According to the theory of evolution, traits that increase survival are selected for. So for animals with beliefs, belief in truth should be selected for, since believing what is true confers advantages for survival. The theory thus neatly accounts for its own success, as our evolutionarily honed ways of knowing have finally resulted in belief in evolution.

A most telling counterexample to this smug synthesis is the eighteenth-century philosopher Bishop Berkeley, whose spectacularly false belief that the physical world does not exist secured him not only survival, but preferment. The Diocese of Cloyne to which he was appointed, which a naive physicalist geography would identify as a tract of land near Cork in Ireland, did not, in his view, consist of bogs, hovels, pigs, the bishop’s palace, and so on, but only of minds. Some of those minds, belonging to educated Protestant gentlemen such as himself, were superior to others, namely those of women and Catholics, but all of them were purely mental and the perceptions and ideas in them were caused directly by the great mind, God. The superlatives bestowed on this doctrine by near contemporaries, one of whom called it “the most outrageous whimsy that ever entered in the head of any ancient or modern madman,” have only increased with time. Berkeley’s place in the pantheon of Great Philosophers is unassailable.

His immaterialism was by no means incompatible with an interest in relatively practical matters, including politics and education. Berkeley’s opinion as to the right ordering of society is the one summed up in a later product of Protestant Ireland, the now rarely sung second verse of “All Things Bright and Beautiful”:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

His satisfaction with the divinely established order of society required him to defend it against its many enemies, notably freethinkers, who exalted reason over authority and wished to allow dissent in religious questions. Monarchy demanded absolute obedience. “Thou shalt not resist the Supreme Civil Power, is no less constant and inalterable a Rule for modelling the Behaviour of a Subject toward the Government, than multiply the Height by half the Base, is for measuring a Triangle.” This view raises the question of why the “Supreme Civil Power” deserving of loyalty was not the Jacobite heir of the regime deposed by force only some thirty years earlier, but the argumentation needed to justify the update of loyalties was not beyond a philosopher of Berkeley’s subtlety.

In education, Berkeley came to the conclusion that the Anglican church was flagging in missionary zeal and that the American colonies in particular needed an institution of higher learning in the style of his own alma mater, Trinity College Dublin. He resolved to found one. His choice of location was the counterintuitive Bermuda. He argued that the somewhat awkward location was in fact a benefit: since Native Americans would have to be kidnapped and forcibly taken there for education, a certain isolation was desirable. Bermuda also had, he believed, a better class of settler than the mainland colonies, with “more innocence, honesty and good nature, than any of our other planters, who are many of them descended from whores, vagabonds and transported criminals.” After initial success raising money, or at least promises of money, he arrived in Rhode Island in 1729 to establish a base for the enterprise. He thus became probably the first famous person to visit the North American continent (in the sense of famous inherently for achievements in the Old World, rather than for discovering or settling the New).

The established institutions of society that Berkeley defended included slavery. In Rhode Island he bought at least three slaves. He baptized them, as “slaves would only become better slaves by being Christian.” (It is not known what happened to them in the Colonies nor whether they returned with him to Ireland.)

If there is one word that best sums Berkeley up, it is “satisfaction.”

The promised funds failed to materialize, for reasons not clear but probably not Berkeley’s fault. He blamed freethinkers. He returned home, where after some time and lobbying he secured preferment to Cloyne. The majority of souls inhabiting that region were harder to baptize in the true faith than slaves, as they were Catholics. They were also, he believed, much lazier. The penal codes against Catholics were at their worst in the eighteenth century, and Berkeley had no doubt about where to place blame for the dreadful poverty of the Irish. “Indolence in Dirt is a terrible Symptom, which shews itself in our lower Irish more, perhaps, than in any People on this Side the Cape of Good Hope. . . . alas! Our poor Irish are wedded to Dirt upon Principle.” He did not, however, solely blame their Catholic faith. Having visited Italy and seen Catholics hard at work there, he wondered if the Scythian ethnic origins of the Irish might be to blame.

The Catholic problem took a turn for the worse in 1745, when the Jacobite rebellion of Bonnie Prince Charlie threatened to spill into Ireland. Berkeley prepared his own militia but, as a man of ideas, also proffered advice on military policy. One such suggestion was that shorter men be considered for military service, since a minimum height requirement is only imposed because mixed heights look bad on the parade ground. Fortunately, the crisis passed, and Berkeley was able to resume the maintenance of his post to his satisfaction. Indeed, if there is one word that best sums Berkeley up, it is “satisfaction.” He says himself, in a notebook entry, “My speculations have the same effect as visiting forein [sic] countries, in the end I return where I was before, set my head at ease and enjoy my self with more satisfaction.” He was satisfied with the existing political and ecclesiastical order, with God’s enduring support for it, and with his own place in it.

