When Sound Echoes Sense: Of Language, Epistemology, and Ethics in Pope and Berkeley

Brean S. Hammond
University of Nottingham

Tom Jones’s precisely written and intelligent book, Pope and Berkeley: The Language of Poetry and Philosophy (Palgrave, 2005), sets out its objectives at the start with exemplary clarity:

to describe the possible relationships between the work of Pope and the work of Berkeley; to revise the linguistic context in which early eighteenth-century poetry is studied; and to revaluate Pope’s place in eighteenth-century philosophical writing with reference to the group of philosophers sometimes known as the ‘British Empiricists’—Locke, Berkeley and Hume.[1]

Two specific questions motivate and energise the general terms of this agenda: (1) what does Pope mean, exactly, in the Essay on Criticism passage where he says that “The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense”?   (l. 365) and (2) what is the full significance of the recorded fact that Pope asked Berkeley whether he should include in the Essay on Man an invocation of Christ, just as Lucretius had invoked Epicurus in De Rerum Natura, to which the philosopher replied in the negative?   That latter question is to me a curiously familiar one.   I was asked it during the viva voce examination for my Doctorate by Howard Erskine-Hill, whose continuing influence Tom Jones acknowledges in his prefatory material.   The usual answer is that Berkeley could see that Pope’s poem was a philosophical one, not a theological or doctrinal one, and an invocation to Christ would have engaged different reading processes and the wrong kind of attention.   As we know, Pope did not in any case succeed in avoiding that kind of attention from the Swiss theologian Crousaz, this in turn leading to what some consider to have been an even more ill-fated involvement with Warburton.   Tom Jones’s answer to the question is his entire book: a full study of the respects in which Pope and Berkeley might have mutually reinforced each others’ ideas on language, epistemology, and ethics, so that this particular piece of advice is no longer a straw in the wind, but part of a structured conversation between the composer of the Essay and the author of Alciphron.

Extending this degree of prominence to Berkeley in Pope’s poetic career involves hobbling the opposition, specifically Locke and Bolingbroke.   “Berkeley must run a close second to Bolingbroke,” writes Jones, “as the living philosopher with whom Pope had greatest involvement” (8–9), but in chapter four, Jones argues that one of Bolingbroke’s purposes in the Letters and Fragments that he composed for Pope was to minimize Berkeley’s influence by satirizing some of his major ideas.   Since Jones argues that Pope nevertheless embodied those ideas in the Essay on Man, he cannot really think that Berkeley plays second fiddle to Bolingbroke.   There is very considerable biographical evidence for Bolingbroke’s influence, much less for Berkeley’s, but as assembled in this book, it is certainly not nugatory.   That Berkeley has not been sufficiently considered as a possible influence on Pope is a contention ably defended in this book.   What are the fruits of this influence?   That question is tied up with the arguments downplaying the importance of John Locke.

Those might be considered by some readers to be a little unfair.   They take the form of showing that there are very serious flaws in Locke’s theories of language and perception that do not arise in Berkeley’s system.   At times in Jones’s account of it, Locke’s linguistic theory is almost as disturbingly reductive as Houyhnhnm dogma: “the Use of Speech was to make us understand one another, and to receive Information of Facts”—the shortcoming of which is that it is a theory upon which Gulliver’s Travels itself could never have been written.   Locke is “interested in a propositional language, one that records a set of relations between ideas and between things or qualities in the world” (20).   His thinking is dominated by referentiality, not by meaning, and he is bedevilled by the “double conformity” problem—that words are the signs of ideas in the mind, leaving the relationship between those ideas and entities really existent in the world indeterminate.   Jones does not anywhere establish that Pope saw such flaws in Locke’s linguistics, and it seems inherently unlikely to me that he was enough of a philosopher ever to do so.   Nevertheless, it is assumed that Pope was in search of a superior linguistics, and located it in Berkeley.   Berkeley’s thinking was more hospitable to the poet because, anticipating J. L. Austin, he saw language as performing work in the world.   Jones’s account of Berkeley as a linguistic philosopher does not concentrate on his extensively discussed idealism; neither does Jones consider the shortcomings of that, so that his treatment is not entirely even-handed.   His arrestingly positive and sympathetic account argues that Berkeley treats signs as both natural and artificial, whereas Locke sees the connection between words and ideas dogmatically as arbitrary.

What Pope means, in the Essay on Criticism, when speaking of the sound seeming to echo the sense, is not that the reader entertains any particular set of visual images—not, either, onomatopoetic poetry—but rather an anticipation of Archibald MacLeish’s modernist aperçu that “A poem should not mean, / But be.”   In Berkeley’s theory, the sign does not point towards any entity beyond itself; so too Pope’s is “a poetry that instantiates its own meaning, and its own meaning is one act amidst the totality of meaningful human acts” (47).   Jones emphasises the role of “custom” (never quite defined) in creating meaning; and in a dialectical move that is a little difficult to follow, he argues that Berkeley’s performative, non-transcendental, custom-regulated linguistic universe is particularly enabling to Pope as a poet interested in the ethical purposes behind human action.

What would it be to read a poet according to this kind of theory of meaning?   Instead of asking to what Pope refers when he writes about a rock descending a hill [in Essay on Criticism], and how his words conjure up images of the action they describe, one would be more inclined to ask the purpose of this kind of writing, to ask what it is to forge this kind of epic image, what the purpose of inspiring readers with ideas of heroism and valour is, what Pope wanted to achieve, what he wanted to persuade his readers of and so on (44–45).

