Paradise Lost

Everyone interested in the history of ideas owes a great debt not only to Sir Isaiah Berlin himself but also to his editor, Henry Hardy. It was Hardy who brought together a great many important scattered writings of Berlin’s—hitherto scattered, sometimes in obscure places—and published them in the four-volume series collectively entitled Selected Essays (1978–1981). The present collection is essentially the fifth volume in the same series. (In the opening line of his preface, the editor describes it as “in effect the fifth of four volumes” and, though this may seem an odd formulation, we can see what he means.)

The title, as the editor tells us, is taken “from Isaiah Berlin’s preferred rendering of his favorite quotation from Kant.” The quotation, which is reproduced after the title page of the present collection runs:

Aus so krummem Holze, als woraus der Mensch gemacht ist, kann nichts ganz Gerades gezimmert werden.1

(Out of timber so crooked as that from which man is made nothing entirely straight can be built.)

According to the editor, Berlin

has always ascribed this translation to R.G. Collingwood, but it turns out that he has not left Collingwood’s version untouched. The quotation does not appear in Collingwood’s published writings, but among his unpublished papers there is a lecture on the philosophy of history, dating from 1929, in which the following rendering appears: “Out of the cross-grained timber of human nature nothing quite straight can be made.”

The editor adds that Collingwood orginally wrote “crooked” but later crossed it out and put in “cross-grained” instead. Berlin put “crooked” back, quite rightly. Krumm is the ordinary German word for “crooked.” To subsitute the fancy and opaque word “cross-grained” is a good example of the emollient tendency in English language versions of German thought. Berlin is by no means an abrasive writer, but he is no friend either to the emollient and the euphemistic. So “crooked” it is.

The Crooked Timber consists of eight essays. The first four are closely interrelated, and so are the last four. The two sets of essays are also interrelated, but less closely than each set is, internally. In the first part of this review, I propose to identify the main themes of The Crooked Timber—taking the two sets of essays in order—reserving most of my comment for the second part.


The first four essays are “The Pursuit of the Ideal” (1988), “The Decline of Utopian Ideals in the West” (1978), “Giambattista Vico and Cultural History” (1983), and “Alleged Relativism in Eighteenth-Century European Thought” (1980). The common theme of this set of essays is Utopia. The title and the full quotation from Kant suggest an anti-Utopian position, and this is not misleading. Yet, characteristically, Isaiah Berlin’s work does not abound in this sense. He has, in his youth, been attracted to Utopian idealism, and there is still a shade of wistfulness in his rejection of this.

In the first essay, “The Pursuit of the Ideal,” there is a thread of intellectual autobiography. The author tells of his early—“much too early”—reading of Tolstoy and other Russian writers. In all these writers, the young Berlin found a common theme:

They all believed that the essence of human beings was to be able to choose how to live: societies could be transformed in the light of true ideals believed in with enough fervour and dedication. If, like Tolstoy, they sometimes thought that man was not truly free but determined by factors outside his control, they knew well enough, as he did, that if freedom was an illusion it was one without which one could not live or think. None of this was part of my school curriculum, which consisted of Greek and Latin authors, but it remained with me.

At Oxford Berlin “began to read the great philosophers,” and found, in Plato and Socrates, and in Western seventeenth-century rationalism and eighteenth-century empiricism, much to confirm him in the view that “societies could be transformed in the light of true ideals.”

The rational reorganisation of society would put an end to spiritual and intellectual confusion, the reign of prejudice and superstition, blind obedience to unexamined dogmas, and the stupidities and cruelties of the oppressive regimes which such intellectual darkness bred and promoted. All that was wanted was the identification of the principal human needs and discovery of the means of satisfying them. This would create the happy, free, just, virtuous, harmonious world which Condorcet so movingly predicted in his prison cell in 1794. This view lay at the basis of all progressive thought in the nineteenth century, and was at the heart of much of the critical empiricism which I imbibed in Oxford as a student.

At some point I realised that what all these views had in common was a Platonic ideal: in the first place, that, as in the sciences, all genuine questions must have one true answer and one only, all the rest being necessarily errors; in the second place, that there must be a dependable path towards the discovery of these truths; in the third place, that the true answers, when found, must necessarily be compatible with one another and form a single whole, for one truth cannot be incompatible with another—that we knew a priori. This kind of omniscience was the solution of the cosmic jigsaw puzzle. In the case of morals, we could then conceive what the perfect life must be, founded as it would be on a correct understanding of the rules that governed the universe.

As Berlin was soon to find, there was a fault line in this attractive and impressive structure. The fault line consisted in the notion of the “necessary compatibility” of all truths. To that fault line, Machiavelli administered a hammer blow:

At a certain stage in my reading, I naturally met with the principal works of Machiavelli. They made a deep and lasting impression upon me, and shook my earlier faith. I derived from them not the most obvious teachings—on how to acquire and retain political power, or by what force or guile rulers must act if they are to regenerate their societies, or protect themselves and their states from enemies within or without, or what the principal qualities of rulers on the one hand, and of citizens on the other, must be, if their states are to flourish—but something else. Machiavelli was not a historicist: he thought it possible to restore something like the Roman Republic or Rome of the early Principate. He believed that to do this one needed a ruling class of brave, resourceful, intelligent, gifted men who knew how to seize opportunities and use them, and citizens who were adequately protected, patriotic, proud of their state, epitomes of manly, pagan virtues. That is how Rome rose to power and conquered the world, and it is the absence of this kind of wisdom and vitality and courage in adversity, of the qualities of both lions and foxes, that in the end brought it down. Decadent states were conquered by vigorous invaders who retained these virtues.

