Thursday, September 22, 2016

Berkeley's Occasional Works

Review of:
1. Sermon on Passive Obedience.
2. An Essay towards Preventing the Ruin of Great Britain.
3. A Discourse addressed to Magistrates and Men in Authority.
4. A Word to the Wise.
5. A Letter to the Roman Catholics of the Diocese of Cloyne.
6. Maxims concerning Patriotism.
7. The Querist.
8. A Proposal for the better Supplying of Churches in our Foreign Plantations, etc.
9. Concerning Motion.

The occasional works of a remarkable man are often as characteristic as any part of his writings, and we propose to complete our sketch of him by saying something of his minor productions, a list of which is given below.

The only other matter contained in his works consists of mathematical speculations. A great part of these tracts is purely technical, but they are also directed, to a very great extent, to the philosophy of the subject, and to the various metaphysical questions which may be connected with all mathematical study.

The least technical of the tracts in question are three—'A Tract concerning Motion,' a part of the 'Analyst,' and ' A Defence of Freethinking in Mathematics.' The consistency of aim and the persistency of mind, which were Berkeley's most striking peculiarities, are nowhere more forcibly illustrated than in these works. Though their special object is mathematical, each is, in its way, an argument on the subject which continually exercised the author's mind. To exorcise metaphysical phantoms, and to reduce every subject with which he had to deal to the clearest and most positive form, was the great object of Berkeley's writings on all subjects.

The 'Tract concerning Motion' is accordingly intended to prove that space and motion are relative terms, that absolute space and absolute motion are nonentities, and that it is impossible to discourse about them at all without falling into endless absurdities and contradictions. The whole tract also assumes, and in several places states, the doctrine which one metaphysical school of our own days has developed so energetically, and maintains so vigorously—that the fundamental definitions of geometry, which regard a line as length without breadth, and a point as position without magnitude, etc., are merely fictions invented for special purposes, which we must on no account allow ourselves to regard as being real existences.

There never was a more consistent antagonist than Berkeley, to what the positivists of our own days mean by metaphysics. The following are a few examples chosen from a great number:
 'Power, gravity, and words of that kind are employed more usually, and that not injudiciously in the concrete, to denote the motion in bodies, the difficulty in resistance, etc.; but when they are used by philosophers to signify natures distinct and abstracted from all these, which are neither objects of sense, nor can be figured by any power of mind or imagination, they are sure to produce error and confusion. . . . We generally suppose that corporeal power is something easily conceived. Those who have given more attention to the subject think otherwise.'
And after referring to the language of Torricelli and Leibnitz on the subject, he says:
'Thus must even the greatest men, when they give way to abstraction, have recourse to words having no certain signification, and indeed mere scholastic shadows. . . . Metaphysical abstractions . . . still give unnecessary trouble to philosophy. ... As geometricians, for the sake of practice, devise many things which they neither themselves can contrive nor find in the nature of things, for the same reason those who treat of mechanics employ certain abstract and general words, and assume power, action, attraction, solicitation, etc., which are of the first utility for theories, enunciations, and computations concerning motion, although in actual truth, and bodies really, they are sought in vain, as much as those things imagined by mathematical abstraction. . . .
'What sort of extension is that which we can neither perceive by our senses nor figure in the imagination? for nothing can enter the imagination which from the nature of the thing is not possible to be perceived by sensation, since imagination is nothing else than a faculty representing the objects of sensation, either existing in act or at least being possible.'
As the 'Tract concerning Motion' is an illustration of the vigour and profundity of Berkeley's intellect, the 'Analyst' exemplifies his passion for turning everything to an immediate practical purpose. Its title is 'A Discourse addressed to an Infidel Mathematician, wherein it is examined whether the Object, Principles, and Inferences of the Modern Analysis are more distinctly conceived or more evidently deduced than Religious Mysteries and Points of Faith.'

