George Berkeley was a visionary immaterialist. And a philosopher whose views on subordination to God legitimised slavery
Paradise (1530) by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Courtesy the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Tom Jones is director of research in the School of English at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, UK. His books include an edition of Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man (2016) and George Berkeley: A Philosophical Life (2021).
18 June 2021 (aeon.co)
Edited by Nigel Warburton
George Berkeley is known for his doctrine of immaterialism: the counterintuitive view that there’s no material substance underlying the ideas perceived by the senses. We tend to think of a horse-drawn coach as a thing, but Berkeley tells us it’s really a set of ideas – the sound of the coach in the street, the sight of it through a window, the feel of it as we get in. We regularly perceive these ideas going along with each other, but there’s no material thing, beyond the ideas, that supports or holds them together – the ideas are all there is. It’s a hard view for a present-day reader to stomach. It was hard on the stomachs of readers even in Berkeley’s day in the early 1700s. He acknowledged that ‘it sounds very harsh to say we eat and drink ideas’ but insists that nourishment is nothing more than various ideas of the senses.
Berkeley also says that pain, real pain, is an idea. This assertion seems to have antagonised and amused his contemporaries. John Arbuthnot, physician to Queen Anne, engages in some light-hearted teasing when writing to his and Berkeley’s friend Jonathan Swift in 1714 that the ‘Poor philosopher Berkley [sic]; has now the Idea of health which was very hard to produce in him, for he had an Idea of a strange feaver upon him so strong that it was very hard to destroy it, by introducing a contrary one.’ It was and is hard to think of all phenomena as ideas and nothing more; even harder to think of our own perceiving, feeling, digesting bodies as ideas and nothing more.
Nevertheless, Berkeley is clear on this: such things as coaches don’t exist independently of being perceived, because they consist of ideas and perceptions. Without there being a perceiver, they simply can’t exist. Do things exist when not perceived by any human mind? Here Berkeley gives a positive answer in the notebooks he kept while he was developing this new doctrine, as he called it: the horses are in the stable, the books are in the study despite no one being there to see, smell, hear or touch them. That is, even when I’m not there to perceive these things, they exist. How so? After all, things exist only when perceived by a mind.
Here, God comes in: because God wills things into existence when she (Berkeley would have said ‘he’) perceives them, then anything that God creates has an existence in her mind. Because God knows and perceives all, those things that are at any given time unperceived or unconsidered by any finite mind have an existence through the infinite mind. God comes into this picture as a saviour, preventing Berkeley from having to say that objects enter and leave existence continually as they’re perceived and then not perceived and then perceived again by particular finite minds.
But God’s role in Berkeley’s thought is not only or most importantly as a backstop for his immaterialism. It is as the giver of laws that other minds must try to follow. These God-given laws structure the moral, social and political world, just as others structure the phenomenal world. I would like to reorient the understanding of Berkeley by bringing the social and political consequences of his religious beliefs to the centre and seeing his immaterialism in relation to them. This aspect of his philosophy is often neglected by those who want to introduce Berkeley as a specimen in the history of philosophy, someone who took empiricism to its limits. A fuller appreciation of the role of God in Berkeley’s philosophy explains why he adopted immaterialism, and why he thought his immaterialist philosophy would serve a social purpose, something that isn’t immediately obvious from the narrow view of Berkeley’s approach that we find in histories of philosophy.
At an early stage in his intellectual development, Berkeley realised that the created universe depends on God, a universe that is known to humans through the relatively dependable series of ideas they experience. God is, then, central to Berkeley’s thought, providing the context in which the human world elaborates itself: he described the biblical creation as God progressively revealing to other minds some of the eternal contents of her own mind. It’s only because God determines that human acts of will have certain consequences in visual, tactile and other sensory ideas that we have any ideas of our bodies, and that human agency has consequences in the world at all, let alone dependable consequences. It is for these reasons that Berkeley said that the visual world was a universal language ‘whereby we are instructed how to regulate our actions’, that the phenomenal world was designed by God to demonstrate his grandeur and show us how to behave. Berkeley’s purpose in writing was to convince his readers that we have a ‘most absolute and immediate dependence’ on God.
The precise conception Berkeley has of dependence on God and its consequences for human obligation – to God, to other humans, and to the rest of the creation – isn’t an aspect of his thinking that can be bracketed and ignored (as it has been so often by philosophers). The relationship of dependence on God is one of subordination to laws that humans, as responsible agents, are obliged to try to follow. These two things, the existence of a God and the moral responsibility of humans, would have made up the second part of Berkeley’s most famous book, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710), had the manuscript not been lost while he was touring Europe. Berkeley’s universe is best understood as a body of law that human agents and other finite minds attempt to read and then follow through their actions.
