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On Isaiah Berlin: Explorer

Dominique Nabokov
Isaiah Berlin, Oxford, 1969


Sir Isaiah Berlin is not a recondite writer. Rather, he is eminently useful in understanding the kinds of moral conundrums that regularly perplex anyone too sensible to be an ideologue. No one surpasses Berlin as a guide through the tangled terrain of the twenty-first century.

He is unusual among great philosophers because he denied that he was one. Early in his career he had a life- altering conversation with a Harvard logician, H.M. Sheffer, who argued that philosophers bat around the same ideas for millennia and don’t actually add much to the sum of human knowledge. The argument rang true for Berlin. It was that lack of progress, he told me and others—mournfully and perhaps wistfully—that led him to move away from philosophy to become a historian of ideas.

Berlin was a masterful historian and critic. He is widely known today for his brilliant essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” explicating the deep contradictions in Tolstoy’s genius, and he also breathed new life into many other great thinkers, from Machiavelli to Alexander Herzen. In particular, Berlin liked to explore the dark side—those philosophers who challenged the assumptions of the Enlightenment and, in some cases, laid the groundwork for modern totalitarian impulses.

Many people also remember Berlin for his wit, charm, and acute insights into famous people. Sir Winston Churchill, dazzled by his effervescent writings from Washington—where he worked at the British embassy during the war—wanted to meet him but mistakenly invited Irving Berlin to lunch instead, leading to mutual puzzlement when the discussion came around to Berlin’s work. A new book of his letters has just been published, and they are so lively and occasionally pointed that they have generated a literary tempest in Britain.1

Then there was Berlin’s generosity, often directed toward young people. When I was a law student at Oxford, inevitably bored by contracts and conveyances, I sought him out. He was one of Europe’s most eminent scholars, yet made time for me and my friends and cheerfully talked to us about the questions we raised. As Leon Wieseltier once wrote, he made readers appreciate “the charisma of the intellect.”

Yet on the one-hundredth anniversary of Berlin’s birth (he died in 1997), it seems to me that his greatest legacy lies in his contributions to the field he claimed to have abandoned, philosophy. In fact, of course, his renunciation was a false claim. As Bernard Williams, himself a great British philosopher, is recorded as saying in a new one-hundredth-anniversary tribute, The Book of Isaiah: “I do not think he ever did leave philosophy. He merely left what he took philosophy to be.”2 When Berlin was coming of age, philosophy was, for the most part, considered respectable only if it dealt analytically with abstract questions, and he was too absorbed by politics and humanity’s tribulations to spend his life in a corner of academia. So he abandoned philosophy as it was then practiced while continuing to explore the eminently practical question of how we should reach moral judgments and make policy. He is my intellectual hero, and I find no thinker so useful in wrestling with the moral obligations of twenty-first-century life.

What exactly is Berlin’s legacy in philosophy? To me, it is his emphasis on the “pluralism of values,” a concept that suggests a nonideological, pragmatic way of navigating an untidy world.

Berlin uses the phrase “pluralism of values” in his great 1958 essay, originally an inaugural lecture at Oxford, “Two Concepts of Liberty.” In it, he drew the distinction between “negative liberty,” such as freedom from impediments and restrictions (the kind of freedom found in the Bill of Rights), and “positive liberty,” such as the fostering of a person’s potential (a kind promised in its most extreme and deceptive form by Communist regimes). Berlin recognized the need for both kinds of liberty while insisting that deprivation of negative liberty must be clearly recognized as such. But mostly the essay gave a stark warning against grand, overarching systems in which everything fits together a bit too neatly. Berlin is skeptical of anyone who seems too focused on a single truth or a single paramount value. As his friend and All Souls colleague the late Gerry Cohen put it:

He was entirely hostile to total State control, he thought the idea of socialist planning was an illusion, but he was passionately against Thatcherism and the unrestricted role of the free market. He knew that it destroyed people’s lives.

