• Peter Byrne

Berkeley Questions 5

Aggiornamento: 7 ago

I Blind obedience to authority wasn’t an easy pill to swallow even in the 1700s. In the 2000s it’s as unacceptable as a draught of tar-water in place of an aspirin. Yet disobedience to a superior was the greatest evil George Berkeley could imagine.

-Right-on. It must have been a nightmare to be under the Bishop’s paternal sway.


II Don’t rush things. Berkeley started out young like the rest of us, but born to gentility, not Georgie but Master George. Kilkenny College taught piety with a heavy-hand and Latin, Greek and Hebrew all day long. At fifteen Berkeley left for Trinity College Dublin a pious nerd. He graduated with a B.A. in 1704 and wrote his first publication while waiting around for a fellowship that came in 1707. Trinity was the nerve centre of protestantism in Ireland and as a matter of course Berkeley was ordained a priest in 1710. This put him in line to one day be granted a ‘living’ or benefice to rule over, a lucrative, leisure-heavy sinecure. For the time being at 27 in 1712, he described himself as a “sort of monk or recluse in a college.” He worked hard shaping his philosophy.

-Sounds dull. Let’s get on to his time in London among the heavyweights of the quill. Wasn’t he a ladies’ man?


III He went to London in 1713 to enjoy his growing fame and keep it flourishing with further publications. One of the jobs he took on was to draw up an anthology called ‘The Ladies Library’ for Sir Richard Steele who would sign it as anthologist. London tabloid titillation it was not. Berkeley chose texts that reflected his severe ‘Passive Obedience’. His editorial note read:

“The Contempt of Religion is grown to such a highth, that hardly the Appearance of Morality and Decency remains: Ladies of Quality looking upon it as part of their very liberal Breeding, to shew that their behaviour in all things depends entirely on their Humour, and that they are incapable of all Restraint”.

Berkeley did also insist on absolute obedience in family life. Disobedience to a husband meant hellfire for a wife. Meekness of the will is the virtue women should aim at. They were only capable of complying to laws that nature had made men alone able to make.

-This had to lead to kerfuffle at the Berkeley homestead.


IV No, since there was no Chez Berkeley. He was still a bachelor into his forties. His proposal to Anne Donnellan, a family connection, was turned down. Biographer Tom Jones thinks she refused him because wary of his bulldog attachment to goofy schemes like tar-water cures. Donnellan was a bluestocking and remained in his orbit. It wasn’t till 1728 on the eve of what Berkeley thought his permanent expatriation to America that he married Anne Foster. He thought a wife necessary baggage for his risky utopian adventure. Foster proved obedient and loyal for his lifetime and after. But like Donnellan she found him destructive as a philosopher and a self-saboteur in the struggle for power in the great world. Both women would have preferred a less quirky George Berkeley, but his idiosyncrasy couldn’t be disentangled from his genius.

-Foster had more to think about than philosophy. Seven Children and two miscarriages, one with serious aftereffects.


V Berkeley’s advice on choosing a wife was a horse trader’s: “Choose her by reputation. The quicksightedness and malice of the world will not keep the faults of a woman concealed from those eyes that are not already blinded by love. Therefore choose first and love after”. He approves of eugenics: “Whence is it that Barbs and Arabs are so good horses? And whether in those countries they are not exactly nice in admitting none but Males of a good Kind to their Mares?” But he does see his children as a consolation, a kind of asset in reserve.

-He had seven in the corral. Three never made their first birthday. William died at fifteen. George Junior, (whom an observer called “terminally indolent”), felt the full blast of his home-schooling father’s zeal. Henry and Julia escaped it into madness and a surprisingly long life.


VI Berkeley boasts of his own wiving in a letter to Lord Percival:

“My wife, a daughter of the late Chief Justice Forster, whom I married since I last saw your Lordship. I chose her for the qualities of her mind and her unaffected inclination to books. She goes with great cheerfulness to live a plain farmer’s life, and wear stuff of her own spinning. I have presented her with a spinning wheel, and for her encouragement have assured her that from henceforward there shall never be one yard of silk bought for the use of myself, herself, or any of our family. Her fortune was two thousand pounds originally, but travelling and exchange have reduced it to less than fifteen hundred English money.”

-One of the Bishop’s virtues was penny pinching. It went with his rigorous fundraising of other people’s money for his Bermuda fantasy.


VII Berkley’s move to Oxford in the last years of his life was to watch over George Jr’s education at the university. His father determined to inure him “to Diligence and Industry, to Application and Attention, of Mind.” But George Jr fell in love with a women who was a dozen years older and the family nixed the idea of marriage. After Berkeley died, George Jr’s mother felt obliged to continue his father’s educational plan for him. She showered him with moral and spiritual maxims and recommended he read the mystic writers. Dozy George Jr felt guilty about not matching his mother and father’s habit of early rising at 4am for study.

-You’re saying that the great educator who was out to teach indigenous Americans Anglican manners couldn’t get his son out of bed in the morning. A lesson in parental overreach there and a pile up of ironies.


VIII Abstract moral principles sound impressive in the void. When Berkeley heaps them on the back of live people in his hack work we can feel the pain inflicted. That’s why perusing ‘The Ladies Library’ raises goose pimples.

-You can say that again, and louder. And why did the fastidious moralist Berkeley have no qualms about subtitling the anthology he had made as “Written by a Lady”? What’s more, modern copyright law had been established in 1710 and Steele and Berkeley flouted it, depriving authors of their pittance.



IX Jump ahead to 1868 and the founding of the University of California, at Berkeley, the city named in honour of our George. Three years later the Board of Regents stated that women should be admitted on an equal basis with men. This was a century before most Ivy League schools did the same.

-Berkeley does say in ‘The Ladies Library’ that women’s inferior state is due to men refusing them education. But in the plan he proposes, women would only be educated to the point of being able to teach their children to the age of ten. That would save household expenses on tutors. The fathers would then take over the ten-year-olds to knock them into shape for life.


X Would I be overworking the irony in George Berkeley’s life to say that the University at Berkeley, Cal., has managed to negate all of his iron-hard principles?

-It had to. In his vision of a hierarchal world with God at the top just above the King who was followed by social superiors according to rank down to the bottom, women’s place could only be in the subbasement. It was no good for the Bishop to bemoan the crushing of women in ‘The Ladies Library’ and then lumber them with ‘Passive Obedience’ to authority of every stripe.


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