When Isaiah Berlin died on November 5th last year, an astonishing number of people felt it as a personal loss. Berlin was eighty-eight years old, and had been unwell for some months, so his death was not exactly a surprise; nonetheless, it came as a shock, and it left a large gap in the lives of those who knew him even slightly. It sounds mildly insulting to say of anyone that he has become an institution; but it is certainly true that Berlin had become something larger than any of the roles he had occupied with such distinction—among them, philosopher, author, diplomat, and college president. Perhaps, to borrow W.H. Auden’s description of Freud, he had become a “climate of opinion.” It was a climate that owed much, if not quite everything, to the personality of its creator.
This sets Berlin apart from almost all other twentieth-century philosophers. Bertrand Russell had a striking personality, a razor-sharp intelligence, and a command of the English language that many of us would sell our souls to possess; but his account of “definite descriptions” and his theory of classes belong—or do not belong—to the permanent achievements of logical analysis for entirely austere and impersonal reasons. Karl Popper’s intolerance of any criticism of his own views was a standing joke against his theory that inventing hypotheses and subjecting them to critical testing was the key to scientific progress. But the attractions and the shortcomings of Popper’s philosophy of science have nothing to do with the temperamental irritability that led his students to joke that The Open Society and Its Enemies should have been called “The Open Society by one of its enemies.” Many of us admire the philosophy and deplore the ill temper.
Berlin’s work is very much harder to separate from its author, and for anyone who heard him lecture in person or on the radio it is almost impossible to separate the speaker from the text. This is no accident. Although Berlin did not explain philosophical, political, moral, or aesthetic ideas as mere outgrowths of the personalities of the thinkers who held those ideas, he certainly treated them as aspects of those personalities. When he engaged with ideas he engaged with their authors, and for all the world as though he were doing so in the immediate here and now.
Only one volume of Berlin’s collected essays is entitled Personal Impressions, but it is striking how his far more philosophically or historically demanding essays, too, seem to be giving the reader Berlin’s personal impressions of, as it might be, Herzen, Belinsky, Machiavelli, Montesquieu, or the Parisian Utopian Socialists of the early nineteenth century. One thing that made him a great teacher was the way he taught his students to shed their inhibitions—and thus taught them to feel that they too were entitled to buttonhole the immortal dead in a transhistorical conversation. Many of them felt that a benign uncle had taken them to a particularly dazzling party in the Elysian Fields and introduced them to his best friends.
That quality in Berlin was central to his entre temperament, and it is picked up very enjoyably in Michael Ignatieff’s Life. It made Berlin one of the most engaging conversationalists that most of those who knew him had the good fortune to meet. It must also have made Michael Ignatieff’s task as a biographer exceedingly difficult. So vivid was the impression that Berlin made on almost everyone and so many were the people on whom he made such an impression that there are hundreds of friends, former students, and old colleagues with their own fixed views of Berlin, his ideas, and his achievements. Berlin encouraged this by the intellectual and emotional openhandedness with which he treated them. “He was prodigal with words and time. To an obscure graduate student in Oregon he would expound his distinction between two concepts of liberty with the same gusto that he devoted to sharing gossip with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. In this endless flow of verbal facility, it seemed as if he genuinely believed that he could be personal with almost anyone.” Ignatieff must have had a hard time assimilating all the varied—and inconsistent—insights he was offered by the beneficiaries of this largesse.
But Ignatieff was Berlin’s own choice as a biographer; for the last ten years of Berlin’s life he visited him week after week, taping their conversations together, reading the letters Berlin gave him, and exploring the unpublished essays and lectures still awaiting the attentions of Berlin’s devoted editor, Henry Hardy. Although Berlin insisted that he would not influence what Ignatieff wrote—“Après moi, le déluge,” he told him—and refused to read a word of it, he was in fact rather less able than most of us to let other people think what they wished about him or his work. He would cheerfully belittle his own scholarship—but was deeply wounded if others did so, and the mixture of what Ignatieff calls “pre-emptive” self-denigration and sensitivity to criticism was visible in other matters, too. It is a tribute to Ignatieff’s tact as a biographer that his book shows so little evidence of what must have been some interesting battles for his allegiance.
As a biographical subject, Berlin is less easy than he seems. He was, as Stuart Hampshire said of him, “life-creating” and as a friend and interlocutor quite irreplaceable. Still, his life was mostly—not always—led in comfortable surroundings, and it was not in the ordinary sense full of incident. His adventures were adventures of the mind, and what was interesting in his life was what he thought and felt and said. Yet it is not true that his ideas about philosophy, politics, historiography, and human culture at its widest and most colorful would have been just as interesting if they had been someone else’s. The contrast with most other philosophers is striking. Where, like Russell, they led vivid private lives, these were separate from their intellectual concerns; where, like Dewey, they did not, their ideas were no less interesting. Defenders of Heidegger do their very best to detach the life from the thought. With Berlin, the how of what he thought is almost inseparable from the what—but only almost. It is one of the many pleasures of reading Ignatieff that he possesses such a sure touch about when to step into the narrative of events to remind us of the lessons that Berlin drew from them.
