The last great liberal

November 6, 1998

'One of the great minds of the 20th century' or 'unintelligible in several languages'? Michael Ignatieff asks how the world will remember Isaiah Berlin

A year ago, prime minister Tony Blair wrote a letter to the distinguished, but by then, very ill philosopher, Isaiah Berlin. He wanted to engage him in a debate about the Third Way. For Blair, the Third Way essentially means borrowing from liberal and social democratic traditions to create a synthesis that justifies state intervention while protecting individual freedom.

But Berlin's greatest work, Two Concepts of Liberty, suggests this may not prove easy. Two Concepts, written in 1958 and the most influential statement of the liberal creed since J. S. Mill's On Liberty, insisted that liberals want "to curb authority as such", while socialists, communists and Jacobin republicans "want it placed in their own hands". It met hostility from all Berlin's friends on the left, who saw this deliberate refusal to distinguish clearly between the democratic and non-democratic left as a provocation.

Berlin argued that while for a liberal freedom means non-interference and being left alone to do what one pleases, safe from the coercion, direction or intimidation of others, social democrats, socialists and communists all share a "positive" idea of freedom as self-direction and self-realisation. They justify the use of authority in the name of liberating human beings to achieve some blocked, repressed or hidden potential.

This was what inspired the prime minister's letter. What was so bad, he wanted to know, about "positive liberty"? Why should the state not use investment in education and jobs to enable individuals to realise their full potential? How could that violate their liberty? By then, unfortunately, Berlin was too ill to answer. But to the degree that his works can be parsed for the answer he might have given, he would have warned politicians against taking their own good intentions for granted. Unless authority accepts strict limits to its powers over individuals in practice, it will pass from enlarging their freedom to telling them what they ought to do with their freedom. And this, Berlin warned, is a danger even for social democratic movements.

Many of Berlin's listeners on the left took Two Concepts of Liberty to be a defence of cold war laissez faire. Certainly he was a conservative kind of liberal, deeply attached to the entrenched civil liberties of the English, fond of the pragmatic and non-ideological politics of these islands and of its political institutions. But the robust afterlife of his ideas would be inexplicable if they had only been a defence of the status quo. In practical politics, Berlin was a New Deal liberal and believed that individuals could not be free if they were poor, miserable or under-educated. "Equality of liberty," he wrote, was "the foundation I of liberal morality."

But he challenged the whole postwar social democratic consensus by pointing out that the values at the heart of it - liberty, equality and justice - contradicted each other. Taxation of the incomes of the rich might be necessary to bring justice to the many but it was a perversion of language and truth to suppose that nobody's liberty suffered as a result. All serious political choice involved loss, not merely trade-offs or compromises but genuine sacrifice of desirable ends. "If, as I believe, the ends of men are many, and not all of them are in principle compatible with each other, then the possibility of conflict - and of tragedy - can never wholly be eliminated from human life, either personal or social."

Two Concepts was vulnerable as a piece of practical political philosophy. In practice, Berlin believed in the welfare state, but he never fully resolved the question of how much social justice was required to safeguard any regime of negative liberty.

When he died last November, Berlin was probably the most famous and widely respected intellectual on either side of the Atlantic. There were obituaries in every major paper in Europe and North America. There were three memorial services - in London, Oxford and Washington. He went to his rest loaded down with honours. He had been knighted, the Queen had awarded him the Order of Merit, and he had honorary degrees from every major university in the world. All of his major works were still in print.

The story of how he achieved all this is extraordinary enough. A timber merchant's son from Riga, born in the twilight of the tsarist empire, he was exiled to England at 11 and managed to rise to the very top of the Mount Parnassus of Anglo-American academic life. He was the first Jew elected a fellow of All Souls in 1932, charmed Virginia Woolf with his conversation when still in his twenties, met Freud, Wittgenstein and Einstein while still in his thirties, helped found Oxford analytical philosophy, wrote dispatches on American opinion from the British Embassy in Washington, which became some of Winston Churchill's favourite wartime reading, visited the great Russian poets Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova in Stalin's Russia, lectured at the Kennedy White House in 1962, founded Wolfson College, Oxford, served as president of the British Academy and still managed to write nine volumes of essays on Russian thinkers and liberal philosophy.

Few philosophers or historians had lived their own century so intensely, so close to the dominant personalities and key events of his time. In Washington, he had witnessed the Grand Alliance between Churchill and Roosevelt at its height; in Moscow and Leningrad, he saw the dawn of the cold war and watched the night of repression fall on its greatest poets and artists; in l962, he dined with President Kennedy on the very night he discovered the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba. All of these events gave him a keen sense of reality, an acute awareness of how the world of power and influence actually works.

