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 The quotation does not appear in Collingwood’s published writings, but among his unpublished papers there is a lecture on the philosophy of history, dating from 1929, in which the following rendering appears: “Out of the cross-grained timber of human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.
Immanuel Kant, "Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürgerlicher Absicht" (1784), Kant's gesammelte Schriften (Berlin, 1910), vol. 8.↩
Immanuel Kant, “Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürgerlicher Absicht” (1784), Kant’s gesammelte Schriften (Berlin, 1910), vol. 8.↩