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The Questions of Isaiah Berlin

Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas

by Isaiah Berlin
Viking Press, 394 pp., $16.95


Edmund Wilson once described Isaiah Berlin as “an extraordinary Oxford don, who left Russia at the age of eight and has a sort of double Russian-and-British personality. The combination is uncanny but fascinating.” But even these words from such a usually restrained source fail to do justice to the variety of gifts of this civilized and widely admired man who at one time or another has been a philosopher, a political theorist, an acute practical analyst of American and European politics, a historian of ideas, a biographer of Marx and translator of Turgenev, an active and influential participant in Jewish affairs, a long-time director of the Royal Opera House, founder of Wolfson College at Oxford, and President of the British Academy. Those who have been in his presence have witnessed his intellectual gaiety; he is a man of universal learning, a justly celebrated conversationalist, a man who inexhaustibly enlarges the lives of his colleagues, his students, his friends.

The four volumes of Isaiah Berlin’s collected essays and other writings that are currently appearing under the editorship of Henry Hardy should dispel the persistent myth that he has not found much time for scholarly writing among his many activities and that his work consists largely of critical and fragmentary occasional pieces that have no collective shape and express no single point of view.1 Berlin, as these volumes show, is a highly imaginative philosopher and historian of ideas who has repeatedly reminded us not to underestimate the influence of abstract ideas in human affairs, however harmless such ideas may appear when detached from their historical settings and microscopically analyzed by philosophers. He has reminded us that we cannot live without explaining the world to ourselves; that such explanations always rest on a conception of what is and can be; that whether we know it or not, insofar as we care about ideas at all, we are all participants in debates once familiar only to coteries of intellectuals.

Berlin sees his task as one of contributing to our self-knowledge by exhuming, clarifying, and criticizing the main ideas and values that lie behind our current conceptions of ourselves—of understanding historically whence we came, and how we came to be where we are now, thereby diminishing the dangers of being at the mercy of unexamined beliefs. This task requires rare psychological sensitivity, the capacity to enter into the consciousness of men far removed in space and time, and Berlin discharges it with grace and skill in the essays in the history of ideas collected in Against the Current.

In these portraits of thinkers from Machiavelli to Sorel he displays the powers of exposition, analysis, and lucidity familiar to readers of his other work. Berlin’s essays are neither chronicles nor exegetical exercises: he approaches ideas as incarnated in the men who conceived them; his subjects are never mere vehicles. Berlin is thoroughly at home with ideas in their personal and emotional, social or cultural embodiments—whether his subject is a humorless and fanatical reactionary like Joseph de Maistre or a fastidious dandy like Benjamin Disraeli, he manages to achieve an astonishing directness of contact with it.

His intellectual preoccupations and unparalleled gifts of imaginative reconstruction are brought together in these essays on men who dissented from shallow views of human nature: the ambiguous Machiavelli, the heroic and profound scholar Vico, the celebrated savant Montesquieu, as well as lesser known men, eccentric fanatics like Georges Sorel and J.G. Hamann, and the gentle visionary Moses Hess. Berlin, who has himself often stood apart from or against the fashionable trends of his own time, appreciates how all these men were treated by their contemporaries, more often than not, as “immovable, isolated rocks with their absurd appearance of seeking to arrest or deflect the central current.” All of them struggled with, or timidly grasped, or celebrated human freedom and the diversity of human values and patterns of life.

According to Isaiah Berlin, one of the deepest assumptions of Western political thought, found in Plato and scarcely questioned since, is “the conviction that there exist true, immutable, universal, timeless objective values, valid for all men, everywhere, at all times; that these values are at least in principle realizable, whether or not human beings are, or have been, or ever will be, capable of realizing them on earth; that these values form a coherent system, a harmony which, conceived in social terms, constitutes the perfect society.”

We may desire, for example, both expensive missiles to protect “national security” and freedom from burdensome taxation; an excellent secondary educational system for all but not an admissions policy which overlooks merit or the effects of past discrimination; equal rights for all but not unwanted, neighbors. These conflicting sentiments are expressions of more abstract values we prize—justice, freedom, happiness, security, loyalty. It is a common conviction (or hope) that these conflicts are apparent, that our various values can be somehow harmoniously realized—or at least ranked in importance—perhaps by the efforts of some especially clever thinker, a politician or religious savior or sociologist, or by the use of some method, scientific or philosophical, or by some technological invention.