In the year since his death, even sceptics have agreed it was an amazing life. But what remains? What solid achievement is there to celebrate? Was his ascent just a story of social success? Or is there a body of thought which will endure? And what kind of thought was it? Was he a philosopher? A historian? Or a combination of the two? The best answer, given by the philosopher Bernard Williams, was that he was a historian who posed philosophical questions to the history of ideas. The chief of these was how to reconcile the idea of universal moral principles with the facts of cultural and historical variation. For him, the key question was whether a common human horizon existed. The methods he used to tackle this - combining history and philosophy in highly focused studies of individual thinkers from Machiavelli to Marx - made him one of a kind. Who else in 20th-century British intellectual life managed to combine analytical philosophy, studies of the history of the Russian intelligentsia and a political theory of liberalism?

But even if we acknowledge the unique range and variety of his work, what are we to make of the ensemble? Does it hang together? Was he a fox who knew many things and dissipated his energies in too many directions? Or was he a hedgehog who knew one big thing? He always knew this reckoning was coming. He was a shrewd appraiser of others' reputations and he always said that his own had depended on "systematic over-estimation" of his abilities. "Long may this continue," he used to say, but he knew it would not. He even knew that his social success was more ambivalent than it seemed. He had acute social radar and he knew that for all his success in England, he remained an outsider. He was received at Buckingham Palace, at Downing Street, in the country houses of the British aristocracy, but he always understood that he was, first, last and always, a Russian Jew. He loved England - for its traditions of liberty, its sceptical empiricism, and its general philo-Semitism. But he did not make the mistake of assuming that he belonged. He was also sharply aware that to be liked is not necessarily to be understood. He was liked, particularly, for expressing a love of this country which the native-born found embarrassing to confess but agreeable to hear. The writer Ian Buruma wisely observed that Berlin's death marked the passing of a certain kind of ideal of England - aristocratic, gentlemanly and liberty-loving - while the England he actually spent the last years of his life in - Thatcherian, market-driven, and anything but gentlemanly - was increasingly beyond his ken.

While Berlin was at home in England and loved its essentially reasonable politics, his thought took its characteristic cast from the sombre hue of the century in which he lived. It was the "worst century in recorded history", he always said, in needless loss of human life. The English had been spared the utopias of fascism and communism, but millions of innocent lives had been sacrificed to these versions of Jerusalem. All of his thought can be seen as a plea on behalf of the battered, injured, coerced individual at the mercy of history in a violent century. This made him unique among British liberal philosophers: he never forgot the darkness and tyranny just beyond these borders.

Berlin was quite aware that his England was no more. He also knew that liberals like himself were held in suspicion by Labour and Conservatives alike. On his death, true to form, he was attacked by Paul Johnson for being a "low-risk philosopher", a fence-sitter, an equivocator on the great issues of our time. Christopher Hitchens weighed in from the left, criticising him for being a cold warrior, an ideological accomplice of the national security state and the McCarthyite tide of the l950s. I am sure he would not have lost sleep over either Johnson's or Hitchens's attack. But they were symptomatic of the suspicion in which his middle course was always held.

WHAT BERLIN SAID OF THE WORLD

On personalities: "There exists a great chasm between those, on the one side, who relate everything to a single central vision ... and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory ... The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes."

On liberty: "The desire not to be impinged upon, to be left to oneself, has been the mark of high civilisation both on the part of individuals and communities."

On solutions: "No perfect solution is, not merely in practice, but in principle, possible in human affairs, and any determined attempt to produce it is likely to lead to suffering, disillusionment and failure."

On pluralism: "the conception that there are many different ends that men may seek and still be fully rational, fully men, capable of understanding each other and sympathising and deriving light from each other."

On truths: "Few new truths have ever won their way against the resistance of established ideas save by being overstated."

On philosophy: "The perennial task of philosophers is to examine whatever seems insusceptible to the methods of sciences or everyday observation."

What the world said of him:

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: "One of the great minds of the 20th century."

Russian poetAnna Akmatova: "He will not be a beloved husbandto me/ But whatwe accomplish he and I,/ Will disturb the Twentieth Century."

Writer A. L. Rowse: "Unintelligible in several languages".

Former fellow of All Souls William Waldegrave: "If you had asked me to show you what I meant by the ideal of Englishness, I would have taken you to see a Latvian, Jewish, Russian, German, Italian mixture of all the cultures of Europe. I would have taken you to see Isaiah Berlin."

Michael Ignatieff's biography of Isaiah Berlin will be reviewed in The THES next week.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments