Isaiah Berlin at Eighty

It is almost a rule that the more complex a man is, the simpler his billing. A person with a retrospective ability gone rampant often would be called an historian. Similarly, one to whom reality doesn’t seem to make sense gets dubbed a philosopher. Social critic or ethical thinker are standard labels for somebody who finds the ways of his society reprehensible. And so it goes, for the world always tries to arrest its adolescence, to appear younger than it is. Few people have suffered this fear of grown-ups more than Sir Isaiah Berlin, now eighty, who is frequently called all these things, at times simultaneously. What follows is not an attempt to redress the terminological chaos: it is but a tribute by a simpleton to a superior mind from which the former for a number of years has been learning about mental subtlety but apparently hasn’t learned enough.

A study in genealogy normally is owing to either pride in one’s ancestry or uncertainty about it; our history of ideas is no exception. Given the fruit this century came to bear, however, there are additional reasons for such scrutiny, which have nothing to do with attempts to brandish or ascertain the origins of our nobility. These reasons are revulsion and fear.

The quest for universal social justice that preoccupied European thought for, roughly speaking, the last four centuries has too often in our era resulted in its exact opposite. Considering the number of lives this quest has claimed, its Holy Grail proved to be the fixture of a literal dead end, and with a total disregard for the individual in its wake. A subject for revulsion, this effect should also be perceived as a cry from the future, given the rate of population growth throughout the world. After all, the temptation of social planning has turned out to be irresistible even for relatively humble social units.

That is what instills fear. In a manner of speaking, every bullet flies from the future. A mass society is natural prey for any presumption, but above all to a socialist one, which may eventually yield only to that of a computer. For this reason, poring over the genealogical chart of European philosophical thought through the last four centuries is not all that different from scanning the horizon: in either case, though, one looks out not for the cavalry but for an Indian scout.

There are not many of these scouts, and few of them are much good. The invention of ethical and political doctrines, which blossomed into our own social sciences, is a product of times when things appeared manageable. The same goes for the criticism of those doctrines, though as a voice from the past this criticism proved prophetic. All it lacked was the appropriate volume, but then one of the main distinctions between Indian scouts and cavalry is their discretion.

They were always discreet, as well as few in number—those opponents of political certitude, doubters of social …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.