But Machiavelli also sets, side by side with this, the notion of Christian virtues—humility, acceptance of suffering, unworldliness, the hope of salvation in an afterlife—and he remarks that if, as he plainly himself favours, a state of a Roman type is to be established, these qualities will not promote it: those who live by the precepts of Christian morality are bound to be trampled on by the ruthless pursuit of power by men who alone can re-create and dominate the republic which he wants to see. He does not condemn Christian virtues. He merely points out that the two moralities are incompatible, and he does not recognise any overarching criterion whereby we are enabled to decide the right life for men. The combination of virtù and Christian values is for him an impossibility. He simply leaves you to choose—he knows which he himself prefers.

The idea that this planted in my mind was the realisation, which came as something of a shock, that not all the supreme values pursued by mankind now and in the past were necessarily compatible with one another. It undermined my earlier assumption, based on the philosophia perennis, that there could be no conflict between true ends, true answers to the central problems of life.

The message of Machiavelli was reinforced, in different ways, by the reading of Vico and of Herder. The theoretical objection to the notion of the perfect state—that is, the objection from the incompatibility of certain truths—came to seem to Berlin “a fatal one.” But in addition to the theoretical objection—and, as it seems, at a deeper level—Berlin discovered what he calls “a more practical socio-psychological obstacle.” He was finding that Utopia can be not only philosophically dubious, but hideously dangerous as well. The notion of a perfect state was beginning to fuse, in Berlin’s mind, with the notion of a final solution.

Utopias have their value—nothing so wonderfully expands the imaginative horizons of human potentialities—but as guides to conduct they can prove literally fatal. Heraclitus was right, things cannot stand still.

So I conclude that the very notion of a final solution is not only impracticable but, if I am right, and some values cannot but clash, incoherent also. The possibility of a final solution—even if we forget the terrible sense that these words acquired in Hitler’s day—turns out to be an illusion; and a very dangerous one. For if one really believes that such a solution is possible, then surely no cost would be too high to obtain it: to make mankind just and happy and creative and harmonious for ever—what could be too high a price to pay for that? To make such an omelette, there is surely no limit to the number of eggs that should be broken—that was the faith of Lenin, of Trotsky, of Mao, for all I know of Pol Pot. Since I know the only true path to the ultimate solution of the problems of society, I know which way to drive the human caravan; and since you are ignorant of what I know, you cannot be allowed to have liberty of choice even within the narrowest limits, if the goal is to be reached. You declare that a given policy will make you happier, or freer, or give you room to breathe; but I know that you are mistaken, I know what you need, what all men need; and if there is resistance based on ignorance or malevolence, then it mist be broken and hundreds of thousands may have to perish to make millions happy for all time. What choice have we, who have the knowledge, but to be willing to sacrifice them all?

In comparison with the gravity and the torment of that “socio-psychological” diagnosis, the “theoretical objection,” based on incompatibility, may appear relatively trivial. But for the young Berlin, the discovery of the theoretical objection—valid as it is—may well have presented a most welcome escape hatch from what was becoming a menacing philosophical prison.

However that may be, when the young Berlin had finished his wrestling with the dark angel of Utopia, he had become what he has always since remained: the liberal, humanist, pluralist thinker whom so many of us love, venerate, and—above all—learn from.

Henry Hardy was right to put “The Pursuit of the Ideal” first in the present collection. It is not merely a fine essay, in itself, on an aspect of the history of ideas in general, but it affords a unique and fascinating glimpse into the history of the ideas of Sir Isaiah Berlin in particular. One would like to know more though about chronology. Which came first, “the theoretical objection” or the “socio-psychological obstacle”? Or did they come together? The theoretical objection came mainly from reading Machiavelli and Herder. Where did the “socio-psychological” obstacle come from? From early experience, I should guess, combined with the news in the papers and on the radio in the 1930s. A growing perception of discrepancy between the arguments of so many philsophers and what was actually going on out there in the world may have been at the root of Isaiah Berlin’s lifelong concern with the history of ideas, in the form which that concern has actually taken.

The second essay, “The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West,” necessarily suffers by comparison with its predecessor in this collection, for it is basically an earlier rumination of the same themes. It was worth including, however, because it contains a number of distinctive aperçus, most of them illuminating, some of them stimulating to debate. Among the latter, I would include the contention that “the beginning of the modern attack on Utopia, Utopia as such,” is to be found in the writings of Johann Gottfried Herder.

I don’t believe Herder was attacking “Utopia as such.” I think he was attacking a particular French, Utopia, which had come near to achievement: a culturally united Europe, speaking and writing the French language, and accepting the intellectual leadership of the French philosophes. As against that Franco-cosmopolitan Utopia, Herder proposed a new and ominous Utopia of his own: the Utopia of das Volk, based on soil and language.

