What you see is what you get

Terry Eagleton

  • The Correspondence of George Berkeley edited by Marc Hight
    Cambridge, 674 pp, £75.00, November 2012, ISBN 978 1 107 00074 2

George Berkeley’s claim that things exist only when they are being perceived has a lot to do with his Irishness. There are Irish people nowadays who cross the street when they see a priest approaching; but Ireland has traditionally been an intensely religious nation, and much of its thought, right down to questions of epistemology or political economy, has been influenced by this. Berkeley was a cleric, and saw the whole of Creation as the language of God, a discourse in which he communicated with his creatures. Things, he believed, exist as ideas in the mind of the Creator, and are conveyed to our minds by his power. What looks like an autonomous material world, then, is really the medium of a spiritual dialogue. Substance is really signification, a notion that crops up as late as Joyce’s sense of objects as signatures of the invisible. The idea is really eucharistic, though Berkeley would probably not have thought so: in the eucharist, the bread and wine cease to be material entities and become a medium of pure presence.

Much of this is standard Neoplatonist stuff, by no means unique to Berkeley; it’s just that he drew some startling epistemological consequences from it. There had always been a certain aversion to materialism in Irish thought, and Berkeley simply presses it to a logical if implausible end-point, abolishing matter altogether. What replaces it, essentially, is God. In a letter in this volume, he entreats a friend to note not that his work denies the existence of matter, but that it is intended to promote ‘true knowledge and religion’. The two cases are closely linked, though modern philosophical commentators, not being much interested in religion, usually fail to register the fact.

Things in Berkeley’s view were really signs, eloquent expressions of the Almighty; and just as there is no meaning without an interpreter, so the world lives only in our response to it. On this view, the doctrine that reality exists independently of the mind is a kind of fetishism or reification. Theologically speaking, it is also a form of idolatry. It treats as an object in its own right what is really a piece of divine discourse, rather as one might mistake a poem for a piece of matter. Nature is to be seen not as an end in itself, but as centred on humanity. Perhaps it is significant that Irish poets before Heaney (Yeats, for example) do not typically portray the natural world with the rich specificity of Keats or Hopkins. It is meaning that counts, not materiality. The beauties of the Irish landscape could be left to the tourists.

Berkeley’s sense of the world as essentially spiritual has a venerable Irish pedigree. Reality is not thick and inert but dynamic and impalpable. The material world of Celtic mythology is so vital and animated that it is hard to distinguish it from the spiritual. The greatest of Irish medieval thinkers, the ninth-century philosopher John Scottus Eriugena, saw the cosmos as a self-delighting play of pure difference, in which subject and object, perceiver and perceived, were intimately allied. In some ways, his thought is a lot closer to Nietzsche and poststructuralism than it is to Leibniz or Locke. It certainly has more in common with Finnegans Wake than with Middlemarch. The Irish novel from Gulliver’s Travels and Melmoth the Wanderer to Dracula and The Third Policeman has generally preferred fantasy to reality, and much Irish thought is idealist in tendency, all the way from Eriugena and Berkeley to Yeats and Patrick Pearse. The real world is not the dingy, strife-torn island you see, but a higher spiritual or imaginative domain.

The Irish Dissenter John Toland fellow-travelled with pantheism, while Robert Clayton, a colleague of Berkeley, was convinced that Nature was secretly spirit. Even the great 19th-century Irish scientist John Tyndall, who discovered the reason the sky is blue, believed that matter was essentially mystical and transcendental. There is also a minor strain of Kantian thought in 19th-century Ireland, which fits well with this sense of the limits of reason.

It is no surprise, then, that the country never produced a major rationalism. Since epistemology is always at some level ideology, a rationalist faith in the shapeliness of the world is likely to ring hollow in a down-at-heel colony. Contemporary Irish philosophers like William Desmond and Joseph Dunne have inherited this anti-rationalist bias, either in postmodern or Wittgensteinian mode. It says much about this wariness of pure reason that Toland, the country’s most militant rationalist thinker, also traded in the occult. (He was rumoured to be the bastard offspring of a priest and a prostitute, thus linking the sacred and profane in his own person.) There is a resistance to reason in Irish culture, though not of the kind satirised by 19th-century Punch cartoons. Language, for example, is not to be seen in rationalist mode as precise and transparent. In Berkeley’s view, it is ambiguous, indeterminate stuff, an unfathomable text which can never be nailed down. A good many of his compatriots shared this view, beginning with Eriugena. If only clear concepts are acceptable, how is one to speak of God? The fragility of the intellect is a constant motif, from the most distinguished thinker of 17th-century Ireland, Robert Boyle, to such 18th-century divines as William King, Edward Synge, Philip Skelton, Laurence Sterne and Jonathan Swift. Sterne, Joyce and Beckett classify the world compulsively, but only to make a mockery of the whole futile business. Walter Shandy, the obsessive rationalist of Sterne’s great novel, is clearly insane. Seduced by an image of pure reason, Gulliver ends up in much the same state.

