All Souls can't speak to all souls

The First and the Last - First and Last Things
February 25, 2000

Terry Eagleton contrasts the lofty academic liberalism of Sir Isaiah Berlin.

The First and the Last brings together Isaiah Berlin's earliest surviving piece of writing, a short story that he penned at the age of 12 entitled "The Purpose Justifies the Ways", and his last essay, "My Intellectual Path", a summary of his thought for a Chinese publication. To pad out these two slender projects, a handful of brief memorials of Berlin by various philosophical colleagues are thrown in at the end. Since the childhood story is precocious but scrappy, and the resume of Berlin's thought lucid but unremarkable, the upshot is a few rather scrawny bits and pieces masquerading as a book.

"My Intellectual Path" is evidently to be published anyway in a forthcoming English translation of the Chinese volume; one of the concluding encomia has already appeared in a journal, and another, by Noel Annan, has a familiar ring to anyone who has read his chapter on Berlin in his recently published work on Oxbridge dons. This is rather a lot of non-exclusive material for 141 pages.

Berlin, Henry Hardy observes in an introduction, had a "lifelong horror of violence". This is strange, since the schoolboy short story that follows on the next page is nothing if not bloodthirsty. In revenge for the murder of his patrician father at the hands of the Bolsheviks, young Peter shoots the officer responsible and then exultantly kills himself. It might be more accurate to claim that Berlin had a lifelong horror of totalitarian violence; liberal-capitalist brutality, such as the United States war in Vietnam, seems not to have disturbed him quite so deeply. He is not on public record as objecting to the invasion of Guatemala or the bombing of Iraq. Anyway, it is not as though most individuals have a lifelong relish for violence, and Berlin stands out among this shabby crew as some sort of saint. Most people find violence abhorrent while endorsing its use in extreme circumstances, as Berlin seems to have done himself.

Hardy also notes Berlin's aversion to "justifying present suffering as a route to some future imaginary state of bliss". He was indeed an eloquent witness against such tyrannical teleology; but he seemed not to have noticed that the social system he supported goes in for it all the time. Assuring the poor that they are en route to becoming rich, and so should put up with their deprivation for a bit longer, is as familiar (if not as terroristic) a tactic in Westminster and the White House as ever it was in Stalin's Kremlin. Similarly, Berlin quite properly rejects the idea that scientific elites should tell the rest of us how to behave; but he seems to have in mind only party theoreticians rather than capitalist technocrats, an odd exclusion for a liberal.

The first and the last in Berlin are more closely linked than this volume brings out. It was a childhood encounter with Bolshevik violence, registered in his short story, that more or less determined the philosophical career recorded in "My Intellectual Path". Berlin's abiding intellectual motifs - monism, freedom, pluralism, determinism and the like - were to some extent pre-set for him by an early political trauma. It is on these "anti-totalitarian" themes, rather than on, say, justice, compassion or solidarity, that his writing for the most part muses.

Philosophy is no doubt all the better for being driven by passionate personal conviction; but there is also a sense in which Berlin's intensely personal agenda, the unusually direct relation between his opinions and his life history, pulls against the disinterested liberal pluralism that he so tirelessly promotes. If his liberalism has the authority of bitter experience, it is also all too obviously partisan, in a way that liberals are not usually expected to be. He would be more convincing on these matters if he devoted as much time to expounding philosophical topics that could not be suspected of being, among other things, coded bits of anti-communism. And his anti-communism itself would be more persuasive if he seemed less loftily sequestered from the indignities that sometimes inspire ordinary men and women to revolt. Berlin the schoolboy writes that the Russian people "enjoyed their life thoroughly" until the Bolsheviks came along; and though this is of course a piece of childish naivety, not every 12-year-old in Russia would have been so naive.

A genuinely open-minded thinker would not write, as Berlin does so carelessly here, of the "iron laws" of Marxist historical theory, of Marx's championing of the "Party", or of his single-minded pursuit of "perfection". Nor would he so grossly caricature the concept of equality. It may well be the case, as Berlin so persuasively urged, that the pursuit of social perfection is potentially lethal; but it is sheer All Souls ignorance to imagine that Marx himself was in the least enthralled by the notion. On the contrary, he spent his career ferociously satirising all forms of idealism and utopianism. "Perfection" was an idea that appealed to him about as much as feudalism.

