Thursday, September 22, 2016

Berkeley's 'Minute Philosopher'

Review of:
Works of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne.

We purpose now to say something of Berkeley's principal controversial and practical work—Alciphron, or the Minute Philosopher—which is composed of seven dialogues, and professes on the title-page to be 'an Apology for the Protestant Religion against those who are called Freethinkers.'

The Minute Philosopher has obtained an immense reputation, and is not only quoted for its arguments, but praised as a picked specimen of the style of composition to which it belongs. It is probably difficult at the present day to judge fairly of its merits in point of style. It was published in 1732, and was obviously meant to be a popular performance. If we are to trust other observers besides Berkeley, that time was a specially irreligious one. The impulse given to religion in England by the dread of Popery which led to the Revolution, and by the reaction against the licentiousness of Charles II.'s reign, had died out, and the new impulse created by Methodism had not begun to make itself felt. Writing in 1736, Butler said, 'It is come, I know not how, to be taken for granted by many persons that Christianity is not so much as a subject of inquiry, but that it is now at length discovered to be fictitious.'

Much curious evidence is collected in Mr. Pattison's essay on the Tendencies of Religious Thought in England from 1688 to 1750 as to the temper of those times, and any one who refers to it, may easily satisfy himself of the very peculiar state of feeling to which Berkeley had to adapt his style. When, however, all due allowances have been made upon this head, it must, we think, be conceded that, judged at all events by more modern standards, the Minute Philosopher is open to great objections in point of style.

A set of dialogues in which one of the interlocutors is always made to look like a fool is at best like a game of chess between the right hand and the left, in which it is predetermined that the right hand is to win. A book of conversations where persons of similar views bring out different sides of the same theory, as in the Soirees de St. Petersboug, may be charming; but a book of dialogues is almost always made unendurable by its indirect brag. Notwithstanding all the reputation of Berkeley, this is eminently true of the Minute Philosopher. Nothing can be tamer than the irony of the Christian advocate, and the elaborate insolence of the freethinker.

Berkeley's one notion of a dialogue seems to be to make either Alciphron or Lysicles set off with a bombastic self-confident speech, the various defects of which are then pointed out by Euphranor, with the occasional assistance of Crito, in a tone which always begins with affected simplicity and innocence, and always ends by reducing the audacious sceptic to utter confusion. The same remark applies in a minor degree to the dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, though the more abstract and less interesting character of their discussion saves the reader from the affectation of simplicity which Euphranor, in the Minute Philosopher, wears about as clumsily as a stage countryman, who prepares for his victory over the town villain, by exaggerating the uncouthness of his brogue and the awkwardness of his gait.

When we pass from the question of style to that of substance, the case is different. The book is full of interest, in so far as it affords an account of Berkeley's own views, though we do not think it does justice, as indeed it could hardly be expected to do justice, to the sceptical side of the controversy. One of its peculiarities is that, with the exception of Lord Shaftesbury and Mandeville, it hardly ever names the writers whose opinions are being attacked, or describes them otherwise than by classical pseudonyms. It is thus by no means easy to say whether their doctrines are fairly stated, and whether Alciphron and Lysicles can be accepted as really competent representatives of the opinions of which they are made the organs.

The most general remark which the book suggests is, that throughout the whole of it, Berkeley unreservedly, and on every possible occasion, displays his conviction that freethinkers—or, as he calls them, minute philosophers— were simply enemies to morality, order, and every form of virtue, and the advocates of the most unrestrained personal indulgence of every sort of sensual appetite. He never appears to admit for a moment the possibility that they can be conscientious, or that their motives can be anything else but downright unmitigated wickedness.

