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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
George Berkeley (1685–1753)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
FEW readers in the United States are unfamiliar with the lines, “Westward the course of empire takes its way.” It is vaguely remembered that a certain Bishop Berkeley was the author of a treatise on tar-water. There is moreover a general impression that this Bishop Berkeley contended for the unreality of all things outside of his own mind, and now and then some recall Byron’s lines—
  “When Bishop Berkeley said ‘there was no matter,’
  And proved it,—’twas no matter what he said.”
This is the substance of the popular knowledge of one of the profoundest thinkers of the early part of the eighteenth century,—the time of Shaftesbury and Locke, of Addison and Steele, of Butler, Pope, and Swift,—one of the most fascinating men of his day, and one of the best of any age. Beside, or rather above, Byron’s line should be placed Pope’s tribute:—
  “To Berkeley, every virtue under Heaven.”
  Berkeley was born in Ireland, probably at Dysart Castle in the Valley of the Nore, near Kilkenny, March 12, 1685. The family having but lately come into Ireland, Berkeley always accounted himself an Englishman. At Kilkenny School he met the poet Prior, who became his intimate friend, his business representative, and his most regular correspondent for life. Swift preceded him at this school and at Trinity College, Dublin, whither Berkeley went March 21, 1700, being then fifteen years of age. Here as at Kilkenny he took rank much beyond his years, and was soon deep in philosophical speculations.  2
  In Professor Fraser’s edition of the ‘Life and Works of Berkeley’ appears a ‘Common-Place Book,’ kept during the Trinity College terms, and full of most remarkable memoranda for a youth of his years. In 1709, while still at Trinity, he published an ‘Essay toward a New Theory of Vision,’ which foreshadowed imperfectly his leading ideas. In the following year he published a ‘Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge.’ Two or three years later he went to London, where he was received with unusual favor and quickly became intimate in the literary circles of the day. He made friends everywhere, being attractive in all ways, young, handsome, graceful, fascinating in discourse, enthusiastic, and full of thought. Swift was especially impressed by him, and did much to further his fortunes.  3
  His philosophical conceptions he at this time popularized in ‘Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous,’ a work rated by some critics as at the head of its class.  4
  Before going to London, Berkeley had been made a Fellow of Trinity, had been appointed to various college offices, and had taken orders. He remained away from Dublin for about eight years, on leave frequently extended, writing in London, and traveling, teaching, and writing on the Continent. On his return from his foreign travels in 1720 or 1721, he found society completely demoralized by the collapse of the South Sea bubble. He was much depressed by the conditions around him, and sought to awaken the moral sense of the people by ‘An Essay toward Preventing the Ruin of Great Britain.’ Returning to Dublin and resuming college duties, he was shortly made Dean of Dromore, and then Dean of Derry. Hardly had he received these dignified appointments when he began planning to rid himself of them, being completely absorbed in a scheme for a University in the Bermudas, which should educate scholars, teachers, and ministers for the New World, to which his hope turned. To this scheme he devoted himself for many years. A singular occurrence, which released him from pecuniary cares, enabled him to give his time as well as his heart to the work. Miss Vanhomrigh, the ‘Vanessa’ of Swift, upon her mother’s death, left London, and went to live in Ireland, to be near her beloved Dean; and there she was informed of Swift’s marriage to ‘Stella.’ The news killed her, but she revoked the will by which her fortune was bequeathed to Swift, and left one-half of it, or about £4,000, to Berkeley, whom she had met but once. He must have “kept an atmosphere,” as Bagehot says of Francis Horner.  5
  Going to London on fire with his great scheme, prepared to resign his deanery and cast in his lot with that of the proposed University, Berkeley wasted years in the effort to secure a charter and grant from the administration. His enthusiasm and his fascinating manners effected much, and over and over again only the simplest formalities seemed necessary to success. Only the will of Sir Robert Walpole stood in the way, but Walpole’s will sufficed. At last, in September, 1728, tired of waiting at court, Berkeley, who had just married, sailed with three or four friends, including the artist Smibert, for Rhode Island, intending to await there the completion of his grant, and then proceed to Bermuda. He bought a farm near Newport, and built a house which he called Whitehall, in which he lived for about three years, leaving a tradition of a benignant but retired and scholastic life. Among the friends who were here drawn to him was the Rev. Samuel Johnson of Stratford, afterward the first President of King’s (now Columbia) College, with whom he corresponded during the remainder of his life, and through whom he was able to aid greatly the cause of education in America.  6
