George Berkeley

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Berkeley, George, Bishop of Cloyne, was born at Dysert Castle, on the river Nore, two miles below Thomastown, 12th March 1683-'4; he received his early education at Kilkenny School, and entered Trinity College, 21st March 1699-1700. Soon after his entrance into the College, which was his residence during the thirteen years that followed, Berkeley came to be regarded as either the greatest genius or the greatest dunce in the place. Those slightly acquainted with him took him for a fool; while his intimates thought him a prodigy of learning and goodness of heart. He pursued his studies with extraordinary ardour, "full of simplicity and enthusiasm." He was elected scholar in 1702; a B.A. in 1704; and took his master's degree in 1707. Farther on in the same year — in June — he was admitted to a fellowship. Early in 1705, in conjunction with some of his college friends, he formed a society " to promote investigations in the new philosophy of Boyle, Newton, and Locke."

His Common-place Book affords us an insight into the current of his thoughts at this time. His biographer (Mr. Fraser, from whose work all the extracts in this notice are made) says: "The prevailing tendency of the whole is to the banishment of scholasticism from philosophy, as well as all talk about things which cannot be resolved into living experience of concrete matter of fact, called by him idea or sensation. He is everywhere eager to simplify things, and make knowledge practical, to bring men back to facts, and to expel empty abstractions from philosophy, as the bane of religion and morality, not less than of physical science. There is also a disposition towards the intellectual independence which rebels against the bondage of words, and an enthusiastic straightforwardness of character, apt to be regarded as eccentricity by the multitude — but with a desire to conciliate too. What he writes, plainly flows from himself, if ever any writing did flow from the mind of the writer. . . Berkeley's mind everywhere labours under the inspiration of a new thought. . . When we compare one expression of it with another, we find that it implies neither more nor less than this-a conception of the impossibility of anything existing in the universe that is independent of perception and volition; that is not either percipient and voluntary, or perceived and willed. This is Berkeley's dualism. He vacillates in the abstract expression of it, but it generally approaches this. All so-called existence that cannot be resolved to this, is, he is beginning to see, only 'abstract idea' and therefore absurd — to be swept away as sophistry and illusion. . . It is the same principle which in mathematics, with a dim conception of it, he found to press hard against incommensurability and infinite divisibility. At times he is in awe of its tremendous consequences, and of the shock which these may occasion when it is proclaimed to a learned world which had long tried to feed itself upon abstractions. But he is resolved, nevertheless, to employ it for purging science and sustaining faith."

Berkeley first appeared in print in 1707, when he published two tracts — both written in Latin — one an attempt to demonstrate arithmetic without Euclid or algebra; the other, Thoughts on some Questions in Mathematics. His Essay towards a New Theory of Vision appeared two years later. The outcome of this essay appears to be: " What, before we reflected, we had supposed to be a seeing of real things, is not seeing really extended things at all, but only seeing something that is constantly connected with their extension; what is vulgarly called seeing them is in fact reading about them; when we are every day using our eyes, we are virtually interpreting a book." Berkeley's great work, The Principles of Human Knowledge, in which his theories are still further developed, appeared in 1710. " This book is a systematic assault upon scholastic abstractions, especially upon abstract or unperceived matter, space, and time. It assumes that these are the main causes of confusion and difficulty in the sciences, and of materialistic atheism." Berkeley " is the most extraordinary instance of original reflective precocity on record." On 1st February 1709 he was ordained a deacon. One of his discourses, preached in the College Chapel, on Passive Obedience, left room for casuistry about individual duty in revolutionary times, and seriously impeded his advancement in after life, by laying him open to the charge of Jacobitism. He was nominated Sub-Lecturer and Junior-Dean in 1710, and held the post of tutor until 1724. His emoluments did not exceed £40 a-year — equivalent to some four times that amount at the present day.

On a Sunday in April 1713 Berkeley appeared at the court of Queen Anne, in the company of Swift; and we soon find him making his way amongst the great men of the time, writing for The Guardian, and spending his days with Steele and Addison. "Does my cousin answer your expectations?" asked Lord Berkeley of Bishop Atterbury; who, lifting up his hands in astonishment, replied: "So much understanding, so much innocence, and such humility, I did not think had been the portion of any but angels, till I saw this gentleman." At Swift's recommendation, in November 1713, he was appointed chaplain and secretary to the Sicilian legation; and he started at once with Lord Peterborough for Sicily. This was the first of a series of long visits to the Continent.