Tom Jones’s account of Berkeley’s life and ideas in George Berkeley: A Philosophical Life is sound, readable, and complete, except for one surprising omission. Jones provides an accurate record of Berkeley’s writings, and there are sufficient surviving documents (such as letters) to enable an adequately rounded idea of the man and his projects. A less informed reader might be advised to consult a potted chronology of Berkeley’s life first, as the book’s emphasis on thematic development sometimes makes the chronology hard to follow.

The omission is a clear account of Berkeley’s argument for immaterialism. Jones makes it plain what purpose this astounding doctrine served—to confute freethinkers—and he also mentions Berkeley’s belief that immaterialism has scriptural warrant (“In Him we live and move and have our being,” Acts 17:28) and the query of a friend’s wife who asked whether his philosophy was compatible with the Biblical account of creation (a good question, since Genesis opens with “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” that is, a physical world).

But philosophers value Berkeley and his immaterialism for another reason. When the Australian philosopher David Stove faced a proposal that his department remove Berkeley from the syllabus, he said that an undergraduate course without Berkeley is like a zoo without elephants. That is not only because of the tremendous falsity of his immaterialism, which shakes the undergraduate mind out of its dogmatic slumber, but also because of his argument for it. Berkeley is used as target practice for undergraduates because of his ability to make gross logical mistakes clearly. His argument for immaterialism—exactly and in full—is as follows:

But, say you, surely there is nothing easier than for me to imagine trees, for instance, in a park, or books existing in a closet, and nobody by to perceive them. I answer, you may so, there is no difficulty in it; but what is all this, I beseech you, more than framing in your mind certain ideas which you call books and trees, and at the same time omitting to frame the idea of any one that may perceive them? But do not you yourself perceive or think of them all the while?

In other words, “We cannot have trees-outside-the-mind in mind, without having them in mind; so there cannot be trees outside the mind.” The conclusion of the argument is not only that there is no physical matter, but that there couldn’t be.

Jones does not discuss this argument, except in a footnote reporting the Methodist leader John Wesley’s shame that he was once taken in by it. But for philosophers, logical errors are the whole point of Berkeley. A student who can explain what exactly is wrong with this argument, and perhaps recognize more subtle variants of it elsewhere, can be called a budding philosopher.

For philosophers, logical errors are the whole point of Berkeley.

Berkeley had one last surprise to spring, again in the area of philosophical arguments (but this time more valid ones). He took on the most formidable opponents of all—mathematicians—and, alone among the scores of philosophers rash enough to attack mathematicians, emerged with a win. Freethinking mathematicians suppose their ideas are clearer than those of theologians, but are they talking sense when explaining the notion of calculus, then recently developed by Newton and Leibniz? The issue is the exact meaning of a speed when that speed is changing. A speed in, say, miles per hour is found by dividing the distance a body travels by the time taken to do so. Clear enough if the speed is constant, but if not, it becomes necessary to break things up, dividing smaller and smaller distances by smaller and smaller spans of time to get a better and better approximation of the true, exact speed at any given moment. But what is that exact speed? Can we divide an “infinitesimal” distance by an “infinitesimal” time to ascertain it? What would that entail? Berkeley poured scorn on these infinitesimals, which both were and were not nothing, and on Newton’s effort to get around them by talking of “last ratios” of increments as they vanish. Berkeley objected: “When it is said, let the Increments vanish, i.e. let the Increments be nothing, or let there be no Increments, the former Supposition that the Increments were something, or that there were Increments, is destroyed, and yet a Consequence of that Supposition, i.e. an Expression got by virtue thereof, is retained.” Things only got worse trying to explain variable rates of acceleration, on which topic Berkeley wrote of the “ghost of departed quantities.” Mathematicians at the time dismissed Berkeley as a mere philosopher, ignorant of the subtleties of their art. Then in the nineteenth century they replaced infinitesimals with some fancy footwork involving the repeated quantifiers “all” and “some.” What this constituted was an admission that Berkeley’s criticisms had been right (thus demonstrating the excellence of the mathematicians’ new answer). Berkeley’s satisfaction in his own logical abilities, the source of such ludicrous results elsewhere, here proved justified.

The main outstanding question on the topic of George Berkeley is what the University of California at Berkeley is going to do about its name. In 2020 the school renamed several buildings titled after dead white men with unfortunate views, with the Chancellor saying, “Those who we choose to honor reflect who we are and what we believe in. I have committed my administration to doing everything in its power to identify and eliminate racism wherever it may be found on our campus and in our community.” That does leave an elephant in the room. The university was named after Berkeley at its foundation, the trustees being particularly inspired by the line in his Verses on the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America, “Westward the course of empire takes its way.” Will the university expunge all reference to the imperialist slaveowner it is named after? (Likewise for Yale, where Calhoun College is no more but Berkeley College still stands.) Consistency demands it. In the normal course of events, it would have been done already. The problem is that ucb is a sacred site. Can we imagine the nostalgia universally felt for the Free Speech Movement and the événements of 1968 without the tagline “Berkeley”? So far, it seems not. The web page of the university’s Building Name Review Committee reads, “There are no proposals under review at this time.”

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 2, on page 64
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