Fergus O’Ferrall Transcript

Opening Address by Dr.Fergus O’Ferrall at the 34th Goldsmith International Literary Festival, 1st June, 2018 in The Rustic Inn, Abbeyshrule, Co.Longford.

Theme: “Where wealth and freedom reign contentment fails,

                                                    And honour sinks where commerce long prevails.”

Oliver Goldsmith, The Traveller, lines 91-2.





The full title of Oliver Goldsmith’s famous poem, The Traveller, published in 1764, is ‘The Traveller, or A Prospect of Society’.  I think the subtitle ‘A Prospect of Society’ is very significant in respect of our exploration of why this poem remains so pertinent to our contemporary affairs – indeed it was Oliver Goldsmith’s working title over the very long composition of the poem. It is well known that Oliver Goldsmith worked on this poem from the summer of 1755 to December 1764 when it was published. Indeed in 1902 an early printed version of the poem was discovered with the title A Prospect of Society.[i]  Goldsmith travelled on the Continent between February 1755 and February 1756 and probably sent his brother, Henry, early drafts of the descriptive aspects of the poem: he, of course dedicated the poem in 1764 to the Rev. Henry Goldsmith noting that parts of the poem “was formerly written to you from Switzerland”.

The sentiments Goldsmith expresses in his Dedication are important in respect of the theme of this Goldsmith International Literary Festival: exploring the relationships between wealth, freedom and contentment and those between honour and commerce.

Goldsmith in his Dedication refers to the ‘powerful’ and what he calls ‘party’ as ‘enemies’ of appropriate human ‘ambition’ and art; he writes:

“My aims are right. Without espousing the cause of any party, I have attempted to moderate the rage of all. I have endeavoured to shew, that there may be equal happiness in states, that are differently governed from our own; that every state has a particular principle of happiness, and that this principle in each may be carried to a mischievous excess.”

The long years of composition behind the published poem facilitated Goldsmith’s political thinking to evolve. The Traveller is a ‘prospect poem’ offering views of society. The essential question Goldsmith is asking as he surveys countries and the effects of politics, climate, economics and culture on their societies is: which people are the happiest?  As is often noted Ireland is not amongst the countries he surveys in the poem but Ireland is there in the Dedication and as he, early in the poem nostalgically locates the contentment of home in his memory of Henry’s house on an ordinary evening:

“Blest be that spot, where cheerful guests retire

To pause from toil, and trim the evening fire;

Blest that abode, where want and pain repair,

And every stranger finds a ready chair;

Blest be those feasts with simple plenty crown’d,

Where all the ruddy family around

Laugh at the jests or pranks that never fail,

Or sigh with pity at some mournful tale,

Or press the bashful stranger to his food,

And learn the luxury of doing good.”  (lines 15-23).

This vision of ‘home’ may be seen also in Goldsmith’s witty description of the Primrose family in chapter 1 of The Vicar of Wakefield.  He observes in the poem – a patriot’s “first, best country ever is at home” (line 74). The happiness and contentment of ‘home’ is Goldsmith’s touchstone for his politics of sociability, solidarity, conviviality, hospitality, and for ‘learning the luxury of doing good’. [ii]

Happiness is a today key area of research. The United Nations issued in March 2018 the annual World Happiness Report. The Nordic countries are the happiest nations taking the top four places. Ireland ranks 14th in the list. It is interesting to note that the overall happiness of a country is almost identical to the happiness of its immigrants. The USA and UK rank 18th and 19th respectively. The USA, once the top of the league, has slipped down because subjective well-being is being systematically undermined by three interrelated epidemic diseases, notably obesity, substance abuse and depression.[iii]

I had the privilege of addressing the First Goldsmith Summer School in June 1985 and I chose then to speak about Goldsmith’s politics because it seems to me that we may learn a great deal from Oliver Goldsmith about the intangible but vital elements that make for human happiness and for flourishing societies. Since then I am even more convinced with the support of more recent scholarship that this is the case. I believe that Goldsmith was indeed “actuated by different principles from the rest of mankind” to use his own summation of his outlook in a letter he wrote to Mrs. Jane Lawder on 15 August 1758. (quoted in The Collected Letters of Oliver Goldsmith, ed. K.C. Balderston, (Cambridge, 1928), p.43). In 2009 and 2014 at the Goldsmith International Literary Festivals I have drawn upon Goldsmith as well as other writers and poets to reconsider what we think about ‘home’ in our very changed circumstances. The current relevance of Goldsmith political and social ideas have become even more apparent since the Great Recession of 2008. (see my ‘Reflections on Oliver Goldsmith and Politics – Then and Now’, Teathbha Journal of the Longford Historical Society, Vol.111, No.4, 2011, pp.30-34 and “ ‘Rethinking Home’: the search for a new vision for rural Ireland”, Studies An Irish Quarterly, Vol.105 No.420, Winter 2016/2017, pp.469-488.)