This is where I think we should start, with a legible world dictated by God, when interpreting Berkeley today. Such a reading will give us a philosopher who is not just or even foremost an immaterialist, but rather a social and religious philosopher who is constantly emphasising the need for subordination, the following of rules and laws, and the necessity of obedience. His immaterialism, indeed, somewhat surprisingly, serves that end. That is why Berkeley conceived of his immaterialism as part of his lifelong struggle against what he variously called atheism, scepticism or free-thinking – the challenge to religious authority over the social world.
We’re under an obligation to conform to natural and moral laws because a superior agent wills them
Immaterialism is not (just) a counterintuitive doctrine that surprised Berkeley’s contemporaries and still surprises his readers, nor is his God just the saviour of that doctrine. Rather, Berkeley expressed, through a wide range of writing including his great immaterialist texts, the necessity of social, political, moral and religious dependence on higher beings. He was a thoroughly religious philosopher, and his religion implied a politics. That politics was of a conservative cast, and included (disappointingly) the defence of slavery, as well as some more progressive or emancipatory forms of conservatism such as the promotion of education and economic development. Appreciating the role of God-given laws in his outlook unlocks a fuller understanding of his immaterialism. Without this, it’s very hard to appreciate why immaterialism is so relevant to some of his other somewhat eclectic concerns, including economic development, the swearing of oaths, and slavery.
In a text built up from three discourses delivered in the Chapel at Trinity College Dublin as part of his duties as a fellow, and published in 1712 under the controversial title Passive Obedience, Berkeley asked ‘what relation is there more extensive and universal than that of subject and law?’ He was talking about humans living under human laws, but just a few paragraphs earlier he’d made a case for the comparability of natural and moral laws. The laws of nature are ‘nothing else but a series of free actions produced by the best and wisest Agent’. The natural and moral worlds are to be conceived of as the free actions of God, and binding as laws for all other spirits. We should recognise both the kinds of law that govern events beyond our wills, such as those of gravity, and also those that require us to exercise our wills, such as the absolute negative moral law against rebellion that Berkeley elaborated in this short book. This conception of the human relationship to God as conforming to the will of a superior should remain central to our understanding of Berkeley’s philosophical project. We’re under an obligation to conform to natural and moral laws because a superior agent wills them, and wills that we conform to them.
In his roles as fellow of a college, chaplain, dean and bishop, Berkeley preached, and a significant part of his preaching addressed the question of how people should manifest in their behaviour the duty they owe to God. Religion, he said, ‘is nothing else but the conforming our faith and practice to the will of god’. ‘What else is the design and aim of vertue or religion,’ he asked in the same sermon, ‘but the making our several distinct wills coincident with, and subordinate to, the one Supreme will of God?’ We honour and show love for superiors ‘by performing their will, & endeavouring that others perform it’. This subordination isn’t of all finite spirits equally to the one infinite spirit: there are degrees of conformity to God’s will. Berkeley says there is ‘Some sort of union with the Godhead’ in all people ‘but with men, Xtians, inspired persons, Xt in different degrees.’ Different degrees of conformity are different degrees of unity with God.
Conformity brings spiritual rewards. It also brings temporal privileges. As Berkeley said in an early sermon on zeal: ‘As we are Christians we are members of a Society which entitles us to certain rights and privileges above the rest of mankind.’ In his ‘Address on Confirmation’, Berkeley said that, while the whole world might be understood as the kingdom of Christ, the phrase also had a more restrictive sense and applied to ‘a Society of persons, not only subject to his power, but also conforming themselves to his will, living according to his precepts, and thereby entitled to the promises of his gospel.’ That is, when Berkeley talked about the phenomenal world of ideas forming an instructive discourse directed to us by God, the God he had in mind requires conformity to his will. Greater or lesser degrees of conformity result in privileges expressed in the social and religious hierarchy of this world.