Still, the beginning of Berlin’s life was as romantic and dramatic as any biographer could wish. His mother had had a stillborn daughter two years earlier and had been told she could never have children; Isaiah nearly died at birth—the labor was prolonged, and in his impatience an incompetent doctor pulled Isaiah into the world so violently that his left arm was permanently damaged. Something that Berlin seldom mentioned in later life was that although his parents were Europeanized bourgeois, with a taste for opera and travel, his father was a descendant of Schneur Schneerson, the founding Lubavicher rabbi. It was not a connection Berlin valued, at least so far as contemporary Hasidim were concerned. “As for the modern Lubavich Hassidim—with their three-quarter-length black frock-coats, wide-brimmed hats, beards and ringlets—he regarded them as alarming fanatics,” Ignatieff writes. Neither his birthplace, Riga, nor his native country, Latvia, meant anything to him in later life; when he won the Agnelli Prize in 1988, Berlin was much amused by a newspaper item describing him as a distinguished “Lithuanian” philosopher.
Isaiah was as spoiled by his parents as one might expect an only, longed-for, and despaired-of child to be. It produced a familiar kind of two-way tyranny, with Isaiah’s happiness always the most important thing in the world to his parents, and pleasing his mother something quite close to that for him. When his more left-wing friends reproached him for accepting a knighthood in 1957, he excused himself by insisting that he had accepted it for his mother’s sake.
Into this sunny prosperous world there erupted first the tensions of world war and then the greater and nearer dangers of the Russian Revolution. Mendel Berlin moved the family to Petrograd in 1916; he and Marie were enthusiastic about the first, liberal revolution of February 1917—though it was during the course of it that the seven-year-old Isaiah had an encounter with the horrors of political violence that stayed with him all his life. He and his governess were in the street when a mob rushed past, with a secret policeman in their grasp. “All the seven-year-old had time to see,” Ignatieff writes, “was a man with a white face twisting and turning as he was borne away. The child could not know where they were taking him, but even then it seemed clear that he would not escape with his life.” With the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917, the world became more dangerous. The family did not suffer destitution, but they suffered the bullying of both their poorer neighbors and the semiofficial police forces of the new regime. It was time to leave Russia.
Initially, Mendel Berlin thought of reestablishing his business in Riga. But on the journey there, the family encountered such a degree of anti-Semitic vindictiveness that they soon decided that they must leave for England. During the war, Mendel Berlin had made a healthy profit on a consignment of plywood for the British market, and the funds were waiting in a London bank. On February 3, 1921, Berlin spent his first night in England. It was in the unlikeliest of surroundings, a rented bungalow in the most suburban of places—Surbiton, a few miles southwest of London. There cannot have been another Russian within miles, and there were few Jews. Ignatieff dissolves the mystery of this unlikely destination: an English trading partner had told Mendel Berlin that the English did not live in towns.
Arriving with enough English to sing the old music-hall song “Daisy, Daisy,” Isaiah speedily mastered his new tongue and his new surroundings, though even in old age he recalled the effort well enough to enjoy mimicking the long-ago child who sang, “It von’t be a stylish marridze. I can’t afford a carridze. But you’ll look sveet upon ze seat of a bicycle built for two.” Berlin had mixed feelings about the skills that took him swiftly through an English preparatory school, on to St. Paul’s, and thence to Corpus Christi College, Oxford. “One of the paradoxes of his temperament,” says Ignatieff, “was to wish that he been one of life’s noble intransigents—those who did not bend, but made others submit to their will. Look at my heroes, he used to say. Not one of them was a nice, grass-eating, accommodating liberal. They were all hard, difficult, ‘impossible’ characters—Toscanini, Churchill, Weizmann—men whose vices he excused because they did not include a fatal eagerness to please.”
Although Berlin was a good student, it was not a foregone conclusion that he should win the most glittering of English glittering prizes—the All Souls’ Fellowship that he secured in 1932. To Berlin himself at any rate, it all seemed impossible; he was the first Jew to be elected to All Souls’ and only the third Jew to hold an Oxford fellowship at all. Indeed, it emerged later that the Bishop of Gloucester had objected to the very idea of electing a Jew. At that time, a fellowship at All Souls’ was the entrée to the grandest of grand society. He was promptly congratulated by the Chief Rabbi and invited to Waddesdon Manor by Baron Rothschild.