This conviction is familiar enough, but is it true? Berlin thinks that it is not, and his criticism of it is expressed—as so often in his work—through inspection of the ideas of the historical figures he believes were especially prominent in undermining it. His essay on Machiavelli is an eloquent portrait of a man who questioned this psychologically attractive doctrine in uncompromising fashion. As Berlin claims, “it is this rock, upon which Western beliefs and lives had been founded, that Machiavelli seems, in effect, to have split open.” (“The Originality of Machiavelli”)

In Berlin’s view Machiavelli’s central aim was to provide a set of therapeutic maxims designed to help the statesman in restoring Italy to a position of security and stability, vigor and magnificence, to create “a state conceived after the analogy of Periclean Athens, or Sparta, but above all the Roman Republic.” To do so, the statesman must be realistic, “pagan”: he must be prepared to use terrible measures to ensure the general good, be willing to kill the innocent to create a show of strength, to deceive and betray and falsify. Once he has embarked on the course of transforming a diseased society, he cannot be squeamish. As Berlin expresses Machiavelli’s point,

to be a physician is to be a professional, ready to burn, to cauterise, to amputate; if that is what the disease requires, then to stop half-way because of personal qualms, or some rule unrelated to your art or technique, is a sign of muddle and weakness, and will always give you the worst of both worlds.

The code of behavior the statesman must apply is not a game of skill unconnected with morality but a new ethic concerned exclusively with the good of all, with public, not personal, morality—and certainly not with the popular Christian personal morality of Machiavelli’s time, which dictated humility, kindness, compassion, sanctity, and the quest for salvation in personal life.

Berlin finds much to criticize in Machiavelli’s thought: “His human beings have so little inner life or capacity for cooperation or social solidarity that, as in the case of Hobbes’s not dissimilar creatures, it is difficult to see how they could develop enough reciprocal confidence to create a lasting social whole, even under the perpetual shadow of carefully regulated violence.” But Machiavelli’s “vision of the great prince playing upon human beings like an instrument” with the aid of a novel morality condoning murder, hypocrisy, and fraudulence raises a disturbing question which Berlin regards as “the nodal point of Machiavelli’s entire conception.” Can these different moralities—the public “paganism” of the prince and the personal ethics of the Christian—be held by the same man at the same time?

Berlin believes that Machiavelli rightly held the two moralities to be not merely in practice but in principle incompatible. He thus posed a problem of choice: “one can save one’s soul, or one can found or maintain, or serve a great and glorious state; but not always both at once.” Two moralities, two sets of virtues, two ethical worlds—with no common ground—are in collision. Each is coherent and integral; we cannot have both. Machiavelli shocked his contemporaries (and many others since) by frankly renouncing Christian morality, but, Berlin claims, he did so “in favor of another system, another moral universe,” “a society geared to ends just as ultimate as the Christian faith, a society in which men fight and are ready to die for (public) ends which they pursue for their own sakes.”

Machiavelli’s problem of choice, Berlin suggests, has outlasted the specific conflict to which it was addressed and lives with us still, not merely in its obvious applications to such questions as the propriety of the conduct of our statesmen, or indeed any officials authorized to protect the public good, but more pervasively, in a wide variety of cases in which he claims we must, like Machiavelli’s men, choose between incompatible values.

Suppose, he has asked on another occasion, we were placed in charge of a hospital’s supply of kidney machines, costly machines vastly outnumbered by those who suffer from diseases from which they would provide relief: “If there is a great scientist who suffers from a kidney disease, should the only machine we have be reserved for him alone? Should we use the few machines we have for only gifted or important people who, in our view, confer a lot of benefit on society? If some child is dying whom the kidney machine might save, how do we decide between them?”2 In deciding, should we think only of the happiness of mankind and therefore reserve the machine for the scientist, who is more likely to confer greater benefits on humanity than the child? But then doesn’t this clash with the view that all human beings have certain fundamental rights, that we cannot grade lives in importance, that all have an equal claim to be saved? We must decide and yet what are we to do?

Berlin is careful to point out that this kind of conflict is not like the familiar ones we encounter in daily life; it is not like the business of adjusting the demands of work and leisure, or of choosing between a trip to the beach and remaining at home to watch a television program—a conflict that might be removed by having a television set one could take to the beach. The kind of choice in question is radically unlike that in common speech and thought, where we choose among different courses of action—what school to attend, what stock to invest in—with the help of stable, previously held values and standards: living near our families, getting the best return on our money. Such values serve as a secure basis for measuring the merits and demerits of the options.

  1. 1

    So far published, in addition to Against the Current, are Russian Thinkers (Viking, 1978) and Concepts and Categories (Viking, 1979).

  2. 2

    Cf. Men of Ideas, edited by Bryan Magee (Viking, 1979), p. 31.

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