[Marxism] Terry Eagleton on Bishop Berkeley

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Apr 17 19:30:24 MDT 2013

LRB Vol. 35 No. 8 · 25 April 2013
What you see is what you get
Terry Eagleton

     The Correspondence of George Berkeley edited by Marc Hight
     Cambridge, 674 pp, £75.00, November 2012, ISBN 978 1 107 00074 2

George Berkeley’s claim that things exist only when they are being 
perceived has a lot to do with his Irishness. There are Irish people 
nowadays who cross the street when they see a priest approaching; but 
Ireland has traditionally been an intensely religious nation, and much 
of its thought, right down to questions of epistemology or political 
economy, has been influenced by this. Berkeley was a cleric, and saw the 
whole of Creation as the language of God, a discourse in which he 
communicated with his creatures. Things, he believed, exist as ideas in 
the mind of the Creator, and are conveyed to our minds by his power. 
What looks like an autonomous material world, then, is really the medium 
of a spiritual dialogue. Substance is really signification, a notion 
that crops up as late as Joyce’s sense of objects as signatures of the 
invisible. The idea is really eucharistic, though Berkeley would 
probably not have thought so: in the eucharist, the bread and wine cease 
to be material entities and become a medium of pure presence.

Much of this is standard Neoplatonist stuff, by no means unique to 
Berkeley; it’s just that he drew some startling epistemological 
consequences from it. There had always been a certain aversion to 
materialism in Irish thought, and Berkeley simply presses it to a 
logical if implausible end-point, abolishing matter altogether. What 
replaces it, essentially, is God. In a letter in this volume, he 
entreats a friend to note not that his work denies the existence of 
matter, but that it is intended to promote ‘true knowledge and 
religion’. The two cases are closely linked, though modern philosophical 
commentators, not being much interested in religion, usually fail to 
register the fact.

Things in Berkeley’s view were really signs, eloquent expressions of the 
Almighty; and just as there is no meaning without an interpreter, so the 
world lives only in our response to it. On this view, the doctrine that 
reality exists independently of the mind is a kind of fetishism or 
reification. Theologically speaking, it is also a form of idolatry. It 
treats as an object in its own right what is really a piece of divine 
discourse, rather as one might mistake a poem for a piece of matter. 
Nature is to be seen not as an end in itself, but as centred on 
humanity. Perhaps it is significant that Irish poets before Heaney 
(Yeats, for example) do not typically portray the natural world with the 
rich specificity of Keats or Hopkins. It is meaning that counts, not 
materiality. The beauties of the Irish landscape could be left to the 

Berkeley’s sense of the world as essentially spiritual has a venerable 
Irish pedigree. Reality is not thick and inert but dynamic and 
impalpable. The material world of Celtic mythology is so vital and 
animated that it is hard to distinguish it from the spiritual. The 
greatest of Irish medieval thinkers, the ninth-century philosopher John 
Scottus Eriugena, saw the cosmos as a self-delighting play of pure 
difference, in which subject and object, perceiver and perceived, were 
intimately allied. In some ways, his thought is a lot closer to 
Nietzsche and poststructuralism than it is to Leibniz or Locke. It 
certainly has more in common with Finnegans Wake than with Middlemarch. 
The Irish novel from Gulliver’s Travels and Melmoth the Wanderer to 
Dracula and The Third Policeman has generally preferred fantasy to 
reality, and much Irish thought is idealist in tendency, all the way 
from Eriugena and Berkeley to Yeats and Patrick Pearse. The real world 
is not the dingy, strife-torn island you see, but a higher spiritual or 
imaginative domain.

The Irish Dissenter John Toland fellow-travelled with pantheism, while 
Robert Clayton, a colleague of Berkeley, was convinced that Nature was 
secretly spirit. Even the great 19th-century Irish scientist John 
Tyndall, who discovered the reason the sky is blue, believed that matter 
was essentially mystical and transcendental. There is also a minor 
strain of Kantian thought in 19th-century Ireland, which fits well with 
this sense of the limits of reason.