At the same time, Ireland was wary of the empiricism of its colonial rulers. It was too earthbound a creed, fit for a nation of shopkeepers. The British were sunk in the trough of their senses, while their colonial subjects fixed their thoughts on higher things. They might have lacked a seat to their trousers, but at least they knew about the Virgin Birth and the immortality of the soul. ‘We Irish men cannot attain to these truths,’ Berkeley wrote in his Philosophical Commentaries, a faux colonial cringe that delighted Yeats. The nation might not have had its own parliament, but it had a distinctive style of thought.

Berkeley was allergic to abstract ideas, preferring the spiritual on the one hand and the sensuously immediate on the other. This, too, is a feature of Irish thought. A nervousness of abstraction underlies the conservative politics of Berkeley, Swift and Burke, leading them to belabour impious rationalists and idle utopianists. It is not surprising that Burke, with his passion for the particular, should have produced one of the first great works of aesthetics in these islands. It fitted well with his hatred of revolutionary rationalism across the Channel. It may seem odd to say that Berkeley was wary of abstractions when he produced such a wildly speculative doctrine as esse est percipi, but the truth is that he thought it no more than common sense. It was, he thought, what the man in the street believed too. The common people were not metaphysically inclined, and so did not subscribe to the notion that there was some mysterious ‘substance’ that supposedly underlay our sensory impressions of things. For them as for Berkeley himself, what you see is what you get. The veil of sense data is concealing the fact that there is nothing behind it.

All this has some vital political implications for 18th-century Ireland. If things are no more than our sense impressions of them, then the sceptic would seem to stand refuted. The gap between how objects appear and how they really are has been closed at a stroke. There is no need to worry about how we can know what is out there, since things are not out there in the first place. Wittgenstein professed himself puzzled by talk of the ‘external’ world, and Berkeley feels much the same. The point of reducing the world to our perceptions of it is not to dissolve it but to make it directly accessible to us. As a member of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, a Protestant elite marooned in a sea of potentially mutinous Papists, Berkeley needed to confound the sceptics if the Establishment he belonged to was to be secure. Scepticism struck at the root of religious faith: how could we know about grace and redemption if we could not even be sure that bananas are curved? And that, in turn, challenged the political authority of men like Swift and himself.

If abstract ideas were rather less fashionable in Ireland than in France or Germany, it was partly because they were felt to be something of a luxury in such a spectacularly impoverished nation. Perhaps this helps to account for the practical, ethical bent of so much Irish thought, from the ferociously anti-intellectual Swift to the 19th-century academic John Elliot Cairnes, a political economist and magnificent critic of slavery. Berkeley himself could be abstruse, but in this collection of his letters he can be found commenting on his plans as bishop of Cloyne to build ‘a workhouse for sturdy vagrants’ and discussing the dire state of Ireland’s economy. One of his books, The Querist, is devoted to social and economic issues, which Irish intellectuals generally found more difficult to overlook than their English counterparts.

Like a good many of his class, Berkeley thought that the country’s economic plight was partly a result of the indolence of its inhabitants. In an odiously condescending address to the Roman Catholic clergy of Ireland, reprinted in this volume, he denounces the common people as slothful and ‘wedded to dirt upon principle’. The Irish labourer is given to improvidently looking up from his work in the fields whenever a carriage passes by; the British working man, by contrast, speaks to you without interrupting his toil. Planting and tilling the earth is pleasant exercise, taking the ‘peasant from his smoky cabin into the fresh air’, and high rents should simply act as a spur to greater industry.

Berkeley refers to the common people as ‘the Irish’, implying that he himself is not of that breed. More exactly, he sometimes sees himself as Irish and sometimes doesn’t, an ambiguity he shares with other Ascendancy figures. The Anglo-Irish could be fervent Irish patriots when their interests were threatened by London, and robustly English when they needed to keep the Gaelic rabble at arm’s length. Berkeley and Swift felt that the masses had been shamefully neglected, but their anger at this was partly resentment of the way they themselves were treated by the British as a second-class ruling class. There is something of the Shankill Road in their ambivalence to Westminster.

