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Moral geometry in Restoration Ireland: Samuel Foley’s ‘Computatio universalis’ (1684) and the science of colonisation

  • Ted McCormick (a1)

Despite the importance of the new science in the colonisation of Stuart Ireland, and the many Irish links to major figures in the Scientific Revolution, these connections remain relatively little studied outside of major episodes such as the Down Survey. This article examines a much smaller project, the ‘Computatio Universalis’ (1684) of Church of Ireland clergyman (later bishop of Down and Connor) Samuel Foley (1655–1695). Submitted to the Dublin Philosophical Society in 1684 as an attempt to ‘to demonstrate a universal standard’ of value, Foley’s project was in fact a guide to the achievement of ‘happiness’ through the careful stewardship of time and wealth. Foley’s project recalls earlier Christian humanist and Protestant concern with stewardship, however, and also reflects seventeenth-century economic writers’ and moral reformers’ concern with avoiding idleness. In the context of Restoration Ireland, however, it can also be seen more specifically as a project harnessing new methods of quantification for the cultural maintenance of a ruling Protestant elite historically threatened by degeneration in a colonial setting, as well as a reflection of Protestant anxieties about the Catholic church’s control over time.

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*Department of History, Concordia University,
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1 Whether, in what senses, or at what points early-modern Ireland is best understood as a colony rather than a kingdom, or a province, is a matter of continuing debate. That the English state and most English Protestants (including those in Ireland who came to see themselves as ‘Irish’ Protestants) saw ‘plantation’ as a colonial effort – both in the literal sense that it involved the creation, defence, and expansion of ‘colonies’ of settlers and in the larger, more distinctively modern sense that it implied the subordination of Gaelic laws and customs, Irish Catholic interests, and Irish land and resources to broadly English imperatives (except where these clashed with those of the Protestant elite in Ireland itself) – admits of little doubt. These views were particularly effective in shaping Irish society and politics in the second half of the seventeenth century, and it is in this light that the terminology of colonialism is used here. Compare Canny Nicholas, Kingdom and colony: Ireland in the Atlantic world, 1560–1800 (Baltimore, 1988); Connolly S. J., Religion, law and power: the making of Protestant Ireland, 1660–1760 (Cambridge, 1992), pp 103143 ; Barnard Toby, ‘Historiographical review: farewell to old Ireland’ in Hist. Jn., xxxvi, no. 4 (Dec. 1993), pp 909928 ; Ohlmeyer Jane (ed.), Political thought in seventeenth-century Ireland: kingdom or colony (Cambridge, 2000); Ohlmeyer Jane, Making Ireland English: the Irish aristocracy in the seventeenth century (New Haven, 2012), pp 336357 .

2 The only systematic study of the role of science in the colonisation of Ireland over the long term is Carroll Patrick, Science, culture, and modern state-formation (Berkeley, 2006). For the seventeenth century in particular, see also Hoppen K. Theodore, The common scientist in the seventeenth century: a study of the Dublin Philosophical Society, 1683–1708 (Charlottesville, VA, 1970); Webster Charles, The great instauration: science, medicine and reform, 1626–1660 (London, 1975), pp 420446 ; Barnard T. C., Cromwellian Ireland (2nd ed., Oxford, 2000), pp 213248 ; idem, ‘The Hartlib circle and the cult and culture of improvement in Ireland’ in Mark Greengrass, Michael Leslie, and Timothy Raylor (eds), Samuel Hartlib and the universal reformation: studies in intellectual communication (Cambridge, 1994), pp 281–97; Leng Thomas, Benjamin Worsley (1618–1677): trade, interest and the spirit in revolutionary England (Woodbridge, 2008), pp 80117 .

3 See Webster, Great instauration; Greengrass et al. (eds), Samuel Hartlib.

4 Barnard, ‘Hartlib circle’.

5 Gerard Boate, Irelands naturall history (London, 1652); Robert Child to Samuel Hartlib, 29 Aug. 1652, in The Hartlib papers, ed. M. Greengrass, M. Leslie and M. Hannon (Sheffield, 2013), 15/5/14a (available online: (23 Oct. 2014) [cited hereafter as H.P.].

