Published in Issue 3 (May/June 2023), Platform, Volume 31

By Clare Marie Moriarty

Revelations about philosopher George Berkeley’s historical activities have raised questions about the wisdom of having a Trinity College library named after him. The revelations are not new; Berkeley’s participation in slavery in America has been known for some time. He not only bought slaves but also hints that he helped secure the Yorke–Talbot opinion—a legal opinion sought to quell anxiety about whether baptism might logically demand manumission.

It is more peripheral to the discussion, but following his involvement with American slavery Berkeley suggested that slavery in Ireland would be no bad thing (The querist (1735)). The querist is illustrative of the limited empathy for the Irish poor among Berkeley’s Trinity-educated milieu. On the one hand, Berkeley rails against Anglo-Irish luxury spending, blaming greedy import culture for the dire state of the domestic economy. The wealthy were importing silk and wine, eschewing domestically available wool and cider/ale. Consequently, the Irish poor were worse off, and clearly Berkeley thought that the ruling class had some moral obligations towards them. On the other hand, he regarded the problems of the Irish as essentialist, owing to a corrupt nature. They are ‘kept from thriving, by that cynical content in dirt and beggary which they possess to a degree beyond any other people in Christendom’. They are ethnically distinct from the English: part Spaniard, part Tartar. For Berkeley, though Ireland was ‘anciently famous for learning’, the Irish were ultimately a lesser people. Economic mismanagement had compounded their miseries, but their problems were largely of their own making.

In the lesser-known Word to the wise (addressing Catholic clergy), Berkeley draws many of the above considerations together in grim terms:

‘The Scythians were noted for Wandering, and the Spaniards for Sloth and Pride; our Irish are behind neither of these Nations from which they descend, in their respective Characteristics. Better is he that laboureth and aboundeth in all Things, than he that boasteth himself and wanteth Bread, saith the Son of Sirach, but so saith not the Irishman. … Never was there a more monstrous Conjunction than that of Pride with Beggary; and yet this Prodigy is seen every Day in almost every Part of this Kingdom. At the same Time these proud People are more destitute than Savages, and more abject than Negros. The Negros in our Plantations have a Saying, If Negro was not Negro, Irishman would be Negro. And it may be affirmed with Truth, that the very Savages of America are better clad and better lodged than the Irish Cottagers throughout the fine fertile Counties of Limerick and Tipperary.’

Above: Trinity’s Berkeley Library. Will a change of name erase Berkeley’s legacy?

That is the background. There are two key issues that require consideration on the issue of the Berkeley Library. Is Berkeley a good symbol of Trinity’s values? How should we think about naming buildings for people, and what happens when a building is renamed?

As a Berkeley scholar and Trinity staff member, I feel well placed to address the first. Trinity currently advertises itself thus:

‘We provide a liberal environment where independence of thought is highly valued and all are encouraged to achieve their potential. We promote a diverse, interdisciplinary, inclusive environment which nurtures ground-breaking research, innovation, and creativity through engaging with issues of global significance.’

Berkeley is unrepresentative of these values in ways that might frustrate both liberals and conservatives. The liberal-minded reader will be disappointed by his prejudice towards almost all people who are not English (or Anglo-Irish, which he regards as the same, asking ‘whether we are not as much Englishmen as the children of old Romans, born in Britain, were still Romans’) and practise a very similar version of Christianity to his own. His views on women’s education are hinged on training (most) women to be obedient wives and devoted mothers. He espouses a bleak racial hierarchy on the matter of who deserves education: the black enslaved people he encountered in America should not be educated in the traditional sense; some Native Americans and Irish Catholics should be (although it might involve kidnapping, child workhouses and cultural conversion). Equally, for the conservative-minded, Berkeley was an avowed enemy of free speech, no fan of the idea that education was a good in itself, and keen that education should depart from truth in any circumstances where it was not beneficial to society’s social or political aims. And if ‘cancel culture’ is to be understood as ‘publicly boycotting or withdrawing support for people, organizations, etc. regarded as promoting socially unacceptable beliefs’, then you’d do well to find a better cheerleader than George Berkeley!