Inasmuch as Berkeley's Fundamental proposition in the 'Tract upon Motion,' and in other parts of his works, is that a great number of words, commonly in use amongst mathematicians, ought to be rejected, at all events, in the senses in which they were understood by those who used them, because they led to endless confusions and difficulties, it could hardly be called dexterous advocacy to say that matter of the same sort was to be found in theology.

To say in one breath that the word 'matter' is to be rejected from philosophy because its use introduces every sort of difficulty, and in the next that the Christian mysteries are to be received because they contain nothing more repugnant to reason than the notion of matter which you receive, may no doubt be consistent as an argument ad homines; but Berkeley himself was open, it would seem, to a most uncomfortable retort.

He says to the sceptic, If you believe in matter, why do you not believe in the Trinity? The sceptic might say to him, If you believe in the Trinity, why should you not believe in matter? If you reject the notion of matter because it appears to you unreasonable, why do you believe in the Christian mysteries unless you can reconcile them to reason? Berkeley, if consistent, would have been obliged to own, that a rational sense must be put upon the Christian mysteries before belief in them could be required, and from this we are inclined to think he would not have shrunk, much as such a conclusion might shock many of his successors.

Passing from the mathematical to the miscellaneous tracts and pamphlets, the first in order, and one of the most curious in substance, is the 'Sermon on Passive Obedience,' which was one of Berkeley's earliest works, and which in the then state of opinion interfered to some extent with promotion. Like everything that he ever wrote, it is a most powerful, consistent, and closely-reasoned argument in favour of the doctrine it was intended to support, which is that 'there is an absolute unlimited non-resistance or passive obedience due to the supreme civil power wherever placed in any nation'; and this, according to the practice of his time, he proves exclusively upon grounds of reason, and without reference to the Bible.

He lays the foundation of his argument by stating his view as to the source of moral obligation generally, upon which his doctrine is identical with that which is developed with unequalled vigour by Austin, in his second lecture on the 'Province of Jurisprudence.' The guiding principle of our conduct is self-love, which leads us to procure good and avoid evil. 'It is a truth evident by the light of nature that there is a sovereign omniscient Spirit, who alone can make us for ever happy or for ever miserable.' If, therefore, God has given us any laws at all, we are under the highest possible obligation to obey them; but it follows, from the nature of God, that he has commanded men to promote, 'by the concurring actions of each individual,' 'the general well-being of all men, of all nations, of all ages in the world.'

The result of this is that such rules as are calculated to promote that object may be known to be laws of God. They derive their character of laws from the fact that God will enforce their observation by punishment. We know the fact that they, and no others, are the laws of God, because they, and no others, are conformable to the divine nature. In Berkeley's words, 'Nothing is a law merely because it conduceth to the public good, but because it is devised by the will of God, which alone can give the sanction of a law of nature to any precept.' But 'it must be allowed that the rational deduction of those laws is founded in the intrinsic tendency they have to promote the well-being of mankind.' It is true that in particular instances, thanks to the perversity of men, obedience to these laws produces great individual hardship; but still it is the best course to be taken, as the only alternative is the destruction of all law, in the proper sense of the word, and the substitution for it of individual calculations of the utility of particular courses of action in particular cases.

Having shown this, it is of course easy to prove that submission to the supreme authority is a moral duty, and to insist upon the various evils of anarchy. The sermon itself is less remarkable than the light which it throws upon Berkeley's character, and the illustration which it affords of the possibility of connecting opinions which many people are accustomed to regard as incompatible.