In any case, Berlin writes as the spokesman of a social order that can afford its dystopian scepticism. Utopian ideas belong, by and large, to social classes that are still aspirant; once comfortably ensconced in power, they are more likely to talk about how damnably difficult it is to change things. Such dreams of perfection were the invention not of Marxists, but of an earlier stage of the middle-class civilisation with which the emigre Berlin threw in his lot. Without its early progressivism, that social order might never have won out, and Berlin would thus have had nothing to join. Moreover, if you choose to join a particular club, it is natural to want it to stay pretty much as it is. You do not set about briskly reconstructing the life raft onto which you have just scrambled. In any case, there is no particular reason why a don who enjoyed the company of the rich and powerful should have backed radical change. Unlike his less fortunate fellow citizens, he had little need of it. Seeing such change as idle perfectibilism is thus a convenient enough gambit, even if one also believes it.

"My Intellectual Path" records Berlin's laudable attempt to retrieve the more liberal, universalist aspects of the Enlightenment from its dogmatic objectivism, while rescuing the pluralism of the Romantics from their holism and relativism. He is, however, a mite too anti-pluralist on some counts. He seems to believe, for example, that variety is always a good thing, whereas a true liberal would surely want to be a little less dogmatic on the question. Some forms of variety are commendable, while others - a diversity of fascist parties, for example - are surely not. Similarly, he appears to hold that having many different opinions around the place is always better than having only one, a case that fares rather better with Racine than with racism. The academicist remoteness of such views is very telling. For Berlin, one is either a dreary monist or a reveller in the free play of the mind. This leaves scant room for those who, while rejecting monism, think that there are some issues that it is rather important to get right, and on which some opinions are a great deal more valuable than others. Berlin the fervent Zionist presumably believed this too, whereas Berlin the High Table wit was rather more doubtful.

Berlin's distaste for monism takes the predictable form of an aversion to "isms". A list of such "isms" in this book (socialism, nationalism, fascism and the like) unaccountably omits liberalism. Perhaps "isms", like halitosis, are what the other fellow has. Marxism or fascism are fully fledged creeds, whereas a Berlin-like belief in private property, market forces, social elitism and the occasional imperialist war is apparently not. The disingenuousness of this omission, for such a slavishly adulated thinker, is remarkable. But then Berlin was on the whole a more intellectually distinguished figure for those who knew him than for those who did not. There is an ontological gulf between those of the coterie who could hear his voice while reading him, and those consigned to the outer darkness who could not. And if you are going to judge him great, then it helps - as it does not so much with, say, Hume or Spinoza - to agree with him.

T o turn from Isaiah Berlin's clipped, patrician tones to the unbuttoned colloquialisms of Richard Hoggart is to cross more than a linguistic boundary. Hoggart has nothing like the intellectual acuity of Berlin; but there is a power of ordinariness in his work that Berlin's cult of genius shuts him uncomprehendingly out from. It is hard to imagine the high-toned Sir Isaiah referring to his "Aunt Lil", or drawing moral conclusions from his trips around a Farnham supermarket. Hoggart's rather rambling reflections on religion, social mores, the English, social class and the like would probably have struck Berlin as intolerably folksy; but Hoggart, though certainly no revolutionary, is alert to how common lives are being blighted and damaged by the social order for which Berlin was so loquacious an apologist. If the trauma at the source of Berlin's intellectual trajectory was Bolshevik terror, the "first things" for Hoggart are resonant with a less melodramatic sort of violence. His own "true moment of beginning" was a visit to his mother's pauper's grave in Leeds.

In fact, Berlin and Hoggart have a surprising amount in common. Both are secular, empiricist humanists, resolute anti-metaphysicians who trust to the evidence of their senses, relish the sensuous textures of things, reveal a strong moral sense and admire what they see as the tolerance and decency of their English countryfolk. But their respective Englands are different worlds; and this is not simply a matter of delectable difference but of debilitating inequality. Isaiah Berlin wrote finely against political tyranny; but no such critique will be fully convincing unless it acknowledges the truth that the alternative to social change involves, in one shape or another, a pauper's grave.

Terry Eagleton is professor of English literature, University of Oxford.

The First and the Last

Author - Isaiah Berlin
ISBN - 1 86207 0 1
Publisher - Granta Books
Price - £12.00
Pages - 141

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