Notes on Prejudice

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Isaiah Berlin liked to allude to a passage in Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy where Russell says that, if we are to understand a philosopher’s views, we must “apprehend their imaginative background,” The character of one of the main rooms in Berlin’s own citadel is vividly expressed in some hurried notes Berlin wrote for a friend (who does not wish to be identified) in 1981. His friend was due to give a lecture, and wrote to Berlin to ask for suggestions about how he might treat his theme. Berlin had to go abroad early on the day after he received the request, and wrote the notes quickly, in his own hand, without time for revision or expansion. The result is somewhat breathless and telegraphic, no doubt, but it conveys with great immediacy Berlin’s opposition to intolerance and prejudice, especially fanatical monism, stereotypes, and aggressive nationalism. Its relevance to the events of September 11, 2001, hardly needs stressing.

Berlin’s manuscript is reproduced here in a direct transcript, with only a few adjustments to make it easier to read. I have omitted material relevant only to the specific occasion.

—Henry Hardy

Few things have done more harm than the belief on the part of individuals or groups (or tribes or states or nations or churches) that he or she or they are in sole possession of the truth: especially about how to live, what to be & do—& that those who differ from them are not merely mistaken, but wicked or mad: & need restraining or suppressing. It is a terrible and dangerous arrogance to believe that you alone are right: have a magical eye which sees the truth: & that others cannot be right if they disagree.

This makes one certain that there is one goal & one only for one’s nation or church or the whole of humanity, & that it is worth any amount of suffering (particularly on the part of other people) if only the goal is attained—“through an ocean of blood to the Kingdom of Love” (or something like this) said Robespierre: & Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, & I daresay leaders in the religious wars of Christian v. Moslem or Catholics v. Protestants sincerely believed this: the belief that there is one & only one true answer to the central questions which have agonized mankind & that one has it oneself—or one’s leader has it—was responsible for the oceans of blood: but no Kingdom of Love sprang from it—or could: there are many ways of living, believing, behaving: mere knowledge provided by history, anthropology, literature, art, law makes clear that the differences of cultures & characters are as deep as the similarities (which make men human) & that we are none the poorer for this rich variety: knowledge of it opens the windows of the mind (and soul) and makes people wiser, nicer, & more civilized: absence of it breeds irrational prejudice, hatreds, ghastly extermination …

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