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Optimism V. Pessimism: A Causerie (Author: Patrick Augustine Sheehan)

Notes on P. A. Sheehan: 'Optimism V. Pessimism: A Causerie,' Irish Monthly, 25/283 (January 1897) 39–52.

This essay showcases Sheehan's talents as a writer and philosopher at their best. From considering the poetry of Robert Browning, through a discussion on Thomas Carlyle and Matthew Arnold, to delineating their optimism or pessimism through a discussion of their outlooks in the world, Sheehan presents a case for looking at the world through the lenses of writers and philosophers. However, he does not satisfy himself from considering theoretical issues alone; as he says, he will ‘come down from the Olympians for a moment, and challenge the man in the street.’ (p. 45) Considerations of the march of technology (even if a little far-fetched, even from a twenty-first century perspective), education, and social progression make up the remainder of the essay.

Throughout much of his writings, and indeed in most of his novels, Sheehan exhibits a tension between the progressive and conservative.1 Here, the argument can be made that the debates which he creates between the optimist and the pessimist can be interpreted as those between progressives and conservatives. There is also the implication, which he makes more clear in his later article Dawn of the Century, that the debate is taking place amongst the educated Catholics of Ireland: there is very little in terms of Protestant outlook here.

The first of his ‘debates’ between optimism and pessimism ‘in daily life’ concerns science. In the Ireland of Sheehan's time, science was treated with mistrust and adverse scepticism: being associated with Protestantism, agnosticism, and foreign influence. During his early career, though, Sheehan seems to have had a positive outlook towards science and how it could advance human behaviour. For example, he gave a lecture to the Mallow Literary Society in November 1880 in which he extolled the virtues of the natural world, seeing in it a way in which evolution and creation theory could co-exist in harmony. His admiration for the likes of Sir Isaac Newton and Thomas Edison were well-known. However, in an essay on Religious Instruction in Intermediate Schools, published in the Irish Ecclesiastical Record (IER) in September 1881, it is clear his initial enthusiasm for science has cooled. In the essay he singled out John Tyndall and Charles Darwin for special condemnation. Tyndall, he argued, had so strenuously put forward the case for liberating science from the hands of theologians that it would soon become ‘inimical to the Christian faith.’ The IER article made the cogent case for ensuring that religious oversight would be provided in the teaching of history and science in Intermediate schools, to guard against atheism. Darwin's case was different. Here Sheehan saw his theory of evolution as a mere speculation; a clear case of ‘God's in his heaven/And all's right with the world’.

Sheehan's reference to the idea that science and theology were in conflict was regarded as offensive by many learned Catholics. There was an implied irrationality to the doctrines of the Church. However Sheehan did not argue this at all; in fact, quite the opposite. In his essay Free Thought in America, he blamed the absence of religious instruction in state schools in the USA for popularising the conflict theory. All knowledge was unified under theology — ‘queen of all the sciences’ — therefore any potential conflict between branches of that knowledge would result in the position of theology being under serious threat. Thus, with a possible tension between progressives and conservatives over the progression of scientific discoveries in the offing, the Church must be forearmed in countering this.2

The second of his ‘debates’ concerns education in Ireland. Like many other countries in Europe, Ireland (even within the confines of the British state) at this time faced economic and social challenges which came as a consequence of the rapid industrial growth in countries such as Germany and the USA during the closing decades of the nineteenth century. New developments in social provision — such as improved housing, welfare and health — also had an effect on the perception of education, creating a movement towards so-called ‘New Education.’ Analysts of the German ‘economic miracle’ (which recurred after the Second World War) pointed to the significant contribution of reforms in technical and higher education as the driving force. This was contrasted with the stark complacency and falling capacity of the British (including Irish) economy. The reason for this faltering economy was, it was reasoned, the narrow curriculum and prescribed methods provided for by the ‘Instrumentary Education.’ The New Educationalists rejected this model of education as placing a premium on rote learning, passivity, examination performance and ‘payment [of teachers] by results’.3