Utilitarianism in our times, for instance, is not the high Tory but the Radical doctrine; nor would it usually be regarded as consistent with such a system to hold such language as this:
‘In morality the eternal rules of action have the same immutable, universal truth with propositions in geometry. Neither of them depend on circumstances or actions, being at all times and in all places without limitation or exception true. "Thou shalt not resist the supreme civil power" is no less constant and unalterable a rule for modelling the behaviour of a subject towards the government, than to multiply the height by half the base is for measuring a triangle.’
Those who hold such views in our own times almost invariably connect them with the theory that we possess some transcendental faculty by which we are enabled to decide upon the nature and existence of these rules. To admit that the test of a law of God or nature is its tendency to produce universal happiness, is nearly, if not quite, equivalent to saying that no one law of nature or of God has ever been put into words with even proximate accuracy. It is fair to Berkeley to add that this sermon was one of the earliest of his works which attracted much attention. He appears to have fallen, throughout the whole of it, into the common mistake from which few writers are entirely free, which regards such short maxims as 'Thou shalt not steal,' 'Thou shalt do no murder,' as the laws of morality. They are in truth only the short titles of laws which, if written out completely, would fill volumes of casuistry, the contents of which would not only differ, but be conflicting with each other, and be founded on opposite principles.

The intensely high conception of authority, and of the duty of submission to it, which appears in the 'Sermon on Passive Obedience,' is still more vigorously expressed in a later publication, called 'A Discourse addressed to Magistrates and Men in Authority, occasioned by the enormous License and Irreligion of the Times.'

The immediate occasion of this discourse was the existence of a blasphemous society, called the Blasters, at Dublin. It is, however, like the discourse on Passive Obedience, so handled as to approach to the character of a treatise on one branch at least of general morality. The gist of it is that the regulation of opinion is the first duty of the civil magistrate, inasmuch as all the external actions of men are regulated by their opinions, and of all opinions the most important to civil society are the belief in a God and in a future state, inasmuch as 'obedience to all civil power is rooted in the religious fear of God. It is propagated, preserved, and nourished by religion.' Moreover, 'An inward sense of the supreme majesty of the King of kings is the only thing that can beget and preserve a true respect for subordinate majesty in all the degrees of power, the first link of authority being fixed at the throne of God.'

Nor does the fact that these opinions are, and in the case of the great mass of mankind must be, prejudices detract from their value. Prejudices are only opinions received upon trust, and not acquired by reasoning, and they may be true in the one case as well as in the other. In regard to things relating to moral affairs they must be true if they are useful. 'Utility and truth are not to be divided; the general good of mankind being the rule or measure of moral truth.' The civil magistrate, therefore, ought to prevent the prejudices of mankind upon these fundamental points of religion, from being disturbed. Thought indeed is free, and cannot be restrained, even if you wished to restrain it; 'but this will not infer a boundless freedom of speech, an open contempt of laws, and a prescribing from private judgment against public authority; things never borne in any well-ordered State, and which make the crying distemper of our times.' For this reason, 'Blasphemy against God is a great crime against the State.'

One part of the argument is very curious. It consists in insisting upon the special importance of religion in a highly artificial state of society, inasmuch as common people can hardly be expected to appreciate the advantages of such a state of things unless they are prejudiced in its favour by the strongest of all influences.
'There must therefore of necessity in every State be a certain system of salutary notions, a prevailing set of opinions, acquired either by private reason or reflection, or taught or instilled by the general reason of the public—that is, by the law of the land. . . . Many of those who are the most forward to banish prejudices would be the first to feel the want of them. . . . Some prejudices are grounded in truth, reason, and nature. . . . Others are purely the effect of particular constitutions; such are the respects, rights, and pre-eminences ascribed to some men by their fellow-subjects on account of their birth and quality; which in the great empires of Turkey and China pass for nothing, and will pass for nothing elsewhere as soon as men have got rid of their prejudices, and learned to despise the constitutions of their country. It may behove those who are concerned to reflect on this betimes. ... If religion in all governments be necessary, yet it seems to be so more especially in monarchies; forasmuch as the frugal manners and more equal fortunes in republics do not so much inflame men's appetites, or afford such power or temptation to mischief, as the high estate and great wealth of nobles under a king.'
This sermon is a most remarkable illustration of one of the many currents of feeling, which are to be traced in the literature of the eighteenth century. It is the voice of a man who still thinks it just possible to keep up a system, which is true in the sense of being generally useful, by a vigorous use of the civil power, and who has a genuine intellectual contempt for those who are trying to overthrow it, without seeing that in so doing they are overthrowing themselves. No one of Berkeley's writings gives a stronger impression than this, of that peculiar kind of orthodoxy which was characteristic of him, or of the essentially and almost exclusively practical and utilitarian turn of his mind. The last words of the sermon show, moreover, just one flash of that regulated and deep-seated but powerful vein of enthusiasm which runs through the whole of his eminently sober, well-balanced character. 'Who knows what may ensue if all persons in power, from the supreme executor of the law down to a petty constable, would in their several stations behave themselves like men truly conscious and mindful that the authority they are clothed with is but a ray derived from the supreme authority of heaven!'