At one level, All Souls’ was the saving of him; at another, it was something of a poisoned chalice. He had already taken a philosophy job at New College, a place acerbically described by its then head as “one enormous mausoleum.” With the exception of the Warden—H.A.L. Fisher—and Richard Crossman, Berlin found his colleagues monumentally dull. Nor did he much enjoy teaching; when he died last year, former pupils were full of alarming stories about their tutorials. Berlin would play with clockwork toys, read Italian translations of P.G. Wodehouse, or peer into the entrails of an enormous wind-up gramophone. Several of them observed in passing that they learned a lot more than Ignatieff suggests they might have done. Still, it was not a recipe for a happy life. All Souls’ was; it gave him innumerable friends and the company of young men who were as clever as he—John Austin, Stuart Hampshire, and A.J. Ayer among them.
But it also removed the pressure to think what he might do with his life. He had an adequate income, a bachelor’s home with wonderful food, drink, and company thrown in. Would he ever do anything serious? The ledger was less blank than he later suggested, but it was a time of much transitory talk and not much of a less transitory kind. In 1933, he was asked to write a short book on Karl Marx for the Home University Library; he was not the first choice, but he was the first to accept. Although it eventually turned into a wonderfully readable account of its subject, it did take six years to write. Ignatieff reminds the reader how much Berlin read around his subject; the more skeptical might notice Berlin’s skill at avoiding deadlines.
Not that his life was without emotional incident. He made friends with Adam von Trott, later murdered by the Nazis for his part in the 1944 bomb plot against Hitler, but parted company with him when von Trott wrote to a newspaper to say that Nazi courts did not discriminate against Jews. No pleas from their mutual friends healed the breach. And he constantly made new friends. The novelist Elizabeth Bowen was one (non-amorous) conquest. In Palestine, he made friends with Gershom Scholem—and on the voyage home met Abraham Stern, the founder of the Stern Gang, who explained in the coolest way that in due course there would be a fight to the death between the Jews and the Arabs and their British protectors.
The outbreak of war did for him what All Souls’ could not. Ignatieff’s account of Berlin’s years in New York and Washington, first with the Ministry of Information and then with the British Embassy, is one of the book’s strengths. His job was essentially to explain Britain to the United States and vice versa. He wrote a stream of dispatches to London that gave pleasure to almost all their readers, including the prime minister, Winston Churchill.1
They were not always on target. In his first appreciation of Harry Truman on the death of Roosevelt, he described him as “the best kind of American legionnaire, unexpectedly business-like, brisk, crisp and capable of getting on with people like Eden and Lyttelton,” but went on to observe that “all these virtues cannot provide for the first really big crisis which general principles do not solve.” Almost more interestingly, he was throughout the war embroiled in the future of Zionism, or, which was much the same thing, the question of how a Jewish state might be created in what was then the British-administered protectorate of Palestine. He had thought from his first visit to Palestine that radical Zionists thought of Palestine as “a land without people given to a people without land,” and that it was an attitude that boded ill for the future.
In 1939, he met Chaim Weizmann, and they became close friends. Weizmann obviously wanted to use Berlin both as a conduit for his own ideas and to get for himself a clearer view of British policy. Berlin was and remained a liberal Zionist. British Foreign Office policy was, and, in the eyes of many observers, has remained, romantically pro-Arab. Avoiding head-on conflict with his own employers was not always easy, but it was contrived. Avoiding the attempts of Weizmann and Ben-Gurion to recruit him for their rival views was even harder, but he somehow managed that as well. Meanwhile, he accumulated upper-class American friends by the armful: he had long been a good friend of Felix Frankfurter, and that opened doors throughout Washington. Even the fact that his speech was almost unintelligible to the untutored seems to have counted in his favor; the torrential flow of half-swallowed, clipped sentences was obviously too well-structured to be meaningless, so his hearers paid careful attention—and were entranced.
At war’s end, Berlin was sent on one more Foreign Office task. They wanted a lengthy report on Anglo-Soviet relations in the postwar world; as it turned out, he could have written it on a postcard in the form of a weather forecast: “cold, intermittently frigid.” His dealings with Soviet officials were uniformly depressing. It did not matter. He had set off in high excitement, and the four months he spent in Moscow and Leningrad were perhaps the most important of his life. He met his own intellectual and literary peers at last. And he realized with something of a shock just how Russian he was—as did the writers and artists he met; on his first evening in Moscow, the experimental theater director Alexander Tairov announced that not only his speech but his thinking was “entirely Russian.”
The two great encounters of the visit, however, were with Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova.2 It was then that he first realized the full depths of Stalin’s tyranny, as well as the extraordinary quality of the literary, intellectual, and artistic life that Stalin had devoted so much effort to destroying. Many critics have wondered—and Ignatieff wonders—why Berlin wrote so much about the intellectual, moral, and political disasters of Marxism and its offspring, but nothing about Hitler and nothing about the Holocaust. After all, his own family had been wiped out in Latvia and Poland.
Part of the explanation is the simple one he sometimes offered: he felt he had nothing to add to what others had said about the Holocaust. Part is more complicated; he feared that too many writers had made a career out of their people’s tragedy and he wished not to climb on that bandwagon. It remains, as Ignatieff says, something easier to describe than explain, particularly when one thinks how much the nineteenth-century Russian struggle against tyranny and superstition had in common with the aims of the secular and liberal Zionism to which he subscribed.
