Oct 11 2017

The Life of Books in 18th Century Autobiography

porticos in Bologna, Italia

The Life of Books in 18th Century Autobiography

From the Autobiography (1795) of Edward Gibbon (1737-1794):

It is whimsical enough, that as soon as I left Magdalen College my taste for books began to revive; but it was the same blind and boyish taste for the pursuit of exotic history. Unprovided with original learning, unformed in the habits of thinking, unskilled in the arts of composition, I resolved—to write a book.

From the Autobiography (1731?) of Giambattista Vico (1668-1744):

In a conversation which he had with Vico in a bookstore on the history of collections of canons, he asked him if he were married. And when Vico answered that he was not, he inquired if he wanted to become a Theatine. On Vico’s replying that he was not of noble birth, the father answered that that need be no obstacle, for he would obtain a dispensation from Rome. Then Vico, seeing himself obliged by the great honor the father paid him, came out with it that his parents were old and poor and he was their only hope. When the father pointed out that men of letters were rather a burden than a help to their families, Vico replied that perhaps it would not be so in his case. Then the father closed the conversation by saying: “That is not your vocation.”

The Autobiography of Giambattista Vico, translated by Max Harold Fisch & Thomas Goddard Bergin, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1944) 134-35.

Apr 28 2017

Touring Ireland in the 1720s and 1860s

Touring Ireland in the 1720s and 1860s

First from Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) writing in the 1720s:

Nothing hath humbled me so much or shown a greater disposition to a contemptuous treatment of Ireland in some Ministers, than that high style of several speeches from the throne, delivered, as usual, after the royal assent, in some periods of the two last reigns. Such high exaggerations of the prodigious condescensions in the prince, to pass those good laws, would have but an odd sound at Westminster….

From whence it is clear, that some ministries in those times were apt, from their high elevation, to look down upon this kingdom as if it had been one of their colonies of outcasts in America….

Whoever travels in this country, and observes the face of nature or the faces, and habits, and dwellings of the natives, will  hardly think himself in a land where either law, religion, or common humanity is professed….[1]

For suppose you go to an ALEHOUSE with that base money, and the landlord gives you a quart for four of these HALFPENCE, what must the victualler do? His BREWER will not be paid in that coin, or if the BREWER should be such a fool, the farmers will not take it from them for their bere, because they are bound by their leases to pay their rents in good and lawful money of England, which this is not, nor of Ireland neither, and the ’squire their landlord will never be so bewitched to take such trash for his land; so that it must certainly stop somewhere or other, and wherever it stops it is the same thing, and we are all undone.[2]

To me, the Esau reference below makes no sense unless Swift is being hyper-ironic:

A people long used to hardships lose by degrees the very notions of liberty; they look upon themselves as creatures at mercy, and that all impositions laid on them by a stronger hand, are, in the phrase of the Report, legal and obligatory. Hence proceeds that poverty and lowness of spirit, to which a kingdom may be subject as well as a particular person. And when Esau came fainting from the field at the point to die, it is no wonder that he sold his birthright for a mess of pottage….

I entreat you, my dear countrymen, not to be under the least concern upon these and like rumours, which are no more than the last howls of a dog dissected alive, as I hope he hath sufficiently been….[3]

The gentleman they have lately made primate would never quit his seat in an English House of Lords, and his preferments at Oxford and Bristol, worth twelves hundred pounds a year, for four times the denomination here, but not half the value; therefore I expect to hear he will be as good an Irishman, upon this article, as any of his brethren, or even of us who have had the misfortune to be born in this island….[4]

This is an Irish Holyday when our Scoundrels will not work, else perhaps my Letter would have been shorter. [5]

As when some writer in a public cause
His pen, to save a sinking nation, draws,
While all is calm, his arguments prevail;
The people’s voice expand his paper sail:
Till pow’r, discharging all her stormy bags,
Flutters the feeble pamphlet into rags.
The nation scared, the author doom’d to death,
Who fondly put his trust in pop’lar breath….

