George Berkeley (1685-1753)

George Berkeley

Berkeley, the eldest son of an English settler in Ireland, was born March 12, 1685, probably at Dysert Castle, near Thomastown in County Kilkenny. At the age of eleven he was enrolled in Kilkenny school and because of his precocity was assigned to the second class. At fifteen he entered Trinity College, Dublin. He gained a scholarship in 1702, took his bachelor's degree two years later, and upon completing his master's degree in 1707, he obtained a junior fellowship, after passing the examinations with great distinction. In 1709 he was ordained deacon in the Anglican church.

The Common Place Book he kept during these earn, years at Trinity College reveal that Berkeley first became interested in philosophy through the influence of Newton, Boyle, and Locke. In 1705 he had formed a society to discuss the "new philosophy," and his notes indicate that he was soon convinced that he had discovered a "new principle" which enabled him to overcome the difficulties he encountered in Locke. His first publications were two short mathematical treatises, which appeared in 1707. His own philosophical doctrine was applied for the first time in An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision (1709) and given full statement a year later in his Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. His concern with moral and social problems became evident at this time in a series of sermons he delivered in the college chapel, which were subsequently published as A Discourse on Passive Obedience.

In 1713 Berkeley obtained a leave of absence from his academic responsibilities and went to England. He intended to arrange for the publication of his Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous, written in answer to objections against his Principles, and also to "make acquaintance with men of merit." In London his charm and wit were instantly appreciated. Swift introduced him at court and recorded the event in his journal:

"That Mr. Berkeley is a very ingenious man, and I have mentioned him to all the Ministers, and I will favour him as much as I can."

Pope made him the gift of "a very ingenious new poem," Steele invited him to write for his paper, the Guardian, and Addison entertained him with wine at the premiere of his Cato.

Most of the time between 1714 and 1721 Berkeley spent in travel on the continent. Swift secured him an appointment as chaplain to Lord Peterborough, special ambassador for the coronation of the King of Sicily, and he spent the greater part of 1714 in France and Italy. His return at the end of that year coincided with the fall from power of his friends, and, being unable to obtain an appointment to his liking, he accepted another opportunity to travel on the continent, this time as tutor to the son of the Bishop of Clogher, who had presided at his ordination. Berkeley held this position from 1716 until 1721. He spent most of the time in Italy where, in addition to his tutorial work, he explored antiquities and art treasures and devoted considerable attention to the observation of natural phenomena. On one occasion he climbed Vesuvius while it was erupting, and his notes on the event were later published in the Transactions of the Philosophical Society.

Berkeley returned to England in 1721 to find the country in the midst of the social crisis caused by the bursting of the South Sea Bubble. He published his view of the affair in the Essay towards preventing the Ruin of Great Britain, in which he proposed extensive sumptuary laws, encouragement of the arts, and return to a simpler life. Soon afterwards, he conceived his project for the encouragement of religion among the American natives by the establishment of a college in Bermuda. To his friend, Lord Percival, to whom he had dedicated the Theory of Vision, he sent his verses prophesying, "Westward the course of Empire takes its way," and in a letter declared his determination "to spend the rest of my days in the island of Bermuda." In 1723 Esher Vanhomrigh, Swift's "Vanessa," somewhat mysteriously left him half of her property, amounting to four thousand pounds, although Berkeley claimed that she was "a perfect stranger." A year later he was appointed to the rich Deanery of Derry. The resulting improvement of his fortunes made it possible for him to pursue his Bermuda project with greater vigor. In 1724 he returned to London and published his pamphlet entitled A Proposal for the Better Supplying of Churches in our Foreign Plantations and for Converting the Savage Americans to Christianity. In addition to obtaining many private subscriptions for his plan, he persuaded Parliament to promise a grant of twenty thousand pounds, and obtained a royal charter for his projected college.

In 1728 he married the daughter of the chief justice of Ireland and with three companions departed for America. The group settled first at Newport, Rhode Island, with the aim of buying lands and stock to supply the college at Bermuda and of encouraging commerce between the island and the mainland. But with Berkeley away from London, Parliament showed no inclination to forward the promised grant, and in 1731 it became clear that the project was a failure. During the rest of his sojourn in America, Berkeley devoted himself to study, preached occasionally, and wrote his Alciphron, or the Minute Philosopher. On his departure he left his farm, house, and library to Yale. Although his own plans had failed, he continued to follow with lively interest the progress of education in America and on several later occasions donated books to both Yale and Harvard.

For the last eighteen years of his life Berkeley was Bishop of Cloyne in Ireland. The year he became bishop he published his Analyst (1734), in which he criticised Newtonian mathematics and suggested certain corrections. Between 1735 and 1737 he published a series of papers entitled The Querist, which dealt with the welfare of Ireland. The plague years of 1740 and 1741 led him to publish his Siris, or a Chain of Philosophical Reflexions and Enquiries concerning the Virtues of Tar-Water (1744). He had encountered the medicinal use of tar-water while in America, and in this work he endeavored to account for its allegedly universal curative powers by means of certain neo-Platonic doctrines, which he had studied during his stay in Rhode Island.

Berkeley's health, which had begun to fail, was seriously affected by the death of his eldest son in 1750. He had long wanted to retire to Oxford and now in order to be with his younger son, who was studying there, he took the extraordinary step of resigning his bishopric. The King refused to accept his resignation and declared that he might live where he chose but he must die a bishop. Berkeley moved to Oxford in 1752. He died there the following year on January 14 and was buried in Christ Church.