Although Berlin was only in his mid-thirties when the war ended, Ignatieff’s Life has the shape of a Bildungsroman; the second half of the book brings Berlin back to Oxford, finds him a wife, sees him into his roles as radio lecturer, professor, and college president, and settles down to estimate the work. Settled briefly in New College as a philosophy tutor, he was again rescued from tutorial drudgery by All Souls’. More to the point, he was taken up by the newly established Third Programme of the British Broadcasting Corporation, and found a new vocation as a sage of the airwaves. His relations with Zionism remained close but uneasy; as always, he was attentive to politics both abroad and at home, but not willing to be a participant. The astonishing change was in his personal life. After forty years of thinking himself physically unattractive and so to speak a sexual noncombatant, he discovered physical love, and launched into matrimony.
It is a very hard task to strike just the right note in writing about Berlin’s married life, but Ignatieff comes as close as one can imagine it being done. When Berlin married Aline de Gunzbourg in 1956, he was almost forty-seven. He was also a very pure example of the bachelor Oxford don. And yet he fell not only in love, but as he once said “into uxoriousness.” Aline provided him not only with a calm that he could not provide for himself and a certainty about the shape of his life that he had not had before, but with a setting in which he could be the generous teacher and the fountain of intellectual pleasure that for the next forty years he so strikingly was.
Yet the world that he so enhanced was cosmopolitan, and indeed far-flung in time as well as space. For it was in the two decades from 1950 to 1970 that his creativity as a historian of ideas, political theorist, and multi-faceted critic blossomed. Things began quietly with an essay on “Lev Tolstoy’s Historical Scepticism” in Oxford Slavonic Papers (1951). By some obscure stroke of genius, the publisher George Weidenfeld saw that if it were retitled “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” it would be recognized by enormous numbers of readers as the masterpiece it was. Ignatieff considers it the “most compelling of all his essays,” a judgment I would not so much dispute as not know how to make, because of the quantity of work with which one would have to compare it. The fecundity of Berlin’s imagination and the quickness of his pen were such that when Henry Hardy began to edit his uncollected essays twenty years ago, an anticipated four volumes turned into six volumes and a short book on Johann Georg Hamann, The Magus of the North. A substantial selection of these riches is published in The Proper Study of Mankind.
The clue to the hold of Berlin’s work on the imagination of his readers was provided by one of Berlin’s intellectual heroes, Giambattista Vico. Berlin wrote at length about Vico’s concept of fantasia, a term that no paraphrase quite captures, but that embraces among other things the capacity for an empathetic entering into the minds of others that the historian needs and the physicist does not. Vico saw fantasia as the form of thought essentially involved in the human sciences and history, and as something that allows us almost to reexperience the lives and thoughts of the persons and cultures we study. It is not the “external” knowledge we might have of physical nature. “It is,” Berlin wrote, “more like the knowledge we claim of a friend, of his character, of his ways of thought or action, the intuitive sense of the nuances of personality or feelings or ideas….” Roger Hausheer’s excellent introduction to The Proper Study of Mankind emphasizes the place of fantasia in Berlin’s own work, and rightly so.
However, Vico and Berlin also emphasize the limits of fantasia. Some ideas, or cultures, or people may be intractably remote from us. The hopes and dreams of the religious critics of the Enlightenment were well within the compass of Berlin’s imagination, but strictly as hopes and dreams. And what it meant to experience the world as the more extreme opponents of the Enlightenment did lay at the very edge of Berlin’s capacious sympathies. There is some wariness in Berlin’s engagement with Hamann in The Magus of the North, and a decided shudder of distaste in his appreciation of Joseph de Maistre. Berlin was himself a critic of the Enlightenment—at least, a critic of its easy assumptions about the uniformity of human nature and the universal validity of any true morality. He was far from happy with the blind irrationalism of many of its critics, but he wanted to show the full extent and consequences of the revolt against the Enlightenment ideal of a single, scientifically organized world system devoted to rational humanitarian ends.
“Know thyself, presume not God to scan; the proper study of mankind is man,” wrote Alexander Pope. This is not an injunction to self-centered self-scrutiny. Berlin believed that we know ourselves by knowing mankind; we must engage in what we might barbarously call “extraspection” rather than introspection. This is part of the explanation of Berlin’s admiration for David Hume, something that is not otherwise easy to understand. Berlin’s affections were most readily aroused by more romantic, even if intellectually more ragged, figures such as Moses Hess or the Russian intellectuals of the 1840s.
