On This Day: Death of George Berkeley
On the 14th of January 1753, one of Kilkenny's greatest minds, George Berkeley, died. He has had a whole city in California named after him, yet very little, if anything, has been done in Kilkenny in his honour.
Philosopher, dean, mathematician, physicist, philanthropist, bishop, writer, educator, theologian, globetrotter, scholar, scientist, polyglot, city planner, hospital manager, psychologist, visionary, genius; just some of the words that can be used to describe Berkeley. The Kilkenny man has achieved so much, yet has not had his achievements properly recognised in his home place. In the past, calls have been made to restore his home (pictured below) but it has never materialised.
Berkeley was born at his family home, Dysart Castle in Thomastown, on the 12th of March 1685. He was the eldest son of William Berkeley, a cadet of the noble family of Berkeley. He was educated at Kilkenny College and later attended Trinity College, Dublin, completing a master's degree in 1707. He remained at Trinity College after completion of his degree as a tutor and Greek lecturer.
His earliest publication was on mathematics, but the first that brought him notice was 'An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision', first published in 1709. In the essay, Berkeley examines visual distance, magnitude, position and problems of sight and touch. While this work raised much controversy at the time, its conclusions are now accepted as an established part of the theory of optics.
The next publication to appear was the 'Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge' in 1710, which had great success and gave him a lasting reputation, though few accepted his theory that nothing exists outside the mind. This was followed in 1713 by 'Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous', in which he put forward for consideration his system of philosophy, the leading principle being that, the world, as represented by our senses, depends for its existence on being perceived.
For this theory, the Principles gives the explanation and the Dialogues the defence. One of his main objectives was to combat the prevailing materialism of his time. The theory was largely received with ridicule, while even those such as Samuel Clarke and William Whiston, who did acknowledge his "extraordinary genius," were nevertheless convinced that his first principles were false.
Shortly afterwards, Berkeley visited England and was received into the circle of Addison, Pope and Steele. In the period between 1714 and 1720, he interspersed 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 took Holy Orders in the Church of Ireland, earning his doctorate in divinity, and once again chose to remain at Trinity College Dublin, lecturing this time in Divinity and in Hebrew. In 1721/2 he was made Dean of Dromore and, in 1724, Dean of Derry where he remained Dean until 1734. His house in Derry is pictured below.
In 1723, following her violent quarrel with Jonathan Swift, who had been her intimate friend for many years, Esther Vanhomrigh (for whom Swift had created the nickname "Vanessa") named Berkeley her co-heir along with the barrister Robert Marshall; her choice of legatees caused a good deal of surprise since she did not know either of them well, although Berkeley as a very young man had known her father. Swift said generously that he did not grudge Berkeley his inheritance, much of which vanished 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 Vanessa is probably untrue.
In 1725, he began the project of founding a college in Bermuda for training ministers and missionaries in the colony, in pursuit of which he gave up his deanery with its income of £1100.
In 1728, he married Anne Forster, daughter of John Forster, Chief Justice of the Irish Common Pleas. He then went to America on a salary of £100 per annum. He landed near Newport, Rhode Island, where he bought a plantation in Middletown, Rhode Island – the famous "Whitehall". It has been claimed that "he introduced Palladianism into America by borrowing a design from Kent's Designs of Inigo Jones for the door-case of his house in Rhode Island". He also brought to New England John Smibert, the British artist he "discovered" in Italy, who is generally regarded as the founding father of American portrait painting. Meanwhile, he drew up plans for the ideal city he planned to build on Bermuda. He lived at the plantation while he waited for funds for his college to arrive. The funds, however, were not forthcoming, and in 1732 he left America and returned to London.
While living in London's Saville Street, he took part in efforts to create a home for the city's abandoned children. The Foundling Hospital was founded by Royal Charter in 1739, and Berkeley is listed as one of its original governors. In 1734, he was appointed Bishop of Cloyne in Ireland, a position he was to hold until his death. Soon afterwards, he published 'Alciphron', or 'The Minute Philosopher', directed against both Shaftesbury and Bernard de Mandeville; and in 1735–37 The Querist.
His last two publications were 'Siris: Philosophical reflexions and inquiries concerning the virtues of tar-water, and divers other subjects connected together and arising from one 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 Berkeley argued for the use of pine tar as a broad panacea for diseases. His 1744 work on tar-water sold more copies than any of his other books during Berkeley's lifetime.
He remained at Cloyne until 1752, when he retired and went to Oxford to live with his son. He died soon afterward and was buried in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. His affectionate disposition and genial manners made him much loved and held in warm regard by many of his contemporaries.