It is no surprise, then, that the country never produced a major 
rationalism. Since epistemology is always at some level ideology, a 
rationalist faith in the shapeliness of the world is likely to ring 
hollow in a down-at-heel colony. Contemporary Irish philosophers like 
William Desmond and Joseph Dunne have inherited this anti-rationalist 
bias, either in postmodern or Wittgensteinian mode. It says much about 
this wariness of pure reason that Toland, the country’s most militant 
rationalist thinker, also traded in the occult. (He was rumoured to be 
the bastard offspring of a priest and a prostitute, thus linking the 
sacred and profane in his own person.) There is a resistance to reason 
in Irish culture, though not of the kind satirised by 19th-century Punch 
cartoons. Language, for example, is not to be seen in rationalist mode 
as precise and transparent. In Berkeley’s view, it is ambiguous, 
indeterminate stuff, an unfathomable text which can never be nailed 
down. A good many of his compatriots shared this view, beginning with 
Eriugena. If only clear concepts are acceptable, how is one to speak of 
God? The fragility of the intellect is a constant motif, from the most 
distinguished thinker of 17th-century Ireland, Robert Boyle, to such 
18th-century divines as William King, Edward Synge, Philip Skelton, 
Laurence Sterne and Jonathan Swift. Sterne, Joyce and Beckett classify 
the world compulsively, but only to make a mockery of the whole futile 
business. Walter Shandy, the obsessive rationalist of Sterne’s great 
novel, is clearly insane. Seduced by an image of pure reason, Gulliver 
ends up in much the same state.

At the same time, Ireland was wary of the empiricism of its colonial 
rulers. It was too earthbound a creed, fit for a nation of shopkeepers. 
The British were sunk in the trough of their senses, while their 
colonial subjects fixed their thoughts on higher things. They might have 
lacked a seat to their trousers, but at least they knew about the Virgin 
Birth and the immortality of the soul. ‘We Irish men cannot attain to 
these truths,’ Berkeley wrote in his Philosophical Commentaries, a faux 
colonial cringe that delighted Yeats. The nation might not have had its 
own parliament, but it had a distinctive style of thought.

Berkeley was allergic to abstract ideas, preferring the spiritual on the 
one hand and the sensuously immediate on the other. This, too, is a 
feature of Irish thought. A nervousness of abstraction underlies the 
conservative politics of Berkeley, Swift and Burke, leading them to 
belabour impious rationalists and idle utopianists. It is not surprising 
that Burke, with his passion for the particular, should have produced 
one of the first great works of aesthetics in these islands. It fitted 
well with his hatred of revolutionary rationalism across the Channel. It 
may seem odd to say that Berkeley was wary of abstractions when he 
produced such a wildly speculative doctrine as esse est percipi, but the 
truth is that he thought it no more than common sense. It was, he 
thought, what the man in the street believed too. The common people were 
not metaphysically inclined, and so did not subscribe to the notion that 
there was some mysterious ‘substance’ that supposedly underlay our 
sensory impressions of things. For them as for Berkeley himself, what 
you see is what you get. The veil of sense data is concealing the fact 
that there is nothing behind it.

All this has some vital political implications for 18th-century Ireland. 
If things are no more than our sense impressions of them, then the 
sceptic would seem to stand refuted. The gap between how objects appear 
and how they really are has been closed at a stroke. There is no need to 
worry about how we can know what is out there, since things are not out 
there in the first place. Wittgenstein professed himself puzzled by talk 
of the ‘external’ world, and Berkeley feels much the same. The point of 
reducing the world to our perceptions of it is not to dissolve it but to 
make it directly accessible to us. As a member of the Anglo-Irish 
Ascendancy, a Protestant elite marooned in a sea of potentially mutinous 
Papists, Berkeley needed to confound the sceptics if the Establishment 
he belonged to was to be secure. Scepticism struck at the root of 
religious faith: how could we know about grace and redemption if we 
could not even be sure that bananas are curved? And that, in turn, 
challenged the political authority of men like Swift and himself.

