life. The art of politics is the art of navigating between the value of freedom, and the danger of relativism.

Realism also has important things to say about the role of religion in society. Realism raises what for some will be uncomfortable questions about the idea that religion should be regarded as being a purely private matter outside the purview of the state. If indeed we can gain access to the truth by philosophical reflection, then there is at least possibility, however unwelcome it may be to contemplate, that a religion could spread doctrines that are so false and hence so damaging to society as a whole that a sect which espoused them might have to be officially discouraged. On the other hand ( and more positively )  philosophical realism raises at least the possibility that religious belief could be a window into the truth and hence be of real value to the ordering of society. Consequently our management of these issues  should then be grounded not in dogmatic assertions about religious freedom, or about the supposed need for the separation between church and state, but on a critical engagement between the secular and the sacred to see what each can learn from the other.

In such intensely political and contentious discussions there often seems to be a contradiction between the way in which conservatives talk about their love of tradition and of the particular, and their equally heartfelt support for eternal verities. Here again realism offers a resolution to this apparent paradox. Should we not perhaps see traditional views and practices not as relics from a barbarous past- although, of course, they may sometimes be this-  but rather ( snitching a word from Marx in a different context )  the “congealed” understanding of past generations? Before we reject a tradition, we need to explore the context in which it grew up, to see what insights it is expressing.

Sometimes, certainly, we will discover a mistake, in which case we are better off without the tradition ( serfdom and slavery for example ), sometimes we will realise that we now have a clearer understanding than those that came before us ( the death penalty?) But more often we will find that the practices of the past are grounded not in prejudice, but in the insights of wise men. If Thomas Aquinas has done no more than to give us the confidence to rediscover this, then he has well earned our gratitude for steering us across the troubled waters of our experience towards the truth about the world in which we live, because, as Thomas put it, the “highest felicity of man consists in the speculation through which he is seeking the knowledge of truth.”


The usual caveat about how my pieces here are not academic applies in an accentuated from in this instance. Usually I try at least to read the original sources, but here I have quite shamelessly relied on what others have written. I have made no study Aquinas’ own writings. There is a massive discussion of the epistemological matters I mention here in Etienne Gilson’s “The Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas” ( New York, No date, but originally 1929 ) p 233- 276. Gilson focuses on the “species” of the various objects which are the subject of perception, rather than on any sense or X- ray as in Maritain’s description ( see below ) of the process. There may be no way of reconciling these two views of what Thomas was saying.

Of the books I have used, first place must go to Edward Feser’s ( b. 1968 ) “ “Aquinas, a beginner’s Guide” ( London, 2009 ) which contains a full bibliography or recent writing about Aquinas, and is consequently a crucial resource for anyone interested in the subject. feser There has recently been a considerable revival of interest recently in Thomistic thought among philosophers that has been missed by popular culture.

I have also made extensive use of  Jacques Maritian’s “An Introduction to Philosophy” ( London, 1979, 1930 ).  This little book was originally written as a text book for French seminarians. It is a classic of exposition. Along with Etienne Gilson, Maritian was one  of the leading Thomists in the twentieth century. Gilson’s “Thomist Realism and the Critique of Knowledge” ( 1939, English trans, San Francisco, 1983) is an interesting polemic against those Catholic thinkers who tried to combine Thomist epistemology, with elements of idealism. The English translation has a preface by Frederick ( Fritz)  Wilhelmsen ( 1923-1996 )  another twentieth century Thomist- and very fine writer- who should not be forgotten. The Thomist revival in the late nineteenth century should be much better known than it is- see De Wulf, “Scholasticism Old and New, an introduction to scholastic philosophy medieval and modern” ( London, 1907.) It is a story dominated by the figure of that very remarkable ecclesiastic Cardinal Mercier ( 1851- 1926 ) of Louvain, whose “Manual of Modern Scholastic Philosophy,” two volumes, ( London, 1923 ) are of interest, although the science that is included is, of course, hopelessly out of date. I have made use of Mercier’s treatment of epistemological questions- vol 1, p 343 ff. Some of the other older Thomists are though reluctant to address the theory of knowledge directly. They tend to follow Aristotle in placing their discussion of such matters within the context of metaphysics. Maritain refers the issue on p.119. Also of interest here is John Wild’s valuable “Introduction to Realistic Philosophy” ( Washington, D.C. 1948 ) which relegates epistemological questions to its penultimate chapter.


