The book of Isaiah

The Sense of Reality
January 31, 1997

The Sense of Reality is the seventh volume in editor Henry Hardy's protracted crusade to assemble and make publicly available the oeuvre of Britain's most captivating and widely admired post-war political thinker. (One of the earlier volumes, Russian Thinkers, he coedited with Aileen Kelly.) It is beautifully produced, and attractively and illuminatingly introduced by Patrick Gardiner, whom I take to be a long-term friend of Berlin's. Like most of the earlier volumes it is not in any sense an integrated whole; but it draws the reader, with some insistence, into an enormously stimulating, if sometimes uncomfortable, engagement with its author. On its back cover it has a striking photograph (an innovation, I think, in the Berlin oeuvre), to which I shall return.

Why is Berlin so captivating? Why has he been so widely admired? What in the end does his oeuvre mean? The first two questions are easy to answer and do not really require academic expertise to judge. He is so captivating (and so widely admired), because he is such a sensationally charming talker, because he draws on such a wealth of cultural and personal experience, because he speaks with such zest, such endlessly vivid intellectual interest, and such passion about matters about which almost any reasonably intelligent person must care. (If you are tired of Berlin, you must at least be beginning to tire of life.) He is a wonderfully public and unesoteric figure, who has made huge audiences on several continents and for many decades feel the warmth, the excitement and the fascination of personal contact with a singularly brilliant and cultivated mind and a generous imagination. In a sense, the close friends, in perhaps as many continents, have enjoyed exactly the same pleasures and rewards for as long or longer, but simply done so in a more select ambience and at enviably greater length. They have been extraordinarily lucky. But we have been remarkably lucky too. It just is good to be spoken to in such a way, and not a facility dependably provided by the modern higher education industry.

The spell of Berlin is very much present in The Sense of Reality, not at uniform intensity on every page (this would scarcely be true of any of his works), but at least fitfully in almost every chapter, and quite commandingly in several. There were two which I especially enjoyed. One, "The romantic revolution", an extraordinarily dashing attempt to grasp the full originality of romanticism and its pivotal role in the self-consciousness of the educated modern West, was first given as a talk in Italian translation in Rome in 1960. The other, "Artistic commitment", my favourite, on 19th-century Russian disputes about the responsibilities of the writer, was first given as a talk in New York, also in the early 1960s. Either must have been dazzling to hear in the flesh. But they are just as effective on the page over three decades later. Both, however, one might say, merely do again, if perhaps better or more tersely, what Berlin has already done at greater length, in Vico and Herder, in some of the essays in The Crooked Timber of Humanity, or in Russian Thinkers.

It is not really in its most dazzling pieces that the interest of this new collection principally lies. Rather, it is the range of Berlin's preoccupations that it discloses, and the prompting their juxtaposition gives the reader to try to make sense of their relation to one another.

This is not a reviewer's fancy. The choice of the title essay, The Sense of Reality, must have been prompted both by Berlin's intellectual tastes and by his political purposes. (We are not told whether it was in the end the editor or the author who did the choosing.) The sense of reality was a disciplinary instrument for those inside the academy inane enough to suppose that statesmen can "be taught something called political science", which might enable (or even aid) them to master their responsibilities.

But, altogether more importantly, it was also a disciplinary instrument for those who already controlled states, and fondly supposed themselves, because of the "scientific" character of their beliefs, to enjoy a privileged and preguaranteed command over the havoc they were in fact wreaking with the lives of their subjects. The sense of reality, or "political judgement", the quality displayed by political actors (like Bismarck, or perhaps Chancellor Kohl) who have the sense of reality, is a practical and firmly human prudential skill, not a bogusly suprahuman and magically secured insight into what must be going on in settings which humans can never hope to understand very well. These two essays are reasonable enough in what they argue. (They were so at the time of composition, and very much remain so.) But neither is in the end particularly potent academically, because they fail to focus on any single set of potentially refutable misapprehensions, let alone to establish any clear positive conclusions. What is more important about them is that they were (and are) essentially right about a number of key strategic issues of intellectual and political judgement about which a great many others (including, as it happens, myself) were quite badly wrong, or too frivolous or cowardly to try to formulate a coherent viewpoint.

