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GEORGE BERKELEY, D. D.,
BISHOP OF CLOYNE, IN IRELAND.
The family of Bishop Berkeley suffered greatly for their loyalty during the civil wars in the time of Charles I. After the restoration, William Berkeley, the father of the Bishop, enjoyed the patronage of the king, and obtained an office of some emolument in Ireland. George Berkeley, the subject of this biographical notice, was born in Kilcrin, near Thomastown, in the county of Kilkenny, March 12th, 1684. At the age of fifteen he was admitted a pensioner of Trinity College, Dublin, and in 1707, a fellow of the same college ; having sustained with honor the severe examination for that preferment. The first proof he gave of his literary abilities was a mathematical treatise, which he appears to have written before he was twenty years old, but did not publish till 1707, entitled Arithmetica absque Algebra aut Euclide demonstrata.
In 1709, at the age of twenty-five, he published An Essay towards a new Theory of Vision. In this work, among other things, he attempted to distinguish, for the first time, the immediate objects of our senses from the conclusions, which from infancy we are accustomed to draw from them. Thus he maintained, that although habit has brought together many of the ideas of sight and touch, so that they are called by the same names, they have originally no such connection. This publication greatly raised his reputation as a philosopher. In 1710 appeared his celebrated work—A Treatise concerning the principles of human knowledge, wherein the chief causes of error and difficully in the sciences, with the grounds of scepticism, atheism, and irreligion, are inquired into. He here controverts some of the doctrines of Locke, and from others draws the conclusion, that the commonly received notion of the existence of matter is false, and inconsistent with itself; and that those things which are called sensible material objects are not external, but exist in the mind, and are merely impressions made upon us by the immediate act of God, according to certain rules, termed laws of nature, from which, in the ordinary course of his government, he never deviates. Two years afterwards, in further defence of these peculiar views, he published, Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous. These speculations brought their author into additional notoriety, not only from their novelty, but from the acuteness of intellect and the beautiful imagination with which they were exhibited. He was intimate with Sir Richard Steele, Dean Swift, and Mr. Pope, and was introduced extensively to the acquaintance of persons of rank and learning
In 1713, he attended the English ambassador to the king of Sicily and other Italian states, as chaplain and secretary, and was absent from England several years. During his residence on the continent, he composed a tract de Motu, which he sent to the Royal Academy of
Sciences at Paris. In this discourse there are several amusing paradoxes. In 1717, he was elected Senior fellow in his college, and took the degrees of bachelor and doctor in divinity. In 1724, Dr. Berkeley resigned his fellowship, and was promoted to the rich deanry of Derry. The condition of the savages in the English American colonies now engaged his attention; and he conceived the benevolent project of converting them to Christianity, by means of a college to be erected in the island of Bermuda. The scheme was viewed by some as visionary ; but it was favorably entertained by the government, and a parliamentary grant was made to carry it into execution. Private subscriptions were likewise raised to promote the undertaking. In the prosecution of his purpose, in February, 1729, he arrived at Newport, Rhode Island, with his family, and with several persons, fellows of Trinity College, who were to be assistants in building up the new institution. The Dean now met with various disappointments and discouragements, and after a residence at Newport of about two years and a half, returned to Europe, having expended, in his enterprise, a great part of his private fortune.
In 1732, soon after his return from America, he published the Minute Philosopher. This work consists of seven dialogues, written on the model of Plato, and in which the free-thinker is met and his opinions shown to be unsound, through the various characters of atheist, libertine, enthusiast, scorner, critic, metaphysician, fatalist, and sceptic. The Minute Philosopher was written during the residence of the author in Rhode Island, and is perhaps the most useful as well as entertaining of his works. While he resided in Ireland, he engaged in a controversy with the mathematicians of Great Britain on the subject of Fluxions, and published his Analyst.
The writings of Bishop Berkeley, however, were not limited to subjects of science and of metaphysical and theological disquisition. At several periods of his life he issued political tracts relating to the topics of the day, in which he discovered great knowledge of mankind, and of public affairs, and an ardent zeal for the good of his country. In early life, he is said to have been fond of works of fiction and romance; and “ The Adventures of Signior Gaudentio di Lucca” have been generally attributed to his pen.
The metaphysical speculations of Berkeley have been adopted by numbers, including individuals of the greatest learning and talents. Others have viewed his philosophy with a dislike bordering on abhorrence, as tending to universal scepticism. Mr. Hume, himself the great advocate of doubting, says of the arguments of Berkeley, that, though otherwise intended, they are in reality merely sceptical ; that they admit of no answer, and produce no conviction.
In 1733, he was promoted to the bishopric of Cloyne, in Ireland, and henceforth devoted his time and attention, in an unusual degree, to the discharge of his Episcopal duties. Towards the close of his life, he found some relief from infirmities to which he was subject, from the use of tar-water. It was to be expected from one of his disposition and temperament, that he would endeavor to extend the knowledge of a medicine which he considered highly useful. Many of his friends and acquaintance were, by his representation, induced to make trial of this potent remedy, and extraordinary cures were reported. Accordingly he published a treatise entitled, " Siris, a Chain of Philosophical Reflections and Inquiries concerning the Virtues of Tar-water"a work highly characteristic of the peculiar genius of the author. The reader of this disquisition will find himself gradually conducted from recipes for the preparation of this medicine, and a catalogue of cures effected by its use, to irquiries in physiology, the consideration of final causes, the subtleties of the Platonic philosophy, and the sublime mysteries of the Christian trinity. The author is said to have declared, that this work cost him more time and pains, than any other in which he had been engaged.
In 1752, he removed to Oxford, where he died suddenly, January 14th, 1753. His remains were interred at Christ Church, the Cathedral of Oxford, where an elegant marble monument was erected to his memory. When the news of his death was received in New Haven, a Latin Funeral Oration was pronounced in the college chapel, by Ezra Stiles, senior tutor, afterwards president of the college.
Few persons have been held in higher estimation than Bishop Berkeley, by those who knew him. Said Bishop Atterbury, “So much understanding, so much knowledge, so much innocence, and such humility, I did not think had been the portion of any but angels, till I saw this gentleman.” The well-known line of his friend Pope, was thought hardly to contain an exaggeration :
" To Berkeley every virtue under heav'n.”
While Dean Berkeley resided in Rhode Island, he became acquainted with the Rev. Jared Eliot of Killingworth, one of the trustees of Yale College, the Rev. Samuel Johnson, Episcopal missionary at Stratford, and other genilemen of Connecticut. He had likewise a correspondence with the Rev. Elisha Williams, rector of the college ; and became well acquainted with the character and prospects of the institution. While in America, he made a donation of all his own works to the College library; and after his return to Europe, sent to the trustees a deed of his farm in Rhode Island, of about ninety-six acres, 10 be held by them for the encouragement of classical learning. The conditions of the deed are, that the rents of the farm, alier necessary charges are deducted, shall be appropriated to the maintenance of the three best scholars in Greek and Latin, who shall reside at the college at least nine months in a year, in each of the three years between their first and second degrees; that on the sixth of May annually, or in case that shall be Sunday, on the seventh, the candidates shall be publicly examined by the president or rector, and the senior Episcopal missionary within this colony, who shall be then present; and in case none be present, then by the president only. If the president and senior missionary shall not agree in their judgments, who are the best scholars, the case is to be decided by lot. All surplusages of money, which