In the article, Sheehan outlines the condemnations of the Instrumentary model: ‘Your systems of education are a mockery, a delusion, and a snare. You cram for examinations, as turkeys are crammed for Christmas: and your boys and girls are consequently suffering from intellectual plethora and indigestion, resulting in mental atrophy and paralysis.’ (p. 48) A lack of proper material training, a poor grasp of the basics in many subjects, and confusion were the hallmarks of many who passed through the Intermediate Education in Ireland: ‘He [the graduate, for it is invariably a male] will talk of Homer, and believe that Troy was in North America; he will tell you that Mount Parnassus was in Ireland, and that the Nile flows into St George's Channel; that Caesar was killed at Clontarf, and that the battle of the Pyramids was won by Brian Boru.’ (p. 49) Sheehan is perhaps closer to the pessimistic argument on education, as this passage shows: ‘These were the times when Irishmen knew well what they did know, when every Irishman knew three languages perfectly, Voster from cover to cover, the six books of Euclid, the science of mensuration — how to season a hurley for the Sunday game, and how to polish the pike-head for the muster in the valley, beside the singing river, at the rising of the moon.’ (p. 49) This prefigures the scene in Sheehan's final novel The Graves at Kilmorna, when Fr James enters a National School and attempts to instruct, only to be told by the master that: ‘the boys could not bear such application, and we have no time.’ And later the master concludes: ‘With twenty-three subjects to teach, and four hours secular instruction each day, we cannot think out problems, as if we were chess-players.’4

Sheehan concludes, therefore, that ‘Any system of education is a dismal failure that does not supply the means towards the end [...] the end of education is to fit pupils for the spheres they shall occupy in life [...] the education of your children should be a literary education, by accident, but a technical education by necessity.’ (p. 49) The rising numbers in the professional classes which the Irish education system to this time produced concerned Sheehan and his contemporaries. Rising numbers of ‘clerks, secretaries, teachers, etc.’ left cities such as Dublin and Cork decadent, devoid of ‘business men and skilled artisans’. In contrast, Belfast (‘a half-Scotch, half-American city’) was advancing ‘by leaps and bounds’. (p. 50) The undertones of Protestantism playing a key role in the development of Belfast, and the corollary that Catholicism led to a decline in other Irish cities, is evident here, in an echo of the future analysis of Max Weber.

Finally, Sheehan turns to politics. The spirit of the Parnell split of 1890-91 infuses the thought of the ‘political pessimist’, who argues: ‘The country gone to the dogs — Ireland once more on the dissecting table — the spirit of faction dominant — the world laughing at us — the country flung back fifty years, etc. etc.’ (p. 50) The optimist (presumably an Anti-Parnellite) rebuts: ‘We don't want mechanical unity. Better Ireland free, than Ireland united.’ (p. 50) In this Sheehan echoes the views of fellow Cork man Tim Healy, who would publish a polemic entitled Why Ireland is not free the following year. During the years following the traumatic schism of the Irish Parliamentary Party, Healy would present the Anti-Parnellite choice as being the tough option, the brutal but necessary rendering of Parnell and all that he symbolised. That much of his rhetoric was reported by press such as The Irish Catholic only served to strengthen the ties between Catholicism and Healyism. Indeed, Healy had the tacit approval, if not the outright support, of many ecclesiastics in his campaign against Parnell.5

In conclusion, Sheehan makes the case for seeing the current state of science, education and politics from a pessimistic (that is, conservative but revolutionary) viewpoint: ‘Better one sharp struggle, though it end in failure, than the ignoble fate of those who stand up with folded arms, and witness the eternal tragedy that is going on around them.’ (p. 51) However, there are a number of reservations in this. And in quoting Browning at the end, Sheehan perhaps makes his point clearer than he possibly could in prose: ‘All service ranks the same with God — With God, whose puppets, best or worst, Are we; there is no last, nor first.’

John O'Donovan
February 2014.