Goldsmith’s social and political thought has much to teach us concerning the theme of public happiness in societies. More obviously we need to pay attention to key aspects of social equality and of political culture but less obviously Goldsmith draws our attention to the intangible human needs which need to be met so that we might flourish and enjoy both public and private happiness. Goldsmith continues to deserve close attention in our fractured and unequal world of the twenty-first century.

A Prospect of Society: Public Happiness or Private Avarice?

The theme of this Goldsmith International Literary Festival drawn from The Traveller is very pertinent in Ireland which suffered greatly from the damage caused by private avarice during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ boom and subsequent bust which destroyed the public and private happiness of so many Irish people.   The relevance of Goldsmith’s alertness to the issues of public happiness and how such happiness may be much diminished or even destroyed by private greed is also evident in the age of Trump and Brexit.  Both phenomena have arisen because of extreme inequalities and excessive private greed. We will do well to turn to Goldsmith to reflect on what makes for or diminishes human flourishing.

After briefly setting the context and content of The Traveller I wish to suggest how in our own crisis-laden world  the light cast by Goldsmith is most valuable: he directs us to reflect upon public happiness not only in this classic poem, which is our key focus, but also in his essays and other works.  Goldsmith’s essays, such as ‘The Revolution in Low Life’ (Lloyd’s Evening Post, 14-16 June 1762), and the Citizen of the World, and A History of England in a Series of Letters, (1764) often centred on the political ideas which appear in The Traveller as well.  Goldsmith, however, bestowed, as Percy states, ‘his choicest hours’ on this poem.  Indeed Francis Newberry, the son of Goldsmith’s publisher, remembered Goldsmith reading him ‘favourite portions’ of The Traveller and that ‘nothing could exceed the patient and incessant revisal’ which Goldsmith bestowed on this as on The Deserted Village.[iv]  This should remind us that Goldsmith, at this stage a young man in his early thirties, was a serious artist who has  important political ideas to convey. Back in 1967 Ricardo Quintana quite rightly observed that it was “time that we concerned ourselves less with his ugly face, his awkward social presence, and more with the actual nature of his achievement as a writer.”[v]

We are now much better placed to appreciate Goldsmith the writer thanks to the outstanding work of a number of Goldsmith scholars such as Megan Kitching, in her thesis ‘The Philosophical Traveller as Social Critic in Oliver Goldsmith’s The Traveller, The Deserted Village and The Citizen of the World’  (MA Thesis, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand, 2011), Norma Clarke and  Michael Griffin in their latest works such as  Brothers of the Quill Oliver Goldsmith in Grub Street (Harvard University Press, London, 2016) and Enlightenment in Ruins The Geographies of Oliver Goldsmith (Brucknell University Press, Lewisberg, 2013). Michael Griffin is indeed the foremost Goldsmith scholar of our time. In particular, the formative effect of the Irish context on Goldsmith’s social and political ideas is revealed by Griffin and other scholars. I endorse Michael Griffin’s observation in Enlightenment in Ruins that there is “consistent set of ideas operating in Goldsmith’s oeuvre which can be isolated and addressed as a manifestation of his Irishness.”

Donald Davie back in 1984 pointed us in the right direction in his ‘Notes on Goldsmith’s Politics’ when he states that The Traveller, or A Prospect of Society is “the most caustic indictment of the world of ‘free enterprise’, unstructured and unrestricted competiveness, the morality of the market- in ideas, in status, and in feelings, as well as commodities.”[vi] As the late John Montague  reminded us, Goldsmith in The Traveller “produced the first anti-imperialist poem in the period of England’s greatest imperial expansion.”[vii] Goldsmith’s ideas need to be taken very seriously as we ponder the crises caused by ‘free market’ ideologies and the twenty-first century version of ‘great power’ imperialism.

