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The Case for Decency

Unfinished Dialogue

by Isaiah Berlin and Beata Polanowska-Sygulska, with a foreword by Henry Hardy
Prometheus, 317 pp., $28.00

Russia, Poland and Marxism: Isaiah Berlin to Andrzej Walicki, 1962–1996

in Dialogue and Universalism, Vol. 15, No. 9–10, 2005.Warsaw University Press, 196 pp., $5.00


Western political thinking between the end of the Second World War and the collapse of communism was shaped by the experience of totalitarianism. The rise of National Socialism and Stalinism produced a sense of the fragility of liberal civilization that persisted after the Nazi regime had been destroyed and Soviet power contained. The question that troubled many was how liberal values could have collapsed so precipitately and completely in much of Europe, while Communist regimes that claimed to embody Enlightenment values repressed freedom on an unprecedented scale. It was clear that if the disasters of the twentieth century were not to be repeated, the intellectual roots of totalitarianism had to be uncovered and destroyed, even if this meant relinquishing some cherished Western beliefs.

Among those who took up this challenge Isaiah Berlin occupies a highly distinctive place. On both the right and the left there have been many who have dismissed Berlin as a thinker whose ideas are irretrievably dated, and in recent years it has become fashionable to question the idea that the twentieth century witnessed the rise of a new, totalitarian type of dictatorship. For his part Berlin never doubted the reality of totalitarianism. Given the background of his life he could hardly have done so. Born in Riga in 1909, Berlin was part of the generation of European Jews that experienced the twentieth century at its most destructive and horrific. When he was six his family moved to Petrograd, where in 1917 he witnessed the liberal revolution in February and the Bolshevik seizure of power in November. In 1921 his family moved to England and he was educated at Oxford, where he obtained his first academic post. Apart from his years abroad during World War II he remained in Oxford for the rest of his life.

In 1941, after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the Nazis murdered both his grandfathers and several other family members. During World War II, Berlin worked for the British government, first in New York and Washington and then for a time in Moscow. When in Russia, he came into contact with Anna Akhmatova and other members of the Russian intelligentsia who lived in an environment where intellectual and personal freedom had been almost wholly eclipsed. The events of these years had a formative influence on the work in political theory and the history of ideas he did after resuming his academic life in Oxford after the war. In conversation Berlin used to observe that in its mass murders the twentieth century was the worst in history, and to an extent that has not been appreciated the view of liberty and ethical pluralism that he developed in the 1950s was an attempt to undermine the beliefs that helped engender the crimes of totalitarianism.

Those who argue that Berlin’s thought was shaped by the history of the last century are not mistaken, but in dismissing it as dated they neglect the larger historical perspectives that informed it and miss its continuing power. Berlin posed a formidable challenge not only to totalitarian ideologies but also to recent varieties of liberalism. At times Berlin seemed—to use a distinction he borrowed from the ancient Greek poet Archilochus to interpret Tolstoy in a celebrated lecture—more like the fox that knows many things than the hedgehog that knows one big thing. Both as a thinker and as a man Berlin had many facets; he refused to tether himself to any simple formula for dealing with human affairs. Yet if there is a single idea that links together his surprisingly voluminous writings on Mill and Machiavelli, Herder and de Maistre, Vico and Herzen and many lesser-known thinkers, and which gives his defense of liberalism its distinctive character, it is his thesis of the plurality of values.

Berlin was never a very systematic thinker, and he nowhere stated his theory of value pluralism in anything like complete or canonical form. Several versions of it are presented in his writings; but common to them is a consistent rejection of the idea—which Berlin rightly viewed as being fundamental in the Western intellectual tradition—that all genuine human values must be combinable in a harmonious whole. In this view conflicts of values are symptoms of error that in principle can always be resolved: if human values seem to come into conflict that is only because our understanding of them is imperfect, or some of the contending values are spurious; and where such conflicts appear there is a single right answer that—if only they can find it—all reasonable people are bound to accept. In opposition to this view Berlin maintained that conflicts of values are real and inescapable, with some of them having no satisfactory solution. He advanced this view not as a form of skepticism but as a universal truth: conflicts of value go with being human. Inklings of this pluralist viewpoint can be detected in some of Berlin’s pre-war writings on analytical philosophy, but it was only after the war that he stated it clearly and applied it to the pathologies of twentieth-century politics.

