The rock of sages

The Proper Study of Mankind
August 29, 1997

The curious feature of Isaiah Berlin's reputation is that it appears to be posthumous. Something about his essays - their moral elevation and antique style - gives the impression of having been written by a sage long gathered to his rest. The fact that he is alive, vital and alert at the age of 88, makes him seem like one of those strange elderly gentlemen in a Borges fable, whose mortality has been mysteriously suspended to allow him to taste the rewards of the afterlife while still enjoying this one.

The Proper Study of Mankind, an anthology of his best writing, adeptly selected by Henry Hardy and Roger Hausheer, is part of this curious process of crafting Berlin's posthumous reputation while he is still extant. Noel Annan's foreword to the collection sets the valedictory tone: "He seems to me to have written the truest and most moving of all the interpretations of life that my own generation made." For Annan, what seems true is Berlin's defence of liberal decencies against the totalitarianism of right and left. What seems moving is Berlin's insistence that life involves loss; we cannot have everything we want, even in the most liberal society we could imagine. Values will collide - we can retain freedom, for example, only if we sacrifice a certain amount of justice. As Berlin wrote in Two Concepts of Liberty: "If, as I believe, the ends of men are many, and not all of them are in principle compatible with one another, then the possibility of conflict - and tragedy - can never be wholly eliminated from human life, either personal or social."

This appeals to Annan because it gives a certain stoic dignity to a liberal creed that might otherwise seem boringly pragmatic or morally evasive. It is clear that the generation for which Berlin spoke most clearly was his and Annan's own. The question posed by the appearance of this anthology is whether Berlin's work can win a new audience to replace the one for whom it was written.

It would be crass to date him as a cold war liberal - the work is too scholarly, too deeply considered, to be regarded simply as ideological weaponry. But he had seen Soviet communism at first hand, first as a child during the starvation years of Lenin's war communism and then in l945 as a British official briefly posted to Moscow. While in the Soviet Union, he had spent an unforgettable evening with the greatest Russian poetess of the 20th century, Anna Akhmatova, in her apartment in the Fontanny Dom in St Petersburg. His account of his meeting with her, and with Boris Pasternak, is included in this anthology and is among the very finest essays ever written about the struggle of artists to survive totalitarian repression. His meeting with Akhmatova transformed Berlin from an Oxford don into a public intellectual. In the figure of Akhmatova, he found a guiding star of moral and intellectual integrity. In her fate, he found a personal mission: to attack thesystem of abstractions that had led to the destruction of her freedom. It was in the decade after his return from Moscow that he wrote the best of his essays, all powered by a loathing of the communist system and a desire to track down the roots of its particular variety of coercive utopianism in the pan-European soil of the Enlightenment. There were many other liberal anticommunist intellectuals in the l950s engaged in the same task - Jacob Talmon and Karl Popper, for example - but Berlin was the only one in the West who attacked Soviet tyranny, not only from without, from the vantage point of western liberal premises, but also from within, using the words and example of Russia's radicaltradition. His essays on Russian thinkers, especially his single-handed resurrection of Alexander Herzen's reputation, included in this anthology, salvaged the great Russiantradition of radical thought from its dubious afterlife as progenitor of Soviet tyranny. Here is one of Berlin's canonical quotations from Herzen's From the Other Shore, adeptly deployed to cast scorn on totalitarian ideologies of progress that propose the sacrifice of present generations for the sake of radiant tomorrows: "If progress is the goal, for whom are we working? Who is this Moloch, who as the toilers approach him, instead of rewarding them, draws back; and as a consolation to the exhausted and doomed multitudes, shouting morituri te salutant, can only give the ... mocking answer that after their death all will be beautiful on earth."

What made Berlin such an influential figure in the liberal response to Stalinism, therefore, was not simply that he was a well-connected insider and brilliant conversationalist, ensconced at a high altitude on the Mount Parnassus of Anglo-American intellectual life; or even that the quality of his philosophic mind and the reach of his scholarship lifted liberal polemic out of the rut of callow journalism; it was that he alone managed to turn the Russian tradition itself into a weapon against Soviet tyranny.

But the heyday for this kind of operation was brief. By the mid-1960s, his reputation went into eclipse. While he was spared personal attack during the 1960s, his kind of sceptical accommodating liberalism, precisely because it was on the left, was singled out for special scorn by the student revolutionaries and then by the academic Marxists. In the early l970s, Berlin's kind of liberalism was not so much scorned as ignored in the gadarene rush to follow the fashionable French - Foucault, Barthes, Derrida et al. In the conservative counter-revolution of the late l970s, the anti-communist heroes of the l940s and l950s were revived - Popper and Hayek, especially - but Berlin remained out in the cold, because, unlike them, he still had a good thing to say for the corrupted decencies of the postwar social democratic settlement.

In the 1990s, with the decline of socialism and the adverse after-effects of the conservative counter-revolution becoming apparent, Berlin's kind of liberalism begins to look like the only creed to have survived the storm. But it might be misleading to explain the Berlin revival in terms of the Zeitgeist. Equally important was the fact that his previously unpublished work began to reappear in accessible Oxford paperback editions beginning in l978. This was due, not to Berlin himself, but to the patient, methodical and devoted work of Henry Hardy, who studied philosophy at Wolfson during Berlin's tenure there.

