Hegelian Reflections on Saint Patrick and his Legacy

Auteur(s): Andrew Smith | Categorie: Forum

World historical individuals are not what they used to be. That is, those movers and shakers who Hegel thought unwittingly pushed forward world spirit through their self-interested actions seem a lot less evident in a world of deadening bureaucracy and vapid celebrity. It might be too much to claim Saint Patrick as a world historical individual. It is a curious fact, however, that the Irish national holiday celebrating him as one who introduced Christianity to Ireland has achieved international renown. With one or two obvious exceptions, no other saint has achieved such wide recognition. Indeed, it was not so long ago that the Saint Patrick’s Day festivities in Ireland were a rather lacklustre affair not dissimilar to the Dutch Carnaval; it has gained prominence there as a spectacle and full-on festivity only by being, so to speak, re-imported from the United States. In any case, if not a world historical individual, Saint Patrick and his legacy do seem to betray something of a Hegelian dialectic.

Saint Patrick was not Irish but, it is widely believed, Welsh. He was kidnapped in the fifth century and brought back to Ireland by marauding Celtic pirates who pillaged the British coastline. The Roman Empire never reached Ireland and, as its control of Britain waned, the Irish Celts who initially traded cattle with Roman Britain took advantage of the Empire’s disintegration by turning from trade to plunder. Patrick, then an unbeliever, was taken from his Christian family and brought back to Ireland at the age of sixteen. He was enslaved and forced to work as a shepherd. It was there, in the bonds of dependency, that he recognised the independent authority of God. Patrick escapes after six years, studies and becomes ordained only to return to the land of his capturers and eventually conquer them ideologically by converting the pagan Celts to Christianity.

That through his enslavement Patrick gains independence from and eventually overcomes his master seems to bear a superficial similarity to Hegel’s puzzling account of the master-slave dialectic. Of course, it is only because of the growth in self-consciousness acquired through an increased material mastery of the natural world – through self-objectifying labour – that the slave gains the upper hand in Hegel’s story. Only metaphorically could we link Patrick’s labour with his self-mastery, which would be to say the slave forced to be a shepherd by his Irish masters would then become shepherd of them. But the two narratives do not map perfectly, and it might well be that Nietzsche’s notion of the ressentiment embodied in slave morality could provide a better interpretative gloss.

Nevertheless, there is a further twist in the tale that seems to display evidence of a historical dialectic. This is that the emergence of Christianity in Ireland was instrumental in preserving and extending Latin culture as well as developing monastic culture and new aesthetic forms (in metalwork and manuscript illumination) which would subsequently influence or be re-imported by mainland Europe. As Roman civilisation crumbled, an important source for the continuation and development of its traditions stemmed from beyond its former imperial boundaries. It is ironic that Ireland, which the Romans referred to as Scotia and Hibernia, had its age of ‘saints and scholars’ while Europe foundered. Making a pun of the (etymologically unfounded) similarity between its Roman names and the respective Greek and Latin terms for darkness and winter, the joke here might be that Europe must lie in darkness in order for Ireland to appear enlightened.

Of course what Saint Patrick is supposed to represent is the taming of hedonistic, heathen Ireland by the introduction of the Christian belief system. The most famous part of the Patrick legend is that he is claimed to have driven the snakes out of Ireland. This refers not only to Ireland being an anomaly among European countries because of the absence of snakes amongst its fauna – an ice age anomaly, to be sure. For the snake is also a very obvious Judeo-Christian symbol of demonic temptation and iniquity. It is a further ironic twist that Saint Patrick’s Day today is celebrated as just the kind of drunken orgy the pagan Celts would have enjoyed: ‘a Bacchanalian revel where there is none unintoxicated’. Falling as it does in mid-March, this may be seen to have arisen as a much needed halftime break for weak-willed Irish Christians struggling to keep free of alcohol for the forty days of Lent.

Hegel credited Johannes Scottus Eriugena with being the originator of his own speculative mode of philosophy. With his pleonastic name, he was most certainly Irish and, moreover, the most philosophically important thinker to emerge from the scholarly tradition set in motion by Patrick’s conversion of Ireland. Yet not only was he fond of a drink, an anecdote from his life provides early evidence for the international acclaim of Irish intemperance more generally. He was a frequent drinking companion of Charles the Bald. Sitting opposite him, the king is on one such drunken session reported to have assailed the Neo-Platonist with a Latin pun: “What separates an Irishman (Scottum) from a drunk (sottum)?” To parry this, Eriugena is purported to have replied: “Only a table!”

The celebration of Saint Patrick this March may be as void of world spirit as it is of holy spirit, but it lives on thanks to its association with the near universal desire for that illusive transcendence afforded by spirits of an altogether more transparent nature.

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