It is also remarkable, and indeed highly characteristic both of the man and of the time, that he never tries, like many Christian advocates in our own days, to frighten his opponents into Christianity, by threatening them with atheism as their only alternative. On the contrary, he regards them as being only too much inclined to atheism as it is, to need pushing any farther in that direction; and he is not only ready, but willing, to allow them to believe rather less than he might perhaps wish, if they will only agree with him, as to what he regards as the main and indispensable points of natural religion on ordinary grounds of reason. For it must also be observed that, according to the all but invariable practice of the divines of the eighteenth century, Berkeley continually maintains that reason is the test of truth, and that religion has no claim to be believed except in so far as it can be established by reason.

Probably no orthodox writer of that age would have ventured to assert, as writers of the highest possible reputation for orthodoxy have continually asserted in our own time, that reason and religion are natural enemies, and that, nevertheless, religion is true. Berkeley, indeed, not only contends that natural religion can be proved by reason, and ought to be founded upon it, but appears in some places to go the length of regarding Christianity as valuable, mainly, because of the warrant which it gave to natural religion, and of looking upon the Christian mysteries as matters to be received principally for the sake of their connection with these fundamental tenets.

Being pressed by Lysicles to reconcile the principal points of the gospel history 'to the common notions and plain sense of mankind,' Crito says: 'And what if those, as well as many other points, should lie out of the road we are acquainted with; must we therefore explode them, and make it a rule to condemn every proceeding as senseless that doth not square with the vulgar sense of man? If the precepts and certain primary tenets of religion appear in the eye of reason good and useful, and if they are also found to be so by their effects, we may, for the sake of them, admit certain other points or doctrines, recommended with them to have a good tendency, to be right and true.'

The broad truths of the existence of a God, and of a supernatural sanction for morality, which are ascertainable by reason, are thus the foundations of the Christian religion, the mysteries of which are to be received because the two are connected together. This view of the matter would appear to many modern writers a surrender of the whole case.

The first of the seven Dialogues is occupied mainly by a general exposition, on the part of Alciphron, of the tenets of his sect. He professes himself an Atheist. 'Atheism, that bugbear of women and fools, is the very top and perfection of freethinking,' and its truth is proved by the variety of religious opinions which exist in the world. When this doctrine is once embraced, we have no difficulty in seeing the true end of human life, which is sensual pleasure. 'Every wise man looks upon himself, or his own bodily existence in this present world, as the centre and ultimate end of all his objects and regards. He considers his appetites as natural guides, directing to his proper good; his passions and senses as the natural true means of enforcing this good.' Consequently, indulging all our passions 'without restraint, remorse, or fear,' is the highest happiness attainable by human nature.

After a good deal of brag, intentionally made as vulgar and offensive as possible, as to the course of education by which men arrive at such results, Euphranor proceeds to his cross-examination upon them, and shows, of course with great ease, that human nature includes social as well as sensual propensities, that society and government are in a very definite sense natural to mankind, and that 'a wise man should consider and pursue his private good with regard to and in conjunction with that of other men.' He does not clearly explain what 'should' means in this phrase, nor does Alciphron ask him. Euphranor then concludes 'that the belief of a God, of a future state, and of moral duties, are the only wise, right, and genuine principles of human conduct in case they have a necessary connection with the well-being of mankind.'

The conclusion seems to be rather confused, inasmuch as the preceding argument has established only that a purely sensual and isolated life is not according to human nature; but probably Euphranor means that the fact that any given belief is necessarily connected with that kind of well-being for which human nature qualifies us, is evidence of its truth—a proposition on which much might be said, but which Alciphron allows to pass unexamined and unchallenged. Lysicles, however, saves all discussion of the subject by interposing his opinion that the belief in a God, in a future state, and in moral duties, is not beneficial, inasmuch as these doctrines discourage vice, which is beneficial.

This forms the subject of the second Dialogue, in which Lysicles states, with even more revolting nakedness than its original author, the egregious folly of Mandeville about the benefits of vice, and is of course refuted, by a detailed application of the obvious argument, that virtue favours health, industry, and long life, which are the main elements of national prosperity. Lysicles replies that, however this may be, vice is his personal interest, because it enables him to enjoy sensual gratifications unchecked; to which Euphranor replies by proving that sensual pleasure is a very small part of human happiness, which of course he performs as easily as he proved against Alciphron that social instincts are natural, and in much the same way.