Ideas matter very much indeed as President Michael D. Higgins has reminded us in his outstanding speeches collected in When Ideas Matter Speeches for an Ethical Republic (Head of Zeus, London, 2017) which, I believe, deserve to be studied by every citizen of the Republic. Our President’s speeches might be seen as an extended contemporary analysis of the key human and emancipatory issues, essential to human happiness, which Goldsmith raised in the eighteenth century. President Higgins does not shirk observation of our intellectual and social crisis – neither did Goldsmith in his time neglect the consequences of unaccountable wealth and greed. Norma Clarke astutely notes that  Goldsmith was “an extremely acute observer.”[viii]

By highlighting the theme of this year’s Goldsmith’s International Literary Festival the organisers have created a valuable public space to further the development of a new discourse on the ‘prospect’ of Irish society.  We live in the aftermath of the gross failures of the discourse of neo-liberalism, which dominated western politics from the 1970s to the Great Recession from 2008, and which has brought such disaster in its wake. We have not yet managed to develop an effective consensus around a new more humane political, social and economic alternative to the spent discourse of neo-liberalism but there are very encouraging signs that a better story about what is vital for human development and human happiness is emerging: the building blocks of a new discourse that will be emancipatory for humanity are being shaped in new economic and political theory. So ideas do matter! There are alternatives to neo-liberalism.


The Traveller – and moral landscapes

The Traveller established for the first time Goldsmith as an eminent public man of letters. As Lonsdale astutely observes the poem has an appearance of a literary panoramic poem but “its survey of various nations is essentially imaginative and its true concern is with moral landscapes.”[ix] Goldsmith’s concern is for the moral virtues that are essential for public happiness. He weighs up the good and bad in each nation he reviews with a clear purpose – Thomas Babington Macaulay’s comment is apt:

“No philosophical poem, ancient or modern, has a plan so noble, and at the same time so simple.” Lonsdale writes about the purpose and plan of the poem:

“The traditional objective concerns of the poem are presented within a highly subjective framework. But the individual search for private happiness, which is the basic theme of the poem, is not made to carry the whole weight. It is allowed to merge with the more familiar search for happiness in a particular society and the discussion of human happiness in general…. the personal sense of loss and deprivation in the poem is countered by an assertion of the importance of the general happiness of mankind and of the benevolence of the Creation.”[x]

Happiness or Avarice in The Traveller

The Traveller may be divided into three parts.[xi]  Following the beginning section already quoted which sets the measure of contentment which is to be found where people are at ‘home’, the central and longest section conforms to its original title and later subtitle, A Prospect of Society where the traveller surveys different countries. Goldsmith’s vision is of a social order disrupted. Individualistic greed has divided people “till over-wrought, the general system feels/ Its motions stopped or frenzy fire the wheels.” (lines 347-8). The poem concludes with about 100 lines condemning Britain’s decline into party warfare, greed, and unbridled colonial expansion. We note the words Goldsmith uses, as he ‘tears off reserve and bares his swelling heart’, in describing Britain in contrast to the warm human social bonds of ‘home’: Britain is a place of warfare, ‘combat’, ‘factions’ ‘struggles’, ‘frenzy’, ‘ruin’, the ‘rabble’s rage’ and ‘tyrant’s angry steel’. As Goldsmith sits down for his “pensive hour” in the Alps with the map of Europe laid out beneath him he theorises about collective or public happiness:

“But let us try these truths with closer eyes,

And trace them through the prospect as it lies:

Here for a while my proper cares resigned,

Here let me sit in sorrow for mankind.”  (lines 32, 99-103)

Italy enjoys a lovely climate and is well endowed by nature but as a result its citizens have descended into “sensual bliss.” By contrast, the harsher weather and scanty resources of Switzerland has created a more self-reliant peasantry, but “if few their wants, their pleasures are but few.” In France, the idle “land of mirth and social ease” where “honour forms the social temper,” the love of praise and fashion leads to ostentatious vanity. In Holland, where hard-working citizens have won their nation from the waves, “industry begets a love of gain,” and unbridled commerce, while bringing material advantages, breeds corruption and servility. Finally, Britain with its temperate climate and party-dominated governmental system suffers from an excess of so-called “Freedom” that “keeps man from man, and breaks the social tie” (111-340).

