- Recovering Bishop Berkeley: Virtue and Society in the Anglo-Irish Context by Scott Breuninger
Berkeley knew a problem when he saw one. When this ambitious clergyman squared off against the deists and free thinkers of his day—against the writings and influence of John Toland and Anthony Collins, in particular—he saw at once that they had a linguistic advantage, as the words “free” and “free-thinker” bore undeniably positive connotations. So he did what any savvy political rhetorician would do: he rejected their terms and rebranded them “minute philosophers.” Borrowing the phrase from Cicero (no slouch when it came to political rhetoric), Berkeley countered the attractiveness of “free” with words chosen to frame the freethinkers as narrow and quibbling. Here, as in everything he wrote—from the pre-1713 philosophical tracts to the sharply interrogative Querist (1735–1737), the wildly expansive Siris (1744), the avuncular Word to the Wise (1749)—Berkeley showed himself to be acutely aware of language, its uses and effects, an awareness that reflected, in turn, a subtle intelligence alive to his surroundings and circumstances.
Mr. Breuninger knows all of Berkeley’s writings (not just the famous philosophical texts that he wrote while a fellow of Trinity College Dublin). Situating them in their contemporary and intellectual contexts, Recovering Bishop Berkeley goes some way toward dispelling the notion of Berkeley as a disconnected, abstract philosopher and recovering the bishop who was very much engaged by the social and economic questions of his day. But the astute and linguistically incisive Berkeley—the one who could rival a twenty-first-century political spinmeister—is glimpsed only fleetingly, and in a study that sets out “to recognize that Berkeley lived and worked within a context circumscribed by Irish thought and events,” the omission is glaring.
Part of the problem is that Mr. Breuninger relies heavily on paraphrase and snippets of quotations to represent Berkeley’s writings. It is understandable that he would do this, given Berkeley’s voluminous writings. One, of course, can easily find the full texts online and in print. But inevitably the absence of fuller quotations signifies a lack of engagement with Berkeley in all his complexity, and specifically a reluctance to read into his rhetorical choices more deeply—a reluctance that may be disciplinary, since Mr. Breuninger is a historian, not a literary critic, but a reluctance that nonetheless is unfortunate. For example, Mr. Breuninger’s analysis of Berkeley’s only published poem, “On the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America” (1726; pub. 1752), suffers from the fact that he quotes so little of it, more egregiously so since he claims some importance for it and notes that previous commentators have failed “to capture the complexity of Berkeley’s vision and the flexibility of the translatio tradition upon which he was drawing.” The Querist, too, is an irresistibly quotable text, one that displays Berkeley’s penetrating intelligence in a rhetorically witty and inventive fashion, and while Mr. Breuninger ably summarizes the economic concerns expressed within it, [End Page 275] he would better represent Berkeley if he quoted more fully (and accurately) from it.
Mr. Breuninger, to be fair, aims not to portray Berkeley in full, but “to recover those aspects of his thought” that earned him the reputation for virtue and the moniker, “the good bishop,” in his own time, as well as “to recover and highlight the Irish context.” Thus, with each of Berkeley’s writings, Mr. Breuninger focuses primarily on Berkeley’s ideas concerning virtue, human sociability, and the role of the Established Church as a stabilizing force. He succeeds, especially when the analyzed texts are directed toward a British context or toward prominent thinkers (Mandeville, for example, or the deists). Moreover, Scriblerian readers will appreciate a section devoted to essays that Berkeley wrote in London for Addison and Steele’s short-lived Guardian in 1713, essays that “marked his engagement with a more popular, less philosophic audience” and allowed him to hone rhetorical techniques, such as the use of visual imagery and “commonsense” arguments that would...