The urbane Hume would have found many of them as maddening as he found Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But like Berlin, Hume was entirely hostile to the intolerance bred by superstition, while being fascinated by the variety of human experience and the cultures in which that experience was embedded. Moreover, Hume held Berlin’s view that making sense of what other peoples, times, and cultures had done involves a simultaneous exploration of the boundaries of our own imagination. For, like Hume, Berlin was simultaneously tone-deaf to religion while being fascinated by its hold on the human imagination.
What of the politics? To most British intellectuals the liberalism of John Stuart Mill comes as naturally as that of Jefferson comes to their American peers. Berlin’s liberalism was Alexander Herzen’s. Herzen was the thinker to whom Berlin always felt closest; he was temperamentally as well as intellectually and politically kin. Herzen rebelled against Tsarist Russia, not out of a carefully reasoned conviction that the rule of law, modernization, and freedom of contract would be good for his country, but with the passion of a drowning man looking for oxygen. What he opposed to oppression was not a theory or a recipe; freedom included freedom from doctrinal certainty.
Herzen, he writes,
believed that the ultimate goal of life was life itself; that the day and the hour were ends in themselves, not a means to another day or another experience. He believed that remote ends were a dream, that faith in them was a fatal illusion; that to sacrifice the present or the immediate and foreseeable future to these distant ends must always lead to cruel and futile forms of human sacrifice. He believed that values were not found in an impersonal, objective realm, but were created by human beings, changed with the generations of men, but were none the less binding upon those who lived in their light; that suffering was inescapable, and infallible knowledge neither attainable nor needed.
That is the thought at the heart of Berlin’s liberalism. It is obviously directed with particular savagery at the Soviet Marxists who claimed the knowledge that entitled them to murder others for the sake of a distant utopia; but it undermines more certainties than the Marxist certainty. Almost more importantly, Herzen’s generosity of spirit, his readiness to help even fellow revolutionaries whose ideas he distrusted, and his ironic capacity to pursue ideals that he knew later generations would mock made even his liberal allies such as John Stuart Mill seem pale and anemic by comparison.
The energy, bravery, and skepticism that Berlin admired in Herzen’s politics and character he sometimes found elsewhere. In Personal Impressions there is a perfectly wonderful memoir of one of Berlin’s distant cousins—Yitzhak Sadeh, one of the military heroes of the Israeli War of Independence. As Isaac Landoberg, he was a well-known figure in Berlin’s home town of Riga before the Russian Revolution. Ignatieff tells the wonderful story of the infant Isaiah halting the dancing at Landoberg’s wedding by stamping his feet and yelling, “Ich hasse diese Scheissemusik!” Drawn irresistibly to violence and excitement, Landoberg joined the Russian Army in 1914. Berlin writes,
His rich relations promptly bought him out of the army. He allowed himself to be brought back to his doting wife and child, a daughter called Asia; after a few weeks of tranquillity he deserted his wife and secretly joined the army again. He was “bought back” again. He did this for a third time and disappeared—his relatives were discouraged by the two earlier flights and ceased to trouble about him.
Escaping from the anti-Semitism of Civil War Russia, Landoberg went to Palestine, and almost at once was arrested for joining in anti-British riots in Jaffa. He did so in strange company, since he was a left-wing Zionist and the riots were led by the far-right revisionists.
However, where there was violence, thither he was irresistibly attracted. The British stood for all that was moderate, limited, dull, official, pompous and dead. Moreover, they were for the most part pro-Arab and attracted by Middle Eastern semi-feudalism. The revisionists belonged to the extreme right wing of Zionism and stood for passion, militancy, resistance, self-assertion, pride and a nationalist mystique.
Like all good eulogies, this one points a moral.
In a country filled with tensions and anxiety, and earnest purpose, as all pioneering communities must be, this huge child introduced an element of total freedom, unquenchable gaiety, ease, charm, and a natural elegance, half-bohemian, half-aristocratic, too much of which would ruin any possibility of order, but an element of which is something no society should lack if it is to be free or worthy of survival.
The recognition of an inevitable and entirely proper tension between Yitzhak Sadeh and the country for which he fought so strenuously brings us to Berlin’s famous antithesis between the hedgehog and the fox. The distinction, on which the essay of that name is founded, has become famous: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” As Berlin noted, scholars had various views on what the Greek poet Archilochus had meant when he said it. However, Berlin went on to say that
taken figuratively, the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general. For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel—a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance—and, on the other, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related to no moral or aesthetic principle.
Ignatieff is not the first to observe that Berlin was himself both hedgehog and fox, that Berlin had his own one big thing—not a system, not a doctrine, but an insistence that the fox was right.
In Tolstoy’s own case, the conflict between his desire to enunciate an absolute moral code by which he could live and his perception that human life was too various to be caught by any such thing destroyed his happiness:
Tolstoy’s sense of reality was until the end too devastating to be compatible with any moral ideal which he was able to construct out of the fragments into which his intellect shivered the world, and he devoted all of his vast strength of mind and will to the lifelong denial of this fact. At once insanely proud and filled with self-hatred, omniscient and doubting everything, cold and violently passionate, contemptuous and self-abasing, tormented and detached, surrounded by an adoring family, by devoted followers, and the admiration of the entire civilised world, and yet almost wholly isolated, he is the most tragic of the great writers, a desperate old man, beyond human aid, wandering self-blinded at Colonus.