It seems to me, however, that we have been asking such questions of Pope’s poems for a considerable time without inquiring upon which linguistic theory he may have based them.   To what extent is a reading of Pope’s poetry enriched by an understanding of Berkeley’s writing such as Jones’s absorbing study offers?

Jones’s third chapter, “Money and Language,” is a good test case for examining some of the fruits of the reevaluation that his book undertakes.   In this chapter, he distinguishes Locke’s writings on finance from Berkeley’s.   Whereas Locke argued for the intrinsic value of gold and silver coinage, Berkeley denied this, and denied also that financial tokens gained value by referring to some quantity of bullion.   “Money only makes sense to Berkeley,” Jones writes, “if it . . . enable[s] the exchange of equal amounts of labour or a particular commodity” (107).   From his Irish perspective, he could see that it did not: and everything he wrote on money was inflected by his sense of it operating within an ethical system governed by God’s providence.   To spend money, for Berkeley, is to be aware of ethical obligations to other users: “Berkeley is distinguished from Locke by this overtly moralistic approach to economics” (108).   Jones does not claim that Pope is directly influenced by Berkeley’s writings on money in The Querist (1735), but rather that those provide a “rewarding context” for examining his verse.   To exemplify this, he offers a very perceptive and insightful reading of lines 35–78 of the Epistle to Bathurst, in which Pope shows how paper money has made bribery so much easier than in the old days when it had to be effected through equivalent amounts of commodity.   So often taken as an example of Pope’s conservative nostalgia and distrust of the new financial instruments, Jones acutely points out that it is far more sceptical than it is nostalgic.   Pope is not saying that bribery in the old days was far superior to bribery now; he is condemning all bribery whatsoever.   The conception of Pope as “a radical conservative with strong sceptical leanings” (86) that the chapter outlines is further documented by a perceptive reading of Imit. Hor. Sat. II.ii, the passage in which Pope writes:

What’s Property? dear Swift! you see it alter

From you to me, from me to Peter Walter.

Jones is entirely right to say that this passage is not evidence for Pope’s civic humanism—his buying into aristocratic nostalgia about property as against commercial ways of amassing wealth.   It satirically and sceptically undermines all landed property ownership whatsoever.   Following Jones’s argument, the reason why Pope could write like this is that he was immersed in Berkeley’s moral and linguistic ontology.   Surely, however, there are more obvious and persuasive reasons?   Quite simply, Pope was a bachelor, and in this passage he is addressing another of the most notorious bachelors in the lettered world, Jonathan Swift.   Neither of them needed to care about inheritance, and in later life both belonged to the moneyed class that they at times affected to despise.   There were of course many other reasons why Pope could write as an outsider and could undermine the tradition of country-house poetry that depended on landed ownership.   None of them need include influence by Berkeley.   As Jones gets close to conceding but never quite does (113), Pope was not at all indifferent to literary property, or to forms of value that would endure during his lifetime and make his life more comfortable (including, of course, South Sea stock).   It is just that he cared less than most people do about what happened to it all after he died.   This gives him a sceptical edge, but I am not fully convinced that it is the benevolent, ethical concern for money in use that the Pope–Berkeley axis is made to represent in this account of it.   The term “use” is after all profoundly ambivalent in a financial context: lending money is itself a form of “use,” as the etymology of “usury” shows.

The fourth chapter, on the Essay on Man, is the most persuasive in the book.   Here, the biographical context for influence is established in the fact that Berkeley was working on Alciphron while Pope was writing the Essay on Man.   Jones outlines Berkeley’s arguments for what today might be termed “intelligent design,” and distinguishes them meticulously from those of Shaftesbury and Hutcheson.   The phenomenal world is a language written by divine Providence; pain and pleasure are the mechanisms through which we come to know that language and learn what is good for us.   In Alciphron as in the Essay, there is an emphasis upon self-love being indistinguishable from love of society or the common good.   Pope shares Berkeley’s Christian utilitarian ethics.   Jones assuredly does enough to “add[s] Alciphron to the vast set of works to which Pope might have turned or of which he may have been thinking whilst composing this poem” (116).   What he does not do is dispel the later criticisms—such as those made by Samuel Johnson in his review of Soame Jenyns, or of Voltaire in Candide—that the Essay encapsulates an unendurably complacent optimism.   When, in his final chapter, Jones wishes to assimilate Pope and Berkeley to David Hume, this reader is not entirely persuaded.   As Jones rightly says, “in Pope nature often takes the place of God, only for nature to be redescribed as providence, chance as necessity, chaos as order” (160).   If there are similarities between Pope–Berkeley and Hume in their account of the passions (self-love) and the relative importance of those vis à vis rationality in motivating and accounting for human conduct, the differences in world-view that this valorizing of the passions serves are vast and are in my view more significant.

This is a well-written, discriminating, careful and thought-provoking book.   I am not persuaded by each and every one of its arguments.   As an influence study, it toggles between hard and soft criteria for influence—between influence, that is, and context.   Nevertheless, it has done enough to ensure that Berkeley will not be left out of the story in future for readers of Pope, and it offers a model of how philosophers in the period could make themselves available to imaginative writing and could benefit from seeing their work embodied in that very different form.


[1]   Tom Jones, Pope and Berkeley: The Language of Poetry and Philosophy (Basingstoke, 2005), 4.