This Dialogue may be recommended with confidence to those who relish a good, sturdy, full-bodied morality, free from all qualms or refinement. There is about it a hang-him-by-the-neck-till-he-is-dead way of dealing with vice which is pleasant to read in these sentimentalising days:
'Something there is in our climate and complexion that makes idleness nowhere so much its own punishment as in England, where an uneducated fine gentleman pays for his momentary pleasures with long and cruel intervals of spleen, for relief of which he is driven into sensual excesses that produce a proportionable depression of spirits, which, as it createth a greater want of pleasures, so it lessens the ability to enjoy them. . . . This man of pleasure, when after a wretched scene of vanity and woe his animal nature is worn to the stumps, wishes and dreads death by turns, and is sick of living, without having ever tried or known the true life of a man. . . . As the minute philosophy prevails we daily see more instances of suicide. . . . Splenetic, worried, and frightened out of their wits, they run upon their doom, not because they are bold to die, but because they are afraid to live.'
A life of sensuality is a wretched bargain. 'In order to make a true estimate of pleasure, the great spring of action, and that from whence the conduct of life takes its bias, we ought to compute intellectual pleasures and future pleasures, as well as present and sensible.'

These few sentences are fair specimens of many pages of good, sound, downright abuse of freethinkers and their principles, illustrated by shocking examples. We have Cleon, who 'died before thirty, childless and rotten, and expressing the utmost indignation that he could not outlive the old dog his father'; Lycidas, 'a modest young man,' who being instructed by Charmides, a minute philosopher, in the principles of the sect, practised his master's precepts by seducing his daughter, whereby his master hung himself; and Bubalion, who one night at supper talked against the immortality of the soul with two or three grave citizens, one of whom next day declared himself bankrupt, with £5000 of Bubalion's in his hands, and the night following he received a note from a servant who had during his lecture waited at table, demanding the sum of fifty guineas, to be laid under a stone, and concluding with the most terrible imprecations.' This is like one of Hogarth's pictures, in which virtue is inculcated by the gibbets from which pirates are hanging, and by the last dying speech and confession of Counsellor Silvertongue.

In the following Dialogue, Alciphron turns his back both upon Lysicles, and his own original views as to the supreme happiness of mere sensuality, and declares his preference for the doctrine of honour, and disinterested morality, as preached by Shaftesbury, and says that the true foundation of morality is to be found in the beauty of virtue. Hereupon Euphranor pushes him by a long cross-examination, which Alciphron deals with very weakly, to admit that beauty means no more than utility or fitness for a serviceable end; whence the step is easy to the conclusion that, as rewards and punishments are useful, they must have their place in a beautiful arrangement of things. 'In an incoherent fortuitous system governed by chance, or a blind system governed by fate, or in any system where Providence does not preside, how can beauty be—which cannot be without order, which cannot be without design?’
'When a man is conscious that his will is inwardly conformed to the divine will, producing order and harmony in the universe, and conducting the whole by the justest methods to the best end, this gives a beautiful idea.' On the other hand, 'Is it not an ugly system in which you suppose no law, and prove no duty, wherein men thrive by wickedness and suffer by virtue?'
This theory is backed by another dose of the sturdy morality before described. The beauty of goodness may be enough for foreigners; but 'whatever may be the effect of pure theory upon certain select spirits of a peculiar make, or in other parts of the world, I do verily think that in this country of ours reason, religion, law, are all together little enough to subdue the outward to the inner man, and that it must argue a weak head and weak judgment to suppose that without them men will be enamoured of the golden mean. To which my countrymen, perhaps, are less inclined than others, there being in the make of the English mind a certain gloom and eagerness which carries to the sad extreme; religion to fanaticism; free thinking to atheism; liberty to rebellion.' To all this Alciphron replies, as Lysicles had in the preceding Dialogue, that all that has been said only tends to show the utility of religion, and not its truth.