The God who produces the immaterial world, then, requires specific behaviours of different kinds of people, and grants them specific privileges. The distinction is not just between Christians and non-Christians, but between various types and classes of person in Christian societies. Here Berkeley is quite in line with his times and the large number of books dedicated to differentiating and specifying the duties of types and classes of people – children, parents, spouses, magistrates and so on. Berkeley’s sense of stratification and distinction by social status or rank is most obvious in his economic writings of the mid-1730s, chiefly the three volumes of rhetorical questions called The Querist, which put forward a programme for Irish economic renewal. The (‘native’, Catholic) peasantry are to give up their alleged sloth and dirtiness for habits of cleanliness and industry. The (absentee, Protestant) gentry are to give up imported wines and textiles for Irish cider and linen. Both classes will find they have higher desires – the peasants for beef and better clothes; the gentry for local productions of the fine and useful arts. A national bank will support the increased rate of circulation in the economy, or its momentum, as Berkeley calls it. And a class of philosophical educators such as Berkeley himself will manage the necessary transformation of opinions, desires and practices, chiefly by educating the gentry. Different classes of people – the higher, the lower, the educators – have different roles in practising and producing conformity to God’s will.
All classes of people have responsibilities to God that are in part expressed through their behaviour towards their own and other classes of people. ‘Charity’ is the term that, for Berkeley, captures the fulfilment of these responsibilities. He preached on charity at the English merchant colony in Livorno in Italy in 1714, saying – perhaps with an eye to the background of his audience – that the mutual satisfaction of wants through commerce was a form of charitable action within the reach of all. Duty to God and charity to his neighbour will make the true Christian attempt the conversion of heathens and infidels, Berkeley said in the sermon he preached to the Society for Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts on his return from his failed expedition to found a university in Bermuda. That project was itself geared towards the conversion of Native Americans, as well as the religious reform of white colonists.
Berkeley wrote Alciphron (1732) while in Rhode Island awaiting the funds for the university he hoped to found, which never arrived. One of the characters who voices views closest to those Berkeley expressed elsewhere says that it’s an obligation to dispense ‘Medicine for the Soul of Man’. In 1734, Berkeley became Bishop of Cloyne in southern Ireland. He described the poor of Cloyne, a small town in Cork, as ‘objects of charity’, and the employment of around 100 men in agriculture led by his wife Anne as ‘a charity which pays it self’. Berkeley’s last major work, Siris (1744), is an idiosyncratic text that begins with instructions on how to mix water with pine resin to create a medicinal drink for treating the epidemic of dysentery that swept Ireland in 1740-41, and continues to argue for the compatibility of ancient and Christian accounts of the soul and the Trinity. He said there that he was ‘indispensably obliged by the duty every man owes to mankind’, and that ‘charity obligeth me to say what I know’.
‘Obedience to all civil power is rooted in the religious fear of God’
Charity is, if you like, the positive side of an obligation to other people, and to God. In contrast, Berkeley frequently expressed a negative or restrictive obligation that’s broadly concerned with implicitly or explicitly giving one’s word. It’s one of the assumptions of Passive Obedience that any social order is better than none, and that accepting the benefits of social order (simply those of not ‘anarchy’) is to accept the legitimacy of the sovereign who governs that order and the absolute obligation not to rebel against that sovereign. When Berkeley wrote to persuade Tories not to break their oaths of allegiance to George I as the Jacobite uprising of 1715 unfolded, he noted that:
Common mutual faith is the great support of society; and an oath, as it is the highest obligation to keep our faith inviolate, becomes the great instrument of justice and intercourse between men. Whatever, therefore, lessens the sacredness or authority of an oath must be acknowledged at the same time to be highly detrimental both to the Church and the Commonwealth.
Berkeley presented similar views in 1738 when he thought the social fabric was under threat from the atheistical blasphemies of a rogueish Dublin society called the Blasters. ‘Obedience to all civil power is rooted in the religious fear of God,’ and only reverence for God ‘can beget and preserve a true respect for subordinate majesty in all the degrees of power, the first link of authority being fixed at the throne of God.’ Misusing oaths is to threaten the very source of civil life, submission to the authority of God.
More specific oaths also concerned Berkeley. He took a strong view of the obligations of the marriage vow. When one of his brothers was condemned to death for bigamy, but saved by the interventions of Berkeley’s friends, Berkeley wrote to reimburse them for the expense. He noted, however, he ‘would not have disbursed half the sum to have saved that villain from the gallows’. When Berkeley excerpted a discussion of the marital vow of obedience from a book on The Relative Duties of Parents and Children, Husbands and Wives, Masters and Servants (1705) for his anthology The Ladies Library (1714), he inserted some thoughts of his own: that it is ‘a Command, the Breach of which is a Sin, and the Punishment of all Sin, Death eternal’. If we have any interest in order at all, if we have an interest in the world appearing to us as a regular, dependable, interpretable chain of events, an interest in our own wills producing predictable and stable outcomes, then we must obey the source of this order, the supreme authority of God.