6 Leng, Benjamin Worsley, pp 13–94.

7 On Cork, see Canny Nicholas, The upstart earl: a study of the social and mental world of Richard Boyle, first earl of Cork, 1566–1643 (Cambridge, 1982); on Boyle, Hunter Michael, Boyle: between God and science (New Haven, 2010) and idem, ‘Robert Boyle, Narcissus Marsh, and the Anglo-Irish intellectual scene in the late seventeenth century’ in Muriel McCarthy and Ann Simmons (eds), The making of Marsh’s Library: learning, politics, and religion in Ireland, 1650–1750 (Dublin, 2004), pp 51–75. Thomas Duddy has argued for Boyle’s inclusion in the historical canon of ‘Irish thought’ on the grounds that his material wealth derived from Irish estates. This strikes me as eccentric; a similar line of reasoning might make John Stuart Mill an ‘Indian’ thinker. But it nevertheless highlights the colonial context for Boyle’s liberty to engage in experimental work. See Duddy Thomas, A history of Irish thought (London, 2002), pp 4581 . Though he spent only about two years of his life in Ireland, Boyle did inform Hartlib on matters Irish and occasionally drew on his own father’s papers in so doing; see Samuel Hartlib, Ephemerides, 1648, part 1 (Jan.–June), H.P. 31/22/2b; Ephemerides, 1654, part 2 (24 Apr.–4 Aug.), H.P. 29/4/21b; Ephemerides, 1655, part 2 (Feb.–21 Apr.), H.P. 29/5/16a.

8 Petty William, History of the Cromwellian survey of Ireland, A.D. 1655–6, commonly calledthe Down Survey’, ed. Thomas Aiskew Larcom (Dublin, 1851).

9 The initial survey of lands intended for the army took place in 1654–6; a survey of land intended for distribution to London ‘adventurers’ (who had financed the invasion) followed in 1658–9. Y. M. Goblet, La transformation de le géographie politique de l’Irlande dans les cartes et essais anthropogéographiques de Sir William Petty (2 vols, Nancy, 1930), i, pp iii–iv; Corcoran Irma, Thomas Holme, 1624–1695: surveyor general of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, 1992), pp 4043 ; Smyth William J., Map-making, landscapes and memory: a geography of colonial and early-modern Ireland, c.1530–1750 (Cork, 2006), pp 2324 , 166–97. But compare Andrews J. H., Shapes of Ireland: maps and their makers, 1564–1839 (Dublin, 1997), pp 118146 .

10 McKenny Kevin, ‘The Restoration land settlement in Ireland: a statistical interpretation’ in Coleman A. Dennehy (ed.), Restoration Ireland: always settling and never settled (Aldershot, 2008), pp 3552 . On the discourse and practices of improvement in Britain and Ireland, see Slack Paul, From Reformation to improvement: public welfare in early modern England (Oxford, 1999) and idem, The invention of improvement: information and material progress in seventeenth-century England (Oxford, 2015); David Dickson, Old world colony: Cork and South Munster, 1630–1830 (Cork, 2005), pp 170–214; Barnard Toby, Improving Ireland? Projectors, prophets and profiteers, 1641–1786 (Dublin, 2008); Livesey James, Civil society and empire: Ireland and Scotland in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world (New Haven, 2009), pp 5489 .

11 See: McCormick Ted, William Petty and the ambitions of political arithmetic (Oxford, 2009).

12 The major eighteenth-century example, of course, is the transatlantic slave trade. For other examples see Duffy Patrick J. (ed.), To and from Ireland: planned migration schemes, c.1600–2000 (Dublin, 2004); Christopher Emma, Pybus Cassandra and Rediker Marcus (eds), Many Middle Passages: forced migration and the making of the modern world (Berkeley, 2007).

