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Bishop Berkeley

Written by Jim Godfrey, posted on Wednesday, July 17, 2019


Illustration of Bishop George Berkeley by Jim GodfreyGeorge Berkeley (pronounced bark-lee) was an Irish bishop and one of the greatest philosophers of the 18th century. The most eminent academic to be buried in the Cathedral, it is after him that the University of Berkeley (berk-lee), California is named


Berkeley the Philosopher

Berkeley is chiefly known for his theory of Immaterialism, which he developed in response to the consequences of Newtonian physics: Newton had shown that the natural world operates according to fixed mechanical laws, thereby, arguably, dispensing with the need for God. For Berkeley, things did not exist in and of themselves, only through our perception of them. They continue to exist when we do not perceive them because they are objects in the mind of God. Thus God must exist, an idea expressed in limericks by Ronald Knox:


There was a young man who said "God
Must find it exceedingly odd
To think that the tree
Should continue to be
When there's no one about in the quad."

"Dear Sir: Your astonishment's odd;
I am always about in the quad.
And that's why the tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by, Yours faithfully, God."


The life of George Berkeley

George Berkeley was born near Kilkenny, Ireland, on 12 March 1685 (oddly, on his monument in the Cathedral, the year of his birth is given as 1679). Although his father was English, Berkeley always considered himself Irish. In 1696, he entered Kilkenny College, and in 1700 Trinity College, Dublin. He left Ireland in 1713 for London, where he befriended some of the intellectual lights of the time, including Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addison, and Alexander Pope. In May 1724 he was appointed Anglican Dean of Derry Cathedral.

Between 1722 and 1728, Berkeley developed a plan to establish a seminary in Bermuda for the sons of colonists and Native Americans. He received a promise for a grant of £20,000 from Parliament and in August 1728 departed for America, settling near Newport, Rhode Island. The grant, however, was never paid and he returned to London, but before leaving America he divided his library between the universities of Harvard and Yale. His presence in America was hugely influential (he was at that time the most eminent academic to have visited the New World) and when, in the 1860s, a new university was being planned in San Francisco Bay, his name was chosen for it.

On 19 May 1734 Berkeley was consecrated Bishop of Cloyne. He was a good bishop, and in an economically poor Anglican diocese in a predominantly Roman Catholic country, he was committed to the well-being of both Protestants and Catholics. He established a school to teach spinning, and devoted much of his time promoting Tar Water (a foul-tasting medieval medicine consisting of pine tar and water) as a universal cure. He recommended it as a cheap, easy to prepare and efficient means of cooling patients, but most of all because it could be used in place of strong alcohol.

On his retirement in August 1752, Berkeley and his family left Cloyne for Oxford, where he was to spend the last six months of his life. He came to oversee the education of his son George, an undergraduate at Christ Church, and lived in a house in Holywell Street (believed to be no. 28, now part of a row of buildings owned by Harris Manchester College). He died on 14 January 1753 while his wife was reading him a sermon. In keeping with his will, his body was "kept five days above ground, ... even till it grow offensive by the cadaverous smell", a provision that was intended to prevent premature burial.


At Christ Church, a large monument to him stands in the nave of the Cathedral. A floor slab below marks the site of his grave, and has the epitaph by Alexander Pope: “To BERKELEY Every Virtue under Heav’n”.