Enlightenment thinker: George Berkeley


SEVERAL difficult and obscure questions, on which abundance of speculation hath been thrown away, are by our own principles entirely banished from philosophy. 'Whether corporeal substance can think,' 'whether matter be infinitely divisible,' 'whether matter be infinitely divisble,' 'how matter operates on spirit'--these and the like inquiries have given infinite amusement to philosophers in all ages. But since they depend on the existence of matter, they have no longer any place in our principles.

It follows, also, that human knowledge may be reduced to two heads--knowledge of ideas and knowledge of spirits. Our knowledge of the former hath been much obscured and we have been led into very dangerous errors, by supposing a twofold existence of the objects of sense, the one 'intelligible,' or in the mind, the other 'real,' and without the mind; whereby unthinking things are thought to have a natural subsistence of their own, distinct from being perceived by spirits.

This is the very root of scepticism; for so long as men thought that real things subsisted without the mind, and that their knowledge was only so far 'real' as it was conformable to 'real things,' they could not be certain that they had any real knowledge at all.

So long as we attribute a real existence to unthinking things, distinct from their being perceived, it is not only impossible for us to know the nature of any real unthinking being, but it is impossible for us even to know that it exists. Hence it is that we see philosophers distrust their senses, and doubt of the existence of heaven and earth, and of everything they see or feel.

But all this doubtfulness, which so bewilders and confounds the mind, vanishes if we annex a meaning to our words, and do not amuse ourselves with the terms 'absolute,' 'external,' 'exist,' and such like, signifying we know not what. I can as well doubt of my own being as of the being of those things which I perceive by sense; the very existence of unthinking beings consists in their being perceived.

IT were a mistake to think that what is here said derogates in the least from the reality of things. The unthinking beings perceived by sense exist in those unextended, indivisible substances, or spirits, which act, think and perceive them; whereas philosophers vulgarly hold that the sensible qualities exist in an inert, extended, unperceiving substance, which they call 'matter,' to which they attribute a natural subsistence distinct from being perceived by any mind whatsoever, even the eternal mind of the Creator.

As we have shown the doctrine of matter to have been the main support of scepticism, so likewise upon the same foundation have been raised all the impious schemes of atheism and irreligion. All these monstrous systems have so visible and necessary a dependence on this supposed material substance that, when this cornerstone is once removed, the whole fabric cannot choose but fall to the ground.

On the same principle does not only fatalism but also idolatry depend in all its varying forms. Did men but consider that the sun, moon and stars, and every other object of the senses, are only so many sensations in their minds, which have no other existence but barely being perceived, they would never fall down and worship their own ideas, but rather address their homage to that Eternal Invisible Mind which produces and sustains all things.

As in reading books a wise man will choose to fix his thoughts on the sense rather than lay them out on grammatical remarks; so, in perusing the volume of nature, it seems beneath the diginity of the mind to affect an exactness in reducing each particular phenomenon to general rules, or showing how it follows from them. We should propose to ourselves nobler views, such as to recreate and exalt the mind, with a prospect of the beauty, order, extent and variety of natural things; hence, by proper inferences, to enlarge our notions of the grandeur, wisdom and beneficence of the Creator.

The reason that is assigned for our being thought ignorant of the nature of spirits is our not having an idea of them. But it is manifestly impossible that there should be any such idea. A spirit is the only substance wherein the unthinking beings or ideas can exist; but that this substance which supports or perceives ideas should itself be an idea is manifestly absurd.

From the opinion that spirits are to be known after the manner of an idea or sensation have arisen many heterodox tenets and much scepticism about the nature of the soul. This opinion may have produced a doubt in some whether they had any soul at all distinct from their body, since they could not find that they had an idea of it.

But the spirit is a real thing, which is neither an idea nor like an idea. What I am myself, that which I denote by the term 'I,' is what we mean by soul or spiritual substance; and we know other spirits by means of our own soul, which in that sense is an image or idea of them.

By the natural immortality of the soul we mean that it is not liable to be either broken or dissolved by the ordinary laws of nature or motion. The soul itself is indivisible, incorporeal, unextended and is consequently incorruptible.


THOUGH there be some things which convince us that human agents are concerned in producing them, yet it is evident to everyone that those things which are called the works of nature--that is, the far greater part of the ideas or sensations perceived by us--are not produced by, nor dependent on, the wills of men. There is, therefore, some other spirit that causes them, since they cannot subsist themselves.

If we attentively consider the constant regularity, order and concatenation of natural things, the surprising magnificence, beauty and perfection of the larger, and the exquisite contrivance of the smaller parts, together with the exact harmony, and correspondence of the whole--I say, if we consider all these things, and at the same time attend to the import of the attributes, one eternal, infinitely wise, good, and perfect, we shall clearly perceive that they belong to the aforesaid Spirit, who works all in all, and by whom all things consist.

Hence it is evident that God is known as certainly and immediately as any other mind or spirit whatsoever, distinct from ourselves. We may even assert that the existence of God is far more evidently perceived than the existence of men, because the effects of nature are infinitely more numerous and considerable than those ascribed to human agents.

It seems to be a general pretence of the unthinking herd that they cannot see God. Could we but see Him, say they, as we see a man, we should believe that He is, and, believing, obey His commands. But we need only open our eyes to see the sovereign Lord of all things with a more full and clear view than we do any one of our fellow-creatures. We do not see a man, if by 'man' is meant that which lives, moves, perceives and thinks as we do; but only such a collection of ideas as directs us to think there is a distinct principle of thought and motion like to ourselves, accompanying and represented by it. After the same manner we see God. Men are surrounded with such clear manifestations of Deity, yet are so little affected by them that they seem, as it were, blinded with excess of light.

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