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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

XI. Berkeley and Contemporary Philosophy

§ 2. Berkeley’s Life and Authorship before and after his sojourn in America

George Berkeley was born at Dysert castle, country Kilkenny, Ireland, on 12 March, 1685, and educated at Kilkenny school and Trinity college, Dublin, which he entered in 1700 and where he remained, first as a scholar, afterwards as fellow and tutor, till January, 1713. These early years are the most remarkable in Berkeley’s literary career. He published, anonymously, two mathematical tracts in 1707; his Essay towards a new theory of vision appeared in 1709, his Principles of Human Knowledge, part I, in 1710; and when, in 1713, he got leave of absence from his college and set out for London, it was “to print his new book”—Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous—as well as “to make acquaintance with men of merit.” These three books reveal the new thought which inspired his life; and the evidence of his Common-place Book (discovered and published by Campbell Fraser in 1871) shows that he was barely twenty years of age when this new thought took hold of him. Berkeley was absent from Ireland for eight years, spending his time in London, France and Italy (where, on a second visit, he resided four years). During this period, he did little literary work; he made some progress, indeed, with the second part of his Principles, but the MS. was lost in his travels, and the work was never resumed; his Latin treatise De motu was written as he was on his way home in 1720, and published in 1721; he collected materials for a natural history of Sicily, but this MS. also was lost; a journal written in Italy, however, and many letters remain to show his appreciation of the beauties of nature and art. His return to England gave a new direction to his energy. The country was in the period of collapse which follows a speculative mania; and Berkeley saw the true cause of the national disaster in the decline of religion, the decay of public spirit and the prevalent corruption of manners. One hundred and forty-years later, Mark Pattison described the period as “an age whose poetry was without romance, whose philosophy was without insight, and whose public men were without character.” A similar judgment forms the burden of Berkeley’s Essay towards preventing the ruin of Great Britain, published anonymously in 1721. He returned to Ireland and to Trinity college later in the same year, and was presented to the deanery of Dromore. The office attracted him because it would give him leisure for reflection and for philanthropic work; but a legal question arose as to the right of presentation, and his hopes received a check. Berkeley is one of the most perfect characters among men of letters; but his perfection was not colourless. He threw himself with energy into the defence of his rights, and at least had the satisfaction of a protracted lawsuit. While the case was still pending, in 1724, he was appointed to a much more valuable preferment—the deanery of Derry. “It is said to be worth £1500 a year,” he wrote, “but I do not consider it with a view to enriching myself. I shall be perfectly contented if it facilitates and recommends my scheme of Bermuda.” This scheme seems to have taken hold of Berkeley’s mind about two years previously; to it he devoted his fortune and ten years of his life. His plan was to found a college in the Bermudas, with the twofold object of “the reformation of manners among the English in our western plantations, and the propagation of the gospel among the American savages.” Berkeley spent four years in London in endeavouring to extract a charter and grant of money from a reluctant government and subscriptions from an unbelieving generation; he had to frequent the court and dispute twice a week with Samuel Clarke before queen Caroline, then princess of Wales; he listened to the banter of the wits of the Scriblerus club, and then replied with such eloquence and enthusiasm that they “rose all up together, with earnestness exclaiming, ‘Let us set out with him immediately’”; he canvassed every member of parliament with such effect that, in the Commons, there were only two opponents of the vote; even Walpole subscribed to the scheme, though he secretly determined that the government grant of money should never be paid. Bermuda became the fashion, and Berkeley was idolised. But he grudged the waste of time, and, at last—with only a promise from Walpole that the grant would be paid—he set sail from Greenwich in September, 1728, with his newlymarried wife. In January, 1729, he landed at Newport, Rhode Island. There he remained for nearly three years, waiting vainly for the government to fulfil its promises. This it never did; he never reached Bermuda, and his college was never founded; but he left his impress upon the early efforts of American philosophy; his interpretation of the material world modified the thinking of Jonathan Edwards, the metaphysician and theologian of New England; and the memory of his visit has been treasured by the American mind. The new world also affected Berkeley’s imagination and led to a set of Verses on the prospect of planting arts and learning in America. One of his lines—“Westward the course of empire takes its way”—has come to be looked upon as prophetic; but his idea was not geographical; it was that better times would follow better morals, “where nature guides and virtue rules.”