Beware, and when you hear the surges roar,
Avoid the rocks on Britain’s angry shore.
They lie, alas, too easy to be found;
For thee alone they lie the island round.[6]

A generation after the 1720s on finds remarks on traveling in Ireland from Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) in James Boswell’s (1740-1795) Life of Johnson (1791):

Boswell. “Pray, Mr. Dilly, how does Dr. Leland’s History of Ireland sell?” Johnson (bursting forth with a generous indignation). “The Irish are in a most unnatural state; for we see there the minority prevailing over the majority. There is no instance, even in the ten persecutions, of such severity as that which the protestants of Ireland have exercised against the Catholicks. Did we tell them we have conquered them, it would be above board: to punish them by confiscation and other penalties, as rebels, was monstrous injustice. King William was not their lawful sovereign: he had not been acknowledged by the parliament of Ireland when they appeared in arms against him….”[7]

He [Johnson], I know not why, shewed upon all occasions an aversion to go to Ireland, where I proposed to him that we should make a tour. JOHNSON. ‘It is the last place where I should wish to travel.’ BOSWELL. ‘Should you not like to see Dublin, Sir?’ JOHNSON. ‘No, Sir. Dublin is only a worse capital.’ Boswell. ‘Is not the Giant’s-Causeway worth seeing?’ JOHNSON. ‘Worth seeing? yes; but not worth going to see.’

Yet he had a kindness for the Irish nation, and thus generously expressed himself to a gentleman from that country, on the subject of an UNION which artful Politicians have often had in view—‘Do not make an union with us, Sir. We should unite with you, only to rob you. We should have robbed the Scotch, if they had had any thing of which we could have robbed them….’[8]

[Johnson said] ‘Hospitality to strangers and foreigners in our country is now almost at an end, since, from the increase of them that come to us, there have been a sufficient number of people that have found an interest in providing inns and proper accommodations, which is in general a more expedient method for the entertainment of travellers. Where the travellers and strangers are few, more of that hospitality subsists, as it has not been worth while to provide places of accommodation. In Ireland there is still hospitality to strangers, in some degree; in Hungary and Poland probably more.’[9]

And from Joseph Le Fanu (1814-1873) on traveling in Ireland in the 1860s:

I don’t apologise to my readers, English-born and bred, for assuming them to be acquainted with the chief features of the ‘Phœnix Park, near Dublin. Irish scenery is now as accessible as Welsh. Let them study the old problem, not in blue books, but in the green and brown ones of our fields and heaths, and mountains. If Ireland be no more than a great capability and a beautiful landscape, faintly visible in the blue haze, even from your own headlands, and separated by hardly four hours of water, and a ten-shilling fare, from your jetties, it is your own shame, not ours, if a nation of bold speculators and indefatigable tourists leave it unexplored. [10]


[1] Swift, Jonathan. “A Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture, in Clothes and Furniture of Houses, &c.” 1720? Edited with an introduction and notes by Angus Ross and David Woolley. Oxford World Classics.1984. Revised 2003. pp. 404–05.

bere: (OE or ME) clamour, outcry, shouting, roaring; the noise of voices of men or animals.

victualler: a purveyor of victuals or provisions; spec. one who makes a business of providing food and drink for payment; a keeper of an eating-house, inn, or tavern; a licensed victualler.

[2] Swift, “[Drapier’s Letters I] A Letter to the Shop-Keepers, Tradesmen, Farmers, and Common-People in General, of the Kingdom of Ireland.” 1724. Jonathan Swift – Major Works. 424–25.

[3] Swift, “[Drapier’s Letters IV] A Letter to the Whole People of Ireland.” 1724. Jonathan Swift – Major Works. 434–35.

[4] Swift, “[Drapier’s Letters IV] A Letter to the Whole People of Ireland.” 1724. Jonathan Swift – Major Works. 434–35.

[5] Swift, “Swift to Charles Ford, August 16, 1725.” Jonathan Swift – Major Works. 467.

[6] Swift, “Horace, Book I, Ode xvi, Paraphrased and Inscribed to Ireland.” 1724. Jonathan Swift – Major Works. 461, 462.

[7] Boswell, Life of Johnson, ÆTAT 64, May 1773, p. 397.

