Study Guide

George Berkeley Biography

Basic Information

Name

George Berkeley (and that's pronounced Barklay; I get very annoyed when people say my name like the city in California, even if it was named after me).

Nickname

The Irish Plato; Curious George; The Babbling Bishop

Sex

Male

Home town

I was born on March 12, 1685, near Thomastown in County Kilkenny, Ireland. I stayed in Ireland until my late 20s, but by then I couldn't stand it anymore—I had to see what else was out there.

So, I went to England for a bit, and then I traveled throughout Europe for a number of years. After that, I got really adventurous and went to America. I hoped to buy some land and establish a college in Bermuda, but, well, that didn't work out, so I returned to Ireland to serve as bishop of the town of Cloyne. It was a nice gig, and I did it for 18 years. But Cloyne was no place to retire; my final stop was in Oxford, England.

Work & Education

Occupation

I'm not one of those one-note Charlie guys—all philosophy and nothing else. (I'm looking at you, Kant.) Sure, I worked as a philosopher, teaching at Trinity College in Dublin and publishing my first philosophical work, An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision at the ripe old age of 24. But I had a real job, too.

I became a deacon in the Anglican Church in 1709 and from then on served as a clergyman in various places and capacities, including 18 years as Bishop of Cloyne. I also did some tutoring, especially during my years in Italy. (Hey, I'm not independently wealthy—I had to earn a living somehow).

It's true that all this time, I was churning out philosophical books and articles, but don't tell me I never left the ivory tower. In fact, it's kind of ironic: for someone who claims that ideas alone exist, I haven't exactly lived "the life of the mind."

Education

I went to school in Kilkenny until January, 1700, after which I went directly to college at Trinity in Dublin. I wasn't yet 15 years old. Perhaps "child prodigy" is a slight overstatement, but "exceedingly bright" would, I believe, be an apt description of young me.

I received my B.A. from Trinity in 1704, and then in 1707, having aced an extremely challenging examination, I was named Junior Fellow of the college. I wrote my first articles (on topics in mathematics) during this period.

Now, a lesser man might have been done at this point, at least with the education part of his career, but not George "the Irish Plato" Berkeley. No, I went on to study divinity, and in 1709 I was ordained deacon in the Anglican Church. I was ordained as a priest the following year. The groundwork had now been laid for my astonishing dual career as philosopher and bishop. The rest, as they say, is history.

Beliefs

Political views

I tend to surprise people in this area: even though I have some pretty radical philosophical ideas, I'm fairly conservative when it comes to politics. Basically, my view, as spelled out in my sermons on Passive Obedience, is that citizens have a duty to obey the monarch in all cases, and that disobedience is both sinful and unlawful. I know it sounds harsh, but my view is that the king derives his authority directly from God. You don't want to be standing up to God, do you?

Still, my politics aren't quite as extreme as they sound. I allowed for political resistance in some cases—you can't be too rigid about these things, you know. And even though the accusation was often made, I was not actually an archconservative Jacobite (a supporter of the deposed Roman Catholic Stuart King James II of England against the Protestant King William III). Rejecting altogether the legitimacy of the current regime? That's not how I roll.

My view was balanced and nuanced—not an easy stance to pull off in the world of politics, I realize. That's why, for the most part, I stayed out of that world and stuck to speculative philosophy. Denying the existence of matter may lead people to think you're whacked, but at least they don't get that worked up about it.

Religious views

I don't think you will be stunned to hear that I am a religious man. It's not like my habit of praying and delivering sermons is all some big ruse. No, I was ordained as an Anglican deacon in 1709 and have remained an active member of the Anglican Church my entire life.

At the same time, I think it's fair to say that I have avoided sectarianism in my commitment to my particular faith. As Bishop of Cloyne, I cared equally for the wellbeing of Protestants and Catholics. And while I was certainly opposed to atheism and thought that it was linked with materialism, I never went around persecuting atheists. I guess I'm a pretty good guy, now that I think of it.

Of course, I'm not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill clergyman. After all, I do put forward a systematic proof of the existence of God. But nothing I put forward in my arguments and proofs rests on religious faith. No, it's all part of my philosophical system, and it's established through reason alone.

Activities & Interests

Likes

Minds
Spirits
Philosophical commonsense (and yes such a thing exists!)
America (visiting only)
Wacky arguments for God's existence
Lively exchanges of ideas (=discussions where my opponent is crushed)
Hobnobbing with witty VIPs
Tar-water

Dislikes

Matter
Materialists
Atheists
Skeptics
Founding colleges in America (much more difficult than it sounds)
Thoughtlessness
Losing an argument
Barest hint that I might have lost an argument

Interests

Metaphysics
Theology
Mathematics
Visual Perception

Groups

British Empiricists
Idealists
Great Irish Thinkers
Philosophers Who Are Far Sharper Than They Initially Appear
Philosophers With Least Convincing Arguments For God's Existence

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