The fourth Dialogue accordingly relates to the existence of God, which is proved against Alciphron first by the usual argument from design, to which he makes no sort of reply whatever. This appears to us to be a mistake in point of art, and to show the defects which the form of the work necessarily involves.

From the argument from design Euphranor passes to Berkeley's own peculiar demonstration of the existence of God from the non-existence of matter, in which he only repeats what is to be found in his essay on the principles of human knowledge. After Alciphron has been sufficiently refuted, Lysicles interposes with the observation that he has no objection to the doctrine of a God if he may be allowed to hold with 'Diagoras, a man of much reading and inquiry ' (who, by the way, might very well have been Archbishop King), 'that the words knowledge, wisdom, goodness, and such like, when spoken of the Deity, must be understood in a quite different sense from what they signify in the vulgar acceptation, or from anything we can form a notion of or conceive.' 'In short, 'he observes, 'the belief that there is an unknown subject of attributes absolutely unknown, is a very innocent doctrine.'

Crito, in answer to this, goes into a long inquiry as to the extent to which such a doctrine can be admitted, the result of which is that 'we must understand all those attributes to belong to the Deity which in themselves imply, and as such denote, perfection'; e.g. when we say that God is wise or knowing in an infinite degree, the words have a distinct and proper meaning; but when we say he is angry or grieved, these are mere metaphors. Hereupon Alciphron asks how, if this be so, God can be said to be good, the world being what it is. Euphranor replies, 'Tell me, Alciphron, would you argue that a State was ill-administered, or judge of the manners of its citizens, by the disorders committed in the gaol or dungeon?' Alciphron says, 'I would not.' Upon which Euphranor observes that, for aught we know, 'this spot and the few sinners on it' is the dungeon of the universe. Alciphron, as usual, is silenced by the answer, which is very good-natured in him, for the answer is too obvious for a child to miss. If, as the whole scope of the argument implies, our estimate of the divine attributes is to be framed from what we see and know, what right have we to assume that other worlds are unlike our own? Besides would it not be perfectly just to argue from ill-managed gaols to an ill-managed Home Office?

In the latter part of this dialogue Crito and Euphranor are greatly indebted to the forbearance of their antagonists. The question of worship, for instance, is passed over in one paragraph. Alciphron asks what the use of it can be, God being without passions. Crito replies:
'We worship God, not because we think he is proud of our worship, or fond of our praise or prayers, or affected with them as mankind are . . . but because it is good for us to be so disposed towards God, because it is just and right and suitable to the nature of things, and becoming the relation we stand in to our supreme Lord and Governor.'

Alciphron is satisfied, but it is obvious enough that he might have pushed the doctrines laid down by Crito and Euphranor to conclusions which, to say the least, would look very strange in champions of orthodoxy.

In the next Dialogue Crito takes the offensive. He sums up what has gone before, reminds Alciphron of his admissions of the benefits of virtue, the existence of God, the advantage of worshipping God; and he then asks, 'If a religion, why not the Christian, if a better cannot be assigned, and it be already established by the laws of our country and handed down to us by our forefathers?' This leads to a long discussion on the merits of Christianity as shown in history, as to which Crito says, 'One great mark of the truth of Christianity is, in my mind, its tendency to do good, which seems the north star to conduct our judgment in moral matters and in all things of a practical nature.'

The only remark which the rest of the Dialogue suggests is that it heightens our regret that Berkeley threw his book into such an inconvenient form. If the remarks upon the moral effects of Christianity, especially upon England, had been given in a substantive form, and not in the shape of a dispute, they would have been much more interesting and valuable. Their value, however, is now a good deal diminished by the fact that the topics upon which he dwells— such as the services of the clergy to literature, and the softening of national manners by Christianity are much more familiar now than they formerly were.