13 The paper is printed in K. Theodore Hoppen (ed.), Papers of the Dublin Philosophical Society, 1683–1709 (2 vols, I.M.C., Dublin, 2008) (cited hereafter as P.D.P.S.), i, 170–9, and the original is in the British Library (B.L., Add. MS 4811, ff 31–5). Hoppen gives details of three further manuscript copies, including a transcription by John Aubrey. After having been read in Dublin, the paper was sent to the Oxford Philosophical Society (where it was read on 13 Oct. 1685) and the Royal Society (read on 9 Dec. 1685). See R. T. Gunther, Early science in Oxford (15 vols, Oxford, 1920–1968), iv, 162, xii, 146; Foley’s cover letter and a copy of the ‘Computatio’ are in the Royal Society Library (R.S.L., Early Letters, EL/F2/1–1a). Though it never appeared in the Philosophical Transactions, it was anonymously printed, prefaced by Foley’s covering letter to the Royal Society, by James Moxon (son of Royal Society printer and fellow, Joseph Moxon) in 1697; see [Samuel Foley], Computatio universalis seu logica rerum (London, 1697). No previous commentator appears to have noticed this edition.

14 For more biographical details, see entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and the Dictionary of Irish Biography; see also Hoppen, Common scientist, pp 38–9, 122–3.

15 P.D.P.S., i, 166–70, 179–88. The paper ‘Of formed stones’ (P.D.P.S., i, 179–83) shows familiarity with the views of Robert Hooke, Martin Lister, Robert Plot, and John Ray (all fellows of the Royal Society), as well as their Danish contemporary Nicolas Steno.

16 St George Ashe to William Musgrave, 22 Sept. 1685, in P.D.P.S., ii, 587; William Petty, A treatise of taxes and contributions (London, 1662), pp 20–8; idem, The discourse made before the Royal Society the 26 th of November 1674. Concerning the use of duplicate proportion in sundry important particulars (London, 1674), sig. A10v–A12r.

17 P.D.P.S., i, 170.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid., i, 171.

20 The source of which is unclear; it may reflect the common notion of climacteric years marking transitions from one stage of life to another (the ‘grand climacteric’ was generally reckoned to be the sixty-third year). See Thomas Keith, Religion and the decline of magic: studies in popular beliefs in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England (Oxford, 1997), pp 616617 .

21 P.D.P.S., i, 172. I am grateful to my colleague, Norman Ingram, for the observation that the period allowed for devotions is roughly a tithe of the total amount of free time.

22 Ibid., i, 172–3.

23 Ibid., i, 171.

24 Descartes proposed a mathesis universalis in rule four of his Rules for the direction of the mind (composed c.1628); see René Descartes, The philosophical writings of Descartes, ed. and trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch (2 vols, Cambridge, 1985), i, 19. There he describes mathematics as essentially concerned with ‘questions of order or measure’, and mathesis universalis as a ‘general science’ of order and measure ‘irrespective of the subject-matter’. By analogy, computatio universalis would be a generalised practice of calculation. Hobbes observed in the epistle dedicatory to De cive (1642) that ‘whatever distinguishes the modern world from the barbarity of the past … is almost wholly the gift of Geometry’, and that ‘If the moral Philosophers had done their job with equal success, I do not know what greater contribution human industry could have made to human happiness.’ Hobbes Thomas, On the citizen, ed. and trans. Richard Tuck and Michael Silverthorne (Cambridge, 1998), pp 45 .

25 Barnard Toby, A new anatomy of Ireland: the Irish Protestants, 1649–1770 (New Haven, 2003), p. 59 .

26 Samuel Foley to Robert Foley, 4 Oct. 1688, (B.L., Add. MS 63093, ff 1–4).

27 Kelly James and Powell Martyn J., ‘Introduction’ in James Kelly and Martyn J. Powell (eds), Clubs and societies in eighteenth-century Ireland (Dublin, 2010), pp 2528 . See Patrick Walsh, ‘Club life in late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Ireland: in search of an associational world, c.1680–c.1730’ and Toby Barnard, ‘The Dublin Society and other improving societies, 1731–1785’, both in Kelly & Powell (eds), Clubs and societies, pp 36–49 and 53–88 respectively. But Hoppen, Common scientist, downplays the colonial import of the Dublin Philosophical Society.

28 Samuel Foley to the Royal Society, [c.22 Sept. 1685] (R.S.L., EL/F2/1). The letter is printed in P.D.P.S., ii, 587–8 (the date is Hoppen’s suggestion).