Besides Hardy's astonishing act of editorial resurrection, the times themselves conspired to make Berlin's work of recurring relevance. Since the early 1990s, it has become the starting point for at least three new lines of debate and inquiry. The first of these is certainly the field of nationalism. With the eruption of ethnic nationalism after the cold war, anyone seriously interested in understanding the violently combustible mixture of resentment, anger and pride that has attended the birth of the successor states of the Balkans and the Soviet empire, finds that a return to Berlin is essential. For most liberal thinkers, nationalist feeling is patriotism deformed into chauvinism, while for Marxists it is solidarity deformed into tribalism. In neither, is it a bona fide need that a serious political theory should respect. Berlin was one of the relatively few liberal thinkers of the postwar years who responded positively to the anthropological claim all nationalisms make, that is, that human beings need a place where they are understood and not merely for what they say but for what they mean; and that nation states are the modern institutional form in which this need for belonging is most likely to be met. He argued that nationalism met needs for belonging that the relentlessly rational contractualism of the Enlightenment had failed to understand. He also insisted thattheorists take account of nationalism as a style of resentment: "It may be true that nationalism, as distinct from mere national consciousness - the sense of belonging to a nation - is in the first place a response to a patronising or disparaging attitude towards the traditional values of a society, the result of wounded pride and a sense of humiliation in its most socially conscious members, which in due course produce anger and self-assertion.

All nationalisms, Berlin argued, begin with a wound and turn it into a myth: for theQuebecois, the memory of the conquest of 1759; for the Baltic states, the Hitler-Ribbentrop pact that swallowed up their independence in l939; for the Irish nationalist, partition in 1921. But rubbing the wound raw is not enough to sustain a nationalist movement. It must also offer prospective believers a positive vision of a community ruling itself, and, in so doing, unleashing the energies held in check by the oppressors. The Proper Study of Mankind contains some of Berlin's archaeology of the nationalist idea, in the writings of Herder and the German Romantics together with "Nationalism: past neglect and present power", an essay published in l978 but derived from thinking done in the l950s.

His steady if sceptical personal commitment to one kind of nationalism, Zionism, must partly explain his positive evaluation of nationalism in general. But Zionism is the most contested of all modern nationalisms and Berlin's commitment to it has always been sceptical. This scepticism amounts to a strong sense of the tension between being a nationalist and being a liberal, and it is this tension that makes his thinking about nationalism of interest to academics and citizens alike. He cannot be said to have many disciples - since he has not sought to have them - but some of the most interesting of them are the liberal Israelis, such as Avishai Margalit and Yael Tamir, who have taken inspiration from him in their own attempts to reconcile the Zionist claim to a homeland with the liberal commitment to justice, especially towards the Palestinians.

Nationalism interested Berlin because its major German theorists, Fichte and Herder, used the idea of the ineradicable particularity of national culture to mount an attack on the rationalist universalism of the French Enlightenment. As he dug deeper into the German Romantic counter-attack on the Enlightenment, Berlin found himself wondering to what degree the German insistence on the particularity of culture could be reconciled with a belief in universal values. That such values did exist, he did not doubt. "Forms of life differ. Ends, moral principles are many." This he had learned from the Romantics. "But not infinitely many: they must be within the human horizon." The limits of the human horizon lay in what the human mind and body could stand: if one met a person who liked sticking pins into other human beings because, so he said, he enjoyed the sensation of penetrating human flesh, one had crossed the threshold separating the human from the inhuman. However plural the field of human values might appear to be, it was not infinitely relative. Torture is torture and murder is murder in any language. "There is a world of objective values", a set of limits beyond which the human becomes inhuman.

A further proof of the fact that all humanity shared the same human horizon lay in the evidence that cultures could meaningfully communicate with each other and historians could make sense of beliefs and ideas alien to their own time. From his studies on the 18th-century Neapolitan historian, Giambattista Vico, Berlin took the idea that no matter how alien other cultures and periods of history may appear, they are the handiwork of men and women, and that as such, they must be comprehensible: "Intercommunication between cultures in time and space is possible only because what makes men human is common to them, and acts as a bridge between them. But our values are ours, and theirs are theirs. We are free to criticise the values of other cultures, to condemn them, but we cannot pretend not to understand them at all, or to regard them simply as subjective, the products of creatures in different circumstances with different tastes from our own, which do not speak to us at all."

An important conclusion followed: human values are plural - they conflict - but they are not relative, not just a matter of subjective cultural taste. Berlin's apparently scattered and diverse historical projects - the Enlightenment thinkers, the German counter-enlightenment, the Russians - were all pursued with one very large philosophical question in view: whether the heterogeneity of human values across time and space could be reconciled with a conception of universal standards.

If his work on nationalism provided Berlin with one new constituency in the l990s, a second constituency came from all those, both common readers and professional academics, perplexed by the problem of relativism. As a convinced secularist, Berlin was well placed to be one of the key philosophers of a godless world. On the one hand, he argued that we must emancipate ourselves from the need for metaphysical guarantees: "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."

