Was Ireland’s greatest philosopher a hero, villain or ‘man of his time’?

Unthinkable: A new biography of George Berkeley brings out the complexity of his character

The days of uncritically lionising great men of western civilisation are coming to an end. Some see this as a threat to social order but surely hero-worshipping was never a good idea, given that every man – after a certain length of time – starts to resemble an embarrassing uncle.

Go back a few hundred years and it’s hard to find a European writer who didn’t have views on race or gender that we would today consider backward.

Last month, this column queried the rap sheet against Enlightenment thinker David Hume but there's a more troubling case closer to home. The "good bishop" George Berkeley (1685-1753), who is synonymous with Trinity College Dublin (TCD), is widely regarded as Ireland's great philosopher but recently he has attracted negative attention due to his ownership of slaves while doing missionary work in Rhode Island.

Last February, TCD launched a two-year investigation into the college's "complex colonial legacies" – a project that will be greatly aided by a new biography of the Co Kilkenny-born Berkeley by Tom Jones.


George Berkeley: A Philosophical Life is not only a meticulously researched and clear-sighted assessment of the philosopher's character, it also measures the weight of his "revolutionary" ideas. Jones, a long-standing Berkeley scholar who is based at University of St Andrews, Scotland, describes the process of biography as trying to avoid the traps of both hagiography and "attributing a great or even implausible degree of internal coherence to a particular life".

Berkeley was a man of contradictions - a social reformer heavily engaged in charitable works and prescient in advocating the public ownership of banks to curb reckless speculation but he also believed strongly in obedience to hierarchy. Jones explores these incongruities further as this week’s Unthinkable guest.

You've written extensively on Berkeley over the years but how did this particular project come about?
"There hadn't been a book-length biography of Berkeley since 1949, so I wanted to bring together all of the material that different scholars and historians had discovered since then, and add my own researches to see what picture of Berkeley emerged.

“There were also two things that it seemed to me no biography had ever attempted before. The first was to show how other people and institutions – family, schools, colleges, societies, the church – shaped Berkeley’s beliefs and actions. The second was how Berkeley’s philosophy related to his practical life – as a teacher, churchman, family man and social activist.

“Berkeley’s life in education is a good illustration of these points. I think he was very strongly shaped by the orderly and emphatically Protestant environment of Kilkenny College and Trinity College. He took a lifelong interest in educating others – students at Trinity, his own – male and female – children, the children of colonial Americans, Native Americans and African-Americans.

“Berkeley’s wife continued to educate and guide her children after his death, frequently citing his example. So I tried to tell a story of Berkeley’s life that showed how his striking and individual philosophical beliefs were woven in and out of his relationships with other people, and how his active life was tied up with his contemplative life.”

Is it fair to say that, to the extent that Berkeley was interested in the condition of slaves, it was on the narrow point of whether or not they should be baptised?
"Slavery is a subject Berkeley only touches on a few times in his writings, and what we know of his practical involvement in the question of slavery could be interpreted in various ways, so this is a complex issue.

“It is important to acknowledge that Berkeley never openly questions the legitimacy of the system of chattel slavery, that he bought enslaved people, and that he was therefore involved in this great historic crime – as were, more or less directly, many British subjects of his era.

“Baptism is, indeed, what seems most to concern Berkeley about slavery... For him, however, baptism is not a narrow point, but a key element of human dignity. Being admitted to religious instruction and the rites of the church was being recognised as human where it mattered most, in Berkeley’s view.

“In his writing on economic questions Berkeley blurs distinctions between servitude and slavery. That can have the effect of legitimising slavery. But it can also be an argument that slavery shouldn’t be more punitive than servitude, or exclude enslaved people from recognition of their humanity. So when Berkeley baptised Philip, Anthony and Agnes Berkeley, identified as ‘his negroes’, he was doing something he would have regarded as a recognition of the most important aspect of those people’s humanity.

“There don’t appear to be records of baptisms of any other people of African heritage in the same church in Berkeley’s two years in Rhode Island – not that skin colour would necessarily have been consistently noted in such records – so he might have been making quite an unusual and visible statement. So, whilst this is a narrow concern from one perspective, it is also testimony to a concern for the religious education of African people in America.”

Was Berkeley just "a man of his time" in respect to defending slavery or was there something more much calculating going on?
"One thing I try to do in the biography is compare Berkeley's views to those of other people and groups of his time, and the one group that is actively organising against the institution of slavery in the late 1720s is the Quaker community – as Brycchan Carey has shown. Berkeley does not challenge the existence of the institution, and indeed points out ways in which it is compatible with his aims of religious conversion and instruction.

“He doesn’t defend slavery by saying that it is all certain groups of people are fit for, or that it is a property right that cannot be challenged. His defence is more that slavery is like servitude, and it may be better – in his view – to be obliged to serve a greater good than to be free and live a life that seems to go against God’s intentions for humanity.

“It’s useful to compare Berkeley’s thinking about the Catholic population of Ireland here. Late in life he compared the ‘native’ Irish both to Africans in America and to Native Americans, saying their conditions of life were savage and abject. He suggested that a way for Irish peasants to avoid a degrading life of dirt, sloth and beggary was for them to be seized and made ‘slaves to the public’ for a period of time.

“So there is a calculation going on that involves asking whether it’s better to be free and degraded, or enslaved but orderly and productive. For Berkeley, that participation in social order was really central to being human.”

You say there is no record of what happened to the people Berkeley purchased. Is it possible they were brought to Ireland?
"It is possible that the people Berkeley bought in America came to London and then Ireland with him and his family, although there is no evidence either way. The historian Patrick Kelly noticed that a set of reading cards for children referred to two of Berkeley's servants at this time by name – Patrick Norway and Enoch Martyr. So these are not the same people as were baptised by Berkeley in America.

“In occasional references to Berkeley’s servants in letters and other documents no mention is made of a servant of African heritage – though again ethnic background might not always have been mentioned in such papers.

“One historian puts the black population of Ireland in the second half of the 18th century between 1,000 and 3,000. It seems likely that some of these people arrived in Ireland with families by whom they were owned or for whom they worked, across the Irish sea or the Atlantic. The people Berkeley bought could have been among them.”

Of Berkeley's philosophy, you comment in the book: "There was something revolutionary about his immaterialism, but it was one of those conservative revolutions that seeks to leave things as they are." For all his philosophical innovation, was Berkeley ultimately engaged in a very reactionary religious project?
"Berkeley's religious project was radical in asserting the entire dependence of the universe on the will of a superior being, God. It's radical because Berkeley says we are dependent on God for all the ideas conveyed by our senses – not on matter that lies behind and provokes ideas or sensations...

“It’s a striking picture of God constantly talking to his creatures through the creation itself. The central feature of this religious view of the world is dependence on a superior will, though, and it echoes through Berkeley’s social and political thought. He believed lower sorts of people ought to trust to the higher sort to govern, and to religious educators to mediate ideas they could not expect to grasp themselves. So hierarchy is built into Berkeley’s view of the world, by analogy with his religious vision.

“Many other political and religious thinkers of the 18th century held similar views, but none of them in the unique combination of immaterialist metaphysics, religious vision and social reform that characterise Berkeley.”

George Berkeley: A Philosophical Life by Tom Jones is published by Princeton.