Mercier, a heroic figure in the Belgian resistance to German occupation in W.W.1

I have also referred to and quoted from Mortimer Adler “Aristotle for Everybody, difficult thought made Easy” ( New York, 1979 )

A general work which no one should be without is Bertrand Russell’s “History of Western Philosophy,” etc. ( London, 1946 ). Russell was a child of the enlightenment, and a master of English composition, however no one should be bewitched by the elegance of his style into accepting his conclusions. Sometimes he is frankly unfair, but he is always entertaining. More useful though for the sort of thinking discussed here is Martin Walsh’s “A History of Philosophy”   ( London, 1985 ) from which I have borrowed extensively. Walsh began his book as a kind of summary of F.C. Copleston’s well known “History of Philosophy”, but it became far more than this, and should be much known than it is.


E. L. Mascall ( 1905- 1993 )

Those interested in exploring the five ways should refer to Feser’s book, and perhaps also to E.L.Mascall’s “He who is, a study in traditional Theism” ( London, 1943, ) although the revised edition is much better.

I badly don’t want to get too far into the whole evolution mess here. There are some really terrible books on offer.  But Alan Hayward’s book “Creation and Evolution, the facts and Fallacies” ( London, 1985) to my mind stands out in the other direction. Not everybody will agree with what the late Alan Hayward wrote. I certainly don’t. But anyone who opens his book will see that he thought deeply, hard, and absolutely fairly about the issues involved, and can therefore hardly avoid having their own thoughts on the subject clarified. Hayward’s book has the additional advantage of being to some extent a bibliography of what is now the older literature on this vexed question.


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The perils of coalition.

First an update for our foreign visitors.

We have just had a general election in Ireland. The previous government dominated by the Fine Gael party supported in coalition by the Labour  Party was defeated. But no single party has won enough seats in our parliament to form a new government. The negotiations to form a such government are likely to be prolonged, as there are good many groups and numerous independents involved. Consequently new elections are by no means impossible. For more details please check the RTE web site.


Joan Burton, leader of the Labour Party.

The most salient feature of the recent election
was the collapse of the Labour Party. This was certainly not because the electorate had moved to the right- far from it. The Renua Party- a new centre right grouping did very badly. Sinn Fein and other left groups did well. Why then was Labour punished?

Labour’s failure seems to be part of a recent pattern of junior partners in coalitions being decimated at the polls. In 2007 the Progresive Demomocrts who had been in coalition with Fianna Fail lost six of their eight seats in Dail Eareann were subsequently disbanded in 2008. In 2011 the Greens who similarly had propped up another Fianna Fail government lost all their six seats- although have subsequently returned to the fray. And last week it the Labour party’s turn. In Britain, of course, the same thing happened to the Liberal Democrats last year- who tempted into government by Mr. Cameron- were then rejected by the electorate- partly because, as the price of enjoying the fruits and influence of office, they reneged on their promise to do away with university fees, enraging their younger and more idealistic supporters. Those then in smaller parties who enter government evidently do so very much at their own risk.

Rab Butler

R. A. Butler (1902-1982 ) whose autobiography “The Art of the Possible” ( 1971) is a Tory classic.

Why should this be so? It seems to be because people who vote for small parties do so for reasons which are rather different from those who vote for larger groupings. A Tory wants a Tory government. A Fianna Failer feels more comfortable with his guys in Merrion Street. But what does a Lib Dem voter really want? What does someone who votes, or who voted, for the Irish Labour Party really want?  A vote for a smaller party is an act of hope. But as R. A. B. Butler pointed out in the title of his autobiography politics is the “art of the possible.” Progress is possible, but it is slow, and hard won. Hope is more often deferred than realised.

Those who promise their supporters that THEY can make THE difference, but who turn out to be more or less the same as those with whom they are only in coalition with, should not be surprised when their supporters either give up, or desert them for even more radical alternatives, as seems to have happened to Labour last week.