On the other hand, he insisted that there was, despite the dissolution of many certainties, something solid under our feet. Against Richard Rorty and the various exponents of the radical contingency of our moral situation - the sense that ethics is an arbitrary narrative we construct out of our tradition to keep nihilism at bay - Berlin has always stood for the contention that there is a human horizon, an objective limit that radically restricts the range of ethical choices we can meaningfully approve as being human.

These reflections on relativism and pluralism in modern moral thought gave Berlin a third new constituency among philosophers of liberalism. Since "Two concepts of liberty" (1958) and "Does political theory still exist?" (1961), Berlin's most important contributions to political theory, both of which figure in this anthology, there has been an explosion of creative work in the liberal political theory tradition. While this has been going on, Berlin himself has been sitting on the sidelines, keeping silent. On the one hand, there has been the attempt by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice to supply rigorous logical foundations for liberal ideals of distributive justice. On the other, there has been the postmodernist attack, represented by figures like Rorty, on the very idea of such foundations and a reassertion that liberalism can only be defended as the best of a bad job, a contingent, ungrounded distillation of our experiments with failure. Berlin himself has had almost nothing to say, directly, to either of these approaches, but admirers, such as John Gray, have quarried Berlin's earlier work to argue that since our ultimate political ends are incompatible, it is hopeless to attempt, as Rawls does, to find an Archimedean point, "behind the veil of ignorance", in which these conflicts could be definitively resolved. The only plausible justification of liberal political institutions is that such institutions are a way to conduct the necessarily interminable debate about how to reconcile our competing principles. Berlinian pluralism, in other words, is the rationale both for liberal tolerance and liberal democracy.

Rawls had hoped to link liberalism to a solidly grounded regime of distributive justice. Gray's reading of Berlin places particular stress on those passages of "Two concepts" in which Berlin insists that liberty is liberty and justice is justice, and that it is a social democratic sleight of hand to believe that more justice for all is necessarily an increase of liberty for all. Gray convicted Rawls of just such a sleight of hand. Quite possibly the most influential sentences Berlin has ever written are the following from "Two concepts of liberty": "Everything is what it is: liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or culture, or human happiness or a quiet conscience. If the liberty of myself or my class or nation depends on the misery of a number of other human beings, the system which promotes this is unjust and immoral. But if I curtail or lose my freedom in order to lessen the shame of such inequality, and do not thereby materially increase the individual liberty of others, an absolute loss of liberty occurs."

Sentences of this sort have helped to explain his continuing intellectual pertinence. He is both a defender of the decencies of the liberal democratic redistributive state and a critic of the well-meaning egalitarianism that ultimately destroyed that state's moral legitimacy and prepared the way for the conservative counter-revolution of the l980s. He offers no way out of the continuing impasse between liberty and equality, but his insistence that we cease confusing the choices before us by conflating the two words has had an astringent and positive effect on anyone who returns to his work.

But when all is said and done, the Borgesian mystery of his reputation remains. In the debate on liberalism, he has remained a vital contributor for 40 years, despite not having written a word. He is a genial phantom invoked in every argument. Even more paradoxical is that as others have sized up the significance of his work, his own estimate of his posthumous reputation and importance has changed significantly. This anthology begins with the last major essay Berlin has written, "The pursuit of the idea", composed in 1988 when he was presented with the Agnelli prize in Turin. The editors were entirely right to introduce the collection with this piece, since it is Berlin's retrospective attempt to sum up, in one place, what he was trying to do. The essay is a retrospective act of self-creation, as if a master had returned, just before the canvasses were hung, to apply a last tip of the brush to his self-portrait. In it, he construes himself as the liberal pluralist his admirers have made him out to be; in it, he finds the golden thread - the hedgehog-like tenacity - that held together all his fox-like pursuits: the defence of the radical plurality of human ends against all theorists and totalitarian ideologies that maintain that the ends of man are noncontradictory.

This is indeed how the hedgehog looks to himself once he has done all his burrowing. But it is not necessarily how he looked to himself when he began digging. The extraordinary consistency of Berlin's intellectual journey would not have looked anything like so consistent had he not lived so long or had such a long retrospect to consider, and in places, adjust its shape. Thanks to essays like "The pursuit of the ideal", we now have the obituary as he would like it read. But if the obituary is ready, the life is still being lived, an irony he doubtless enjoys. Because he remains alive and active, this collection should be seen as a construction site rather than as a mausoleum. He is still working on it, in the voluminous correspondence he maintains with thinkers who have found their way to his work and now want to establish what he really meant all along. As their reading of his work brings out new relevances, his view of it changes. The result, happily, is that the obituaries are premature, and when they come to be written at last, they are bound to be surprising.

Michael Ignatieff is writing a life of Isaiah Berlin.

The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays

Author - Isaiah Berlin
Editor - Henry Hardy and Roger Hausheer
ISBN - 0 7011 65 8
Publisher - Chatto and Windus
Price - £25.00
Pages - 667

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