There seems a deep human tendency to seek one true answer, to search for the ethical equivalent of a Unified Field Theory. For Kant, there is the categorical imperative; for the utilitarians there is happiness. “Monism, and faith in a single criterion, has always proved a deep source of satisfaction both to the intellect and to the emotions,” Berlin notes, but he warns against it. And then he concludes “Two Concepts” with one of the most elegant passages I know of in the literature of ideas:

It may be that the ideal of freedom to choose ends without claiming eternal validity for them, and the pluralism of values connected with this, is only the late fruit of our declining capitalist civilization: an ideal which remote ages and primitive societies have not recognized, and one which posterity will regard with curiosity, even sympathy, but little comprehension. This may be so; but no skeptical conclusions seem to me to follow. Principles are not less sacred because their duration cannot be guaranteed.

Indeed, the very desire for guarantees that our values are eternal and secure in some objective heaven is perhaps only a craving for the certainties of childhood or the absolute values of our primitive past. “To realize the relative validity of one’s convictions,” said an admirable writer of our time [Joseph Schumpeter], “and yet stand for them unflinchingly is what distinguishes a civilized man from a barbarian.” To demand more than this is perhaps a deep and incurable metaphysical need; but to allow it to determine one’s practice is a symptom of an equally deep, and more dangerous, moral and political immaturity.

That passage always takes my breath away. Partly that’s because it recalls the judgment of William Butler Yeats: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” We all have seen examples of smart, knowledgeable people so crippled by nuance and tolerance that they make excuses for what is wrong and become ineffective as agents for change. Berlin argued that one must acknowledge the possibility that one is wrong, that one must recognize the complexities of a situation—without letting appreciation of nuance emasculate one’s capacity to make strong moral judgments.

I am not a relativist,” he noted in “The Power of Ideas.” “I do not say ‘I like my coffee with milk and you like it without; I am in favor of kindness and you prefer concentration camps.’” Finding the boundary between what can be tolerated with gritted teeth and what is morally intolerable may not be easy, but that does not mean that such a boundary does not exist.

Berlin continued to explore these ideas for the rest of his life, and they echo in his work even when the ostensible topic is something quite different. In an essay called “My Intellectual Path,” he wrote of how so many great minds had assumed that there are clear answers waiting to be found:

This is a philosophia perennis—what men, thinkers, have believed from the pre-Socratics to all the reformers and revolutionaries of our own age. It is the central belief on which human thought has rested for two millennia…. There must somewhere be a true answer to the deepest questions that preoccupy mankind.

I do not know why I always felt skeptical about this almost universal belief, but I did.

Berlin’s doubt about grand Utopian schemes of thought may perhaps owe something to his Eastern European and Jewish heritage. He was born in Riga, Latvia, in 1909, left for St. Petersburg when he was six years old, witnessed some of the violence of the Bolshevik Revolution, emigrated to England with his family in 1921, and there attended St. Paul’s School and Oxford. The relatives who remained in Riga were massacred in the Holocaust. Berlin had a disgust for totalitarianism of any kind. As he put it:

Most revolutionaries believe, covertly or overtly, that in order to create the ideal world eggs must be broken, otherwise one cannot obtain the omelette. Eggs are certainly broken—never more violently or ubiquitously than in our times—but the omelette is far to seek, it recedes into an infinite distance. That is one of the corollaries of unbridled monism, as I call it—some call it fanaticism, but monism is at the root of every extremism.

Berlin summed up many of his ideas on pluralism of values in his 1990 book The Crooked Timber of Humanity. The title comes from one of his favorite quotations, by Kant, that “out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.” This belief that humans are by nature knotty and cross-grained added to his doubt about grand solutions and led him instead to favor more tentative, ad hoc approaches. In China, after the failed Utopianism of Chairman Mao, Deng Xiaoping used to describe his policy as mozhe shitou guo he, which roughly translates as fording a river by feeling for the stones with your feet. That is an image that Berlin would have approved of.

