Berkeley was born in Ireland, in County Kilkenny, and grew up in Dysart Castle, near Thomastown. He is the eldest son of William Berkeley, who belongs to the small Anglo-Irish nobility, Anglican denomination, recently installed in Ireland. He began his studies at college Kilkenny, which he left in 1700, to continue at Trinity College Dublin, where he obtained the degree of Master of Arts in 1707. Elected Fellow of Trinity College, ie "lecturer," he stays there to do tutoring and teaching Greek, he was ordained a priest of the Anglican church in 1710. |
His first publication, The arithmetic demonstrated without the help of algebra and geometry, probably written to support his candidature for the post of lecturer, deals with mathematics. But the first book that points out is his Essay towards a New Theory of Vision, published in 1709. Although it gives rise to the time of controversy, its conclusions are now part of the classical theory of optics. He then publishes Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge in 1710, and Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, in which he develops his own philosophical system, whose guiding principle is that the world, represented by our senses, requires to be perceived to exist as such. The Principles expose this theory, while the Dialogues defend it.
His purpose is primarily apologetic: it is to combat materialism and skepticism prevailing at that time. His theory is considered ridiculous by the greatest number, and even those who, like Samuel Clarke and William Whiston, recognized him as an "extraordinary genius", are nevertheless convinced that his basic principles are false. Shortly thereafter, he went to England, and Addison, Pope, Steele and Arbuthnot welcome him in their ranks with a cordial willingness. Swift introduced him to Lord Peterborough, who takes Berkeley with him to Europe as secretary and chaplain. Also between 1714 and 1720, he alternates academic work and long journeys, mainly in Italy, which he visited almost entirely, but also in Spain and France, where he wrote De Motu (Treatise of movement). In 1721, he entered the orders, obtained his doctorate in theology and, once again, chooses to remain at Trinity College, where he teaches Hebrew and theology.
In 1724, he becomes dean of Derry. The next year he plans to found a college in Bermuda, designed to train ministers of the Anglican worship for the settlers and missionaries to the Indians. For this he abandons his deanery, which procured him an income of ₤ 1100, and left for America with a salary of ₤ 100. He landed near Newport, where he bought a plantation, the famous "Whitehall". The British Museum retains some receipts for purchases of slaves he did in 1730 and 1731. Berkeley, in his sermons, explains to the settlers why Christianity supports slavery, and why slaves should therefor be baptized.
"The masters have an interest in having slaves, who obey in all things to their masters in the flesh, not only in their eyes as to please men, but with simplicity of heart, fearing the Lord”.
Freedom of the Gospel is compatible with men enslavement, and slaves could only become better by becoming Christians. "
He lives in the plantation waiting for a grant of ₤ 10 000 that the British government has promised for his college. But the fund does not arrive and he returned to London in 1732. In 1734, he was appointed bishop of Cloyne. Shortly after he published “Alciphron or The Minute Philosopher”, a work written during his stay in Newport and directed both against Shaftesbury and Bernard Mandeville. In 1734-1737, it publishes The Querist (Questions on the interests of Ireland), and his recent publications are Siris, a treatise on the medicinal properties of water tar and Further Thoughts on Tar-water.
During his stay in Saville Street in London, he took part in efforts to create a haven for abandoned children. The Foundling Hospital "was founded by Royal Charter in 1739, and Berkeley is part of the list of the first members of its Board of Directors.
He remains in Cloyne until his retirement in 1752, for which he went to Oxford with his son. He died suddenly in January 1753, and is buried at the Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford. His sweet and affectionate ways made him be appreciated, and he was held in high esteem by many of his contemporaries.
Throughout his work, George Berkeley will fight materialism and unbelief; he was an excellent prelate, very sympathetic to Irish Catholics, who accounted for five-sixths of the population of his diocese. He spent his last years at Oxford, where he died.
The philosophy of Berkeley:
It is remarkable that at the age of twenty-two years old, Berkeley has published the most subtle philosophical book ever written: his theory of vision, where he tries to explain the development of the concept of space.
An idealistic theory:
The following year, in his Principles of human knowledge, he develops most of his philosophy. It is a threat to the empiricism of Locke, which seemed to have to much confidence in the old theories of abstraction. In particular, the idea of a substance existing in itself - and that would meet with the reality of our perceptions - is an impossible abstraction.
The idealistic theory of Berkeley that he proposed with great clarity and force is based on the principle that "the essence of objects exists in that they are perceived." Things are known as ideas. They can only be ideas because feelings are pure ideas. In God himself, who creates them, they are ideas. The world is the thought of God. The matter does not exist, outside the idea that we have some. We compare particular ideas in order to have a general idea and that is the result of abstraction.
A divine World:
All the value of science, freed of false abstractions, and therefore relies on sensitive certitude, on which Berkeley founded an original proof of the existence of God. "It is obvious to me, he writes, that sensitive things can not exist anywhere except in an understanding or a spirit, and I concluded then, not that they do not have a real existence, but that expecting that they do not depend on my thinking or that they have a separate existence of quality to be seen by me, there must be some spirit in which they exist. Thus, as far as it is certain that a real sensitive world exists, it is that there is an infinite spirit, present everywhere, that contains them and sustains them."
The world is therefore, to Berkeley, all the ideas that God suggests to human minds. And if God communicates his thinking or something of his thoughts to the men, it is to win their heart. The world which proclaims God is, in fact, nothing else that the language of God, conceived by God, directed at men under ideal conditions that they take for a matter.