I do not know exactly how Berlin's political concerns and opinions developed. For that, those who do not know him well will simply have to wait for his biographer to tell us. But what is clear from the public record is how dominating and all-encompassing has been his struggle against the consequences of the disaster which, as a young child, he saw beginning under his parent's window in the streets of Petrograd in 1917.

In the days when I was an undergraduate it was fashionable to suppose that Berlin did not really understand why this had occurred - lacking our own incomparable advantages (though it is hard now to summon up quite what we can have supposed these to be). I fancy, however, that he understood all too well. What haunted him was the sense of its appalling costs and futilities, and at least some yearning that these should at long last come to an end.

Other essays in this book, the buoyant encyclopedia article on "Socialism and socialist theories", the 1964 paper on "Marxism and the International in the 19th century", place this grim detour within the broader history of Western European political thought and action, very much as Oxford's professor of political theory should have done. They are as fresh today as when they were written, even if parts would hardly be written in quite the same terms today. But seen from the West, as in these pieces, the strains seem less acute. Much of the raw pain is smoothed away, and the eligibility of civilised political conduct seems close to self-evident. Other concerns, too, remain tacit. There is virtually nothing in this book which bears on his experience during the struggle against Hitler, or his deep engagement with the destiny of the Jewish population of Palestine, and now, Israel (though the latter, and perhaps even the former, must have been important in forming his sense of the meaning of nationalism as a political force). There is also virtually nothing about the significance of economics within the world which succumbed to Leninism, either as doctrine or political instrument.

The essays which make up The Sense of Reality are accurately described in its subtitle as studies in ideas and their history. But most of them are also exercises in political thinking of the kind that Berlin approves: parts of a long, rich, eloquent defence of a way of life which he valued and a range of aspirations with which he sympathised against the powerful and brutal enemies whom History had sent them. As political thinking, they are far from academic in manner, seldom narrowing their attention for long enough to win an argument, and lavishing most of their energy on the attempt to show a comparatively parochial and torpid audience how appallingly much was at stake in the central struggle in world politics at the time. Sceptical about very many other matters, they are unfalteringly confident of just one thing: that one side in that conflict was deeply and decisively wrong. All the great Berlin themes - whether there are laws of history or politics, whether history is in any illuminating sense inevitable, how liberty may be most clearly and edifyingly understood, what types of political understanding there can be, what happens to ideas when they leave the settings of their invention for other, and often less comfortable surroundings - take a large part of their point for him from this dominating context. If, for long, he was a cold-war thinker, this was simply because the cold war was then on, and he, if anyone, had spent a lifetime judging what in the end that war was really about. Not merely has he outlived it handsomely, the body of his work now shows quite clearly that it never seriously distorted the balance of his political judgement or the range of his broader human sympathies. (It may have done more harm to his understanding of the history of ideas of liberty.)

In the end the relation between the attempt to form and deploy a broad political judgement over world politics as a whole and the format of academic work is never likely to be comfortable. In this case the discomfort conspicuously failed to prevent Berlin from becoming an academic grandee of the highest conceivable rank. But it did at least protect resentful provincial colleagues from having to defer to the letter of his formulations on issues which greatly mattered to them. His was emphatically not an oeuvre for the Research Assessment Exercise. He never became an ideological use-value in quite the way that Popper or Hayek did, let alone identified inherent weaknesses in the Leninist regimes that proved ultimately decisive for their collapse (as Hayek may be thought to have done). But what he did was to give throughout a far steadier and more compelling picture of the point of defending the political tradition of the West than either even attempted. And he never turned his back on the suffering, or the rich imaginative responses of the population among whom he spent the second half of his childhood.

I return to the photograph on the jacket. It is an extremely attractive portrait: a trifle elegant perhaps for a sage, but very steady and dignified, with the power to captivate decorously suspended, and an impressive stillness that I have never seen in the flesh. It is the face of someone who has lived a most remarkable life and seen a very great deal. Unmistakably that of someone with the sense of reality, but equally unmistakably of someone whose sense of reality is grounded in the only soil we late moderns can still credit - in what he has found within himself.

John Dunn is professor of political theory, University of Cambridge.

The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and their History

Author - Isaiah Berlin
Editor - Henry Hardy
ISBN - 0 7011 6579 0
Publisher - Chatto and Windus
Price - £20.00
Pages - 8

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