Conflict of Visions

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The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas, by Isaiah Berlin, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 290 pages, $22.00

The subtitle of this work calls our attention to the intellectual field that we are being asked to explore: the history of ideas. The title comes from a remark of Immanuel Kant—"Out of timber so crooked as that from which man is made nothing entirely straight can be built"—and it directs us to the underlying theme governing most of the eight essays that make up this volume: the impossibility of achieving moral and political perfection, and the disastrous results that occur when human beings blind themselves to this truth. Sir Isaiah Berlin is one of the preeminent guides on this score, for he has pursued this theme, in one manner or another, in extraordinarily penetrating ways during the last 40 years.

Historians of ideas have difficult and delicate tasks, most often involving tracing the origins or development of certain ideas as they weave a course through various settings. This always involves a detailed knowledge of various disciplines: For example, to trace and understand the idea of "order" in the 18th century (with an eye on trying to espy the birth of the idea of "spontaneous order"), one must examine the histories of music, painting, astronomy, economics, politics, etc.—all homes to the idea of "order." In his four decades pursuing the history of ideas, Berlin has exhibited learning in various fields that is simply breathtaking.

Berlin's signature essay—and it is the essay that is his principal form of expression—is most frequently to be found rummaging through the Enlightenment, the Romantic Era, and the late 19th century. And within these settings Berlin is especially keen to hunt down and trace out the connections of several ideas in particular: liberty, self, will, perfection, human dignity, relativism, fascism, the Enlightenment, and romanticism—ideas that all bear on the question of what it means to be human.

And it is on this question that four of the essays that compose The Crooked Timber of Humanity turn quite sharply: "The Pursuit of the Ideal"; "The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West"; "European Unity and its Vicissitudes"; and "The Apotheosis of the Romantic Will: The Revolt Against the Myth of an Ideal World." Berlin eloquently suggests that the Western intellectual tradition generally, and the Western political tradition in particular, is underwritten by three assumptions: that whatever moral and political questions we might ask of human beings, there is only one true answer for each question, and it is the same for all human beings; that these universal truths are in principle capable of being discovered; and that all of these answers form a consistent or a coherent whole with one another, that is, there is no conflict among these answers, and hence no conflict among the ends and values that human beings should pursue.

These assumptions, which dominated Western thought through the Enlightenment, form a certain conception of what it means to be a human being, and part of this is the notion that "conflict and tragedy are not intrinsic to human life." Insofar as all of the answers to the central problems of being human are compatible with one another, it follows that the conflicts in human life are avoidable—at least in principle. The idea of the "tragic," that conflict cannot be eliminated in human affairs, is, in Berlin's view, not part of the dominant conception of the Western tradition in the Enlightenment.

And as the titles of three of Berlin's essays suggest, this dominant conception of man lends itself to utopian theorizing and reflections about ideal worlds. Such utopias, though, do not exist, and this state of the world has given rise to various views trying to explain why—ranging from human beings' ignorance of what is proper for them to false consciousness, stumbling blocks that presumably can be overcome by just social arrangements. Berlin finds this turn of thought gravely dangerous, for next to it lies the dream that some are only too ready to try to actualize—to remove that which stands in the way of the elimination of conflict and the pursuit of an ideal world, a "few" individual lives. And as we know, all too sadly, the 20th century has been littered with such pursuits.

The Western intellectual tradition is not all of a piece, however, and in the essays already alluded to and in two others—"Giambattista Vico and Cultural History" and "Alleged Relativism in Eighteenth-Century European Thought"—Berlin elucidates another conception of what it is to be human that challenges those three dominant assumptions about the unitary character of human conduct. In so doing, Berlin sketches out both the history of ideas and his own intellectual history, for it is this second conception that Berlin himself has embraced.

The three figures who have meant the most to Berlin in discerning and carving out this alternative conception are Machiavelli, Vico, and Johann Herder; and in understanding why, we begin to grasp, if only roughly, this alternative position.

It was with Machiavelli that Berlin began to consider the possibility that not all of the ultimate values of human beings are compatible with one another; for in Machiavelli, Berlin found a thinker presenting his readers with two incommensurable moralities: Christian virtues and the martial virtues that would sustain the Prince. Machiavelli had no difficulty choosing between the two, Berlin maintains, but other thinkers did. Yet for Berlin the striking point was a duality of ultimate values with no principled ground on which to choose between them. It began to seem to Berlin that there was not a single answer to questions about how human beings ought to live or what their ends should be; perhaps there were two, or even more, answers.

It was at this stage in his thinking that Berlin read both the 18th-century Italian thinker Vico and the 18th-century German Herder. He found something quite similar in both of them: the idea that each civilization, or culture, or society, has its own vision, its own morality, overlapping with others perchance, but still different in central ways. Here again was the possibility that there was not one set of ultimate values, but many, all of them incommensurable with the others. Berlin was then led to the conceptual point that some values can be achieved only at the expense of others: liberty at the cost of equality, justice at the cost of mercy, spontaneity at the cost of planning, and so on.

It is this pluralistic world, a world of many incompatible ultimate values, that is, Berlin contends, the world of human beings. As a result, ours is a world of conflict and tragedy, where not everything judged to be moral can be achieved, and where what is moral can be achieved only at the expense of other ultimate values. And given the incommensurability of ultimate ends—individually and socially—that is part of the human condition, Berlin implores us to accept liberty as a cardinal value, allowing others to pursue their conception of a good life while we pursue ours. Liberty is thus not a path to perfection in the moral and political world but a recognition of the ineliminability of a clash of ultimate values in life and a realization that perfection is not to be had; when the attempt is made, human lives are often the price to be paid.

As Berlin understands, it was not Machiavelli or Vico, and not even Herder, who decisively brought this "pluralistic" conception to bear against the "monism" that was sovereign throughout the Enlightenment. Rather, the prime mover was romanticism, especially the tenet of many romanticists that man did not find ends and values in the world but instead created them with his own will. And as wills differed, so did ends; thus a pluralism of ends. For Berlin, this was a laudatory feature of romanticism; however, it had its dark side, a side that manifested itself as relativism, fascism, nationalism, and brute irrationalism. Berlin takes some care, as one might imagine, to distance himself from the sickness of romanticism. Most especially, Berlin takes great pains to try to show that his "pluralism" does not collapse into relativism.

In the two essays I have not yet mentioned—the pathbreaking "Joseph de Maistre and the Origins of Fascism" (the longest essay in the collection) and "The Bent Twig: On the Rise of Nationalism"—Berlin addresses the fundamental character of fascism and nationalism. The former is of great importance in revealing how fascism is a perversion of certain now-central values of our tradition—foremost among them sincerity, integrity, and national pride, values that, unperverted, have the best of consequences.

It is impossible to convey in a short review the richness and subtlety of Berlin's work: You must read him yourself. It is also very difficult to convey the spirit of liberty that informs his every essay. On this, perhaps the following story will help. Joseph Brodsky, exiled from Russia in 1972, Nobel Prize winner in literature in 1977, recalls carrying another collection of Berlin's essays, Four Essays on Liberty, around with him in Russia as his daily pocket companion. He got the volume from a book shark, cover torn off to try to protect the innocent. Brodsky writes that it was Berlin's book that "served as an antidote to all sorts of demagoguery in which my native realm was virtually awash."

Sir Isaiah speaks with a distinctive voice, one that surely touched and continues to touch those far removed from the liberties that we value and enjoy. I know of no one who would be wise not to listen, and The Crooked Timber of Humanity is a fine place to begin.

Stuart D. Warner is an assistant professor of philosophy at Roosevelt University.