It is true—and this is the basis of the conception of Herder as anti-Utopian—that Herder’s idea of the apotheosis of das Volk was formally pluralist. Das Volk was not just the German one. Other nations were encouraged to trust in, and develop, their own Volkstum. On the basis of this, several writers have drawn a distinction between the good cultural and ecumenical nationalism of Herder and the nasty political nationalism of later German writers, beginning with Fichte. But there are grounds for skepticism concerning this differentiation. Herder’s cultural nationalism had definite consequences which he must have foreseen. Not only did it tend to weaken French hegemony from the cultural side, but it also laid the cultural basis for eventual German unification. Herder’s ecumenical version of cultural nationalism also had insidious consequences of a political kind. Herder’s ideas were enthusiastically taken up by the various linguistic minorities of the multinational Habsburg empire and worked toward the dissolution of the same. Thus Herder’s teachings tended toward a greater Germany, with a diminution of the authority of the major powers to the East and to the West.

That view of the matter would place Herder as a precursor of the militantly völkisch thinkers of the nineteenth century, and those thinkers themselves generally saw Herder in that light, ignoring the inconvenient aspects of his thought (antimilitarism, anti-Prussianism) for the sake of his supreme merits as the founder of the cult of das Volk. And that cult culminated in the most ghastly of all Utopias.

It is a pleasure to read Isaiah Berlin when in agreement with him. It is, perhaps, an even greater pleasure to disagree with him, in the hope of provoking a response somehow, somewhere.

The third essay in the “Utopian” series, “Giambattista Vico and Cultural History” contains a splendid passage on the writing of history: a passage that ought to be framed and hung up in the lobby of every department of history truly worthy of the name. Vico’s concept of fantasia, crucial to this passage, is defined by Berlin as “imaginative insight.” The passage runs:

Everyone is today aware of the fundamental difference between, on the one hand, those historians who paint portraits of entire societies or groups within them that are rounded and three-dimensional, so that we believe, whether rightly or mistakenly, that we are able to tell what it would have been like to have lived in such conditions, and, on the other, antiquaries, chroniclers, accumulators of facts or statistics on which large generalisations can be founded, learned compilers, or theorists who look on the use of imagination as opening the door to the horrors of guesswork, subjectivism, journalism, or worse.

This all-important distinction rests precisely on the attitude to the faculty that Vico called fantasia, without which the past cannot, in his view, be resurrected. The crucial role he assigns to the imagination must not blind us—and did not blind him—to the necessity for verification; he allows that critical methods of examining evidence are indispensable. Yet without fantasia the past remains dead; to bring it to life we need, at least ideally, to hear men’s voices, to conjecture (on the basis of such evidence as we can gather) what may have been their experience, their forms of expression, their values, outlook, aims, ways of living; without this we cannot grasp whence we came, how we come to be as we are now, not merely physically or biologically and, in a narrow sense, politically and institutionally, but socially, psychologically, morally; without this there can be no genuine self-understanding. We call great historians only those who not only are in full control of the factual evidence obtained by the use of the best critical methods available to them, but also possess the depth of imaginative insight that characterises gifted novelists. Clio, as the English historian G.M. Trevelyan pointed out long ago, is, after all, a muse.

For more than sixty years now, academic historiography has been strongly influenced, and in some areas dominated, by the authority, the outlook, and the methodology of the late Sir Lewis Namier. A.J.P. Taylor said of Namier that he “took the mind out of history.” G.R. Elton, recently in the London Times, described that observation of Taylor’s as “impertinent.” It may, indeed, at least be imprecise. But Vico, through Isaiah Berlin, supplies the mot juste. It can hardly be denied that Namier took the fantasia out of history; Namier’s truculent hostility to anything resembling fantasia is evident in all his scholarly work. And it is surely time to bring back fantasia—with Berlin’s appropriate qualifications—into academic history.

The fourth essay, and last in the “Utopia” series, deals with alleged relativism in eighteenth-century European thought: Berlin defines relativism as “a theory of [or?] ideology according to which the ideas and attitudes of individuals or groups are inescapably determined by varying conditioning factors, say, their place in evolving social structures of their societies, or the relations of production, or genetic, psychological or other causes, or combinations of these.” Thus, in our own time, deconstruction is an application of relativist values. But Berlin, in this chapter, is not concerned with our own time, nor does he refer to deconstruction. He is concerned here with the eighteenth century, whose non-Utopians and anti-Utopians were, in his opinion, pluralists and not relativists:

There is, so far as I can see, no relativism in the best-known attacks on the Enlightenment by reactionary thinkers—Hamann, Justus Möser, Burke, Maistre.

I shall come back to this passage in relation to Burke in the second part of this review. In any case, Berlin makes it clear that he regards himself, in terms of his own definitions and categories, as a pluralist, and not a relativist. So this essay is important, not only for a view of eighteenth-century thinking, but for the insight it affords into Berlin’s own ways of thinking, and how he thinks about them.