Indeed, this approach is also in accord with much great literature and with what Berlin saw as the fox-like aspect of Tolstoy’s genius, even though Tolstoy himself, as Berlin pointed out, also believed “only in one vast, unitary whole.”

No author who has ever lived has shown such powers of insight into the variety of life—the differences, the contrasts, the collisions of persons and things and situations, each apprehended in its absolute uniqueness and conveyed with a degree of directness and a precision of concrete imagery to be found in no other writer. No one has ever excelled Tolstoy in expressing the specific flavour, the exact quality of a feeling—the degree of its “oscillation,” the ebb and flow, the minute movements (which Turgenev mocked as a mere trick on his part)—the inner and outer texture and “feel” of a look, a thought, a pang of sentiment, no less than of a specific situation, of an entire period, of the lives of individuals, families, communities, entire nations.

In Crooked Timber, Berlin argued that any hope for One Answer is a mirage and that our most treasured values are often incompatible and incommensurable. “Both liberty and equality are among the primary goals pursued by human beings through many centuries,” he wrote, “but total liberty for wolves is death to the lambs, total liberty of the powerful, the gifted, is not compatible with the rights to a decent existence of the weak and the less gifted.”

The upshot is that humans must struggle to reconcile tradeoffs that have no tidy resolution: “Some among the Great Goods cannot live together. We are doomed to choose, and every choice may entail an irreparable loss.”

How do we choose? On what basis do we decide to make tradeoffs? Berlin seemed to believe that once we are liberated from worrying about supreme goals, it is easier to decide on the next step. In part, perhaps, as in Deng’s metaphor, it is a matter of feeling for the next stone and finding what feels comfortable, honest, and just. That entails recognizing that there may not be a single best place to ford the river, and that others may prefer different stones—yet that tolerance should not extend to the ruler who tries to cross by building a bridge of corpses.

Berlin himself was a nineteenth- century liberal who treasured personal freedoms, while also believing that “variety” is an integral part of human existence. Still, he was willing to speculate cautiously on what values could be widely shared. In a letter to a Polish philosopher published in these pages, he wrote:

I think that common ground between human beings must exist if there is to be any meaning in the concept of human being at all. I think that it is true to say that there are certain basic needs, for example—for food, shelter, security, and, if we accept Herder, for belonging to a group of one’s own—which anyone qualifying for the description of human being must be held to possess. These are only the most basic properties; one might be able to add the need for a certain minimum of liberty, for the opportunity to pursue happiness or the realization of one’s potentialities for self-expression, for creation (however elementary), for love, for worship (as religious thinkers have maintained), for communication, and for some means of conceiving and describing themselves, perhaps in highly symbolic and mythological forms, their own relationship to the environment—natural and human—in which they live….

The need for food is universal, but the way I satisfy it, the particular foods I crave, the steps I take to obtain them, will vary; so with all the other basic needs.3

All in all, it is a highly nuanced, anti-ideological approach; it is philosophy for adults in an uncertain world.

The implication of Berlin’s worldview is that we are fated to grope our way along, making constant compromises, revising priorities, living with contradictions, trying to reduce suffering where we can. It is an effort to live a better life, not to save the world. “This may seem a very flat answer, not the kind of thing that the idealistic young would wish, if need be, to fight and suffer for,” Berlin acknowledged. Yet, to me at least, it has the virtue of feeling right. We’ve seen the failings of those who overreached on both left and right with grand ideological structures, and so perhaps it is time for a more modest guide when we simply aim to grope our way, step by step, doing as little damage and as much good as we can along the way.


Skeptical Isaiah Berlin April 8, 2010

  1. 1

    Isaiah Berlin, Enlightening: Letters 1946–1960, edited by Henry Hardy and Jennifer Holmes (London: Random House, 2009).

  2. 2

    The Book of Isaiah: Personal Impressions of Isaiah Berlin, edited by Henry Hardy (Boydell, 2009), p. 22.

  3. 3

    A Letter on Human Nature,” The New York Review, September 23, 2004.

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