Like others of his caste, Berkeley found it hard to make up his mind who, ethnically speaking, he was. A later Irish Protestant Trinity man, Samuel Beckett, was to turn this ambiguous sense of selfhood to artistic advantage. Wilde did so too, though torn allegiances almost did for him in real life. There are times when Berkeley could be unstinting in his praise for England, a country that ‘has the most learning, the most riches, the best government, the best people, and the best religion in the world’. He wanted a London publisher, complaining in a letter to a colleague that one of his most important works ‘has hardly become known to anyone outside this island’. Even today, Irish writers in a country with no sizeable publishers watch one another warily, wondering which of them Faber is going to take on. Sir John Percival, later Earl of Egmont, anxious that Berkeley might forget his roots while hobnobbing with the London literati, writes to inform him that even if he returns from the capital a changed man, ‘we will still pride ourselves that you are of Irish growth.’ Back in Dublin, Berkeley writes grovellingly to Percival, who is now in England himself, that ‘Your Lordship knows this barren bleak island too well to expect any news from it worth your notice.’ Yet he could also stand up for Ireland when the spirit moved him. In a letter to Percival some years earlier, he had praised Ireland as one of the finest countries in the world, and Dublin as one of the finest cities. It is true that he had not seen very many of either. Elsewhere, he comments that the foul English weather is enough to make him love his native land, ignoring the fact that the weather in Ireland is at least as bad.

Berkeley was one of a number of Irish-born émigrés in 18th-century literary London (Steele, Goldsmith, Sterne, Burke, Sheridan), and like most of them felt the semi-outsider’s need to be accepted. He writes admiringly of Steele, hardly a deep thinker or paragon of moral virtue, and gratefully acknowledges his friendship ‘even though he has heard I am a Tory’. ‘I have dined frequently at his house in Bloomsbury Square,’ he boasts mildly, ‘which is handsome and neatly furnished … everything is very genteel.’ Steele wasn’t half as genteel as the bedazzled Berkeley imagined: he wounded a fellow officer in a duel, knew the inside of a debtors’ prison, married a widow for her money and was arraigned for sedition before the House of Commons. Even so, he seemed a fount of good sense and sophisticated wit to the young Trinity don just off the boat from Dublin. So did Pope, ‘a man of excellent wit and learning’ despite being a papist. Berkeley writes to tell him how taken he is with the magic and ‘inexplicable beauties’ of The Rape of the Lock. In a heady year or so in England he breakfasted with Addison, dined with lords, did the rounds of the coffee houses, was introduced at court by Swift and dipped a toe in the charmed life of Oxford. There is no particular sense in the letters, however, that he was out of his social depth: he did, after all, spend his childhood in a castle in County Kilkenny.

After Berkeley returned to Ireland he spent a fair amount of time seeking preferment. He landed the deanship of Derry and later became bishop of Cloyne. For a man who didn’t believe in matter, he had a remarkably keen eye to his own material welfare. There are long stretches of arid correspondence in this volume, where Berkeley gives instructions about what kind of residence he would find desirable, frets over his South Sea shares, fends off creditors and searches for a cook who is able to pickle. Financial matters bulk large, not least the issue of the ill-starred Bermuda college. In 1722, Berkeley decided to found a college in Bermuda for ‘the propagation of the Gospel among the American savages’. This bizarre project finally collapsed for lack of funds, despite having won the support of both George I and the House of Commons; but Berkeley spent several years in pursuit of his dream, moving to Rhode Island for a couple of years and buying a small farm there. One of the unfortunate effects of this escapade, which the good bishop could admittedly not have foreseen, is to fill this volume with large tracts of tedious material.

In its high-minded eccentricity, the Bermuda project really belongs in Book 3 of Gulliver’s Travels, but Berkeley outdid it in sheer kookiness with his tar water fantasy. A mixture of water and liquid tar, he believed, could cure or relieve most or even all ailments, from cancer, leprosy and gout to epilepsy, smallpox and pneumonia. This panacea, about which Berkeley wrote a book, crops up all over the place in the later correspondence. It serves to remind us that Ireland’s greatest philosopher, whether annihilating the material world at the outset of his career or pushing quack medicine towards the end of it, was one of a long line of Anglo-Irish eccentrics.

Marc Hight has turned out a superbly scholarly edition of the bishop’s letters, considerably more complete than any previous offering and with some previously unpublished material. He includes a good many letters written to Berkeley as well as by him. Yet it is doubtful that our knowledge of the bishop would be much diminished if these letters had never seen the light of day. They say relatively little about philosophy, and a lot about trifling matters. There isn’t much sense of Berkeley as a distinctive personality. Instead, he comes across as a run-of-the-mill 18th-century Tory gentleman, considerably less exotic than his own doctrines. The fact that Jacobite rebels, officious creditors and unsuitable episcopal lodgings were just ideas in the mind of God does not seem to have stopped him from expending a good deal of ink on them. Those who are fascinated by the man behind the work are likely to conclude that the work, rather like Berkeley’s idea of sense impressions, is concealing very little indeed.