Reportage : Francis Hutcheson talk by Dr James Dingley


Dr James Dingley presenting his talk on Francis Hutcheson at the Dark Horse

Cercle member Eileen Griffiths reports on our last talk given by Dr James Dingley entitled Francis Hutcheson and the foundation of Modern France.

At the Dark Horse on Wednesday 23 October, Dr James Dingley gave a very comprehensive and illuminating talk on the moral philosopher Francis Hutcheson, who was born in Saintfield in 1694 and whose work influenced social and political thinking in Great Britain and Ireland from the 18th century onwards.  He was hailed as the ‘Father of the Scottish Enlightenment’ and his philosophy informed the United Irishmen movement. His influence spread further afield and his ideas of no state religion, with a stress on individual civil and religious liberty and equality, also contributed to the French and American revolutions.

Hutcheson was a Presbyterian minister of the New Light movement, which embraced all ideas of enlightenment and science, believing that studying and obeying the laws of nature brought one closer to God. They also thought that religion should be a private matter, and that better results were obtained when there weren’t the constraints imposed by the hierarchies of an established church. Dr. Dingley explained that this partly accounts for the Presbyterian church being such a rich ground for radical philosophies at that time,  though their position also played a part in that they were excluded from the body politic until the end of the century and were unable to attend the main universities. In fact, Hutcheson did his best work in his ten years at a Dissenting academy in Dublin. These academies taught new sciences and business and were intellectual hothouses, being influenced by the ideas of the English and Continental Enlightenment. All the European thinkers read each other and in Ulster, the more practical philosophy of the English met the more abstract philosophy of the Europeans. Hutcheson was able to benefit from this and to carry the ideas forward to Glasgow university where he taught for the last sixteen years of his life.

After 200 years of religious wars Hutcheson and his peers believed in freeing the individual from constraints and oppression, in taking religion out of the public sphere so that everyone had equal opportunities. They adhered to the view that man is not innately sinful, and that order and harmony would come via inner discipline and through mutual inter-dependence, not from aristocratic or clerical control.  Hutcheson believed in the greatest happiness for the greatest number and that virtue and good behaviour, not greed, self-interest or rights, would yield the greatest happiness. The industrious individual was the model of virtue, order and conduct.

In terms of a French connection, pamphlets of the French revolution reflected Ulster Presbyterian ideals. Hutcheson was a major influence on Voltaire and Rousseau and through them made a large contribution to the French revolution, to the ideas of the separation of law and state and to the no teaching of religion in schools. The French Enlightenment was very pro-Plantation, attracted to the concept of civility and progress. The belief was that trade encouraged civility because people had to learn to liaise and cooperate and create an open space for everyone.  The French language was commonly used for trade in Europe at that time and James pointed out that our local Newsletter carried adverts for French dancing etc.

Hutcheson died in 1746 and James expressed surprise that a man of Hutcheson’s stature, a mentor to such notable figures as Adam Smith and David Hume and a major influencer in Europe and America, should be largely unknown in his homeland, with no statue, only a plaque to celebrate and immortalize his life.  Dr. Dingley said that on his travels abroad he often met people who were much more aware of Hutcheson’s significance, than here at home.  Certainly it seems as though a man of his ilk could be useful in our current crises!

Eileen Griffiths

Eileen's collection of vignettes, Older not Wiser, was published earlier this year by Lupus Books, ISBN 978-1-916031-80-7.  We are grateful to her for writing this piece for our blog and take this opportunity to extend special thanks to James for a "very comprehensive and illuminating talk".
Un très grand merci !