If abstract ideas were rather less fashionable in Ireland than in France 
or Germany, it was partly because they were felt to be something of a 
luxury in such a spectacularly impoverished nation. Perhaps this helps 
to account for the practical, ethical bent of so much Irish thought, 
from the ferociously anti-intellectual Swift to the 19th-century 
academic John Elliot Cairnes, a political economist and magnificent 
critic of slavery. Berkeley himself could be abstruse, but in this 
collection of his letters he can be found commenting on his plans as 
bishop of Cloyne to build ‘a workhouse for sturdy vagrants’ and 
discussing the dire state of Ireland’s economy. One of his books, The 
Querist, is devoted to social and economic issues, which Irish 
intellectuals generally found more difficult to overlook than their 
English counterparts.

Like a good many of his class, Berkeley thought that the country’s 
economic plight was partly a result of the indolence of its inhabitants. 
In an odiously condescending address to the Roman Catholic clergy of 
Ireland, reprinted in this volume, he denounces the common people as 
slothful and ‘wedded to dirt upon principle’. The Irish labourer is 
given to improvidently looking up from his work in the fields whenever a 
carriage passes by; the British working man, by contrast, speaks to you 
without interrupting his toil. Planting and tilling the earth is 
pleasant exercise, taking the ‘peasant from his smoky cabin into the 
fresh air’, and high rents should simply act as a spur to greater industry.

Berkeley refers to the common people as ‘the Irish’, implying that he 
himself is not of that breed. More exactly, he sometimes sees himself as 
Irish and sometimes doesn’t, an ambiguity he shares with other 
Ascendancy figures. The Anglo-Irish could be fervent Irish patriots when 
their interests were threatened by London, and robustly English when 
they needed to keep the Gaelic rabble at arm’s length. Berkeley and 
Swift felt that the masses had been shamefully neglected, but their 
anger at this was partly resentment of the way they themselves were 
treated by the British as a second-class ruling class. There is 
something of the Shankill Road in their ambivalence to Westminster.

Like others of his caste, Berkeley found it hard to make up his mind 
who, ethnically speaking, he was. A later Irish Protestant Trinity man, 
Samuel Beckett, was to turn this ambiguous sense of selfhood to artistic 
advantage. Wilde did so too, though torn allegiances almost did for him 
in real life. There are times when Berkeley could be unstinting in his 
praise for England, a country that ‘has the most learning, the most 
riches, the best government, the best people, and the best religion in 
the world’. He wanted a London publisher, complaining in a letter to a 
colleague that one of his most important works ‘has hardly become known 
to anyone outside this island’. Even today, Irish writers in a country 
with no sizeable publishers watch one another warily, wondering which of 
them Faber is going to take on. Sir John Percival, later Earl of Egmont, 
anxious that Berkeley might forget his roots while hobnobbing with the 
London literati, writes to inform him that even if he returns from the 
capital a changed man, ‘we will still pride ourselves that you are of 
Irish growth.’ Back in Dublin, Berkeley writes grovellingly to Percival, 
who is now in England himself, that ‘Your Lordship knows this barren 
bleak island too well to expect any news from it worth your notice.’ Yet 
he could also stand up for Ireland when the spirit moved him. In a 
letter to Percival some years earlier, he had praised Ireland as one of 
the finest countries in the world, and Dublin as one of the finest 
cities. It is true that he had not seen very many of either. Elsewhere, 
he comments that the foul English weather is enough to make him love his 
native land, ignoring the fact that the weather in Ireland is at least 
as bad.