Two of Berkeley's sermons on foreign missions are remarkable rather as monuments of his personal piety, and unselfish practical zeal for religion, than in a literary or speculative point of view, and we need not further refer to them; but nothing that he ever wrote is more characteristic of the sturdy, vigorous, pre-eminently practical character of the man than his various politico-economical tracts.

Three of these specially require notice—'An Essay towards Preventing the Ruin of Great Britain,' published soon after the collapse of the South Sea Bubble; a pamphlet called 'A Word to the Wise,' addressed to the Roman Catholic clergy of Ireland; and the 'Querist.' The gist of each of these three performances is much the same. They are in praise of industry, substantial honesty, and frugality, and in general they inculcate a plain, manly, solid, courageous way of life.

The 'Essay towards Preventing the Ruin of Great Britain' is in its way an admirable performance, though particular suggestions in it are certainly not in accordance with our modern notions, and would do nothing but harm if an attempt were made to carry them out. For instance, his first recommendation is a crusade against infidelity:
'I am not for placing an invidious power in the hands of the clergy, or complying with the narrowness of any mistaken zealots who should incline to persecute Dissenters; but whatever conduct common sense, as well as Christian charity, obligeth us to use towards those who differ from us in some points of religion, yet the public safety requireth that the avowed contemners of all religion should be severely chastised, and perhaps it may be no easy matter to assign a good reason why blasphemy against God should not be inquired into and punished with the same rigour as treason against the King.'
The rest of the essay is a series of suggestions for the production of two somewhat inconsistent objects —the indefinite increase of the national wealth, and the diminution of luxury. In reality, the inconsistency, though real, is less than it appears to be at first sight, for all his suggestions lead towards the acquisition of real solid wealth by merit and industry, by sheer hard work in one form or other, and towards the discouragement of gambling in its various forms, and of useless expense. His recommendations are well worth study both as a monument of past times, and even to a certain extent on account of the intrinsic value which still attaches to them.

He recommends, first, a revision of the whole system of relief for the poor. 'There is,' he says, 'no country in Europe where there is so much charity for the poor, and none where it is so ill managed.' If, instead of being locally jobbed, the poor-rate were raised by Act of Parliament for seven years, and 'frugally and prudently laid out in workhouses,' it 'would for ever free the nation from the care of providing for the poor, and at the same time considerably improve our manufactures.' A very sanguine view no doubt, but still founded on a just appreciation of a great evil— the local jobbery attending poor-rates. Suggestions are further made as to possible improvements in various trades—dyeing cloth, making glass, paper, linen, and the like.