[8] Boswell, Life of Johnson, ÆTAT 70, October 1779, p. 744.

[9] Boswell, Life of Johnson, ÆTAT 71, 1780, p. 772.

[10] Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan. The House by the Churchyard. London: Tinsley, Brothers. 1863. Reprint. Dublin: James Duffey. 1904. “Chapter XVI – The Ordeal by Battle,” 74.

Apr 27 2017

Jonathan Swift and the Benedict Option

Jonathan Swift and the Benedict Option

Some scattered thoughts:

I don’t know whether Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) would’ve endorsed Rod Dreher’s proposals (which I have yet to read in book form), but one of Swift’s quips seems relevant:

Lastly, ’tis proposed as a singular advantage that the abolishing of Christianity will very much contribute to the uniting of Protestants. [1]

It’s a kind of backhanded, reverse-psychology, move–Swift seems to say the best way to build disciples is to discipline them.  For as Swift observes:

There is one darling inclination of mankind which usually affects to be a retainer to religion, though she be neither its parent, its godmother, nor its friend. I mean the spirit of opposition, that lived long before Christianity, and can easily subsist without it. [2]

Swift might’ve agreed with Dreher that Moral Therapeutic Deism is milquetoast Christianity:

The two principal qualifications  of a fanatic preacher are his inward light, and his head full of maggots; and the two different fates of his writings are to be burnt, or worm-eaten.[3]


Why should any clergyman of our church be angry to see the follies of fanaticism and superstition exposed, through in the most ridiculous manner; since that is perhaps the most probable way to cure them, or at least to hinder them from farther spreading? [4]

Dreher’s diagnosis on his blog (and most likely in his latest book) seems to agree with Swift’s character of Gulliver who confesses to readers amid his travels that: “I was chiefly disgusted with modern History.” [5]

I too am disgusted with modern History when I see things like this on my morning commute:


Death of art = life of Vandals #streetart #grafitti #ATX #UT

A post shared by Christopher Landrum (@bookbread2) on

Dreher’s book The Benedict Option is a remedy for this diagnosis of disgust; it seeks, to harmonize the community, something (I think) Swift yearned for:

And I think the reason is easy to be assigned, for there is a peculiar string in the harmony of human understanding, which in several individuals is exactly of the same tuning.  This, if you can dexterously screw up to its right key, and then strike gently upon it whenever you have the good fortune to light among those of the same pitch, they will by a secret necessary sympathy strike exactly at the same time. [6]

Recall that Nietzsche’s hammer was but a tuning fork.[7]


[1] Swift, “An Argument to Prove that the Abolishing of Christianity in England May, as Things Now Stand, be Attended with some Inconveniences, and Perhaps Not Produce those Many Good Effects Proposed Thereby.” 1708.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Swift, A Tale of a Tub. 1704. Sect. I.

[4] Swift, A Tale of a Tub. 1704. “An Apology For the Book.”

[5] Swift, Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World by Lemuel Gulliver. 1726. III, viii.

[6] Swift, A Tale of a Tub. 1704. Sect. IX.

[7] Kaufmann, Walter. Discovering the Mind Vol. IINietzsche, Heidegger, Buber. NY: McGraw Hill. 1981.  153–54.

Apr 14 2017

Writing Advice from the Anglo-Irish of the 18th Century

Writing Advice from the Anglo-Irish of the 18th Century

Like Swift does, I need to get outside my own point-of-view (and socioeconomic context) and ridicule it with a fictional character. To use writers whom I detest, and use them in a favorable light to make whatever-it-is point I’m making—that is what Walter Kaufmann does!