Many commentators on the library debate are slow to say anything about why Berkeley is to be celebrated. I suspect that I am not being wholly unfair in suggesting that it is more as a symbol of anti-political-correctness that many are interested in him. Berkeley is yet another case of modern readers casting judgement over the conduct of past figures, and this makes people uncomfortable because they believe it to be revisionist, anachronistic and/or a bit precious.

So, what does Berkeley have to offer modernity? In my view, still plenty. His metaphysical views are brilliantly clever and played a key role in the trajectory of philosophical history. His religious thinking is mixed. On the one hand, he thinks that people voicing non-standard doctrinal views should be treated with the same severity as those committing treason. On the other, in a time of vexed religious anxiety, he can be movingly undoctrinaire, pressing for a practical, loving faith, and an understanding of religion that serves society and fosters acolytes who live well. In mathematics Berkeley’s thinking is radical, and he had a non-negligible impact on the development of calculus. His anti-technical dogma provides fascinating insights, even now in ‘the age of the algorithm’. Thus, despite his terrible record and considerable prejudices against people like me (I’m Irish Catholic in Berkeley’s sense of the term and a woman), I’m still happy to lecture his ideas and spend time writing articles attempting to broaden understanding of his thought.

Now to the second of the above questions, about the nature of named buildings and whether changing a name meaningfully erases a person. This is often claimed in Berkeley’s case, and debates about the library’s name have continually been framed in ‘cancellation’ terms.

One can see how a misunderstanding of Berkeley’s famous philosophical slogan esse est percipi (‘to be is to be perceived’) might engender belief that if Berkeley’s name is no longer perceived by those entering the library his existence is erased. However, we have to think about whether celebratory names actually play much or any role in meaningfully preserving people’s memory. Berkeley’s value to modernity is in the appreciation of his ideas and his writing, and these are not things that roll off the wall of an appropriately named building—they are taught in schools and seminar rooms and read in books and journals. If we want to preserve his memory, these are our priorities. In reality, nobody is encroaching on the teaching of Berkeley or the spread of his ideas. No Berkeleyan I know has received any requests to censor their teaching or change their research focus. Last year the International Berkeley Society hosted a symposium at the largest history of philosophy conference on the local calendar on the theme ‘The Problematic Berkeley’. In reality, rigorous scholarship and personal censure often go hand in hand. The idea that Berkeley is being cancelled (or would be cancelled if the library is renamed) in this meaningful sense is an anxious fantasy.

Berkeley didn’t build the library or pay for it, so it is arguably less complex than the issue of taking pots of money from shadowy figures to build new academic buildings. It should be a question for the relevant stakeholders (Trinity’s students and staff) whether they want their library to carry his name or not. Presumably, nobody thinks that the implied logic of much ‘cancellation’ discussion is correct and that once we name something after a person we are committing to keeping that name forever, such that nothing that emerged would force us to reconsider. I imagine that if we learned that Berkeley had personally murdered fifteen children we’d be quick enough to call the engraver. Further, Trinity sits in the middle of a city whose modern evolution has involved much renaming of public infrastructure. My commute to Trinity down Pearse Street would once have taken place along Great Brunswick Street. I wonder were pearls clutched as Sackville Street became O’Connell Street? The changing of symbols to better reflect our changing values and identity is no new craze.

I don’t deny that the issues involved are complicated, but they are frequently misrepresented in this particular debate. Berkeley was a brilliant philosopher, but he had some seriously questionable views about education and human value—both in the global and national senses and in the narrower sense relevant to Trinity’s institutional history. I believe that Trinity is taking the issue seriously (a working group was established to undertake an extensive, three-stage review of colonial legacy issues at Trinity, including collecting evidence, public consultation and consideration of resultant options). However, the knee-jerk instinct to panic about ‘cancellation’ is misguided in the case of a figure like Berkeley, because the valuable parts of his legacy are in as good a shape as they’ve ever been, and will survive a library name change.

Clare Marie Moriarty is an Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow working in the Philosophy Department in Trinity College, Dublin.


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