Political Ideas in the Romantic Ageis the longest text Isaiah Berlin ever produced. Written between 1950 and 1952, much revised, and then set aside and seemingly forgotten, it is described by Henry Hardy—the dedicated editor and literary trustee who in thirty years of scholarly labors has rescued so many of Berlin’s surprisingly voluminous writings from undeserved oblivion—as the “Grundrisse, the ur-text or ‘torso,’ as Berlin called it, from which a great deal of his subsequent work derived.” Indispensable for anyone interested in the history of ideas and the development of liberal thought, it contains most of the central themes of Berlin’s work, together with some of its recurring ambiguities. In a characteristic passage Berlin attacks the Enlightenment belief that a condition of society is in principle attainable in which all values that are truly important can be fully realized. In a wide range of Enlightenment thinkers, he writes,

we find the same common assumption: that the answers to all the great questions must of necessity agree with one another; for they must correspond with reality, and reality is a harmonious whole. If this were not so, there is chaos at the heart of things: which is unthinkable. Liberty, equality, property, knowledge, security, practical wisdom, purity of character, sincerity, kindness, rational self-love, all these ideals…cannot (if they are truly desirable) conflict with one another; if they appear to do so it must be due to some misunderstanding of their properties. No truly good thing can ever be finally incompatible with any other; indeed they virtually entail one another: men cannot be wise unless they are free, or free unless they are just, happy and so forth.

Here we conspicuously abandon the voice of experience—which records very obvious conflicts of ultimate ideals—and encounter a doctrine that stems from older theological roots—from the belief that unless all the positive virtues are harmonious with one another, or at least not incompatible, the notion of the Perfect Entity—whether it be called nature or God or Ultimate Reality—is not conceivable.

This passage encapsulates Berlin’s analysis of the intellectual roots of some of the major political disasters of the twentieth century: the role in the Enlightenment of a utopian ideal of social harmony; the derivation of this ideal from older metaphysical and religious beliefs that have a long history in Western thought; and the claim that in refusing to accept the testimony of experience, with its message of irresolvable conflict among human ideals, the Enlightenment propagated a monistic philosophy that opened the way to new forms of tyranny. Berlin’s broad-brush picture leaves out Enlightenment thinkers such as David Hume who emphasize the limited role of reason and understates the extent to which Adam Smith and others acknowledged human imperfectability. Even so Berlin was right in thinking that a major strand of Enlightenment thinking featured a belief in attainable harmony that had no basis in experience. The belief that conflicts of values can be left behind in a new type of society, to which many Enlightenment thinkers have subscribed, is not a product of observation or scientific inquiry; it is a relic of faith. These thinkers may have imagined that they embodied the voice of reason, but they were in fact believers in an idea of perfection inherited from religion.

In one facet of his work, Berlin, then, was a critic of the Enlightenment—but not an enemy. He does not belong among the thinkers of what he called the Counter-Enlightenment—thinkers such as J.G. Hamann and Joseph de Maistre, who were virulently hostile to the Enlightenment’s core beliefs in freedom, equality, and the value of rational inquiry. Berlin shared these Enlightenment beliefs; but he found in some of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers a monism he viewed as dangerously mistaken, and in this he was influenced by some of the Enlightenment’s Romantic critics. In a seminal essay he praised the Romantic movement for having “permanently shaken the faith in universal, objective truth in matters of conduct,” and described the Enlightenment faith in future harmony as “an ideal for which more human beings have, in our time, sacrificed themselves and others than, perhaps, for any other cause in human history.”1

It is a strong claim, and it is questionable whether it applies to all forms of twentieth-century totalitarianism. It was not any faith in human harmony that fueled Nazi ideology. Nevertheless Berlin highlights an aspect of twentieth-century history that is often forgotten, or else stridently denied. The repression of liberty that took place in the countries in which Communist regimes were established cannot be adequately explained as a product of backwardness, or of errors in the application of Marxian theory. It was the result of a resolute attempt to realize an Enlightenment utopia—a condition of society in which no serious form of conflict any longer exists.2

While Berlin’s analysis of the dangers of monism is acute and forceful, he never developed a fully convincing account of value pluralism. He based his version of pluralism on a view of human nature, which is set out in a passage cited by Joshua Cherniss in his admirably lucid and well-balanced introduction:

Man is incapable of self-completion, and therefore never wholly predictable; fallible, a complex combination of opposites, some reconcilable, others incapable of being resolved or harmonised; unable to cease from his search for truth, happiness, novelty, freedom, but with no guarantee…of being able to attain them.

Berlin presented this formulation as an account of the picture of human nature held by John Stuart Mill, but as with many of his interpretations of past thinkers it could just as well be a statement of his own view. Like Mill, Berlin was much influenced by the Romantic belief that humans do not owe their values to God or Nature, but freely create them. Again like Mill he rejected the ultra-Romantic notion that humans invent themselves out of nothing and can be anything they choose to be. Berlin also rejected the postmodern and relativist view that human values are highly elastic cultural constructions. He insisted that basic human needs and potentialities do not vary much across cultures and repeatedly affirmed the desirability of something like a universal moral minimum. He was a convinced exponent of universal human values, whose distinctive contribution was to acknowledge that these values could be at odds with one another. Unfortunately he never spelled out which values are truly universal and which culturally specific, and this leaves his account of value pluralism and its relations with liberalism precarious and unstable.

  1. 1

    The Apotheosis of the Romantic Will,” in The Proper Study of Mankind, edited by Henry Hardy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), p. 580.

  2. 2

    Berlin examines the roots of utopianism in “The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West,” in The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas (Knopf, 1991), pp. 20–48.

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