As Ignatieff says, this is a stunning image of human tragedy; the question that Ignatieff’s biography implicitly poses is that of how Berlin’s highly personal response to everyone he wrote about unites his political beliefs, his approach to intellectual history, and indeed his whole life.
That it does so seems to me obvious enough. Even good-natured critics have occasionally thought that some of Berlin’s rhetorical tours de force—“The Originality of Machiavelli,” for instance—gain almost too much of their power from Berlin’s own vision rather than from that of their subject. Indeed, the originality of Machiavelli is a topic that the more austere sort of intellectual historian would avoid; as every schoolboy knows, there is no doctrine in either The Prince or Discourses on Livy that is absolutely without precedent, and historians are acutely aware of the difficulties of showing just what is and what is not utterly original in the work of any given writer. When Quentin Skinner explains the shocking effect of The Prince upon its readers, it is the discrepancy between the familiar form, that of the mirror of princes or handbook for courtiers, and the mockery of the courtly virtues that he appeals to.
When Berlin announces that the originality of Machiavelli lies in his forcing us to choose between pagan political aspirations and self-directed, soul-saving Christian virtue, this is directed to us; it is more nearly a philosophical claim than a historical one. This is not to say that Machiavelli has been conscripted to reinforce a claim about moral pluralism that Berlin might reasonably have been required to make for himself. It is to say that the point of the transhistorical conversation that Berlin engaged in with the immortal dead is to explore the boundaries of our own ideals and understandings.
At the memorial gathering for Berlin that took place in Oxford in March of this year, Bernard Williams observed that Berlin’s own account of his career had been misleading. Berlin frequently said that before the war he had been a philosopher, and that he had become a historian of ideas because he had come to think that philosophy made no progress, and he wished to study something where one might end by knowing more than one had known before. This, said Williams, was not quite right. Rather, Berlin had seen that for some questions in philosophy, illumination was derived by exploring the history of our ideas, rather than by trying to analyze them as though they had neither a past nor a future. His encounter with Machiavelli is a philosophical con-versation, rather than a historical exhumation.
This thought casts an interesting light on Berlin’s inaugural lecture of 1957. Elected to succeed G.D.H. Cole as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory, Berlin was thrown back into teaching and lecturing. This time, he took to it with a passion, and his lectures were a highlight of an Oxford education for the next ten years. Successful though he was, he claimed to very much dislike lecturing; he had no reason to misrepresent his feelings, and we must take that at face value. Certainly, his preparations were strenuous; he would write everything out; then he would reduce it to notes; then he would further reduce his notes. Finally, he delivered the lecture without looking at the notes, and with his gaze fixed slightly above the head of the farthest student in the room. It sounds like a recipe for disaster; in fact, it was invariably an intellectual and rhetorical treat.
His inaugural lecture was delivered to a very grand audience, and it has been discussed endlessly ever since. It is no wonder. For one thing, its title, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” was in almost all ways misleading. It was not an exercise in conceptual analysis, and its purpose was not to achieve conceptual clarification. Nor, in spite of Berlin’s distinction between negative and positive concepts of liberty, is it clear that there are two and only two concepts of freedom under discussion. More importantly, it was about many more things than liberty—it was an attack on monistic theories of the good life, and a defense of moral and cultural pluralism, an assault in the manner of Herzen on doctrines that encouraged us to sacrifice the solid real-life present to an implausibly perfect and harmonious future. It was also an attack on what Berlin called “the retreat to the inner citadel,” all those Stoic-inspired doctrines that say we can possess an inner freedom of spirit even while we suffer from merely external and bodily tyranny. Our “negative liberty” is expanded when nobody stops us from doing what we want, and reduced when we are stopped.
The lecture’s targets are not all the same. To my eye, what animates the essay is the assault on monism with which the lecture ends—on the view that there is one final solution to all human problems; from that the other evils flow. What survives in most people’s minds is Berlin’s adaptation of Bishop Butler’s great line: “Everything is what it is and not some other thing; why then should we seek to be deceived?” In Berlin’s version, this was the insistence that freedom was not to be confused with reason, or justice, or the search for truth, or even with democratic self-government.
Freedom in this sense is not, at any rate logically, connected with democracy or self-government. Self-government may, on the whole, provide a better guarantee of the preservation of civil liberties than other regimes, and has been defended as such by libertarians. But there is no necessary connection between individual liberty and democratic rule. The answer to the question “Who governs me?” is logically distinct from the question “How far does government interfere with me?” It is in this difference that the great contrast between the two concepts of negative and positive liberty, in the end, consists.