The first essay in the part of the book which is more closely concerned with the origins of fascism and nationalism than with the (related) question of Utopia is “Joseph de Maistre and the Origins of Fascism.” This essay, published last autumn in The New York Review,2 is the longest in the book and also the oldest. The editor tells us that it “was put aside in 1960 as needing further revision. However, it was nearly ready for publication, and contained so much of value, that it seemed right to include it here.” Most readers will applaud this decision.

The essay on Joseph de Maistre shows Berlin at work on the writings of a profoundly alien spirit, and concerned to give a fair presentation of doctrines that are deeply repulsive to him. What is perhaps most remarkable about Maistre is that, while he is violently hostile, in principle, to the French Revolution, he has a taste for the Terror. Berlin writes:

What matters is not reason but power. Wherever there is a vacuum, power must sooner or later enter and create a new order out of revolutionary chaos. The Jacobins and Napoleon may be criminals, tyrants, but they wield power, they represent authority, they exact obedience, above all they punish and thereby restrain the centrifugal tendencies of weak and fallible men. Consequently they are a thousand times preferable to the critical intellectuals, the destructive pedlars of ideas who pulverise the social structure and destroy every vital process until some force, however illegal, rises up in response to the claims of history to sweep them out of its way.

All power is from God. Maistre’s interpretation of the celebrated Pauline text is very literal. All force commands respect. All weakness is to be despised, no matter where it is found, even in the acts of an anointed monarch of “the fairest kingdom after the Kingdom of Heaven”—Louis XVI of France. The Jacobins were scoundrels and murderers, but the Terror re-established authority, preserved and extended the frontiers of France, and therefore counts higher in the scale of ultimate values than the liberals and idealists of the Gironde who let power slip from their feeble grasp.

I shall come back to Maistre, in connection with the French Revolution and Edmund Burke.

The title of the next essay, “European Unity and its Vicissitudes,” has become somewhat misleading with the lapse of time since the date of its composition (1959). This essay is not about the varying problems and prospects of the European Community. It is about the relation of Romanticism—and German Romanticism in particular—to nationalism, fascism, and Marxism in Europe. Perhaps the most remarkable passage in this very rich essay is the following, dealing with the leap of Romanticism from art into politics.

The origins of this [Romantic] revolt are well known. The armies of Richelieu and of Louis XIV had crushed and humiliated a large part of the German population, and stifled the natural development of the new culture of the Protestant renaissance in the north. The Germans, a century later, rebelled against the dead hand of France in the realms of culture, art and philosophy, and avenged themselves by launching the great counter-attack against the Enlightenment. It took the form of glorification of the individual, the national and the historical, against the universal and the timeless; of the exaltation of genius, of the unaccountable, of the leap of the spirit that defies all rules and conventions, of the worship of the individual hero, the giant above and beyond the law, and an assault upon the great impersonal order with its unbreakable laws, and its clear assignment of its own place to every human function and group and class and purpose, which had been characteristic of the classical tradition, and had entered deeply into the texture of the western world, both ecclesiastical and secular. Variety in the place of uniformity; inspiration in the place of tried and tested rules or traditions; the inexhaustible and the unbounded in the place of measure, clarity, logical structure; the inner life and its expression in music; worship of the night and the irrational: that was the contribution of the wild German spirit, which broke like a fresh wind into the airless prison of the French Establishment.

This great revolt of the humiliated Germans against the dead and levelling rationalist pedantry of French thought and taste in the mid-eighteenth century had, in its beginnings, a life-giving effect upon art and ideas about art, upon religion, upon personal relationships between human beings, upon individual morality. Then the tidal wave of feeling rose above its blanks, and overflowed into the neighbouring provinces of politics and social life with literally devastating results. All forms of going to the bitter end were thought more worthy of man than peaceful negotiation, stopping half-way; extremism, conflict, war were glorified as such.

Not the least interesting aspect of this important passage is what it leaves out. The passage begins in the mid-seventeenth century and it ends (to judge from other references in the same essay) around 1820. Yet there is no reference either in this passage, or elsewhere in this essay, to the enormous fact—and enormous cultural and political impact throughout Europe in the period under consideration—of the French Revolution. This is a startling omission, in its context, and I shall return to it.

The penultimate essay, “The Apotheosis of the Romantic Will,” deals with essentially the same themes as “European Unity” but the later essay (“Apotheosis” belongs to 1975) tends to be more positive in its view of Romanticism. “Apotheosis” ends with the words:

If some ends recognised as fully human are at the same time ultimate and mutually incompatible, then the idea of a golden age, a perfect society compounded of a synthesis of all the correct solutions to all the central problems of human life, is shown to be incoherent in principle. This is the service rendered by romanticism and in particular the doctrine that forms its heart, namely, that morality is moulded by the will and that ends are created, not discovered. When this movement is justly condemned for the monstrous fallacy that life is, or can be made, a work of art, that the aesthetic model applies to politics, that the political leader is, at his highest, a sublime artist who shapes men according to his creative design, and that this leads to dangerous nonsense in theory and savage brutality in practice, this at least may be set to its credit: that it has permanently shaken the faith in universal, objective truth in matters of conduct, in the possibility of a perfect and harmonious society, wholly free from conflict or injustice or oppression—a goal for which no sacrifice can be too great if men are ever to create Condorcet’s reign of truth, happiness and virtue, bound “by an indissoluble chain”—an ideal for which more human beings have, in our time, sacrificed themselves and others than, perhaps, for any other cause in human history.