Goldsmith’s political and social argument is rooted in the rapidly changing reality of Britain’s status as a colonial and imperial power in the first age of globalisation. At the heart of the argument is an ideological conflict between proponents of free-market capitalism and those who advocated a conservative and traditionalist outlook which sought to contain capitalism within the constraints of morality, religion, and genuine liberty for all the people. We recall this is the period that produced both of Adam Smith’s great works, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and The Wealth of Nations (1776). The ‘market fundamentalists’ who claim to admire Smith’s The Wealth of Nations  forget that Smith, the moral philosopher, identified the need to protect ‘moral sentiments’ in the rising commercial society writing that the “disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and powerful, and to despise, or at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition…is … the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.”[xii] During this period, the clash between market and moral motives appeared most striking in questions of overseas commerce that necessarily involved war for colonial territory and the shocking abuses of the slave trade. Goldsmith’s traveller sees and deplores “The wealth of climes, where savage nations roam/ pillaged from slaves to purchase slaves at home.” (l 387-88).

By 1764, when The Traveller appeared, the Treaty of Paris had just ended the Seven Years’ War. Britain emerged from it with new colonies and new markets- it was a euphoric moment when the British might see themselves, in the words of Goldsmith’s poem, as “lords of human kind.” Goldsmith ponders the detrimental effects of this transition to a world empire. We might recall that in The Citizen of the World, Goldsmith other travelling philosopher, Lien Chi Altangi, gives as his view:

“extending empire is often diminishing power, that countries are ever strongest which are internally powerful; that colonies by draining away the brave and enterprising, leave the country in the hands of the timid and the avaricious; …. that too much commerce may injure a nation as well as too little; and that there is a wide difference between a conquering and a flourishing empire.”

Goldsmith refused to participate in the general enthusiasm for commercial and imperial expansion. He highlights those who are left behind or abused because of the imperial expansion: “laws grind the poor and rich men rule the law”, where magistrates and “self-dependent lordlings” abuse power and build their rich estates by causing depopulation and forcing villagers to emigrate. “Have we not seen,” asks the traveller, “round Britain’s shore/ Her useful sons exchanged for useless ore?”  (l 397-98).

He uses Holland as a warning:

Holland may have ‘scooped out an empire’ and her wealth may have imparted “convenience, plenty, elegance and arts”. On closer inspection however, Goldsmith portrays how “craft and fraud appear/ Even liberty itself is bartered here.” In other words, through the unfettered pursuit of profits, the Dutch have sold their freedom and now exist in “dull” conformity and “servitude.” (l 290, 299-312).

Imperial and colonial expansion, with its destructive effects on people, diminished in Goldsmith’s view, the traditional role of the virtuous citizen. The Traveller directs a prophetic warning to Britain: the “time may come”, Goldsmith writes, when the England of scholars, patriots, and poets, ‘shall lie’ in “one sink of level avarice”. Later, as we know, he penned the famous lines in The Deserted Village:

    Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,

Where wealth accumulates and men decay:

Princes and lords may flourish or may fade;

A breath can make them, as a breath has made;

But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,

When once destroyed, can never be supplied.  (l 51-56).

I believe it is important to reflect here upon the Irish historical experience of the political and economic consequences of the ideology Goldsmith was attacking in its formative phase. In the nineteenth century ‘political economy’ became the sovereign public discourse and it led to widespread suffering and death in the Great Famine in Ireland. ‘Political economy’ espoused ‘free trade and free markets’ in support of British imperialism and colonialism. The ‘market’ was sacrosanct and the optimum self-regulating mechanism denying the State any interference or redistributive function of wealth or income. It morphed into a providentialism which accepted, in the words of Edmund Burke, that “the laws of commerce, which are the laws of nature, and consequently the laws of God.” To the political economist mind if the Irish did not fit in with this raw version of capitalism they were morally defective in character, indolent and lawless. One million died and one million were forced to emigrate between 1845-1850. The Irish were, as John Mitchel wrote in his History of Ireland, “a nation perishing of political economy.” Tadgh Foley aptly concludes in his Death By Discourse? Political Economy and The Great Irish Famine, (Quinnipiac University Press, Hamden CT., 2016): “A million died for freedom: the freedom of the market. But there was no such thing as a free market: someone had to pay.”