His journals and letters of this time are preserved — replete with careful observations upon men and things, relieved with much sprightliness and humour. As yet the taste for Alpine scenery had not been developed in the human breast. He speaks of Savoy as "a perpetual chain of rocks and mountains, almost impassable for ice and snow. And yet I rode post through it, and came off with only four falls, from which I received no other damage than breaking my sword, my watch, and my snuff-box." On his return to England in 1720, his gentle nature was shocked and astounded at the excitement concerning the South Sea scheme, and his feelings found vent in An Essay towards preventing the Ruin of Great Britain. His conviction, therein expressed, that the civilization of the Old World was effete, had a considerable influence on his after life. The conclusions he arrived at were, that if society was to be saved at all it must be by the persons who composed it becoming individually industrious, frugal, public-spirited, and religious. In August 1721, he returned to Dublin as chaplain to the Duke of Grafton, Lord-Lieutenant. He was still Junior Fellow in Trinity, leave having been freely granted him, through court influence, for his long absences, during one of which the degree of D.D. had been conferred upon him. The deanery of Dromore and other appointments were now given to him.

In May 1723, Esther Van Homrigh (Swift's " Vanessa ") died, and left Berkeley, to his astonishment, £4,000, nearly half her property. She had altered her will after her quarrel with Swift in 1720. Her knowledge of Berkeley must have been chiefly by reputation; for although he had been living close to her for nearly two years, it is stated that he had not seen her once. Next year he was installed Dean of Deny, then one of the richest preferments in the Irish Church. What was the amazement of all his friends, when within six months he went to London, declaring his heart ready to break if his deanery were not taken from him. He had conceived the idea that it was his duty to emigrate, and establish a college in Bermuda for the civilization of America — the glories of Europe were past, the hopes of the future rested in the New World. He immediately published Proposals embodying his plans; he pictured the inhabitants as " a contented, plain, innocent sort of people;" the country, " a land of blue skies, rich fruits, coral strands."

His lines on the Prospects of Planting Arts and Learning in America, contain one that may be said to be immortal:—

Westward the course of empire wings its way.

After some years' labour, and exertions to inspire others with his enthusiasm, he procured a charter for a college; about £5,000 was promised in private subscriptions; Sir R. Walpole, on an address of the Commons, promised £20,000 more, and Berkeley threw the whole of his own private means into the undertaking, besides relinquishing all his lucrative preferments. Now for a time he lived privately in the outskirts of Dublin, and in August 1728 married Anne Foster, daughter of the Speaker of the Irish House of Commons. "All that one can now discover of Mrs. Berkeley makes her worthy of her husband. She shared his fortunes when he was about to engage in one of the most romantic moral movements of modern times, and when, in love with an ideal academic life in the Bermudas, he was prepared to surrender preferment and social position at home, in order to devote the remainder of his life to the great continent of the west."

The following month they sailed from Gravesend in a 250-ton vessel he had chartered. Besides his wife and another lady, he was accompanied by some friends, who, imbued with his enthusiasm, had given up all to assist him in his philanthropic scheme. The passage was a long one, of four months. It was not until the 23rd January 1729 that they cast anchor at Newport, Rhode Island.

A few months after his arrival he bought a farm of ninety-six acres in a sequestered spot on Rhode Island, built a commodious house, which he called Whitehall, purchased slaves, and settled down to a life of retirement. It is said that he brought a very extensive library with him. The money for the undertaking, promised by Government, was not forthcoming, and visions of college and his possible influence over the destinies of America appear to have gradually faded away. He built his house in a valley, declaring: " To enjoy what is to be seen from the hill, I must visit it only occasionally; if the prospect were constantly in view, it would lose its charm." His residence of nearly three years in Rhode Island was perhaps the happiest portion of his life. More than one child was born to him there. At length, when it was evident that there was no chance of the government grant, he returned home, leaving his farm to Yale College, as an endowment for the encouragement of Greek and Latin scholarship. His house on Rhode Island still stands. He sailed from Boston in October or November 1731: at any rate, he re-appeared in London in 1732. "Thus ended the romantic episode of Rhode Island, which warms the heart and touches the imagination more, perhaps, than any event in Berkeley's life. Of all who have ever landed on the American shore, none were animated by a purer and more self-sacrificing spirit. It is for this, more than for his speculative thought, that he is now remembered in New England. The cosmopolitan Berkeley has left curiously few local impressions at any of the places where he lived, perhaps more in Rhode Island than anywhere else. The island still acknowledges that, by his visit, it has been touched with the halo of a great and sacred reputation."