Obedience can be presented more positively as charity, but it remains an attempt to conform to a higher will, in the expectation of gaining privileges and responsibilities in this world and the next. Humans depend on God for an orderly sequence of ideas and experiences as they interact with the physical world; they also depend on God for social and moral order. To maintain social and moral order, humans must feel religious awe towards God, and acknowledge the legitimacy of subordination of people into different classes and ranks, with different privileges and responsibilities. God doesn’t exist to repair the problem of occasionally existing objects in Berkeley’s immaterialism. Berkeley’s immaterialism exists to give his readers a sense of their entire dependence – social, moral and political as well as experiential – upon God. Dependence upon God models forms of human dependence and relation that Berkeley described in a wide range of writings.
As we have just seen, Berkeley’s God is the source of all authority, subordination and order. Finite spirits aren’t obliged to obey only God, but also to obey their superiors in the social order. Servants are obliged to obey their masters. In a way that distinguishes him from immediate predecessors such as John Locke or Samuel Pufendorf, Berkeley blurred the line between servitude and slavery, between contractual and forced, temporary and permanent servitude. In The Querist, Berkeley asked: whether ‘other nations have not found great benefit from the use of slaves’ for public infrastructure projects? ‘Whether temporary servitude would not be the best cure for idleness and beggary …?’ ‘Whether all sturdy beggars should not be seized and made slaves to the public for a certain term of years?’
Berkeley’s language here minimises the difference between slavery and servitude. Likewise, in notes for a sermon preached in Rhode Island, he said that in the New Testament ‘servants’ signified ‘slaves’. I’m not suggesting that Berkeley believed slavery was a positive good. Rather, he believed that what he understood to be dissolute, dirty, cynical, slothful, asocial forms of life were a great ill, and that being forced to participate in projects promoting the public good was better than being left at liberty to dehumanise. Such a view, of course, legitimises slavery.
Berkeley supported obedience to forms of temporal subordination now recognised as morally repugnant
Berkeley presents slavery within an orderly Christian society as preferable to forms of liberty that, he believes, limit the development of important human capacities. When Berkeley was in Rhode Island waiting for his college funding, there’s evidence of him buying two and baptising three enslaved people. The historian Travis Glasson has convincingly argued that the Yorke-Talbot legal opinion, issued in 1729, that baptism and slavery were compatible was the result of the activism of Berkeley or his circle, trying to facilitate the baptism of enslaved people in America. Berkeley had argued in his Proposal for the Better Supplying of Churches (1725) for the college that would take Native American and Black students, as well as the sons of white planters, that ‘Slaves would only become better Slaves by being Christian’. Berkeley supported obedience to forms of temporal subordination that are now recognised as morally repugnant, and argued that some forms of forced labour, perhaps temporary, perhaps not, were a social good – a greater good than the ills of servitude or slavery.
There’s much about this picture of Berkeley’s God, and the human and divine relationships it implies, that Berkeley shares with other Christian writers of the 17th and 18th centuries. It’s not surprising to see Christianity connected to subordination and obedience, both in political and social life, and encompassing slavery, for instance. It’s more unusual, perhaps, in the precise obligations it entails for someone like Berkeley, a philosophical educator. This person has to conform to God’s will by following laws, by accepting privileges and responsibilities to shape and govern other people through discourse and through the founding and maintenance of social institutions, from colleges to farms, in order to produce the same great good for them – conformity to the highest will. In doing these things, the philosophical educator is imitating God. God discourses continually to humans through the phenomenal world, through its regularities and dependable phenomena; but also through its less predictable events, such as illness, earthquakes and extreme weather. The philosopher should also learn to read these phenomena.
The immaterialist doctrine exists to promote this understanding of and conformity to God, rather than God being a convenient backstop for immaterialism. In both its typical and its more idiosyncratic respects, therefore, Berkeley’s sense of the religious foundation and lived texture of social life isn’t something that can be set aside without the risk of mischaracterising his immaterialism and his philosophical ambitions in general.
The central realisation Berkeley wanted his readers to undergo is that of absolute and continual dependence upon the will of a superior for everything in their world – their sensory experiences, the laws of nature, the capacity of their wills to bring about consequences, the complex coordination and subordination of wills involved in producing a social world. This realisation issues in the striking doctrine of immaterialism. But it also issues in the particular form of conservative political and social life that Berkeley lived and promoted in his varied activities as a churchman, economist, husband, brother, slave-owner and so on. Understanding Berkeley’s immaterialism, and the role of God in his immaterialism, requires an acknowledgement of his religious view of political and social life. Some of that view is closely shared with other Christian writers of his time, some of it more idiosyncratic and characteristic of the visionary immaterialist that he was.