29 See Parkin Jon, Science, religion and politics in Restoration England: Richard Cumberland’s De Legibus naturae (Woodbridge, 1999), p. 151 .

30 See St George Ashe to William Musgrave, 22 Sept. 1685, in P.D.P.S., ii, 587, n. 1.

31 [Samuel Foley], Computatio universalis.

32 These included Mandey Venterus and Moxon James, Mechanick-powers: or the mistery of nature and art unvail’d (London, 1696); Palmer Roger, Castlemaine earl of, The English globe (2nd ed., London, 1696); Descartes René, The use of the geometrical playing-cards, as also a discourse of the mechanick powers (London, 1697); Moxon Joseph, Mechanick dialling (London, 1697); idem, A tutor to astronomy and geography (5th ed., London, 1698); Savery Thomas, Navigation improv’d (London, 1698).

33 Foley Samuel, A Sermon preached at the primary visitation of his grace Francis Lord Arch-Bishop of Dublin (London, 1683).

34 Ibid., pp 2–4.

35 Ibid., p. 5.

36 Ibid.

37 Ibid., pp 5–11.

38 Ibid., p. 8.

39 Ibid., p. 11.

40 Ibid., p. 25.

41 Ibid., p. 13.

42 Ibid., p. 12. The contrast in Seneca, Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, xvi.3 is between ‘verbis’ and ‘rebus’, which modern translations sometimes render as ‘words’ and ‘facts’; ‘words’ and ‘things’ is equally plausible and would have had an obvious resonance for Foley’s audience. See Seneca, Ad Lucilium epistulae morales, trans. Richard M. Gummere (3 vols, Cambridge, MA, 1917), i, 105; Seneca, Letters from a stoic, ed. and trans. Robin Campbell (London, 1969), p. 64. Abraham Cowley, an early supporter of the Royal Society, included Seneca among the list of authors on nature to be read in his own ideal college for experimental learning (which would focus on ‘Things as well as Words’); Cowley Abraham, A proposition for the advancement of experimental philosophy (London, 1661), pp 43, 46. On the broader point see also Glanvill Joseph, Plus ultra: or the progress and advancement of knowledge since the days of Aristotle (London, 1668), p. 89 , and Petty’s earlier proposal for ‘ergastula literaria’ in William Petty, The advice of W. P. to Mr. Samuel Hartlib for the advancement of some particular parts of learning (London, 1648), pp 3–4. For the Stoic outlook on which Foley draws, see Hadot Pierre, Philosophy as a way of life: spiritual exercises from Socrates to Foucault, ed. Arnold I. Davidson and trans. Michael Chase (Oxford, 1995), pp 8286 .

43 Quoted in Lloyd Genevieve, Providence lost (Cambridge, MA, 2008), p. 93 .

44 Foley, Sermon, p. 18. Compare for example Thomas Sprat, The history of the Royal-Society of London, for the improving of natural knowledge (London, 1667), pp 111–13. Sprat himself (p. 371, erroneously paginated as ‘363’ in the first edition) presented the Royal Society and the Church of England as engines of parallel reformations, ‘the one having compass’d it in Religion, the other purposing it in Philosophy’.

45 Foley Samuel, An exhortation to the inhabitants of Down and Connor, concerning the religious education of their children in general; and particularly in order to their being confirmed (Dublin, 1695).

46 Ibid., p. 7. This duty did not extend here, at least, to the direct government of other people’s children, as with the later charity-school movement. See note 63 below.

47 Ibid., p. 16.

48 Ibid., p. 26.

49 Ibid., p. 19.

50 Todd Margo, Christian humanism and the Puritan social order (Cambridge, 1987), passim.

51 M. B. Rowlands, ‘Foley family (per. c.1620–1716)’, in Oxford D.N.B.

52 Boyle, ‘Of time and idleness’ in idem, Early essays and ethics of Robert Boyle, ed. John T. Harwood (Carbondale, IL, 1991), pp 237–48; quotations at pp 237, 241, 244. See Boyle, ‘The doctrine of thinking’ in ibid., pp 185–202.