  The Newport life was idyllic. Berkeley wrote home that the winters were cooler than those of the South of Ireland, but not worse than he had known in Italy. He brought over a good library, and read and wrote. The principal work of this period, written in a romantic cleft in the rocks, was ‘Alciphron, or the Minute Philosopher,’ in seven dialogues, directed especially against atheism.  7
  At length, through Lord Percival, Berkeley learned that Walpole would not allow the parliamentary grant of £20,000 for the Bermuda College, and returned to England at the close of 1732. His Whitehall estate he conveyed to Yale College for the maintenance of certain scholarships. From England he sent over nearly a thousand volumes for the Yale library, the best collection of books ever brought at one time to America, being helped in the undertaking by some of the Bermuda subscribers. A little later he sent a collection of books to Harvard College also, and presented a valuable organ to Trinity Church in Newport.  8
  Shortly after his return, Berkeley was appointed Bishop of Cloyne, near Cork in Ireland, and here he remained for about eighteen years. Although a recluse, he wrote much, and he kept up his loving relations with old friends who still survived. He had several children to educate, and he cultivated music and painting. He attempted to establish manufactures, and to cultivate habits of industry and refinement among the people. The winter of 1739 was bitterly cold. This was followed by general want, famine, and disease. Berkeley and his family lived simply and gave away what they could save. Large numbers of the people died from an epidemic. In America Berkeley’s attention had been drawn to the medicinal virtues of tar, and he experimented successfully with tar-water as a remedy. Becoming more and more convinced of its value, he exploited his supposed discovery with his usual ardor, writing letters and essays, and at length ‘A Chain of Philosophical Reflections and Enquiries concerning the Virtues of Tar-water and divers other subjects connected together and arising one from another.’ This was called ‘Siris’ in a second edition which was soon demanded. Beginning with the use of tar-water as a remedy, the treatise gradually developed into the treatment of the largest themes, and offered the ripest fruits of the Bishop’s philosophy.  9
  Berkeley’s system was neither consistent nor complete, but much of it remains sound. In brief, he contended that matter has no independent existence, but is an idea in the supreme mind, which is realized in various forms by the human mind. Without mind nothing exists. Cause cannot exist except as it rests in mind and will. All so-called physical causes are merely cases of constant sequence of phenomena. Far from denying the reality of phenomena, Berkeley insists upon it; but contends that reality depends upon the supremacy of mind. Abstract matter does not and cannot exist. The mind can only perceive qualities of objects, and infers the existence of the objects from them; or as a modern writer tersely puts it, “The only thing certain is mind. Matter is a doubtful and uncertain inference of the human intellect.”  10
  The essay upon Tar-water attracted great attention. The good bishop wrote much also for periodicals, mainly upon practical themes; and in The Querist, an intermittent journal, considered many matters of ethical and political importance to the country. Though a bishop of the Established Church, he lived upon the most friendly terms with his Roman Catholic neighbors, and his labors were highly appreciated by them.  11
  But his life was waning. His friends had passed away, he had lost several children, his health was broken. He desired to retire to Oxford and spend the remainder of his life in scholarly seclusion. He asked to exchange his bishopric for a canonry, but this could not be permitted. He then begged to be allowed to resign his charge, but the king replied that he might live where he pleased, but that he should die a bishop in spite of himself. In August, 1752, Bishop Berkeley removed himself, his wife, his daughter, and his goods to Oxford, where his son George was a student; and here on the fourteenth of the following January, as he was resting on his couch by the fireside at tea-time, his busy brain stopped thinking, and his kind heart ceased to beat.  12

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