I don’t find this contrast altogether convincing. It is true that Utopia, when people attempt to enforce it, turns out to be Moloch. But the apotheosis of the Romantic will also turn out to be Moloch. That apotheosis is indeed a form of Utopia. When “the political leader,” according to the aesthetic model, comes to power as “a sublime artist who shapes men according to his creative design,” then that creative design is that artist’s Utopia. In its specifications, it may be quite unlike the Utopias dreamed of by Enlightenment thinkers, but it is not so unlike those Utopias as they worked out in practice. Enlightened Utopianism and Romantic apotheosis tend toward similar, though distinguishable, horrors in practice: Gulag on one side and Holocaust on the other.

So I wouldn’t be inclined to give the Romantic Apotheosis people too much credit for any damage they may have done to the enlightened Utopians. We need not say “a plague on both their houses,” for the plague has already struck them. We can only hope that it does not return from their remains to strike us. There is some danger of that, from both directions, as the twentieth century draws to an end.

The last essay in this collection is called “The Bent Twig: Or the Rise of Nationalism” (1972). In this essay, Berlin repairs to some extent the large omission in the earlier essay “European Unity.” The “twig” of Germany is here “bent” by the French:

Under the impact of the French revolutionary and Napoleonic invasions, cultural or spiritual autonomy, for which Herder had originally pleaded, turned into embittered and aggressive nationalist self-assertion.

Berlin goes on:

The French dominated the western world, politically, culturally, militarily. The humiliated and defeated Germans, particularly the traditional, religious, economically backward East Prussians, bullied by French officials imported by Frederick the Great, responded, like the bent twig of the poet Schiller’s theory, by lashing back and refusing to accept their alleged inferiority. They discovered in themselves qualities far superior to those of their tormentors. They contrasted their own deep, inner life of the spirit, their own profound humility, their selfless pursuit of true values—simple, noble, sublime—with the rich, worldly, successful, superficial, smooth, heartless, morally empty French.

This mood rose to fever pitch during the national resistance to Napoleon, and was indeed the original exemplar of the reaction of many a backward, exploited, or at any rate patronised society, which, resentful of the apparent inferiority of its status, reacted by turning to real or imaginary triumphs and glories in its past, or enviable attributes of its own national or cultural character. Those who cannot boast of great political, military or economic achievements, or a magnificent tradition of art or thought, seek comfort and strength in the notion of the free and creative life of the spirit within them, uncorrupted by the vices of power or sophistication.

This is well said; one can even see how Berlin was led to leave out the French Revolution in the earlier retrospect. For he rightly sees German humiliation at the hands of the French not as something caused by the French Revolution and Napoleon, but as something already established for over a century before the fall of the Bastille. All the same, the earlier vague sense of humiliation was transformed by the French Revolution, and especially by Napoleon’s victory over Prussia, into something far more dynamic and dangerous.

Berlin is rather charitable toward the early proponents of militant German nationalism, after Napoleon’s defeat of Prussia at Jena (1807):

Even the fanatical early chauvinists—the Jahns, the Arndts, the Goerreses, and indeed Fichte, who is in part responsible for this mood, with his paeans to the un-contaminated German language as a vehicle for the uniquely liberating German mission in the world—even they did not consciously view nationalism as the dominant force in the future of Europe, still less of mankind. They were merely struggling to liberate their nations from disabling dynastic or foreign or sceptical influences. Jahn and Arndt and Körner are German chauvinists, but they are not theorists of nationalism as such, still less prophets of its universal sway; inferior nations, indeed, are not entitled to it.

I am not quite happy with the use of “nationalism” in that passage. The usage here suggests that nationalism is primarily a theory; for nationalism—as feeling—the pejorative term “chauvinism” is reserved. This usage probably comes naturally, within the domain of the history of ideas, with its inbuilt emphasis on theory. But in the world of ordinary discourse, the word “nationalism”—almost always with a national prefix, French or German nationalism, etc.—usually refers to a state of feeling. And it is also nationalism, as a state of feeling, that has molded so much of modern history, especially its wars and massacres. As against that, “theorists of nationalism as such” are extremely rare birds. The outstanding example is Herder, and Berlin here is showing that Herder, as a theoretician of general nationalism, had no disciples in Germany. I don’t think Herder had real disciples anywhere (nor would I take his theories at face value; see above).

The only other case I can think of where nationalism-as-theory exerted a significant influence on history is the case of South Africa in the present century. In 1936, a group of Afrikaner nationalist ideologues—Dr. N. Diederichs, Dr. P.J. Meyer, and Dr. A. Cronje—worked out a general nationalist program for South Africa. Not merely would the Afrikaner volk3 have its own land, but so would every other volk in all South Africa, and every other volk would be encouraged to be as proud of its own identity and traditions as the Afrikaner volk already was. This benevolent conception, when put into practice twelve years later, became known to the world as apartheid.

In the South African case nationalism-as-theory was a facade: the reality was Afrikaner nationalism, as a driving feeling. And I don’t think the case of Herder was all that different.

