John Wild (essay date 1936)
SOURCE: “The Meaning of Berkeley,” in George Berkeley: A Study of his Life and Philosophy, Russell & Russell, 1962, pp. 480-502.
[In the following essay, which was written in 1936, Wild provides a survey of Berkeley's career and an overview of his philosophical development.]
Berkeley completed the Siris, his last and definitive philosophical work, in 1744. His health, already failing, was further impaired by the exhausting study and meditation which had been necessary for its composition. He himself declared, according to his first biographer Stock, “that this work cost him more time and pains than any other he had ever been engaged in.” He was able, however, to carry on his episcopal duties with unabated zeal, and several more or less occasional writings of this period have survived.
Among these is a “Letter to the Roman Catholics of The Diocese of Cloyne,” which he wrote in 1745 in a remarkably sympathetic tone, advising them against siding with the Pretender, whose conquest, he maintained, would be a disaster to them as well as to the representatives of the Irish Protestant Church, whom he similarly advised in “A Letter to his Clergy by the Bishop of Cloyne on the Occasion of the Rebellion in 1745.” The friendly recognition of Catholics by a Protestant Bishop was an unprecendented step in the history of the Irish Church.
The See of Cloyne had never been congenial,1 and the Earl of Chesterfield, who had come to admire Berkeley's character,2 and who was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1745, offered to translate him to the far more pleasant and lucrative Bishopric of Clogher.3 Berkeley, however, “did not love episcopal translations,”4 and in spite of the entreaties of his intimate friends refused the offer.5 In 1746 he was mentioned in connection with the Primacy.6 His indifference to this suggestion, however, is indicated in a letter to Prior written in 1747.7 “As to what you say,” writes Berkeley, “that the Primacy would have been a glorious thing, for my part 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 … and for doing good to the world, I imagine I may, upon the whole, do as much in a lower station.” The extent to which he loathed the whole machinery of self-promotion involved in ecclesiastical preferment is also revealed in the following ironical letter which he addressed at this time to Dr. Clarke, the Vice Provost of Trinity College, who had solicited his recommendation. Berkeley writes:8
I would not suppose your affairs are at all the worse for my not being in towne; for, to speak the truth, I would have been of no use with my Lord Lieutenant unless he had given me a decent opportunity of speaking to the point by consulting or advising with me about it, a thing which I had no right to expect. I have been told His Excellency expressed a particular esteem for you publickly at the Castle, on occasion of the compliment you made him on his first arrival. This personal prepossession in your favour, grounded on his sense of your merit, is, in my opinion, worth twenty recommendations, even of those great men in power, who alone have a right to make them. To conclude, I wish you all success in your undertakings, being with sincere regard &.
That the remoteness of the realm, into which his practical speculation had led him tended to make him even somewhat oblivious to ecclesiastical as distinguished from theological issues is indicated by the essay addressed to the Irish Catholics in 1749, entitled A Word to the Wise or an Exhortation to the R. C. Clergy of Ireland, in which he pleads for tolerance and cooperation to achieve the welfare of “Our Country.” He comments particularly upon the poverty and sloth of the “native Irish” as a disgrace to the land and to the Church. He says that the prevailing conditions lead one to suspect that the Irish are the only nation which is “wedded to dirt on principle,” but he, for his part, refuses to believe that there is any necessary connection between indolence and Catholicism.9 He exhorts the Catholic clergy “to act with vigour in this cause”10 of awakening their fellow “wretched countrymen from their sweet dream of sloth.” In some cases, he concludes, it is wise even “ab hoste doceri,” but qualifies this remark almost immediately by a final paragraph which is as characteristic for its tact as for its spirit of tolerance. “In truth,” he says, “I am no enemy to your persons, whatever I may think of your tenets. On the contrary, I am your sincere well-wisher. I consider you as my countrymen, as fellow-subjects, as professing belief in the same Christ. And I do most sincerely wish, there was no other contest between us but—who shall most completely practice the precepts of Him by whose name we are called, and whose disciples we all profess to be.”11 A very civil reply, signed by the Roman Catholic clergy of the Diocese of Dublin, was printed soon after in the Dublin Journal.
Berkeley saw clearly that he was fighting a losing battle against Deism and “free-thinking,” and that his contemporaries were being carried in a direction diametrically opposed to that of his own conviction and life. The “impiety” and “indifference” within as well as without the Church continuously oppressed his thought. In a letter to his friend Gervais,12 he speaks of the “wretched and unhappy times,” and concludes with the melancholy words of Horace:
Aetas Parentum, pejor avis, tulit Nos nequiores, mox daturos Progeniem vitiosiorem.