At no period of his life did he contribute more copiously to literature than during the two years following his return. The largest of his works, Alciphron, appeared in March 1732, and engaged popular attention sooner than any of its predecessors. For a time he resided in London; his letters to his friend Prior in 1733, evince an inclination towards Dublin-indeed, at one time Prior appears to have engaged a house on Arbour-hill for him. In January 1734 Berkeley was appointed Bishop of Cloyne, and in May he was consecrated in St. Paul's Church, Dublin. Shortly afterwards, with his wife and two infant boys, he set out for the diocese where he was to spend the next eighteen years of his career. His retired life at Cloyne appears to have been, on the whole, sedentary, while he conscientiously discharged the affairs of his diocese, and occasionally occupied his seat in the House of Lords in Dublin. The social condition of Ireland attracted much of his attention, as may be judged from his admirable Querist. "After the lapse of nearly a century and a-half, the student of society and the statesman may here find maxims which legislation has not yet outgrown. It is only now that we are fairly resolving, 'whether a scheme for the welfare of the Irish nation should not take in the whole inhabitants; and whether it be not a vain attempt to project the flourishing of our Protestant gentry, exclusive of the bulk of the natives.'"

His benevolence to the poor in the dark days of famine and disease, then so prevalent, was boundless. In 1744 he came prominently forward as an advocate of tar-water as a universal specific. He published a tract on the subject, and set up an apparatus in his palace for its manufacture. "He satisfied himself that tar contained an extraordinary proportion of the vital element of the universe; and that water was the menstruum by which this element might be drawn off, and conveyed into vegetable and animal organisms. . . He exulted in the view of a discovery by which the physical maladies of this mortal life might all be mitigated, if not subdued." He even published a poem in praise of his panacea.

His efforts to restrain his fellow-countrymen from joining in the Scottish insurrection in 1745, recommended him for further advancement; and through the influence of Lord Chesterfield the primacy, on falling vacant, was offered to him. However, he resolutely declined to accept the office, saying that he had all he desired, and that further emoluments could not bring him increased happiness: "For my part," he says, "I could not see (all things considered) the glory of wearing the name of primate in these days, or of getting so much money; a thing every tradesman in London may get if he pleases. I should not choose to be Primate in pity to my children; and for doing good to the world, imagine I may upon the whole do as much in a lower station." Devotion to the happiness and elevation of his children was, in truth, one of his guiding motives. An Italian music master lived in the house, and the concerts given in the palace during the winters were a delight to the whole neighbourhood.

In 1752 he decided to resign his bishopric, and indulge a long-cherished desire of spending his latter years in retirement at Oxford, not alone to enjoy the many social and literary advantages of a university town, but to reside near his son George, who matriculated in Christ Church in June of that year. Accordingly, he wrote to the Secretary-of-State, offering to resign his bishopric absolutely. This singular proposal excited the curiosity of King George II; who, upon learning by whom it was made, declared that Berkeley should die a bishop in spite of himself; but that he might live where he pleased. He removed to Oxford in August 1752, the passage to England being so exhausting that he was obliged to be carried in a horse litter from Bristol. According to tradition his new abode was in Holywell street, near the cloisters of Magdalen. He did not long enjoy the change. "On the evening of Sunday, the 14th of January 1753," writes his biographer, "Berkeley was resting on a couch, in his house in Holy well-street, surrounded by his family. His wife had been reading aloud to the little family party the lesson in the Burial Service, taken from the 15th chapter of the First Epistle to the Corinthians, and he had been making remarks upon that sublime passage. His daughter soon after went to offer him some tea. She found him, as it seemed, asleep, but his body was already cold; for it was the last sleep — the mystery of death; and the world of the senses had suddenly ceased to be a medium of intercourse between his spirit and those who remained."

He was buried in the chapel of Christ Church, Oxford. Bishop Berkeley is described as having been of ordinary height, handsomely made — the face full and round, of a fair complexion. His expression was one of thoughtfulness and simplicity, not without traces of the refined humour that appears in his writings-animated by a mild, pious, persistent enthusiasm. "He was naturally strong and active, and remarkable for erect, manly grace; but the robust body was latterly reduced by sedentary habits and much study." The Bishop was, at the date of his decease, aged 68. His widow survived him thirty-three years, and died 27th May 1786, in her 86th year. A son and daughter were living at the time of his death. The former, George, born in London in 1733, became a divine of some eminence.

Note from Addenda:

Berkeley, George, Bishop of Cloyne — The account of Hester Vanhomrigh's quarrel with Swift (p. 19) is scarcely borne out by recent investigations. [See SWIFT, JONATHAN, p. 508.] [233]

Sources

31. Berkeley, George, Bishop of Cloyne, Life and Works: Alexander C. Fraser. 4 vols. Oxford, 1871.

233. Manuscript and Special Information, and Current Periodicals.

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