Sumptuary laws as to dress and other things are strongly advocated, and amongst the offenders against modesty and decency in the way of living it is curious to find the following fierce denunciation of masquerades:
'Neither Venice, nor Paris, nor any other town in any part of the world ever knew such an expensive, ruinous folly as our masquerade. This alone is sufficient to inflame and satisfy the several appetites for gaming, dressing, intriguing, luxurious eating and drinking. It is a most skilful abridgement, the very quintessence, the abstract of all those senseless vanities that have ever been the ruin of fools and the detestation of wise men.'
The drama should be reformed, for 'it is not to be believed what influence public diversions have on the spirit and manners of a people.' Public spirit should be cherished by appropriate means:
'Triumphal arches, columns, statues, inscriptions, and the like monuments of public services, have in former times been found great incentives to virtue and magnanimity, and would probably be found to have the same effects on Englishmen which they have had on Greeks and Romans. And perhaps a pillar of infamy would be found a proper and exemplary punishment in cases of signal public villainy where the loss of fortune, liberty, or life are not proportioned to the crime.'
Architecture, sculpture, and painting ought to be promoted, as they 'not only adorn the fabric, but have also an influence on the minds and manners of men, filling them with great ideas and spiriting them up to an emulation of worthy actions.' Public splendour he regards as a sort of corrective to private luxury. One of his observations on this head is curious:
'To propose the building a parliament house, courts of justice, royal palace, and other public edifices suitable to the dignity of the nation, and adorning them with paintings and statues which may transmit memorable things and persons to posterity, would probably be laughed at as a vain affair of great expense and little use to the public'
Admitting that the proposal was unsuitable to the times, he adds, 'Yet it comes so properly into a discourse of public spirit that I could not but say something of it.' He also suggests an academy for the purpose of writing the history of England. In reference to our national vices he mentions 'that most infamous practice of bribery,' and 'solemn perjury,' which he attributes to the monstrous quantity of oaths required by the English Legislature: 'It is a policy peculiar to us, the obliging men to perjure or betray themselves, and hath had no good effect, but many very ill ones. Sure I am that other nations, without the hundredth part of our swearing, contrive to do their business at least as well as we do.'

The whole discourse admirably illustrates that union, in Berkeley, of the classical and the Christian way of looking at life, which was the great characteristic of what is now foolishly depreciated as the high and dry school of Christianity. No doubt it had its weak side, like other forms of belief; but far less than justice has been done to what its professors justly delighted to call, its solid and rational piety, in the comparisons which have been instituted between them and the unmanly hysterics of more emotional schools.

The tract called 'A Word to the Wise' is perhaps a still more pointed illustration of Berkeley's temper. It is a model sermon on the virtue of diligence and the vice of sloth, addressed to the Roman Catholic clergy, who, as the most influential body of men in Ireland, are solemnly adjured to impress these plain truths on their congregations.

The sermon is like one of Hogarth's pictures: 'We are all agreed about the usefulness of meat, drink, and clothes, and without doubt we all sincerely wish our poor neighbours were better supplied with them.' The Irish are utterly and incurably lazy. 'You often meet caravans of poor, whole families in a drove, without clothes to cover or bread to feed them, both which might be easily procured by moderate labour.' Let the priests look to it. 'Raise your voices, reverend sirs. . . . Show your authority over the multitude by engaging them to the practice of an honest industry, a duty necessary to all, and required in all, whether Protestants or Roman Catholics, whether Christians, Jews, or Pagans.'

The penal laws, 'the discouragements attending those of your communion,' are no excuse for being idle. They are rather motives to work hard in the sphere still left open to industry. Besides, they affect the gentry more than the poor; yet 'the true aborigines, or natural Irish, are noted for want of industry in improving even on their own lands whereof they have both possession and property.' Even if they cannot be rich, 'Yet it is certain they may be clean. Now bring them to be cleanly, and your work is half done. A little washing, scrubbing, and rubbing bestowed on their persons and houses would introduce a sort of industry, and industry in any one kind is apt to produce it in another. Indolence in dirt is a terrible symptom which shows itself in our lower Irish perhaps more than in any people on this side the Cape of Good Hope. . . . Mark an Irishman at work in the field; if a coach or horseman go by he is sure to suspend his labour, and stand staring until they are out of sight. ... A sore leg is an estate to such a fellow, and this may be easily got and continued with small trouble.'

It is not only the duty but the interest of the priests to preach this doctrine. 'Your reverences are like to be great gainers, for every penny you now gain you will gain a shilling; you will gain also in your credit, and your lives would be more comfortable.' It is absurd to suppose that religion has anything to do with the matter. 'Whoever considers the great spirit of industry that reigns in Flanders and France, and even beyond the Alps, must acknowledge this to be a groundless suspicion.' The Pope himself is encouraging trade and manufactures.