Berlin does not, however, consistently use “nationalism” with reference to theory. He often uses it in the ordinary way. The last paragraph of “The Bent Twig”—which is also the last paragraph of The Crooked Timber—contains a most illuminating reference to the driving force of populist nationalism:

In fact, nationalism does not necessarily and exclusively militate in favour of the ruling class. It animates revolts against it too, for it expresses the inflamed desire of the insufficiently regarded to count for something among the cultures of the world.


I agree fully with Isaiah Berlin’s anti-Utopian position: that is, with his contention that the belief that a Utopia can be constructed on earth, combined with the urge to bring about its construction, has resulted in practice in a colossal multiplication of human misery. But I should like to pursue this argument into a domain that Berlin does not explore in this collection of essays. That domain is the French Revolution, considered as the first major effort to construct a secular Utopia, and the model for all subsequent efforts of this kind.

All revolutions in Europe, before the French one, were either not secular or not Utopian. Early Utopias were theocratic in concept, like Thomas Münzer’s regime in Munster in the early sixteenth century. The first English revolution, that of the mid-seventeenth century, was also theocratic, in its Utopian aspects: the Rule of the Saints. The second English revolution, of 1688, known to its heirs as the Glorious Revolution, was not Utopian at all, but deliberately limited, pragmatic, and pluralist. The double objective was to end the arbitrary and Romanist rule of James II, without reviving the theocratic Utopia of the Rule of the Saints.

The American Revolution began out of quite limited grievances and objectives, and certainly without any Utopian agenda. As soon as definite revolutionary purpose emerged, the model was England’s Glorious Revolution, with George III cast in the role of James II. It is true that the American Revolution, unlike the Glorious one, had millenarian overtones. The words Incipit Novus Ordo Seclorum on the Great Seal, as adopted by the Continental Congress, might be taken as indicating some form of Utopian design, but this would be misleading. The choice by the Founding Fathers of these words from Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue—which European Christendom had held to be sacred prophecy—was essentially a claim to divine approval: a new chapter was opening in God’s dispensation for the world. The idea that human hands should radically transform the structure of American society, as that structure stood in 1782, was entirely absent.

The Glorious Revolution was essentially a dynastic and sectarian adjustment. The American Revolution was essentially the secession of colonists from an empire. The first real full-blooded secular revolution, the first large and determined attempt to construct a secular Utopia, after a wholesale destruction of existing arrangements—together with those people who were seen to represent and defend these arrangements, was the French Revolution.

Throughout the nineteenth century, and up to the Russian Revolution, the French Revolution was seen, by revolutionaries everywhere, not exactly as a model, but as a measure of what had to be surpassed or—as far as the French were concerned—completed. The French Revolution had been betrayed: by the Thermidorians, by Bonaparte, or—as Michelet believed—by priests and women. Next time, there must be no betrayal. In the meantime, the French Revolution remained as the great demonstration that it was indeed possible for people with ideas to seize power and put their ideas into practice. It was thus the license, the model, and the comfort of Utopians of every description.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Marxists were the most obvious heirs of the French Revolution, in the sense that their proletarian revolution was destined to surpass that bourgeois one. Bourgeois though it was, the Marxists loved it, especially in its bloodiest phase. It is said that Lenin and his followers, returning from exile in 1917, sang the “Marseillaise” as they crossed the frontier into Russia. In France itself, the Communist party long held the allegiance of the working class, through its claim to be the party which was the true heir to the French Revolution, and destined to complete and perfect its work.

That the left and the Marxists in particular were heirs to the French Revolution, in the sense described above, is generally accepted. What is not so obvious is that right-wing revolutionaries were also its heirs. Whatever your radical program might be, and however widely it might be at variance with the programs of any of the French revolutionaries, the French Revolution still demonstrated that it was possible to seize power and put ideas into effect. The exact nature of the ideas was less important than the demonstration of the possibility.

Isaiah Berlin points out—in “A Bent Twig”—that nationalism was not a monopoly of the right in Germany. Nor was the heritage of the French Revolution a monopoly of the left. The revolutionary proceedings in Germany in 1848 were profoundly ambiguous. The desire to make a German revolution that would be bigger than the French one was patently there, and also the desire to achieve a united Germany. But what would this revolutionary united Germany be like? We can find some clue to that in the contemporary writing of Richard Wagner. Wagner’s revolutionary enthusiasm, in the relevant period, is beyond all doubt. In The Revolution (1849) Wagner wrote:

The Revolution, redeemer and creator of a new world blessing…I, the Revolution, am the ever-rejuvenating, ever-fashioning Life….For I am Revolution, I am the ever-fashioning Life, I am the only God…. The incarnated Revolution, the God become Man…proclaiming to all the world the new Gospel of Happiness.