There was in the nineteenth century – indeed from Goldsmith’s era- in effect a vigorous contemporary moral critique of the ideology of ‘political economy’ and of its philosophical underpinning, utilitarianism, but sadly it failed to be effective in changing the political dominance of the ideology which suited those who benefited from colonialism and exploitation on a world-wide scale. So ideas matter and which ideas become hegemonic are vital matters for human flourishing and often for human survival.

Goldsmith in his essays, and famously in The Deserted Village, contrasts the emerging urban commercialised world with traditional rural values centred upon a fundamental political and moral theme: his attack on ‘luxury’. A profound change was occurring in Goldsmith’s lifetime around the vast accumulation of wealth derived from foreign exploitation with resultant rise in gross inequalities. Hence, ‘luxury’ in Goldsmith’s discourse refers to a subversion of the moral values and citizen virtues which since classical times had been honoured especially in the civic republican stream of political thought since Aristotle. In his Dedication to The Deserted Village Goldsmith declares that he remains “a professed ancient” in regard to “the increase of our luxuries”.  Many contemporary reviewers of Goldsmith, and indeed many later commentators, either misunderstood or have refused to recognise the more far-reaching political implications of Goldsmith’s political, economic and social arguments. As with the all-pervasive dominance of neo-liberalism up to very recent times so commercial imperialism profoundly invaded the mentalities of Goldsmith’s readers. Many who welcomed his writings on mainly sentimental grounds did not engage with his social and political ideas. It is timely indeed, given the great challenges of our time when ‘private avarice’ destroys so much ‘public happiness’, to engage with Goldsmith as “an essentially political poet.”[xiii]

Goldsmith’s political concern is that political and social freedom is prior to, and ought to limit economic freedom. This a key message for our times.

In order to confront the Whig dominance in Britain – the “petty tyrants”- Goldsmith wished to preserve the balanced Constitution of King, Lords and Commons so admired in European, ‘Tory’ and even in classical republican theory:

“Yes, brother, curse with me that baleful hour,

When first ambition struck at regal power;

And thus polluting honour in its source,

Gave wealth to sway the mind with double force.” (lines 393-5).

He believed that ‘regal power’ needed enhancement to counter the power of local privilege and greed of the newly wealthy and to defend the underprivileged – to protect rights and true freedom. Norma Clarke believes that Goldsmith’s reference is to the Whig Revolution of 1688-1689 – the so-called Glorious Revolution’ when James 11 fled and the Whig oligarchs invited William of Orange to rule so as to secure the Protestant succession.[xiv] This led to faction-driven politics in Britain and was to the great detriment of Ireland’s majority of Catholics as well as to the losers in Britain:

“When I behold a factious band agree

To call it freedom when themselves are free;

Each wanton judge new penal statutes draw,

Laws grind the poor and rich men rule the law;” (lines 383-386)

In this context James Boswell notes in his Journal a significant conversation between Edmund Burke and Goldsmith:

“Goldsmith in high spirits: spoke of equality.

Said Burke: ‘Here’s our monarch man growing Republican- Oliver Cromwell, Not Oliver Goldsmith’

Said Goldsmith: ‘I’m for monarchy to keep us equal’ [xv]

This argument appears in Goldsmith’s other writings notably in Chapter XIX of The Vicar of Wakefield. It is to be noted that Dr. Primrose when arguing the ‘Tory’ or ‘country’ case for monarchy to keep the people liberties against the predations of the new accumulators of wealth, with favourable mention of the Levellers of the seventeenth- century who sought equality, he is accused of being a Jesuit “in parson’s clothes” and seeking to ‘saddle’ the people “with wooden shoes”, that is Catholicism.

Goldsmith lamented that “contending chiefs blockade the throne, / Contracting regal power to stretch their own” (lines 381-2).

In Letter L of The Citizen of The World Goldsmith, in the guise of Lien Chi Altangi, attempts to define what is meant by English liberty. He argues that a monarchical state may give “all the advantages of democracy” and yet allow for “a relaxation of the severity of laws” unlike more republican states such as Holland, Switzerland, and Genoa. He gives examples of where activities are legally forbidden but the laws are not strictly enforced in Britain: the “constitution of England, is at present possessed of the strength of its native oak, and the flexibility of the bending tamarisk”. He writes:

“…should the people at any time with mistaken zeal pant after an imaginary freedom, and fancy that abridging monarchy was increasing their privileges, they would be very much mistaken, since every jewel plucked from the crown of majesty would only be made use of as a bribe to corruption; it might enrich the few who shared it among them, but would in fact impoverish the public.”

