My colleague Dr. Stephen Snobelen drew my attention to a recent Irish Times article by Joe Humphreys entitled, ‘What to do about George Berkeley, Trinity figurehead and slave owner?‘ Who was George Berkeley, such that he has been lauded among the most important early modern philosophers? Was his slave-owning connected to his philosophy in some way? Given that Berkeley is perhaps the most celebrated Irish philosopher–after whom is named Berkeley, California, site of the university (represented in the 1898 print above) known for its student radicalism–is it time to rename the city and university, as well as commemorations at Trinity College Dublin? Or would that be Berk-ing up the wrong tree?
Let us begin with a brief biography of Berkeley as well as outline of aspects of his philosophy, drawing from Lisa Downing’s entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Berkeley was born in 1685 in Kilkenny and schooled at Trinity College Dublin. He became a fellow there in 1707, and was soon ordained in the Anglican Church. In his most studied works, the Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710) and Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (1713), Berkeley lays out his critique of materialism. Against Cartesian dualism and Hobbesian materialism, Berkeley argues that there are no material things which are independent of mind: a claim which led Samuel Johnson to kick a large stone and remark, ‘I refute it thus!’–in his mind, a rock-solid objection.
The principle of Berkeley’s idealism is expressed in the phrase esse est percipi (aut percipere): ‘to be is to be perceived (or to perceive)’. This has inspired the thought experiment (wrongly attributed to Berkeley), ‘if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?’–to which Berkeley’s answer would be, yes, because God hears it. In other words, Berkeley thought that his philosophy slayed the early modern dragons of scepticism and atheism: modern philosophers who, because of the unreliability of the senses, are sceptical about the nature of things; and those who take the atheistic view that material things exist independently of God. For the Irish Dean, objects do exist but as ideas of the mind, and our ideas must come from God–thus the witty limerick:
There once was a man who said “God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there’s no one about in the Quad.”
Your astonishment’s odd.
I am always about in the Quad.
And that’s why the tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by
Yours faithfully, God
Hence, one can sod the Quad (as some have called for at King’s College, to convert the parking lot out front into a lawn), but you can’t sod God.
In 1724, Berkeley undertook a project to create a college in Bermuda, which eventually fell through: the disappearance of the monies to erect this institution might well be called ‘the Bermuda Quadrangle’ (God may be in the Quad, but the cash wasn’t). He thought that Europe was in a state of moral decay, and that America could be the site of spiritual regeneration and renewal, as expressed in a 1726 poem in which he declaims that ‘There shall be sung another golden age, / The rise of empire and of arts, /…Not such as Europe breeds in her decay; / Such as she bred when fresh and young, /…Westward the course of empire takes its way’: this was the source of honouring Berkeley by naming the California city after him. He crossed the Atlantic to Rhode Island in 1728, but his project collapsed and he returned to Britain in 1731. We know that on Oct. 4, 1730, Berkeley purchased an African slave; the next year recorded that he baptised three of his slaves. As with his scheme of converting native Americans to Christianity, he thought that slavery could also be a means of Christian conversion. For Berkeley, then, God saves God’s slaves.
Can we thus draw a link between Berkeley’s philosophy and his slave-owning activity? Certainly, his religious zeal and opposition to atheism is implicitly chained and fettered to his view that slavery can serve missionary purposes. Moreover, if all human perception is enabled by God, then could forcible conversion be regarded as a return to the divine basis of reality? In such a case, his metaphysical idealism could justify the existence of a slave-owning Berk-elite.
Till next time,
Director, Early Modern Berke-lychee Studies Program