Older Masters: Essays and Reflections on English and American Literature

By Donald Davie | Go to book overview

9
Berkeley and the Style of Dialogue

Soon after The Principles of Human Knowledge ( 1710) had appeared, the still youthful Berkeley ( 1685-1753) wrote to his friend Percival expressing his disappointment that Samuel Clarke had refused to be drawn into discussion of that work:

That an ingenious and candid person (as I take him to be) should declare I am in an error, and at the same time, out of modesty, refuse to shew me where it lies, is something unaccountable. . . . I never expected that a gentleman otherwise so well employed should think it worth his while to enter into a dispute with me concerning any notions of mine. But being it was so clear to him that I went on false principles, I hoped he would vouchsafe in a line or two to point them out to me that so I may more closely review and examine them.1

We do not always understand what a writer of Berkeley's period meant when he says of some one, as Berkeley says here of Clarke, that he is a candid person. For 'candid' and 'candour' are words of much narrower meaning now than in the eighteenth century. The idea of candour was then relevant in fields of experience where the modern reader, used only to the attenuated notion current today, is not at home with it. And this breadth of meaning seems a characteristic of terms which are crucial to the thinking of man in any given time. It is an interesting question whether the breadth of meaning attached to a word is a consequence of that word's standing for something important, or whether it is not the cause of that importance.

At any rate there is little doubt that an understanding of what 'candour' meant for the Augustans is a key to much that seems odd or elusive in their thought; and this is as true of Berkeley as of the rest. To understand Berkeley's idea of candour leads, by way of profitable surmise, into that part of his thought to which he never gave systematic expression — it leads us to his ethics.

____________________
1
Benjamin Rand, Berkeley and Percival ( Cambridge, 1914), p.94.

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