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Trinity College library: ‘Man of his times’ argument does not get Berkeley off hook

The philosopher after whom the main library in Trinity College Dublin is named would have been well aware of contemporaneous criticisms of slavery

As a student of philosophy in Trinity College Dublin, I studied a central concept of the philosophical thought of George Berkeley (1685-1753), namely “esse est percipi” (to be is to be perceived). Things exist because they are perceived to exist. We sometimes reduce this to the familiar but inexact conundrum that if a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?

As part of the debate about denaming the Berkeley Library, in Trinity College Dublin, the knowledge that Berkeley was a slaveholder exists. Within Trinity, this is due in large measure to the significant work being done by the Colonial Legacies Project. Outside of Trinity, Berkeley being a slaveholder is a matter of long-standing record, and referenced as far back as 1939, in the Journal of Negro History, by William Sypher who pointed out that Berkeley “own[ed] slaves on his Rhode Island estate”.

However, my concern is how the knowledge of Berkeley’s direct involvement in slavery is perceived.

As a slaveholder, Berkeley was by definition one who profited directly, and not at a remove, from the practice of enslaving human beings. But the involvement of the ‘Good Bishop’ in the practice of enslaving other people of his time was more pernicious than this. Berkeley played a significant role in soliciting and publicising the 1729 Yorke-Talbot Opinion that came to operate as a bulwark for slavery around the British Empire.


The Yorke-Talbot Opinion protected slavery within English law in an unprecedented way

Yorke-Talbot was the most significant development in the legal history of slavery since the first slave code of Barbados in 1661. It suggested – and that’s all it was at its core, an opinion by self-interested slaveholders – that slavery could exist throughout the British Empire, including in England – something that had been outlawed by a national synod at Westminster in 1102 and in the judgments of Sir John Holt several decades earlier. The Opinion protected slavery within English law in an unprecedented way, and at a time when plantation economies were growing throughout the empire.

Berkeley’s plan to Christianise indigenous Americans at his proposed college in Bermuda would have required kidnap, admitting as much in his own proposal, saying “the Children of savage Americans” to fill the college could be got by peaceable means “or by taking captive the Children of our Enemies”.

This much is acknowledged. Yet, in the same breath that acknowledges this to be wrong, many who defend Berkeley argue that because he was a man of his times, he should not be blamed. He simply could not have known better given the moral standards of his day. His views, considered abhorrent today, were not unusual at the time. A man considered to be exceptional amongst his peers for his intellect is somehow also to be considered to be no more than one of the masses. In imposing a temporal argument, rather than a moral one, it seeks to mitigate culpability rather than erase it.

However, the man of his times argument is demonstrably ahistorical. And profoundly in error.

We are all of our time, and hold certain views and world beliefs while simultaneously being aware of opposing views. Some readers of this article, people who share the same time period as me, will disagree with what I say here. Similarly, many people of Berkeley’s time held different views. There were many people who believed that enslavement was wrong.

Enslaved people believed it was wrong. They revealed their moral dissent through constant rebellion and flight. Free black people believed it was wrong. Some, like Anton Wilhelm Amo (1703-1759), Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797), Ottobah Cugoano (1757–1791), and Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), put their moral dissent into print.

A man considered to be exceptional amongst his peers for his intellect is somehow also to be considered to be no more than one of the masses

Perhaps power and privilege may dismiss their voices as not having the same weight as that of the “Good Bishop”. What, then, of the many white religious contemporaries of Berkeley who believed it to be wrong, such as Bartolome de Albornoz (1519-1573), Samuel Gorton (1593–1677), Roger Williams (1603-1683), Francis Pastorius (1651-1720) Samuel Sewall (1652–1730), Benjamin Lay (1682–1759), and Anthony Benezet (1713–1784)?

To fail to perceive Berkeley’s endorsement of slavery and the exploitation and dehumanisation of people on the grounds that he was simply a man of his era fails to take into account the opposing views (which were known to Berkeley, since he critiqued them) of another giant of Irish philosophy and a contemporary of his, Francis Hutcheson. This Co Down man, the father of Utilitarianism, held that natural rights belong equally to all, thus leading him to reject any form of slavery.

The “man of his times” argument in relation to slavery is less a case of knowing or not knowing the better course, but rather about belief and choice, of self-interest, and ultimately lack of interest in the plight of others.

The argument goes beyond the mere injunction against imposing our moral standards on those who lived and died before us. This defence seeks to redirect blame and accuse those who critique the man of his times for lacking critical historical judgement. Few slopes are as slippery as this. The reality is that it is the examination of the historical record that tends to undermine the man of his times defence.

In seeking to immunise Berkeley in this manner, supporters of the “man of his times” argument believe that they must confront the attempt to erase him from history. Removing Berkeley’s name from the main library in Trinity will have no impact on the countless students and academics who will still read his works throughout the world. A recent article by Louie Lyons, a second year student who had led a petition to rename the library, argues that Berkeley’s intellectual contributions should be “recorded but not rewarded”.

Whatever decision Trinity comes to must be guided by historical fact, not nostalgia. What any denaming of the library entails is simply the application of the standard of Berkeley’s time, the belief amongst all but those who profited from the cruel practice, that the enslavement of human beings was wrong.

Philomena Mullen is Assistant Professor of Black Studies at the Department of Sociology, Trinity College Dublin