A casual point of interest is Berkeley's estimate of his countrymen as the sternest and hardest of races. Thus he speaks of 'the particular hardness and roughness of the block out of which we were hewn.' 'Such a northern rough people.' 'There is a vein in Britain of as rich an ore as ever was in any country, but it lies deep, and will cost pains to come at, and extraordinary pains require an extraordinary motive. As for what lies next the surface, it is somewhat indifferent, being neither so good nor in such plenty as in some other countries.'

In the last two Dialogues Alciphron proposes his specific objections to the Christian religion. He advances, though with no great force, some of the usual questions as to the Bible, which, on the other hand, Euphranor and Crito answer in a clumsy way; and it is impossible not to feel that this and the next Dialogue, which deals with the evidences of Christianity, are by very much the weakest part of the book. They do not in the least do justice to the controversy on that subject.

A passage which, at the present day, has some interest, relates to the antiquity of the world. 'Tell me,' says Alciphron, 'are we not obliged, if we believe the Mosaic account of things, to hold the world was created not quite 6000 years ago?' Euphranor: 'I grant we are.' After a great deal of skirmishing about the Egyptian and Chinese annals, Crito argues upon the absence of any remains of an ancient world. 'To any one who considers that in digging into the earth such quantities of shells, and in some places of bones and horns of animals, are found sound and entire, having lain there in all probability some thousands of years, it should seem probable that gems, medals, and implements in metal or stone might have lasted entire buried underground 40,000 or 50,000 years, if the world had lasted so long.'

On Berkeley's summary of the evidences of Christianity, which consists in effect of the various applications of the one reflection, that the persons to whom the original evidence was accessible were in fact satisfied by it, we have no remark to make. Like every other writer on evidences with whom we are acquainted, Berkeley persistently refuses to see, that to speak of Christianity, as a religion which converted a reluctant world against its inclination, by the dead weight of overwhelming evidence, is utterly and absurdly incorrect. Moral sympathy of the most intense form, inward passions of the greatest possible strength, were the real inducements which led men to be Christians. And this fact is double-edged. It weakens the external, whilst it strengthens, and indeed constitutes a great part of the internal, evidence of the religion.

The last argument in the book is directed against Alciphron's objection that many of the terms of Christian theology (' grace' is the one which he chooses) are unintelligible and unmeaning. The reply to this, is by an ingenious adaptation of the theory expounded in the Essay on Human Knowledge about abstract ideas. These words, he says, refer not to specific things, but to a vast variety of states of mind more or less resembling each other, as the word 'force' applies to a vast variety of effects, and not to any specific cause producing them.

Such is a sketch of the contents of this remarkable book, which, with great blemishes of style, and occasional defects in thought, is nevertheless one of the most complete, successful, and characteristic works of the class to which it belongs. The case which it presents on behalf of Christianity is shortly this. The great doctrines of natural religion can be shown by reason to be true. They are embodied in Christianity, which is proved by experience to be useful, and rests on a basis of positive evidence which makes it probable; and this is a sufficient ground, not for believing it absolutely, but for having faith in it, by which Berkeley appears to have meant acting on the hypothesis of its truth.

When carefully analysed, we do not think that the Minute Philosopher carries us higher than this, which is also in substance the result reached by Berkeley's more famous contemporary, Butler. It would be no difficult matter to show that, though morally and practically there is all the difference in the world between Berkeley and Butler, and many of their opponents, the chief dispute between them intellectually, was as to a question of fact, as to the proper method of discussing which they were substantially agreed. The fact that the conclusions at which they arrived differed so widely, and involved such important differences of another kind, suggests questions which meet us at every turn in that great controversy. Is it possible that the parties to it should have really and adequately understood its scope? Have they not at some point or other managed to leave the matter upon a false issue? The full discussion of these questions would lead us far beyond our limits, and an inadequate discussion of them would be worse than useless.

Saturday Review, September 28, 1867.

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