The extent to which his hard-headed countrymen had misread the clear and simple treatises of his youth leads him to see the hopelessness of expecting them to follow him into the transcendental regions where his later speculations had taken him. The thought takes ever firmer possession of his mind that he is now a stranger to the time. In a short letter concerning earthquakes,13 he concludes that there seems nothing in the physical situation of London which should render it immune to such a catastrophe, and “whether,” he remarks, “there be anything in the moral state thereof that should exempt it from that fear, I leave others to judge.”
His health was becoming too precarious for the performance of anything more than his necessary ecclesiastical duties. In 1750, however, a short collection of conversational aphorisms preserved by his wife was published under the title Maxims Concerning Patriotism.14 According to the twentieth maxim, “He who saith there is no such thing as an honest man, you may be sure is himself a knave,” and the incident of which this statement is perhaps the conclusion is recorded in full by his daughter-in-law:
His predecessor once on a visit at Cloyne to Bishop Berkeley asserted (a vast circle at the table) that “all mankind were either knaves or fools.” Bishop Berkeley instantly said, “Pray my good Lord, to which class does your Lordship belong?” He hummed a little while, then replied “Why, I believe to both.” Bishop Berkeley made a graceful assenting bow; and, when relating the anecdote, used to say “There never was a truer character given by man of any man.”15
In 1751 his son William died, and the letter which he wrote his friend Benson, Bishop of Gloucester, shows how deeply he was affected. “I had set mine heart too much upon him,” he writes, “more perhaps than I ought to have done upon anything in this world.” The final paragraph reveals clearly the sense of spiritual isolation that increasingly marked his later years. “Thus much suffer me,” he concludes, “in the overflowing of my soul to say to your Lordship, who, though distant in place, are much nearer to my heart than any of my neighbors.”16 His daughter-in-law states that, after this time, he seemed to see William “incessantly” before his eyes.17 But though ill and feeble, he continued to supervise the education of his surviving children and to carry on his ecclesiastical duties.
In the spring of 1751 he published, on Whitsunday, a sermon on the text: “Thy will be done in earth as it is in Heaven,” which was probably his farewell to the pulpit, and which constitutes the last surviving record of his speculative life. His thought has now reached a stage impossible to express in an abstractly philosophical form, though he is equally far from an abstract anti-rationalism. There is now no trace of the juvenile enthusiasm for reason which had led him previously to hope great things from the “new philosophy,” to place the human mind at the heart of reality, and to subordinate even God, as in the Passive Obedience, to the eternal laws of nature. This sermon is saturated with the thought of transcendence. “Religion,” he says, “is nothing else but the conforming our faith and practice to the will of God. To this single point,” he adds, “may be reduced all religion, all moral vertue, all human happiness.”18 The infinite difference between this God and the rational postulate of the early works is indicated by Berkeley's statement that “our understanding is in its own nature not only very weak and imperfect, but much obscured by passion and prejudice.”19 There are, he says, “many unsearchable perfections in the Deity, whose nature is infinitely above our knowledge. …”20
Yet Berkeley's scepticism is far too radical to enable him to find refuge in irrationalism. If the natural light of reason is an untrustworthy guide, as it most evidently is, then it is even more absurd to trust any other human faculty, such as will. “It will be very evident,” says Berkeley, “that we are too imperfect creatures to be governed by our own wills,”21 and again, “our power is at least as imperfect as our knowledge.”22 The weakness and fallibility of reason are, indeed, discovered by reason itself, not by any other “higher sense.” Reason is man's “distinguishing character,”23 and “whatsoever is most reasonable is most natural to him.”24 It is not, therefore, necessary to rely upon any mystic intuition to “shew how reasonable it is, that the will of God should be done upon earth.”25 It is reason itself which appreciates that “there is no reason so right, no rule so just as the will of God,”26 and hence passes beyond itself to revelation. Indeed, what we call reason is only the beginning of this passage beyond itself, and reason, taken concretely in its entirety, is precisely the revelation of that which is transcendent. It is only in this “subordinate” position, as dependent on a perfection which is higher than itself, that reason ceases to be dependent upon something lower than itself, and thus becomes what it truly is, the mediator or λόγοs.