Like Herzen, Berlin thought there were some bleak conclusions to be drawn from his pluralism. Yitzhak Sadeh’s wife and infant daughter, abandoned when he went off to war in 1914, were casualties of a life we can hardly wish that he had led differently; all the same, their unhappiness is not compensated for by the fact that we do not wish that he had stayed at home. Nor did it seem to Berlin that any attempt to find a way of calculating “solutions” to the choice between one way of life and another was plausible. The idea of adding up the utilities yielded by one course of action and comparing them with the utilities yielded by another struck him as a Benthamite fantasy.
Berlin’s pluralism of values is hard to elucidate. Contrary to many critics, he was not a “subjectivist” about values. He did not believe that people simply choose different lives and that there was little we could say about their choices. There is a great deal to say about the choices people make. Berlin was, in the usual jargon, an objectivist about values. Cruelty really is evil; kindness really is good; generosity really is lovable; meanness really is despicable. Nor did he wish to say that ethical decisions were a matter of taste. Indeed, matters of taste were not without their moral aspects—Berlin’s tastes in opera reflected his moral outlook. He disliked Tosca, and Bernard Williams speculates that it was because of its oppressively sadistic undertones. Nor was Berlin a relativist. He did not think that cruelty was “all right” for the Achaeans of Homer’s Iliad, but “all wrong” for us. Cruelty was a vice then and now; some of what we now think cruel, they did not, but it would be senseless to say that they knew what cruelty was and thought it was not an evil. The commission of cruel and brutal acts might be part of otherwise admirable ways of life that had their inescapable deficiencies—such as the near-continuous warfare of the ancient Greek world—but they remained evils in themselves.
So much for the negatives, but what of the positive argument? My guess is that Berlin felt that an irreducible conflict of values, within the individual, within one society, and between different cultures, was something that no philosophical theory could erase. Rather than fight a war of attrition against each and every thinker who had purported to produce a comprehensive moral system within which every good and bad deed could receive its due and whole lives and whole cultures be brought in for judgment, Berlin explored the consequences of disbelieving in all such theories. In his essay “‘From Hope and Fear Set Free”‘ Berlin attacked
the optimistic view—which seems to be at the heart of much metaphysical rationalism—that all good things must be compatible, and that therefore freedom, order, knowledge, happiness, a closed future (and an open one?) must be at least compatible, and perhaps even entail one another in a systematic fashion. But this proposition is not self-evidently true, if only on empirical grounds. Indeed, it is perhaps one of the least plausible beliefs ever entertained by profound and influential thinkers.
The hope that perfect knowledge of ourselves and all the options open to us will free us from the anxiety of choice because we shall see exactly what we must do is simply delusive.
In so thinking, Berlin was not alone. His Oxford colleague and friend for sixty years, Stuart Hampshire, has been equally skeptical of the prospects of any moral or political philosophy that proposed to tidy up the conflicts of good with good that cause us so much pain. Hampshire has distinguished in a more nuanced way than Berlin between the matters on which we can expect to reach agreement after sufficient argument and those on which no such agreement is to be expected—arguments about procedural justice can end in agreement and arguments about ideal ways of life cannot—but on the crucial question of whether what Berlin termed “the ends of life” are capable of being ranked in some unchallengeably rational order, as Plato and Aristotle and most philosophers afterward have hoped, he and Berlin were at one. If they are not alone, however, they are in a small minority.
An insistence on moral pluralism would hardly have been enough to give Berlin his extraordinary hold over the imagination of his audience. It would not have been sufficient even in conjunction with his talent for intellectual portraiture. It was the way he linked them to a particular political and cultural vision that had such an impact. And here, as Ignatieff notes, is where a critic might want to argue that the fabric of Berlin’s ideas was somewhat fragile. Ignatieff picks up John Gray’s complaint that an insistence on the plurality of human goods offers no support for political liberalism, indeed, that it does not lead in any particular direction at all. If what we admire in the way people live out their lives is the conviction with which they do it—so long as they are not convinced Nazis or Stalinists—then we must endorse all the nonbrutal ways of life that attract such conviction. Ignatieff points out that in spite of his wholesale religious skepticism, Berlin adhered to some of the rituals of Jewish orthodoxy, and that this raises interesting and awkward questions about how he reconciled his liberalism with his affection for a not very liberal faith.
Liberalism has firm convictions about the virtues of individual autonomy and about the moral value of a constitutional political order, and these convictions go beyond the simple instrumental claim that freedom and constitutionality are generally valuable in promoting human happiness. The contrast between Berlin and Hume once more raises the question whether pluralism is not more naturally allied to a conservative concern for peace and quiet than it is to the romantic and high-spirited liberalism to which Berlin was attracted. Hume was not a crusty, reactionary Tory, but he was a Tory. He thought the Hanoverian settlement had brought peace and prosperity to Britain, and defended it for that reason. Hume hoped for a conservative political pluralism which allowed a high degree of autonomy to minorities without any suggestion that they had a right to such autonomy. However they justify the conviction, liberals are convinced that a right to such autonomy is exactly what they have.
