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  • Immagine del redattorePeter Byrne

Berkeley Questions 4

Aggiornamento: 11 apr 2023

I Our George Berkeley a snake-oil hustler?

-His urging everyone to gulp down tar-water sounds like deceptive marketing to me and mighty close to health care fraud.

II You’re talking like a 2022 valetudinarian. Berkeley’s thirst for pine resin steeped in H20 overwhelmed him in the 1740s.

-Please. The backwardness of the times was no excuse. Even then the clued-in called it quackery. The stuff was recommended for dropsy, gout, colic, menopause and breast ailments in women as well tuberculosis in both sexes—a cure-all for everything but stupidity.

III Berkeley didn’t hawk his remedy at village fairs. You have to understand that he poured it out as a philosopher. Philosophers are concerned with the general, what they call being, aka everything just as theologians deal with the top panacea they call God. No philosopher would offer a plain remedy for a specific disorder, like bicarbonate for dyspepsia. Berkeley had to come up with the king of cures.

-He should have stuck to prayer, preferable silent. His preaching kept the faithful awake.

IV Consider a side of the Bishop’s character that his forgiving biographer, Tom Jones, takes note of. For all his genius and Christian cheek-turning, Berkeley would fix on a pet idea with the jaws of a bulldog. Jones sees “a wilful and and idiosyncratic temperament […] in his belief in the near-universal therapeutic value of tar-water”.

-Berkeley’s dumb idea was so stubborn it went on to infect the 19th-Century. In Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ it pops up as a kind of torture. Pip and Joe, his brother-in-law, are made to drink the bitter Berkeley brew by the dominatrix, Mrs. Joe, Pip’s eldest sister.

V Don’t look at 18th-Century tar-water with the eye of your local druggist/chemist who is no history buff. You’ll miss the beauty and the fun. Start like the Bishop did with the ancient Greek notion. The air itself (aether) was pregnant with a kind of fire made of its heat and light. Berkeley, déformation professionelle, brought God into the story. Matthew 3:11: “He shall baptise you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.” The air we breathe was a little gift from on high. It had a wonderful effect on vegetation, notably on the pine tree.

-The resin steeped oil water is nothing more than a feeble disinfectant. Sprinkle it on a scratch if you’re an antiquarian. It’s horse piss to drink.

VI Put yourself in the episcopal shoes. There was a famine in 1740 and an epidemic of dysentery. Berkeley began his amateur medical practice. He found tar-water gave life and spirit—fire—to the stricken. He concluded that it was the flame in the air that inspired the pine to give us its tar like laying golden eggs. Being Berkeley, his thoughts ran to politics and the public good. The high living of the ruling class while the plebes starved had unnerved him. He left the banquet circuit and took a ride on the water wagon. Sobered up, he had to admit that gluttony and the bottle had weakened the elitist fibre of his fellow movers and shakers. Tar-water instead of port wine would not only restore their health and morality but—since they called the shots—guarantee better governance of the realm.

-The foul pine-tar cocktail as the Antabuse of those days? Maybe. But he should have spiked it with something sweet from the pantry.

VII You are so terre-à-terre. The Bishop’s medical analysis starts with the soul:

“As the body is said to cloath the soul, so the nerves may be said to constitute her inner garment. And as the soul animates the whole, what nearly touches the soul relates to all. Therefore the asperity of tartarous salts, and the fiery acrimony of alcaline salts, irritating and wounding the nerves, produce nascent passions and anxieties in the soul; which both aggravate distempers, and render men’s lives restless and wretched, even when they are afflicted with no apparent distemper. This is the latent spring of much woe, spleen, and tedium vitae. Small imperceptible irritation of the minutest fibres or filaments caused by the pungent salts of wines and sauces, do so shake and disturb the microcosms of high livers, as often to raise tempests in courts and senates.”

-Sorry, my soul dozed off. there. I take it the old boy had a hangover.

VIII You ridicule Berkeley as a scientist because of his infatuation with the pine tree. But at the same time his scientific writing was epoch making. What’s more, Karl Popper who clarified scientific method for the 20th-century saw Berkeley as a precursor, on a level with the great physicist Ernst Mach who foreshadowed Einstein. Popper called ‘Berkeley’s Razor’ our patron’s brilliant affirmation that conclusions can be drawn from experiments but can never establish truths about the nature of the world which remains philosophy’s job.

-With pine tar for shaving cream?

IX As always, irony came out the winner. Berkeley’s precious publications didn’t do well in the bookshops during his lifetime. But ‘Siris’ (“Concerning the Virtues of Tarwater”) went like hot cakes and ‘Further Thoughts on Tarwater’ came quickly out of the still warm oven in 1752. Only George Berkeley’s death in 1753 stopped the bee from buzzing in his capacious bonnet.

-That’s it. He was big-headed..

X Should Circle members be moved to toast their patron in his elixir, this is the Bishop’s own recipe:

Tar from pine or fir should be stirred for three or four minutes with an equal quantity of water and the mixture allowed to stand for 48 hours. Then the separated water is drawn off to be drunk, at the rate of one half-pint night and morning on an empty stomach. Fresh water is added to the unused portion and again stirred to provide more of the preparation, until the mixture becomes too weak.


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