We now find hardly a trace of the subjectivism and psychologism of his youth. Percipi, far from contributing to the objectivity of esse, is rather a relativizing and distorting factor. What is true in our perceptions is derived from an esse existing in its own right, and hence lying beyond them. Reason itself cannot achieve true being, though it may lead us away from the flux of mere perception, and thus point the way. There is no esse cognoscere, however, for “our understanding is in its own nature … weak and imperfect.”27 The more we think, the more we are led away from thought to that which lies essentially beyond it as its source, the principle of value (o oν oντωs). It is with respect to this underlying principle that the dialectical contrast between the objective and the subjective, what truly is and what seems to be, the truly transcendent and the spuriously transcendent, becomes most sharply defined. Hence, Berkeley now abandons the identification of the good with the dogmatic concept of interest, uncritically accepted in the Commonplace Book28 as that which men desire. Solipsism in ethics can no more withstand scepticism than solipsism in epistemology. It is, says Berkeley, “no sure sign that a thing is good, because we desire, or evil because we are displeased with it.”29
This fundamental antithesis between practical action and the transcendental norm conditioning it is the final “result,” if it may be so called, of Berkeley's concrete logic, since the synthesis of reason is only the mediation of this polarity. Reason itself, in its entirety, is practical in character, and hence, like every other form of action, reduced to relativity and subordination by its norm. The last “result” of Berkeley's concrete logic is an antithesis rather than a synthesis. Beyond the speculative absolute of reason is the absolute itself and the “creatures.”30 “Life” is neither an idealistic absorption in the divine whole nor a naturalistic process, but a voyage or “pilgrimage”31 in which “we” are brought into relation with that which we are not. Neither as “organisms” nor as phases of the absolute would we be what we really are, “creatures” acting from choice. Prior to “the infinite mind of all things” is man the creature; prior to synthesis is antithesis. But practical or axiological choice is confronted not by a being which at the same time is not, and a non-being which nevertheless is, but by an absolute antithesis, the either/or. This absolute antithesis, between a being which truly is and a non-being which is not, is prior to the mediating antitheses of reason which are at the same time syntheses. Prior to theory is practice.
The final human virtue is “resignation,”32 in which “the inferior faculties remain subordinate,”33 and man sinks to the level of a “creature.” The “will or mind of man, in this subordinate, regular situation, may be said to act in its proper sphere, and answer the ends for which it was created.”34 This is the positive side of virtue. But, since virtue can never be complete, this aspect alone is an abstraction. Resignation is primarily antithesis. The will of man cannot be “thus subordinate,”35 and hence must remain “dislocated” and “be restless and uneasy.”36 We are to live our lives neither with the easy confidence of the pagan nor with the fanatical confidence of the mystic but with “care.”37 Virtue itself is beyond our reach. We may hope only for “zeal.”38
It is obviously impossible to reconcile Berkeley's last sermon with the mystical dream-idealism of his early writings, which historical tradition has permanently attached to his name. In this last surviving fragment, he does not speak as one whose philosophy has united him permanently with the universe, nor as one who has been able to quiet his doubts by pleasant dreams, either rational or emotional. What seems rather to dominate these pages is that “distrust” of which he spoke in the Commonplace Book39 as having “disposed” him even in childhood for “new doctrines.” The concrete level of existence to which this “distrust” has finally forced him is dominated by antithesis rather than synthesis, by anxiety rather than confidence. Berkeley speaks in his last address not as the mouth-piece of the λόγοs, but as a man. The nothingness which he had so vainly endeavored to grasp in his reflections assumes in this context the more concrete shape of death, and the restless scepticism which had led him “through all the sciences”40 now takes the more concrete form of an “anxiety” or “care,” appropriate not so much for a disembodied spirit as for a man about to die.
His Will, drawn in July 1752, contains an item which seems astonishingly inconsistent to those who accept the common view of Berkeley as a romantic subjectivist or “immaterialist,” but which loses something of its strangeness when read in the light of his later reflections. The document reads as follows:41
In the name of God Amen. I, George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, being sound of mind and memory, do make this my last Will and Testament.
First, I do humbly recommend my Soul into the hands of my blessed Redeemer by whose merits and intercession I hope for Mercy.
As to my Body and Effects, I dispose of them in the following manner:—
It is my will that my Body be buried in the Churchyard of the parish in which I die:
Item, that the expense of my funeral do not exceed twenty pounds, and that as much more be given to the poor of the parish where I die:
Item, that my Body, before it is buried, be kept five days above ground or longer, even till it grow offensive by the cadaverous smell, and that during the said time it lye unwashed, undisturbed, and covered by the same bed-clothes in the same bed the head being raised upon pillows.
Item, that my dear wife Anne be sole executrix of this my Will, and guardian of my children—to which said wife Anne I leave and bequeathe all my worldly goods and substance, to be disposed of as to her shall seem good:
Item, it is my will that in case my said wife should die intestate, all my worldly goods, substance and possessions of what kind soever, shall be equally divided among my children:
In witness whereof I have herewith put my hand and seal this thirty-first day of July Anno Domini, One thousand seven hundred and fifty-two.