At the time when Wagner wrote that, the only Revolution actually achieved that could possibly arouse feelings of that order was the French one. So it seems clear that he, like the 1848 revolutionaries in general, desired a German revolution that would be as spectacular as the French one, but would transcend it. The passage quoted contains, of course, no clue at all to the actual content of the redeeming revolution. But one clue is contained in another work of Wagner’s of the same year: Das Judentum in der Musik (1849). This is the first major anti-Semitic tract of a secular and racist type. Nor was Wagner unusual, among German revolutionaries of the time (often misleadingly designated as “liberal”). Paul Lawrence Rose has amply demonstrated the anti-Semitic and racist character of the German revolutionary tradition in the nineteenth century in his recent pioneering study, Revolutionary Anti-Semitism in Germany from Kant to Wagner.4 The German revolution was already marked out to be völkisch: that is, both nationalist and racist. The Nazi revolution—for it was one—had its roots in the völkisch tradition. As Heinrich Heine had written in 1820, “A drama will be enacted in Germany in comparison with which the French Revolution will appear a harmless idyll.”

For the German revolutionary tradition in the nineteenth century, the Enlightenment component in the rhetoric of the French Revolution remained largely alien. The relevance of the Revolution consisted in that spectacular demonstration of possibility. After 1917, that demonstration was no longer directly relevant. The Russian Revolution offered a far more exciting demonstration that revolution was possible in the twentieth century. But the second demonstration owed quite a lot to the first.

My contention that the völkisch revolutionary tradition was encouraged by the recollection of the French Revolution is open to argument. The place of the French Revolution in the Marxist tradition is not.

What I find surprising in The Crooked Timber is that the idea of the French Revolution as Utopia does not get explored. For surely the French Revolution deserves consideration as the first major realization of a Utopian project: the construction of a perfect society, owing nothing to the past. Isaiah Berlin rightly identifies the destructive potential of Utopia, but he seems to confine it to Marxism and to twentieth-century revolutions. Except for Berlin’s account of Maistre’s reaction to it, the great precursor gets left out.

I can only guess at the reasons for so large an omission. I have three guesses. The first concerns the nature of the “history of ideas” tradition. The historian of ideas generally scrutinizes the writings of important thinkers. He often scrutinizes them with major historical events in mind, and the possible bearing on those events of the ideas he is scrutinizing. But he does not scrutinize the events themselves, though he makes occasional reference to them. In this sense, the history of ideas is rather like classical tragedy; the rough stuff goes on off stage.

Still, I don’t think this hypothesis altogether explains the omission, from a discussion of Utopia, of the first example of realized Utopia. My second guess is that Isaiah Berlin may find the theme of the French Revolution intrinsically uncongenial. The French Revolution looks after all like a case of Enlightenment culminating in Terror. Isaiah Berlin, as a true child of the Enlightenment, might well find that a painful paradox. Yet the victims of the Terror—and the far more numerous victims of the wars of French territorial expansion, beginning with the Revolution—were victims, not of Enlightenment but of one of its enemies: nationalism.

What the Enlightenment did was to create an emotional vacuum, which was filled by nationalism. The French nation took the place of God. The king’s head was cut off to cries of Vive la Nation! The insistence of La Grand Nation on dominating all other European nations plunged Europe into war for almost a quarter of a century. For all that, the Enlightenment had only an indirect responsibility. Yet the responsibility, though indirect, was real, through the creation of that cosmic emotional vacuum. That painful paradox recedes, but will not altogether go away.

My third guess is probably the nearest to the mark. This is that Isaiah Berlin thinks the French Revolution was in some basic sense a liberating event, and so not to be placed in the category of destructive Utopias, along with the Communist revolutions of the twentieth century. This view of the matter is indicated by Berlin’s inclusion(in a passage quoted above on page 55) of Edmund Burke in a list of “reactionary” thinkers, along with Hamann, Möser, and Maistre: a galley on which Burke would never have voluntarily embarked. And the only reason why Burke could possibly be classified as “reactionary” is his strong and consistent opposition to the French Revolution.

In reality, Burke was no more a reactionary than Isaiah Berlin is. He was a liberal and pluralist opponent of the French Revolution. Philippe Raynaud in his excellent preface to the most recent French translation of Reflections on the Revolution in France5 precisely defines Burke’s position when he describes him as “liberal and counter-revolutionary.” The French Revolution was abundantly productive of liberal documents and liberal speeches, but its transactions were not in accord with those documents and speeches. The Declaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen is no better a guide to the realities of the French Revolution than Stalin’s Constitution of 1936 was a guide to the realities of life in the Soviet Union. Similarly Burke, in attacking the French Revolution and its would-be imitators in Britain, was no more reactionary than was George Orwell when he attacked the Russian Revolution and its would-be imitators in Britain. And Orwell, too, was classified as a reactionary by the friends of the revolution which he attacked.

Burke perceived and attacked what a later age would call the totalitarian tendencies in the French Revolution, and he discerned these tendencies from very early on, years before the Terror. He is a pluralist, a defender of diversity against the claims of revolutionary absolutism, as appears from the following sentence in the third of the Letters on a Regicide Peace:

All the little quiet rivulets, that watered an humble, a contracted, but not an unfruitful field, are to be lost in the waste expanse and boundless, barren ocean of the homicide philanthropy of France.