53 Foley, ‘Computatio’, p. 171. Cf. Boyle, ‘Time’, pp 238–40.

54 Keymor John, John Keymors observation made upon the Dutch fishing, about the year 1601 (London, 1664), p. 10 .

55 Child Josiah, Brief observations concerning trade, and interest of money (London, 1668), pp 45 .

56 Coke Roger, Reasons of the increase of the Dutch trade (London, 1671), p. 107 .

57 Temple William, Observations on the United Provinces of the Netherlands (London, 1673); Temple William, An essay on the advancement of trade in Ireland (Dublin, 1673).

58 Petty William, The political anatomy of Ireland (London, 1691), pp 118, 122.

59 William Petty, ‘An appendix concerning papists & Protestants’, 1685 (B.L., Add. MS 72888, ff 18–20, at f.20r).

60 Compare Thompson E. P., ‘Time, work-discipline and industrial capitalism’, in idem, Customs in common: studies in traditional popular culture (New York, 1993), pp 352403 .

61 Barnard Toby, ‘Reforming Irish manners: the religious societies in Dublin during the 1690s’ in idem, Irish Protestant ascents and descents, 1641–1770 (Dublin, 2004), pp 143178 .

62 Burtt Shelley, ‘The societies for the reformation of manners: between John Locke and the devil in Augustan England’ in Roger D. Lund (ed.), The margins of orthodoxy: heterodox writing and cultural response, 1660–1750 (Cambridge, 1995), pp 149169 , at p. 153. See also Burtt Shelley, Virtue transformed: political argument in England, 1688–1740 (Cambridge, 1992); Jacob W. M., Lay people and religion in the early eighteenth century (Cambridge, 1996). On the provincial impact of the movement, particularly in giving clergymen a place in the discourse of improvement, see Livesey, Civil society and empire, pp 54–89, especially pp 81–2.

63 On charity schools as means of governing the poor, see Donna T. Andrew, Philanthropy and police: London charity in the eighteenth century (Princeton, 1989); but cf. Schmidt Jeremy, ‘Charity and the government of the poor in the English charity-school movement, circa 1700–1730’ in Journal of British Studies, xlix, no. 4 (Oct. 2010), pp 774800 , which locates charity schools in an economy of paternal duty and Christian reciprocity that Foley would doubtless have recognised. On charity schools in Ireland, see Sonnelitter Karen, ‘“To unite our temporal and eternal interests”: sermons and the charity-school movement in Ireland, 1689–1740’ in Eighteenth-Century Ireland/Iris an dá chultúr, xxv (2010), pp 6281 . While Foley would have sympathised with their goals, his enterprise was a different one.

64 On the theme of degeneration in the context of Irish plantation, see Nicholas Canny, Making Ireland British, 1580–1650 (Oxford, 2001); Montaño John Patrick, The roots of English colonialism in Ireland (Cambridge, 2011).

65 It is possible to overdraw this distinction. Even the most overt cases of intervention from above might have other dimensions. Hartlib, for example, saw the Down Survey as a means of educating soldiers in mathematics and hence of ‘improving’ their ‘numbers and hands’; it was with reference not to the land transfers the survey underwrote but to its improvement of these agents of colonisation that he spoke of Petty’s effort, in positive terms, as a ‘Political Contrivance’. See Hartlib, Ephemerides, 1655, part 4 (13 Aug.–31 Dec.), H.P. 29/5/43b.

66 See Goff Jacques Le, ‘The time of purgatory (third to thirteenth century)’ in idem, The medieval imagination, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago, 1988), pp 6777 , at 75.

67 Franklin describes his ‘Project of arriving at moral Perfection’, which involved a tabulation of virtues to work on by days of the week, in part two of his Autobiography; see Franklin Benjamin, The autobiography and other writings on politics, economics, and virtue, ed. Alan Houston (Cambridge, 2004), pp 6875 .

68 Koselleck Reinhart The practice of conceptual history: timing history, spacing concepts, trans. Todd Samuel Presner and others (Stanford, 2002), pp 218235 ; Foucault Michel, The will to knowledge: the history of sexuality, volume 1, trans. Robert Hurley (London, 1978), pp 133159 .

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