Berkeley was one of a number of Irish-born émigrés in 18th-century 
literary London (Steele, Goldsmith, Sterne, Burke, Sheridan), and like 
most of them felt the semi-outsider’s need to be accepted. He writes 
admiringly of Steele, hardly a deep thinker or paragon of moral virtue, 
and gratefully acknowledges his friendship ‘even though he has heard I 
am a Tory’. ‘I have dined frequently at his house in Bloomsbury Square,’ 
he boasts mildly, ‘which is handsome and neatly furnished … everything 
is very genteel.’ Steele wasn’t half as genteel as the bedazzled 
Berkeley imagined: he wounded a fellow officer in a duel, knew the 
inside of a debtors’ prison, married a widow for her money and was 
arraigned for sedition before the House of Commons. Even so, he seemed a 
fount of good sense and sophisticated wit to the young Trinity don just 
off the boat from Dublin. So did Pope, ‘a man of excellent wit and 
learning’ despite being a papist. Berkeley writes to tell him how taken 
he is with the magic and ‘inexplicable beauties’ of The Rape of the 
Lock. In a heady year or so in England he breakfasted with Addison, 
dined with lords, did the rounds of the coffee houses, was introduced at 
court by Swift and dipped a toe in the charmed life of Oxford. There is 
no particular sense in the letters, however, that he was out of his 
social depth: he did, after all, spend his childhood in a castle in 
County Kilkenny.

After Berkeley returned to Ireland he spent a fair amount of time 
seeking preferment. He landed the deanship of Derry and later became 
bishop of Cloyne. For a man who didn’t believe in matter, he had a 
remarkably keen eye to his own material welfare. There are long 
stretches of arid correspondence in this volume, where Berkeley gives 
instructions about what kind of residence he would find desirable, frets 
over his South Sea shares, fends off creditors and searches for a cook 
who is able to pickle. Financial matters bulk large, not least the issue 
of the ill-starred Bermuda college. In 1722, Berkeley decided to found a 
college in Bermuda for ‘the propagation of the Gospel among the American 
savages’. This bizarre project finally collapsed for lack of funds, 
despite having won the support of both George I and the House of 
Commons; but Berkeley spent several years in pursuit of his dream, 
moving to Rhode Island for a couple of years and buying a small farm 
there. One of the unfortunate effects of this escapade, which the good 
bishop could admittedly not have foreseen, is to fill this volume with 
large tracts of tedious material.

In its high-minded eccentricity, the Bermuda project really belongs in 
Book 3 of Gulliver’s Travels, but Berkeley outdid it in sheer kookiness 
with his tar water fantasy. A mixture of water and liquid tar, he 
believed, could cure or relieve most or even all ailments, from cancer, 
leprosy and gout to epilepsy, smallpox and pneumonia. This panacea, 
about which Berkeley wrote a book, crops up all over the place in the 
later correspondence. It serves to remind us that Ireland’s greatest 
philosopher, whether annihilating the material world at the outset of 
his career or pushing quack medicine towards the end of it, was one of a 
long line of Anglo-Irish eccentrics.

Marc Hight has turned out a superbly scholarly edition of the bishop’s 
letters, considerably more complete than any previous offering and with 
some previously unpublished material. He includes a good many letters 
written to Berkeley as well as by him. Yet it is doubtful that our 
knowledge of the bishop would be much diminished if these letters had 
never seen the light of day. They say relatively little about 
philosophy, and a lot about trifling matters. There isn’t much sense of 
Berkeley as a distinctive personality. Instead, he comes across as a 
run-of-the-mill 18th-century Tory gentleman, considerably less exotic 
than his own doctrines. The fact that Jacobite rebels, officious 
creditors and unsuitable episcopal lodgings were just ideas in the mind 
of God does not seem to have stopped him from expending a good deal of 
ink on them. Those who are fascinated by the man behind the work are 
likely to conclude that the work, rather like Berkeley’s idea of sense 
impressions, is concealing very little indeed.

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