On the Pursuit of the Ideal

For more information about Isaiah Berlin, see the Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library. For permission to reprint any material by Isaiah Berlin, contact Curtis Brown Group Ltd.

The following address was given at the award ceremony in Turin for the first Senator Giovanni Agnelli International Prize.


I wish to begin by expressing my deep appreciation for the great honor that has been done me by the Giovanni Agnelli Foundation. I have noticed, with admiration, that in Italy rather more attention tends to be paid to intellectual life than it is elsewhere. This is true not merely of specialized journals and the like, but even of the daily press. I can only say that I am grateful and proud to be a beneficiary of this most enlightened attitude.

If I understand the purpose of the foundation rightly, it wishes to emphasize the particular importance of ethical ideas in the world in which we live. Surely this is right. There are, in my view, two factors that, above all others, have shaped human history in this century: one is the development of the natural sciences and technology, certainly the greatest success story of our time—to this, great and mounting attention has been paid from all quarters. The other, without doubt, consists in the great ideological storms that have altered the lives of virtually all mankind: the Russian Revolution and its aftermath—totalitarian tyrannies of both right and left and the explosions of nationalism, racism, and, in places, of religious bigotry, which, interestingly enough, not one among the most perceptive social thinkers of the nineteenth century had ever predicted.

When our descendants, in two or three centuries time (if mankind survives until then), come to look at our age, it is these two phenomena that will, I think, be held to be the outstanding characteristics of our century, the most demanding of explanation and analysis. But it is as well to realize that these great movements began with ideas in people’s heads: ideas about what relations between men have been, are, might be, and should be; and to realize how they came to be transformed in the name of a vision of some supreme goal in the minds of the leaders, above all of the prophets with armies at their backs. Such ideas are the substance of ethics. Ethical thought consists of the systematic examination of the relations of human beings to each other, the conceptions, interests, and ideals from which human ways of treating one another spring, and the systems of value on which such ends of life are based. These beliefs about how life should be lived, what men and women should be and do, are objects of moral inquiry; and when applied to groups and nations, and, indeed, mankind as a whole, are called political philosophy, which is but ethics applied to society.

If we are to hope to understand the often violent world in which we live (and unless we try to understand it, we cannot expect to be able to act rationally in it and on it), we cannot confine our attention to the great impersonal forces, natural and man-made, which act upon…

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