Goldsmith saw the dangers of the rich nabobs in the Whig plutocracy enriching and oppressing the poor and wished to have a counter-balanced to their power to protect the liberties of the people.



Towards a New Dialogue of Hope

In the paper I gave to the 25th Annual Oliver Goldsmith Summer School in 2009 I reflected briefly on ‘Oliver Goldsmith and Politics – Then and Now’.[xvi]  In 2009 the devastation of the Great Recession beginning in 2008 was only just becoming apparent. Ten years later we are more aware of the damage done and that the whole Western World is in crisis; that the European Union is in crisis and that the model on which we have relied for Ireland’s economic and social progress is severely challenged on a number of fronts. In April 2018 President Emmanuel Macron, addressing the European Parliament, deplored “a form of European civil war” in which national egoism seems more important than what unites people.

Common to the multi-faceted crises we face is the discourse that has predominated since the 1970s which is labelled ‘neo-liberalism’ – this ideology has promoted the ‘market’ as the optimum mechanism for human exchange-  has diminished and eroded the public sphere’s capacity to meet human needs, and has given rise to appalling levels of inequalities throughout the world. The facts about inequalities are stark: the wealth being generated in our world is largely going to the richest one per cent of the population with  the  one per cent taking 82 per cent of wealth created and the poorest half of humanity seeing no increase in their wealth.[xvii]  A recent Credit Suisse Bank report notes that the richest 1% own more than 50% of the world’s wealth.

Ireland’s economic inequalities have been very well documented by James Wickham and Rory Hearne in their latest study Cherishing All Equally 2017: Economic Inequality in Ireland. (www.tasc.ie).  Inequalities are a choice and there are a range of practical policies that might be adopted to reduce it and the evidence for them are clearly set out in the late Anthony B. Atkinson’s Inequality What Can Be Done? (Harvard University Press, London, 2015). We now know from the evidence gathered by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in The Spirit Level Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better ( London 2009) that Goldsmith’s contention in The Citizen of the World that “an equal diffusion of riches through any country ever constitutes its happiness”  is correct: egalitarian societies, such as the Nordic countries, perform across every important social and economic measure more successfully than those like USA, Britain and Ireland with relatively high level of inequalities. Sharing wealth is also the best antidote to right-wing populism which threatens the European Union’s foundations in Hungary, Poland, France and now in Germany.

In Ireland, for example, we face a public housing crisis because we stopped local authorities building and maintaining an adequate stock of public housing and left the ‘private market’ free to exploit this basic human need, and indeed human right, with dire consequences for so many people. The preference for private medicine in our ‘two-tier’ health system costs lives as the recent example of outsourcing of laboratory testing for cervical cancer has demonstrated because low-cost was the key criteria rather than quality of care for our citizens.

In The Guardian newspaper on 18 August 2017, Stephen Metcalf, in an article entitled, ‘Neo-liberalism: the idea that swallowed the world’ observed:

“Peer through the lens of neo-liberalism and you see more clearly how the political thinkers most admired by Thatcher and Reagan helped shape the ideal of society as a kind of universal market (and not, for example, a polis, a civil sphere or a kind of family) and of human beings as profit-and-loss calculators (and not bearers of grace, or of inalienable rights and duties). Of course the goal was to weaken the welfare state and any commitment to full employment, and –always- to cut taxes and deregulate. But “neo-liberalism” indicates something more than a standard right-wing wish list. It was a way of reordering social reality and rethinking our status as individuals.”

We do need a new critical discourse to counter this all pervasive embedded ideology and I believe Oliver Goldsmith has a significant contribution to make to such a new dialogue which has the purpose of developing a new narrative for our future well-being – a new ‘prospect of society’ one might say.

President Michael D. Higgins in an important speech at the Social Justice Ireland Annual Conference, 21 November, 2017 stated:

“The persistence of a failure to critique or challenge a political economy which maintains and even deepens existing inequalities of income, wealth, power, and opportunity within societies and between nation-states is eroding social cohesion. These inequalities in wealth accumulation are often delivered to the public as celebrations of individual genius. The absence of an inclusive discourse has in too many places led to the recrudescence of a vicious politics of the far-right- that in form, content and iconography – many of us had hoped never to see again… I sense that this issue of the missing critical discourse that we need is now coming to the fore.”