It is apparent that the curious item concerning the “body” is not written from the standpoint of “immaterialism.” Berkeley's concrete logic has, indeed, carried him beyond all isms. He speaks now not as a “spirit” but as a “man,” confronting the nothingness which hovers over all concrete existence. The item undoubtedly expresses a certain lack of confidence in medical science, which is not surprising in the author of the Siris. Berkeley wishes to die, as he had come to live, remote from the thoughts and attentions of his contemporaries, in peace and “undisturbed.”
The deaths of his old friends Prior and Benson intensified his sense of loneliness. In a letter written in the previous spring42 to the active Gervais he had expressed his intention of finding a retreat where he could die in peace, as far as possible from that modern spirit which he could now no longer share.
For my own part I submit to years and infirmities. My views in this world are mean and narrow: it is a thing in which I have small share, and which ought to give me small concern. I abhor business, and especially to have to do with great persons and great affairs, which I leave to such as you who delight in them and are fit for them. The evening of life I choose to pass in a quiet retreat. Ambitious projects, intrigues and quarrels of statesmen, are things I have formerly been amused with; but they now seem to be a vain, fugitive dream.
In 1752, Berkeley took active steps to realize this dream of retiring even further from the world to “that city of eternal evening” where he had first sensed the futility of worldly affairs, and where “a number of gentlemen living independently” make “divine things their study.”43 Accordingly, he attempted to resign his Bishopric, but George II, curious as to the origin of this strange application, upon discovering the identity of the applicant, swore that Berkeley should die a Bishop, though he might live where he pleased. In August, 1752, he set out for Oxford with his wife, daughter, and son. He was so ill that for the last part of the journey he had to be carried on a litter, but he survived the change of domicile, and settled down in a small house on Broad Street near Christ Church. For the next months he lived the life for which he had so long hoped, revising and editing several of his works, but spending most of his days in quiet meditation. On the fourteenth of January, at tea, while his wife was reading to him from the fifteenth chapter of the First Epistle to the Corinthians,44 his daughter, offering him another cup, observed that he did not reach out his hand, and it was discovered that he was dead.
BERKELEY'S PHILOSOPHICAL DEVELOPMENT
To one first becoming acquainted with Berkeley's philosophy as a whole, it appears more as a chaos of conflicting theories and opinions than as a consistent “system.” In the early writings he is an empiricist, denying the pure concept as an abstraction, or even a word, and appealing to direct sensory experience and the psychical “action” of the will as the only concrete realities. In the Siris, sense experience and will sink to the level of “fleeting shadows,” possessing no intrinsic reality, since they are always in fieri, and reality itself is held to be apprehended only through the pure concept. In the early writings, the realm of nature is no more than appearance for the individual self, and the view of matter, even as an instrument in the hands of God, is dismissed as too extravagant for serious discussion. In the Siris, Berkeley takes great pains to outline a philosophy of nature based upon just such an “imperceptible,” material instrument. It is not difficult to recognize Locke, even where disagreement with him is expressed, as the great inspirer of the Commonplace Book, whereas in the Siris he is not even mentioned.
The difference between the youthful and the mature Berkeley is perhaps most clearly understood when we realize the extent to which all the early positions revolve about man as psychologically conceived. Reality is what man perceives or wills. The good is what man psychologically desires. Even God is a necessary rational postulate constructed after the analogy of the human soul. In the later writings, man sinks to a “subordinate” position, and humanism is replaced by transcendentalism. Being is no longer being because we take it to be so, nor is anything true because we believe it, nor anything really good because we desire it. Truth, being, and value, as humanly conceived, are seen to be possible only through a transcendental perfection. Man himself can be what he is only through his relation to that which lies beyond himself essentially. This is without doubt the chief contrast dominating Berkeley's works as a whole, and dividing them into an earlier and later group. But many other differences, often occurring in successive works, strike the eye of even the superficial reader. There is, for example, the sharp antithesis between the loose pragmatic procedure advocated in the Alciphron and the rigid rationalism of the Analyst, and there are many other “contradictions” no less evident. If Berkeley's thought as a whole is to be comprehended it must be conceived as a development. Without a sense of the direction of his reflections, they dissolve into a chaos of separate “positions.” When understood chronologically, however, these isolated points become significant.
The key to this development, as we have attempted to show, is Berkeley's theory of abstraction, or what we have called his “concrete logic.” This is the constant method which, expressing itself in the various positions through which Berkeley successively...
(The entire section is 9929 words.)