Nor did Burke, as Berlin suggests in the same passage, deliver any “attacks on the Enlightenment” as a whole. Burke was himself a child of the Enlightenment, in its earlier phases and forms: the Enlightenment of Locke and Montesquieu. He did attack that branch of the Enlightenment—the Enlightenment of Voltaire and the Encyclopedists—that was hostile to Christianity and to the whole Judeo-Christian tradition. Burke’s Enlightenment was ecumenical.

I am sorry that Isaiah Berlin should have included Burke in that list of reactionaries, for Burke and Berlin are in reality kindred spirits. Berlin, indeed, seems to realize this when, in his essay on Maistre, he develops a perceptive contrast between Burke and the real reactionary that Maistre was. I think, on consideration, Berlin might be prepared to take Burke out of that list.

My observations above on the French Revolution have the limited purpose of showing that that revolution belongs in the category of attempted Utopias culminating in Terror. The French Revolution was much more shortlived, in terms of the durability of the regime which it established, than the Russian and Chinese Revolutions have been. In the French case the attempt at Utopia ended, with the end of the Terror in which it had culminated, in July 1794, with the fall of Robespierre’s “Republic of Virtue” just five years after the fall of the Bastille. In the year after the fall of Robespierre, the Thermidorian “Constitution of the Year III” signaled the abandonment of Utopia by substituting for “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” the word “liberty, equality, security, and property.” And in the year after that General Bonaparte introduced a new and more dynamic formula when he promised the hungry soldiers of his army of Italy “honor, glory, and riches.” Napoleon’s Empire was to continue the military expansionism of its revolutionary predecessors, and also their practice of systematically looting the countries they claimed to be liberating.

Undoubtedly the Revolution brought considerable benefits to large groups of French people; the most conspicuous winners, and the most faithful defenders of the revolutionary gains, being those who acquired les biens nationaux: the lands and other property confiscated from the Catholic Church. The fall of the same Church was accompanied by citizenship for Protestants and Jews. The bourgeoisie benefited, principally by an enhancement of its status, through the fall of the nobility. Many peasants gained, but some were among the greatest losers of all. The war waged by the Convention against the refractory peasantry of La Vendée was ferocious to the verge of genocide. Finally, among the benefits conferred by the French Revolution, we must include much of the legislation passed by the Convention, and embodied by the Emperor Napoleon in the Code Civil.

Many people, in retrospect, think of the benefits of the French Revolution as outweighing their “cost,” often counted as comprising only the decapitation of a couple of thousand persons in Paris. If we add those more informally despatched en masse in the provinces, including La Vendée, the death toll rises far higher although the exact numbers will never be known. If we add in the deaths which were a result of French military aggrandizement—which began under the Revolution and continued under Napoleon—the cost was enormous in human terms.

That people think of the French Revolution more sympathetically than they do of the Russian one is largely due to the fact that the French attempt to achieve Utopia was of far shorter duration than the Russian one. Suppose, on the one hand, that the Russian revolution had found its Thermidor in 1922. We would be likely today to be talking about the benefits that revolution brought to the peasantry. Suppose, on the other hand, that, in July of 1794, it was the Thermidorians who lost, and Robespierre and his friends who won. That might easily have happened. It may be that the determining factor was an accident: the wound to Robespierre’s jaw that silenced the voice that had held all political France in mortal fear since the death of the king in January 1793. If the Thermidorians had lost, the Republic of Virtue would have continued in being, with institutionalized Terror as its standing resource.

My point is that it is wrong, in terms of Isaiah Berlin’s own anti-Utopian value scheme to treat an opponent of the first attempt to realize Utopia—the French one—as being ipso facto a reactionary.

I have been exploring an omission, and the omission is sufficiently capacious to invite such an exploration. But in concluding, I wish to stress the riches actually contained in the essays that make up The Crooked Timber. Though I have quoted abundantly, the quotations, being selected to illustrate a theme, don’t fully bring out the flavor of the text as a whole. One of the delights of reading Isaiah Berlin is furnished by the asides; the little nuggets which his sense of humor leads him to pick up, for our delectation, out of the field of his voluminous and varied reading. I shall conclude with two of these nuggests. The first is from Metternich, the master of the unenthusiastic: “If I had a brother, I would call him cousin.” The second is from Faguet, parodying Rousseau’s “Man is born free, but everywhere is found enslaved and in chains.” Faguet offers a parallel observation about sheep:

Dire: les moutons sont nés carnivores, et partout ils mangent de I’herbe, serait aussi juste.

(It would be equally correct to say that sheep are born carnivorous and everywhere eat grass.)

As a confirmed Rousseau-basher myself, I have to acknowledge that this remark of Faguet’s is the neatest deflation of Rousseau ever achieved. I am grateful to Isaiah Berlin for that discovery, as for much else.


Error Felix December 5, 1991

  1. 1

    Immanuel Kant, “Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürgerlicher Absicht” (1784), Kant’s gesammelte Schriften (Berlin, 1910), vol. 8.

  2. 2

    september 27, October 11, and October 25, 1990.

  3. 3

    In Afrikaans, unlike German, the world volk has a lower-case initial. But the word has the same emotional resonance, for nationalists, in both languages.

  4. 4

    Princeton University Press, 1990.

  5. 5

    Réflexions sur la révolution de France (Paris: Hachette, 1989).