In that spirit  a small group – of which I was one- came together to explore how we might create in Ireland A New Dialogue of Hope as the book reflecting our deliberations is called with a subtitle Critical Thinking for Critical Times.[xviii]  We came together to consider how we may imagine together what we called a ‘new project of human flourishing’. Professor Michael Cronin, of Trinity College, Dublin, a member of our ‘coalition of hope’ posed the key question:

“As Ireland comes out of the most severe politico-economic crisis in its post-independence history, it is worth asking what kind of emancipation we might strive for and what role religion and critical thinking might be in a new project of human flourishing.”

The book contains what I suggest is a prophetic paper entitled, ‘The Signs of Our Times’, drafted from our deliberations by Dermot McCarthy, former Secretary General to the Government. I commend it and the essays which accompanies it to you for dialogue and as one means to create a new narrative for our Republic and towards our contribution to the wider debate about the future of Europe.

In my own essay in the book I quote Ivan Illich (1926-2002), philosopher and priest when he reminds us of the power of narrative or story in shaping the way we live:

“Neither revolution nor reformation can ultimately change a society, rather you must tell a powerful tale, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story, one so inclusive that it gathers all the bits of our past and our present into a coherent whole, one that even shines some light on the future so that we can take the next step… If you want to change a society, then you have to tell an alternative story.”

We might also quote Ben Okri, the Nigerian poet and novelist, on this key point from his A Way of Being Free, a book of essays published in 1997:

“Nations and peoples are largely the stories they feed themselves. If they tell themselves stories that are lies, they will suffer the future consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that face their own truths, they will free their histories for future flowerings.”

Now our challenge in the Republic after nearly 100 years of independence – which we will mark in 2022- is to tell a new national story for the rest of the twenty-first century – a story of human flourishing in a Civic Republic of equal citizenship – a story of how together we will confront climate change, reinvigorate our public life through active citizenship, solve our health, housing and educational problems with a focus clearly on the common good, how we will reconcile a million unionist people to new and shared governance arrangements for the island of Ireland, how we will be an exemplary democracy in shaping the European Union in the interests of European citizens, how we will involve our world-wide diaspora in a global Ireland which has embraced migration and become a refuge for those fleeing war and persecution, how we distribute our income and wealth so that no citizens are left behind where we all do better because we all do better, how we have embraced in all our public policies the clear evidence that more equal societies have much better outcomes than those with significant inequalities.

How does Goldsmith help us to develop this new story?

Oliver Goldsmith invites us to consider a moral economy based upon human values of solidarity and mutual benefit as opposed to a market free of moral and social constraints. He was writing from the perspective of the underside of history observing the effects of imperialism and colonialism upon society and the poorer classes and he brought social justice concerns to bear in his writings. The concept of moral economy is worth reactivating in reflecting on the new discourse that we need. E.P. Thompson, the great historian of the English working class, fully articulated the idea of the moral economy in his studies of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Our President in launching a new Centre for the Study of the Moral Foundations of Economy and Society in 2015- a key fruit of his President of Ireland’s Ethics Initiative, has stated:

“The moral economy approach powerfully undermines the ‘abbreviated view of man’ as mere homo economicus.  It invites us to reassess the relevance of moral sentiments such as care, trust and friendship, and to reassert the centrality of mutuality, redistribution and co-operation in our social and economic life.” (‘Recovering Possibilities’ 13 November 2015 in Ideas Matter Speeches for an Ethical Republic)

We will do well to pay close attention to Goldsmith’s politics when reading his classic poems, essays and novels as we come to appreciate the delicate tissue of social norms and reciprocities which ought to govern proper economic functions and relationships if public happiness is to be obtained in any society.

Goldsmith draws our attention to the fact that a human being is not defined – as in neo-liberalism- as homo economicus- that is, one motivated solely by self-interest. Our Judeo-Christian heritage as well as modern research in psychology, anthropology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology, points instead to human beings as fundamentally altruistic beings who flourish best in a climate of love and giving.  We human beings, homo sapiens, have access to wisdom and have an unparalleled sensitivity to the needs of others, a unique level of concern about the welfare of others and an unmatched ability to create and sustain moral norms to enforce these tendencies. Of course political and economic regimes can distort and destroy such human capacities but when there remains a human conscience to tell us that this is wrong and ought not to be our case.

