Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury
George Berkeley (16851753)
[Bishop Berkeley was born near Kilkenny on the 16th March 1685, and was educated at the Grammar School of that town, going thence at the age of fifteen to Trinity College, Dublin. He remained in residence there till he was eight and twenty, and during the latter years of this residence, young as he was, produced his most remarkable philosophical worksthe New Theory of Vision in 1709, the Principles of Human Knowledge in 1710, and the Dialogues of Hylas and Philonous in 1713. In the last named year he went to London, where Swift, who was then at the zenith of his influence, introduced him to the wits and the great. After staying some time in the capital, Berkeley travelled for nearly seven years as tutor to more than one pupil, and returned to Ireland in 1721. He resigned his Fellowship in Trinity College, Dublin, three years later, on being appointed to the valuable deanery of Derry. But he shortly afterwards took up his famous scheme of a Missionary College at the Bermudas, and, having obtained a promise of a government grant and married, set out for America, where he lived for three years at Rhode Island. His hopes, however, were deceived; the grant, though voted, was withdrawn, and he returned in 1731, publishing next year the liveliest and most literary of his works, Alciphron, or the Minute Philosopher. In 1734 he was made Bishop of Cloyne, and lived there, a model bishop, for eighteen years, doing much good, and publishing his Querist, and his curious speculations on tar-water and other things, which were formally embodied in the quaint but admirable work called Siris. His health becoming very weak he went to Oxford for change, and died in January 1753, six months after his arrival there. His works were never completely published till twenty years ago, when they appeared at the Clarendon Press, under the care of Professor Fraser. But the older editions, which are numerous, though lacking much matter of biographical interest and curiosity, contain all the great philosophical and literary pieces which made, and which will, it is to be hoped, ever preserve his fame.]
TO any one who combines a fondness for metaphysical study with some sense both of perfection in literature and perfection in humanity it is rather difficult to write about Berkeley with due critical detachment. The assignment of every virtue under heaven to him was made early, and should have necessarily excited the not wholly unhealthy feeling of antagonism which greeted the description of Aristides. But Berkeley has passed the pikes of a century and more of unqualified analysis, not only without any loss, but with a positive increase of fame. His astonishing intellectual vigour, and his perfect literary art, could have borne with depreciation of his personal character. But no such depreciation has ever been seriously attempted; none such has ever had the least chance of success. In two of these respects there is not much which could properly be dealt with here at any great length. Berkeley was an almost perfect model of a Christian gentleman, a pattern of that sort of character which, though it may at one time be held conventional, and at another go out of fashion, emerges again and again from the ruins of time in pretty identical condition. Through all the storms and quicksands of the history of philosophy his repute passes unscathed, as hardly any other since the great masters of Greek thought has passed. He is one of the most eminent and constant of what the late Mr. Arnold, borrowing the phrase from the French, used to call points de repère. He is one of those who make an end, and who maintain themselves victoriously at that end. He might have been impossible without Locke, but he seized the essentials of the Lockian doctrine without delay, and consciously or unconsciously all subsequent philosophers have either recoiled from the impregnable fortress of his idealism into devious paths intended to circumvent it, have masked it, or have endeavoured to attack its apparently antiquated but still solid curtains and bastions with this or that device, suitable to the passing fashions of the day. All Kantian and post-Kantian philosophy, that is to say, all the philosophy of the world for the last century, professedly and honestly dates itself from Hume. And Hume, again, by the honest confession of all competent criticism, did little but apply an acute but unimaginative intellect partly to the caricature and partly to the evasion of the conclusions of Berkeley.
These things, however, great as they are, belong to another department of enquiry. We have to do with Berkeley here as with a great writer of English prose. And here, fortunately, there is even less possibility of difference between competent persons than elsewhere. Berkeley had almost every advantage that a writer can hope for. He was born with a solid English intellect, and a quick Irish wit; he was thoroughly well educated; he was not forced by indigence to the premature employment of his literary gifts in manners and on subjects unworthy of himself. But the gifts of fortune to him were greater even than the statement of these things shows. The period of his birth set him at one of these moments when men of literary gifts have the opportunity of using a comparatively new literary style before it has become hackneyed or exaggerated, and while it is still crisp and effective. He was born when Dryden and Tillotson and Halifax and Temple were still shaping the new English prose; he reached the prime of early manhood when the great essayists were supplying and refining it; he was introduced to them and their society in a manner which put at his disposal those influences of coterie or clique which, if they have never long succeeded in keeping vogue for anything that was bad, have sometimes been fatally lacking to that which was good. And even this did not exhaust his good luck. He fell in, at the very flush of his talent and energy, with two movements, a philosophical and a religious, which were of all possible things suited to his genius. Born a little earlier, he would either have had to work out the Lockian destructive criticism for himself, or have wasted himself in uncertain gropings, like his great predecessors Cudworth and Norris. Born a little later, he would have fallen in with that period of the eighteenth century when metaphysical enquiries proper were tabooed, and when his own special philosophical faculty would have met with little respect and less sympathy. So in religion his gifts of thought and style were exactly suited to cope with the crude fanaticism of the earlier deists, and the strictly negative criticism of men like Middleton. But the hour would have been nothing if the man had not been so thoroughly suited to it. It may seem to some, after reading philosophers of all ages, from Plato to Schopenhauer, and from Erigena to Descartes, that there are only three styles perfectly suited to philosophy, that they are those of Plato himself, of Malebranche, and of Berkeley. In all philosophical writing there is a certain antinomy. By so much as it is popular, figurative, literary, imaginative, it seems to lack philosophical precision; by so much as it is technical, austere, unliterary, and what has been called jargonish, it loses humanity and general appeal. If the golden mean was ever hit between these extremes it seems to have been hit in the style of Berkeley. Take the more popular expositions of it as in Alciphron and Siris, the less popular as in the Theory of Vision, or Hylas and Philonous, compare them together, note their excellences, and, if any can be detected allow for their defects, and such a philosophical medium as nowhere else exists will, I believe, be found. A crystalline clearness, a golden eloquence, a supreme urbanity, a mixture of fancy and logic which is nowhere else discernible except in Plato, an allowance for sentiment and unction which exists side by side with a readiness to play the game of sheer rough-and-tumble argument at any moment and with any adversary; a preciseness of phrase which is never dull or dry; a felicity of ornament and illustration which never condescends to the merely popular or trivial, and is never used to cloak controversial feebleness; an incapacity of petulance, and an omnipresence of good breedingthese are the characteristics of the style of Berkeley. Since his time only one analogue has appeared to him, and that analogue exhibits rather glaringly the defects of the qualities which, without defects, Berkeley possessed. Take reverence, logic, and taste from Berkeley, and there would be left an English version of the late M. Renan; add taste, reverence, and logic to M. Renan, and you would hardly have made a Berkeley. Nay, if Berkeley is inferior, as he no doubt is, to Plato, it may be questioned whether the inferiority is due to any other cause than the inferiority of the English of the eighteenth century after Christ, as a medium of literary expression, to the Greek of the fourth century before.