Can there be sounder, squarer, sturdier, or more solid good sense than this? which comes, be it remembered, from a man who has been absurdly regarded as a sort of archetype of metaphysical subtlety and whim.

The 'Querist,' is a beautiful tract, as full of thought and matter as it can hold. It consists of 595 short paragraphs, each of which asks one or more questions, the last being 'Whose fault is it if poor Ireland still continues poor?' Its doctrines, thrown into a substantive form, are somewhat as follows: Labour and industry are the great elements of wealth. Money of all sorts is only a system of tickets representing the produce of labour, and it might be replaced by paper. We ought therefore to establish a bank, and to develop industry in every possible way, instead of trying to get gold and silver. But how is industry to be developed? The woollen trade is forbidden; let us then make fine linen of all kinds, let us encourage schools of design, which would make our fine linen far more valuable; let us make paper; let us closely unite ourselves to England. 'Are not the upper part of this people truly English by blood, language, religion, manners, inclination, and interest? Are we not as much Englishmen as the children of old Romans born in Britain were still Romans?' Let us cease to spend our substance in buying foreign luxuries, and live quietly on our own property.

The 123rd query sums up much of this advice:
'Whether one may not be allowed to conceive and suppose a society or nation of human creatures, clothed in woollen clothes and stuffs, eating good bread, beef and mutton, poultry and fish in great plenty, drinking ale, mead, and cider, inhabiting decent houses built of brick and marble, taking their pleasure in fair parks and gardens, depending on no foreign imports either for food or raiment? Whether such people ought to be much pitied? Whether Ireland be not as well qualified for such state as any nation under the sun? Whether in such a state the inhabitants may not contrive to pass the twenty-four hours with tolerable ease and cheerfulness? and whether any people upon earth can do more? Whether they may not eat, drink, play, dress, visit, sleep in good beds, sit by good fires, build, plant, raise a name, make estates, and spend them?'
In order to reach this ideal, let us forswear expensive wines, silks, and other mere luxuries; let us vigorously cultivate literature, and provide education for all classes and religions; let people marry from love, and not for money (207. 'Whether to the multiplying of human kind it would not much conduce if marriages were made with good liking?'); let the poor be taught by clergy and catechists who know Irish; let the rich live at home and try to set the poor to work; let us, at all hazards, make the people work.

This is powerfully enforced in the following queries, 380-386:
'Whether it would be an hardship on people destitute of all things, if the public furnished them with necessaries which they should be obliged to earn by their labour? Whether other nations have not found great benefits from the use of slaves, in repairing high roads, making rivers navigable, draining bogs, erecting public buildings, bridges, and manufactures? Whether temporary servitude would not be the best cure for idleness and beggary? Whether the public has not a right to employ those who cannot, or who will not, find employment for themselves? Whether all sturdy beggars should not be seized and made slaves to the public for a certain term of years? . . .What the word servant signifies in the New Testament? Whether the view of criminals chained in pairs and kept at hard labour would not be very edifying to the multitude?'
It is worth notice that Berkeley had a theory of race about the Irish to which he frequently reverts. He asks 'Whether our natural Irish are not partly Spaniards and partly Tartars; and whether they do not bear signatures of their descent from both these nations which is also confirmed by all their histories?'

These few illustrations may, we hope, give some notion of the character of one of the sturdiest and most sensible, and at the same time one of the most subtle thinkers, if not the very most subtle thinker, of the eighteenth century. As in the whole range of English literature hardly any name is held in more affectionate regard than Berkeley's, so there is none which illustrates in a more striking manner the best, and at the same time the deepest and most important, side of the English character. The sanguine, subtle, intensely practical, and almost over-logical character of the race was never more strikingly embodied. If Cobbett had been a good man and a gentleman, and if he had been educated as Berkeley was, they would have had much in common.

Saturday Review, October 12, 1867.

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