The major resources we have to restore a more flourishing life are those spiritual insights embodied in our faith communities, our reason, our accumulated and growing empirical and scientific knowledge and our lived experience. We can indeed exercise human benevolence and sympathy as citizens of the world. It is very remarkable the degree to which Oliver Goldsmith, as a major writer of the Enlightenment, drew on these resources as a social critic of human exploitation in his time. A key theme of the Enlightenment was this concern for human welfare: they laid the foundation for what we now call humanism which privileges the well-being of individual men, women and children over the glory of the tribe, race, nation, or religion. Human persons are ends not means to some other end. Whether it is phrased as the greatest happiness of the greatest number or as the pursuit of happiness or as public happiness or as a categorical imperative to treat people as ends rather than means, it is this universal capacity of people to empathise and value the other that calls on Goldsmith’s and on our moral concern.

We have the capacity to answer that call. Goldsmith saw that we are endowed with the sentiments of   empathy and sympathy, which he also called benevolence and we may term altruism. He saw that the circle of sympathy expands from the family, to the nation and then to embrace all of humankind – we are impelled into a cosmopolitanism and into accepting our citizenship of the world.[xix]  Ultimately what we absorb from Goldsmith are human-centred social, political and moral sentiments that encourage us to consider how to combat ‘private avarice’ and to promote ‘public happiness’ through the civic virtues exercised in  collective action for the collective good.







[i]  See The Poems of Oliver Goldsmith, ed. Roger Lonsdale, (London, 1969), pp.622-628 for background to composition and publication of The Traveller; hereafter Lonsdale.

[ii]  I am indebted to Norma Clarke, Brothers of the Quill Oliver Goldsmith in Grub Street, (Harvard University Press, London, 2016) for key insights into how Ireland frames so much of Goldsmith’s work.

[iii]  See ‘Nordic countries the happiest in the world as Ireland ranks 14th’, The Irish Times, 16 March 2018.

[iv]  Quoted Lonsdale, p.623.

[v]  Ricardo Quintana, Oliver Goldsmith A Georgian Study, (New York, 1967), p.16.

[vi]  Donald Davie, ‘Notes on Goldsmith’s Politics’ in The Art of Oliver Goldsmith, ed. A. Swarbrick, (London, 1984).

[vii] John Montague, ‘Exile and Prophecy: A Study of Goldsmith’s Poetry’, in Goldsmith The Gentle Master, ed. Sean Lucy, (Cork University Press, Cork, 1984) p. 64.

[viii]  Clarke, op. cit. p.7.

[ix] Lonsdale, p.627.

[x] Ibid, p.628.

[xi] The following paragraphs owe a great deal to Megan Kitching, ‘The Philosophical Traveller as Social Critic in Oliver Goldsmith’s The Traveller, The Deserted Village, and The Citizen of the World’, (M.A. Thesis, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand, 2011).

[xii] Quoted by the late Tony Judt in his last public lecture see ‘What is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy?’ in Tony Judt, When the Facts Change Essays 1995-2010, ed. And introduced by Jennifer Homans (Vintage, London, 2015) p.326.

[xiii]  The phrase is that of Dustin Griffin, Patriotism and Poetry in Eighteenth Century Britain, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005) p.220.

[xiv] Clarke, op.cit.pp99-100.

[xv] Private Papers of James Boswell from Malahide Castle (New York, 1928-30), Vol. VI, p.130.

[xvi]  See F. O’Ferrall, ‘Reflections on Oliver Goldsmith and Politics – Then and Now’, published in Teathbha Journal of the County Longford Historical Society,  Vol. 111, No. 4, 2011, pp.30-34.

[xvii]  See 2018 Report from Oxfam – Reward Work, Not Wealth (www.oxfam.or/en/research/research-work-not-wealth).

[xviii]  See  A Dialogue of Hope Critical Thinking for Critical Times, ed. Gerry O’Hanlon SJ, (Messenger Publications, Dublin, 2017).

[xix] These paragraphs owe much to Steven Pinker’s important book, Enlightenment Now The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, (Allen Lane an imprint of Penguin Books, London, 2018).