“It grieved me to the heart when I saw my labours, which had cost me so much thought and watching, bawled about by the common hawkers of Grub Street, which I only intended for the weighty consideration of the gravest persons. This prejudiced the world so much at first, that several of my friends had the assurance to ask me whether I were in jest; to which I only answered coldly, ‘that the event would show’. But it is the talent of our age and nation to turn things of the greatest importance into ridicule.”[1]

“‘Now, therefore, I began to associate with none but disappointed authors, like myself, who praised, deplored, and despised each other. The satisfaction we found in every celebrated writer’s attempts, was inversely as their merits. I found that no genius in another could please me. My unfortunate paradoxes had entirely dried up that source of comfort. I could neither read nor write with satisfaction; for excellence in another was my aversion, and writing was my trade.”[2]

“We have just religion enough to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.”[3]

Don’t go beyond your doorway, your threshold:

“Every man, as a member of the commonwealth, ought to be content with the possession of his own opinion in private, without perplexing his neighbour or disturbing the public.” [R6] [4]

But if you must go beyond your doorway:

“There are but three ways for a man to revenge himself of a censorious world. To despise it; to return the like; or to endeavour to live so as to avoid it. The first of these is usually pretended; the last is almost impossible; the universal practice is the second.”[29] [5]

A little superstition goes a long way:

“There is a portion of enthusiasm assigned to every nation, which, if it hath not proper objects to work on, will burst out and set all into a flame. If the quiet of a state can be bought by only flinging men a few ceremonies to devour, it is a purchase no wise man would refuse. Let the mastiffs amuse themselves about a sheepskin stuffed with hay, provided it will keep them from worrying the flock.”[6]

A little superstition quells the motives:

“fear and hope are the two greatest natural motives of all men’s actions.”[7]


[1] Swift, “Vindication of Isaac Bickerstaff” 1709. Jonathan Swift – Major Works. 216.

[2] Goldsmith, The Vicar of Wakefield, “20. The history of a philosophic vagabond, pursuing novelty, but losing context.”

[3] Swift, Apothegms and Maxims [from Journal to Stella] Jonathan Swift – Major Works. [‘Various Thoughts Moral and Diverting’, in Miscellanies in Prose and Verse, 1711] [1] 181.

[4] Swift, Apothegms and Maxims [from Journal to Stella] Jonathan Swift – Major Works. 185.

[5] Swift, Apothegms and Maxims [from Journal to Stella] Jonathan Swift – Major Works. 181.

[6] Swift, “An Argument to Prove that the Abolishing of Christianity in England May, as Things Now Stand, be Attended with some Inconveniences, and Perhaps Not Produce those Many Good Effects Proposed Thereby.” 1708. Jonathan Swift – Major Works. 224.

[7] Swift, “The Testimony of Conscience [a Sermon].” 1714. Jonathan Swift – Major Works. 383.

Mar 31 2017

Oliver Goldsmith 251 Years Later: Nothing has Changed

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Oliver Goldsmith 251 Years Later: Nothing has Changed

The nineteenth chapter of Oliver Goldsmith’s (1728-1774) sentimental novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) is entitled:

“The description of a person discontented with the present government, and apprehensive of the loss of liberties.”

How ’bout them apples?

Mar 15 2017

7 Days Till St. Patrick’s Day – Part 6 of 7

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna

7 Days Till St. Patrick’s Day – Part 6 of 7

From Edmund Burke (1729-1797):

The worst of these politics of revolution is this: they temper and harden the breast, in order to prepare it for the desperate strokes which are sometimes used in extreme occasions. But as these occasions may never arrive, the mind receives a gratuitous taint; and the moral sentiments suffer not a little, when no political purpose is served by the depravation. This sort of people are so taken up with their theories about the rights of man, that they have totally forgot his nature.

Reflections on the Revolution in France (1791)

And since ’tis the Ides of March, let us render under Caesar (100BC-44BC):

Men are generally ready to believe what they want to believe.

Commentarii de Bello Gallico (Gallic Wars) III, xviii

See also “Seven Days Till St. Patrick’s Day – Part 5 of 7” and

Seven Days Till St. Patrick’s Day – Part 7 of 7.”

Mar 13 2017

Seven Days Till St. Patrick’s – Part 3 of 7


Seven Days Till St. Patrick’s – Part 3 of 7

Today we have the Anglo-Irishman Jonathan Swift (1667-1745):

Books, like men their authors, have no more than one way of coming into the world, but there are then thousand to go out of it and return no more.

A Tale of a Tub (1704)

 See also “Seven Days Till St. Patrick’s – Part 2 of 7” and

Seven Days Till St. Patrick’s – Part 4 of 7.”