George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne of the Anglican Church of Ireland known as Bishop Berkeley, is born at his family home, Dysart Castle, near Thomastown, County Kilkenny, on March 12, 1685. He is an Anglo-Irish philosopher whose primary achievement is the advancement of a theory he calls “immaterialism” (later referred to as “subjective idealism” by others). This theory denies the existence of material substance and instead contends that familiar objects like tables and chairs are ideas perceived by the mind and, as a result, cannot exist without being perceived. He is also known for his critique of abstraction, an important premise in his argument for immaterialism.
Berkeley is the eldest son of William Berkeley, a cadet of the noble family of Berkeley whose ancestry can be traced back to the Anglo-Saxon period and who had served as feudal lords and landowners in Gloucester, England. Little is known of his mother. He is educated at Kilkenny College and attends Trinity College Dublin, where he is elected a Scholar in 1702, being awarded BA in 1704 and MA and a Fellowship in 1707. He remains at Trinity College after completion of his degree as a tutor and Greek lecturer.
Berkeley’s earliest publication is on mathematics, but the first that brings him notice is his An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision, first published in 1709. In the essay, he examines visual distance, magnitude, position and problems of sight and touch. While this work raises much controversy at the time, its conclusions are now accepted as an established part of the theory of optics.
The next publication to appear is A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge in 1710, which has great success and gives him a lasting reputation, though few accept his theory that nothing exists outside the mind. This is followed in 1713 by Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, in which he propounds his system of philosophy, the leading principle of which is that the world, as represented by our senses, depends for its existence on being perceived.
For this theory, the Principles gives the exposition and the Dialogues the defence. One of his main objectives is to combat the prevailing materialism of his time. The theory is largely received with ridicule, while even those such as Samuel Clarke and William Whiston, who do acknowledge his “extraordinary genius,” are nevertheless convinced that his first principles are false.
Shortly afterwards, Berkeley visits England and is received into the circle of Joseph Addison, Alexander Pope and Richard Steele. In the period between 1714 and 1720, he intersperses his academic endeavours with periods of extensive travel in Europe, including one of the most extensive Grand Tours of the length and breadth of Italy ever undertaken. In 1721, he takes holy orders in the Church of Ireland, earning his doctorate in divinity, and once again chooses to remain at Trinity College Dublin, lecturing this time in Divinity and in Hebrew. In 1721-22 he is made Dean of Dromore and, in 1724, Dean of Derry.
In 1723, following her violent quarrel with Jonathan Swift, who had been her intimate friend for many years, Esther Vanhomrigh names Berkeley her co-heir along with the barrister Robert Marshall. Her choice of legatees causes a good deal of surprise since she does not know either of them well, although Berkeley as a very young man had known her father. Swift says generously that he does not grudge Berkeley his inheritance, much of which vanishes in a lawsuit in any event. A story that Berkeley and Marshall disregarded a condition of the inheritance that they must publish the correspondence between Swift and Vanhomrigh is probably untrue.
In 1725, Berkeley begins the project of founding a college in Bermuda for training ministers and missionaries in the colony, in pursuit of which he gives up his deanery with its income of £1100.
In 1728, Berkeley marries Anne Forster, daughter of John Forster, Chief Justice of the Irish Common Pleas, and his first wife Rebecca Monck. He then goes to America on a salary of £100 per annum. He lands near Newport, Rhode Island, where he buys a plantation at Middletown – the famous “Whitehall.” He purchases several enslaved Africans to work on the plantation. He also brings John Smibert to New England, the Scottish artist he “discovered” in Italy, who is generally regarded as the founding father of American portrait painting. Meanwhile, he draws up plans for the ideal city he plans to build on Bermuda. He lives at the plantation while he waits for funds for his college to arrive. The funds, however, are not forthcoming and he leaves America and returns to London in 1732.
Berkeley and his wife have four children who survive infancy: Henry, George, William and Julia, and at least two other children who die in infancy. William’s death in 1751 is a great cause of grief to his father.
Berkeley is nominated to be the Bishop of Cloyne in the Church of Ireland on January 18, 1734. He is consecrated as such on May 19, 1734. He is the Bishop of Cloyne until his death on January 14, 1753, although he dies at Oxford.
While living in London’s Saville Street, Berkeley takes part in efforts to create a home for the city’s abandoned children. The Foundling Hospital is founded by royal charter in 1739, and Berkeley is listed as one of its original governors.
Berkeley’s last two publications are Siris: A Chain of Philosophical Reflexions and Inquiries Concerning the Virtues of Tarwater, And divers other Subjects connected together and arising one from another (1744) and Further Thoughts on Tar-water (1752). Pine tar is an effective antiseptic and disinfectant when applied to cuts on the skin, but he argues for the use of pine tar as a broad panacea for diseases. His 1744 work on tar-water sells more copies than any of his other books during Berkeley’s lifetime.
Berkeley remains at Cloyne until 1752, when he retires. With his wife and daughter Julia, he goes to Oxford to live with his son George and supervise his education. He dies soon afterwards and is buried in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. His affectionate disposition and genial manners make him much loved and held in warm regard by many of his contemporaries. Anne outlives her husband by many years, dying in 1786.
(Pictured: “Bishop George Berkeley,” oil on canvas portrait by John Smibert, c. 1727)