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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 blueprints, disbelievers in universal truths, exiles from the Just City. It could not be otherwise since for them to be shrill in social discourse would have been a contradiction in terms. Even systematization often seemed to them contradictory because a system would entitle them to mental privilege over the very subjects of their ponderings.

Their actual lives and careers were diverse but not spectacular. Some of them would advance their views in magazines. Others would do so in a treatise or, even better, in a novel. Still others applied their principles to the offices they held or disciplines they were mastering. They were the first to shrink from being called philosophers; above all, they never tried to shout anyone down.

This posture had little to do with either humility or modesty. In fact it could and perhaps should be perceived as an echo of a polytheistic notion of the world, for these people firmly believed in the multiplicity of the human predicament, and the core of their social formula was, essentially, pluralism. This of course drew fire or silence from social reformers of every stripe, both democratic and autocratic, whose most high-minded common contention would even today be that pluralism is pregnant with moral relativism.

It is. But then moral absolutism is not so hot either. Its main attraction is that it is unattainable and, for a social reformer, that it provides an attractive embellishment for his designs. Yet the bottom line of every social order is not the moral superiority of its members but their safety, which, in fact, moral superiority doesn’t necessarily guarantee.

Every discourse on social matters boils down, of course, to the issue of free will. This is something of a paradox, however, since regardless of whether the will is free or not, in any outcome of such discourse it will be curbed. One’s curiosity regarding the nature of the will is therefore either sadistic or academic or both. (“Let’s see how free is what we are curbing.”)

In any case, with pluralism one would think a danger far greater than moral relativism (which is the reality of the world anyway) or shackling the will, is the implicit dismissal of the metaphysical properties of the species, the short shrift that pluralism, like nearly any other social formula, gives to the notion that man can be driven as much by his appetite for the infinite as by necessity.

The pluralist formula shares this danger with every form of social organization, including theocracy. Man’s metaphysical instinct (or potential) is substantial enough to overshoot the confines of any creed, not to mention ideology. At the very least, that is what is responsible for the emergence of art, music, and, particularly, poetry. In many ways, this is both a self-and world-negating instinct and its exercise may easily make the finest social tapestry fade. Whether a society benefits from this humbling effect is another matter. One suspects that it may.

On the basis of this suspicion one perceives the equating of man’s metaphysical potential with its absence as a danger. Everything that reduces man’s spiritual tenor is a danger. The antihierarchical pathos of pluralism may render society’s senses dull to the pitch of the human maximum, which is always a solo performance. Worse still, it may perceive this solo as a subject for applause, exacting no obligations from its audience.

But if it were only a matter of the quality of the applause, that would be fine. Regrettably, what passes for social pluralism is echoed in the life of cultures and even civilizations. For they and their values, too, are conflicting and diverse enough to make up society, especially given their current Biblical proximity (we are literally only a stone’s throw from one another), especially given the world’s emerging ethnic composition. From now on when we are talking about the world we are talking about a society.

The need for a common denominator, for a universal set of values, is dictated by our concern for our safety (and one wouldn’t be wrong to regard Herder as a precursor of the League of Nations). Alas, the development of this common denominator is fraught with a cultural realignment so enormous that one is not keen to ponder it. We already hear, for example, about equating tolerance (this high-pitched solo of Christianity) with intolerance.

Alas, the trouble with ethics is that it always answers the question “How to live?” not, “In the name of what?” or even “What for?” It is clear that it tries to supplant those questions and their answers with its own; that moral philosophy tends to operate at the expense of metaphysics. Perhaps rightly so, given the world’s population prospects; perhaps it’s time to bid the Enlightenment farewell, to learn an inflected gutteral tongue and step into the future.

One is almost ready to do so when in walks Isaiah Berlin, at age eighty, carrying under his arm seven not very long books: The Age of Enlightenment, Four Essays on Liberty, Vico and Herder, Against the Current, The Hedgehog and the Fox, Russian Thinkers, and Personal Impressions. He does not look like an Indian scout; his mind, however, has been to the future. The volumes under his arm are its map, where the East overlaps with the West, where the North flows South.

This is not how I first saw him, though, seventeen years ago, when he was sixty-three and I thirty-two. I had just left the country where I’d spent those thirty-two years and it was my third day in London, where I knew nobody.

I was staying in St. John’s Wood, in the house of Stephen Spender, whose wife had come to the airport three days before to fetch W.H. Auden, who had flown in from Vienna to participate in the annual Poetry International Festival in Queen Elizabeth Hall. I was on the same flight, for the same reason. As I had no place to stay in London, the Spenders offered to put me up.

On the third day in that house in the city where I knew nobody the phone rang and Natasha Spender cried, “Joseph, it’s for you.” Naturally, I was puzzled. My puzzlement hadn’t subsided when I heard in the receiver my mother tongue, spoken with the most extraordinary clarity and velocity, unparalleled in my experience. The speed of sound, one felt, was courting the speed of light. That was Isaiah Berlin, suggesting tea at his club, the Atheneum.

I accepted, although of all my foggy notions about English life, that of a club was the foggiest (the last reference I had seen to one was in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin). Mrs. Spender gave me a lift to Pall Mall and before she deposited me in front of an imposing Regency edifice with a gilded Athena and Wedgewoodlike cornice, I, being unsure of my English, asked her whether she wouldn’t mind accompanying me inside. She said that she wouldn’t, except that women were not allowed. I found this puzzling, again, opened the door, and announced myself to the doorman.

I’d like to see Sir Isaiah Berlin,” I said, and attributed the look of controlled disbelief in his eyes to my accent rather than to my Russian clothes. Two minutes later, however, climbing the majestic staircases and glancing at the huge oil portraits of Gladstones, Spencers, Actons, Darwins, et alia, that patterned the club’s walls like wallpaper, I knew that the matter with me was neither my accent nor my turtleneck but my age. At thirty-two I was as much out of sync here as if I were a woman.

Presently I was standing in the huge, mahogany-cum-leather shell of the club’s library. Through high windows the afternoon sun was pouring its rays onto the parquet as though testing its resolve to refract light. In various corners two or three rather ancient members were sunk deep in their tall armchairs, in various stages of newspaper-induced reverie. From across the room, a man in a baggy three-piece suit was waving to me. Against the sunlight, the silhouette looked Chaplinesque, or penguinish.

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