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  • How Body Matters in Berkeley’s Siris
  • Joanne E. Myers (bio)

In the mid-eighteenth century it can seem as if everyone in Britain and Ireland is either drinking, or at least talking about drinking, tar-water. Readers of the Gentleman’s Magazine for June 1744 curious about competing recipes for the medicinal preparation of pine resin are told that “Norway Tar … is fittest.”1 Edmund Burke writes from Dublin in July of the same year to inform an Irish correspondent that “tar is the universal Medicine here, notwithstanding the opposition of its Enemy’s the Physicians.”2 In 1748, The Gentleman’s Magazine reports that one Martin Mackrel, a Southampton laborer, has by the regular consumption of tar-water been cured of “a large tumour … as big as an egg, under his jaw.”3 Henry Fielding would later recall how, having “dosed [himself] morning and evening,” he observed “some visible effects … far beyond what [his] most sanguine hopes could with any modesty expect.”4 Tar-water could not save Fielding from dropsy but according to the man most responsible for its popular use, it did save “a gentleman with a withered arm, [who] had it restored by drinking tar-water” and “[a]nother who, by running his head against a post, had a concussion of the brain,” a third who “had lost the use of his limbs by poison, [and] another [who] had been bitten by a mad ass,…”5 The figure in question is George Berkeley: immaterialist philosopher, Bishop of Cloyne, failed projector of a college in the Bermudas, and friend to anyone tormented by a mad ass. In [End Page 111] the 1740s, having removed to County Cork, Berkeley’s first-hand witness of famine and disease drove him not only to direct charitable relief but to the prescription and promotion of tar-water, whose curative powers seem to have been known to Native American tribes, and about which Berkeley may have learned during his time in the Americas.6 His last major work, Siris: A Chain of Philosophical Reflexions and Inquiries concerning the Virtues of Tar-Water (1744), expounds on tar-water’s virtues as a potential panacea. In Horace Walpole’s witty formulation, Siris “contains every subject from tar-water to the Trinity,” and as its full title suggests, ranges from practical advice about preparing tar-water to metaphysical speculation informed by various Platonic, Stoic, and alchemical traditions.7

The idiosyncratic genre of Siris has often prevented critics from engaging squarely with Berkeley’s real commitment to his panacea and the public interest that made the text a best-seller amongst Berkeley’s works during his lifetime. Readers focused on Berkeley’s position within the British empiricist tradition as well as those more interested in Siris’s lyrical rhetoric have had less to say about tar-water itself.8 In part, understanding the intimacy between Berkeley’s metaphysics and his charitable objectives may have been hampered by a tendency to shy away from engaging directly with his religious beliefs, which tend to be treated either as superfluous to his philosophy or as an essentially aesthetic element of his texts.9 Accounts of the good Bishop, of course, have long acknowledged his efforts to fit modern epistemology to “the demands of Christian orthodoxy.”10 Some recent studies, moreover, have drawn attention to the importance of Berkeley’s religious and practical projects.11 Yet while such attempts draw valuable attention to the importance of Berkeley’s faith, there remains in much of the criticism on Berkeley a tendency to locate that faith within a paradigm of “reasonableness” that, as David Sorkin has shown, was a powerful tool throughout the eighteenth century for harmonizing the claims of reason and religion.12 Siris, however, with its rapid move from tar-water to a view of the aether as a divine instrument, its insistent trinitarianism, and its invocation of a Christianized world soul, elaborates its orthodoxy in abstruse, mystical directions whose potential unreasonableness is hard to ignore.13 What is still needed is a way to understand how exactly Berkeley’s arguments on behalf of tar-water contribute to his philosophical claims in Siris, and it may be useful...


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