One answer is that Berlin did not suppose that there was a direct logical link between pluralism and liberalism. There were nonetheless links of a different sort: a liberal emphasis on human rights and constitutionality reduces social and political tensions, allows different persons and groups the elbow room they need for self-expression, and if we are fortunate may lead to a world in which we actively enjoy social diversity. A society whose members had no interest in self-expression or much preferred the pleasures of religious orthodoxy would be deaf to such arguments. But Berlin did not argue this; he just took it for granted. He knew that liberalism was distinctively modern—and agreed with Herzen that the fact that liberalism was as much the creature of history as any other doctrine did nothing to impugn it.
It was these considerations that made Berlin both a liberal and a nationalist, which is not a very common combination. He was a liberal because he hated cruelty and a nationalist because he thought that different cultures needed the shelter of their own political system if they were to flourish. These are not the mainstream concerns of recent American political philosophy; they do not touch what most preoccupies academic political theorists today—accounts of rights and justice, defenses of more egalitarian distributions of income and wealth, explanations of the foundations of democracy, and the like. But Berlin’s concerns have been shared by some unusually interesting writers: the late Judith Shklar’s defense of “the liberalism of fear” brought Berlin’s hatred of cruelty into American liberal thinking; Yael Tamir’s defense of liberal nationalism is squarely in the same tradition, as is Avishai Margalit’s recent account of political decency. Unlike most recent liberal political philosophy, this kind of thinking is concerned less with the guiding principles of public policy than with the social and cultural climate within which we live with each other.
Michael Ignatieff’s biography does not exactly run down in the last twenty years of Berlin’s life. Among other things, he gives a lively account of Berlin’s post-professorial career as the founding president of Wolfson College, Oxford, and provides some enjoyably indiscreet insights into the struggle Berlin had to get the project past the opposition of the zoologist Solly Zuckerman and into the good graces of Lord Wolfson. Still, it is at the end of the 1960s that Ignatieff bids farewell to Berlin’s liberalism—with his good-natured, but quite uncompromising, refusal to be moved by the revival of Marx, and his refusal to sacrifice the evidence of his own senses to such follies as Marcuse’s claim that the concentration camp was merely “the quintessence of the infernal society into which we are plunged every day.”
Ignatieff mentions the extraordinary Romanes Lecture for 1970 that Berlin delivered on the theme of “Fathers and Sons” in Turgenev.3 It was a very astonishing occasion. Berlin took the opportunity to deliver what was obviously an apologia pro vita sua. Given Berlin’s talent for embodying in himself the personality and spirit of anyone on whom he lectured, it was inevitable that the line between Turgenev’s reactions to the nihilists and revolutionaries of his day and Berlin’s reactions to the student enragés of the 1960s would be thoroughly blurred.
Indeed, Berlin gave many of us in the audience the impression that he might not be able to find an ending for the lecture; its burden was, after all, that something like an interminable dialogue was in progress. The cautious, elderly liberal insists that it is not cowardice but good sense that keeps him from embracing the revolutionary’s cause—though he fears that it might be cowardice and envies the recklessness of the young. The young insist that it is cowardice and complacency that motivate their elders—but fear that they themselves might be as green and untried as their elders say, and find it hard to dislike their elders as much as they know they should. Whether Berlin’s identification with Turgenev was as sustained as Ignatieff says is another matter; it was certainly as full as he says on that occasion.
But that was thirty years ago. Does Berlin’s liberalism have anything to say to us when the young are going to law school rather than manning the barricades? It does. The liberalism that is so attached to cultural variety, and to finding social and emotional elbow room for both individuals and cultures, is the liberalism that has lately been so controversial in the United States. Berlin’s allegiances were never “countercultural,” but they were entirely at odds with the wish to reinstate some form of moral and political orthodoxy that animates the conservatism of George Will, William Buckley or Irving Kristol, or indeed the radicalism of Catherine MacKinnon at the other end of the spectrum.
When a society is hidebound, claustrophobic, politically panic-stricken, or merely excessively respectable, Berlin’s reminders of the pleasures of the vividly experienced life have a purchase on our sympathies that they perhaps do not have when intellectual anarchy is more nearly in the saddle. If the tide continues to run as strongly toward a suffocating emphasis on community values as it is currently doing on both sides of the Atlantic, we shall be reading Mill on liberty and Berlin on Herzen with renewed enjoyment.
December 17, 1998
H.G. Nicholas, editor, Washington Despatches, 1941-1945 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1981). ↩
Berlin’s account of those meetings is “Conversations with Akhmatova and Pasternak,” in The Proper Study of Mankind, pp. 525-552. ↩
Published as Fathers and Children: The Romanes Lecture for 1970 (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1973). ↩