The Spectacles of Isaiah Berlin

By Assaf Inbari

The twentieth century's greatest liberal was anything but a pluralist

Anyone looking for a harmonious, rationalist culture will be more likely to find it in China or India.22 The Chinese and the Indians, not the Europeans, would agree with Berlin that “sin, crime, suffering are forms of maladjustment due to blindness,” and that “there is nothing in the nature of men or the world which makes tragedy unavoidable.” The concept of “tragedy” is foreign to the Chinese and the Indians; the world is perfect and each person can be just as perfect if he undertakes the necessary study of Taoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, or Buddhism. Berlin presented Western culture—restless, tormented, turbulent, from an Eastern point of view—as a culture characterized from the very dawn of its creation and almost throughout its existence by all-resolving rationalism, until the Romantics came and introduced Europe to the possibility of restlessness, torment, and turbulence.
According to Berlin, the Romantic ethos is “something altogether new in the European consciousness,” because “what matters now is motive, integrity, sincerity, fidelity in principle, purity of heart, spontaneity; not happiness or strength or wisdom or success, or natural beauty, or other natural values, which are outside the realm of moral freedom.” A Romanticist does not care “whether, in a worldly sense, he succeeds or does not succeed”; thus he acknowledges that grief, not necessarily happiness, will descend on him the more he knows about the world; thus he acknowledges that “justice may preclude mercy”; and thus he acknowledges that “if man were not free to choose evil, he would not be truly free.”23 Yet again, there is not a word here that is not compatible with either the biblical ethos or Athenian tragedy.
“The very concept of idealism as a noble attribute is novel,” Berlin says, continuing to burst through doors that were opened 2,500 years ago. “To praise someone as an idealist is to say that he is prepared to lay down his life for ends in which he believes for their own sake [and not for the sake of success or happiness or any kind of reward].”24 And in order to explain to us why this is not precisely what the first Christians did (another Jew in his place would also have recalled all those Jews who died as martyrs in the last two thousand years), Berlin says: “It had always been right for a Christian to die for his faith; but that was because it was the true faith, and only by it could a man be saved, and therefore it constituted the highest value in his scale, and not in his alone, but in that of all mankind.”25 But when a Romanticist gave up his life he did it for his personal values, his and only his.26
This is the crucial error in Berlin’s definition of Romanticism. Until now he was wrong only in defining the Romantic ethos as innovative; now he is mistaken in defining its essence. When he talks about “idealism” (whatever that implies) and about “goals” that the Romanticist sets for himself (whatever they may be), he empties the Romantic ethos of its content. It is of no importance, according to Berlin, what the Romanticists stood for; all that is important is that each of them had his own private ideal and lived for it. “We can give [our values] no reason save that that is what we aim at, that these are the goals that are ours because we have chosen them.”27 This is what he calls Romantic “idealism.” It is possible that this arbitrary “idealism” was typical of Sartrean existentialism,28 but Romanticism held to a specific ethos. It sanctified the night. That was its message.
By day, man is a social animal. By night, man does not remember that he is a citizen, has no recollection of his duty, of his colleagues, not even of his family; at night he dreams. Savagery, violence, scenes of lechery and horror, voyages into the magical and descents into the despicable—it happens to us all, night after night, and no one thought it worth glorifying until the advent of the Romantics. We do not have space to list here all the Romantic poems, from Novalis’ “Hymns to the Night” (1797) to Bialik’s “Secrets of the Night” (1899), in which the subject of night appears in their titles.29 All of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tales are nightmares, and more indirectly, so are Kleist’s. The demonic, Gothic, nocturnal darkness cloaks the entire Romantic world of images. The Romanticists glorified Cain, Kublai Khan, Don Juan, Napoleon, the genius sociopath who appears in the world as one of nature’s terrible forces. The metaphysical idealism of Fichte and Schopenhauer is profoundly dark and utterly opposed to Spinoza’s tranquil pantheism and the Arcadian nature that Rousseau so longed for.30 In every poem by Coleridge, in every painting by Turner, in every note by Wagner, speaks the Lord of the Night.
It was not nihilism but a new ethos. It was not the lack of a scale of values but the overturning of a scale of values that denied night and glistened from too much Enlightenment sunlight. “Enlightenment,” declared Kant, “is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity”—and this emergence to maturity is an emergence from slavery to freedom, to independence.31 Enlightened man is not a slave of superstition or of impulse, emotion, or other rubbish. His rationality is his freedom. There is no night in his soul. On the other hand, the Romanticists maintained that this “freedom” was slavery; that “reason” was the trampling of true freedom—the nocturnal freedom to live and express the deeper, fascinating, exciting, vital, energetic side of the human soul. What makes man different from the animals is not that he has intelligence (what creature does not have some form of intelligence?) but that man and only man has imagination. It follows that the artist, the knight of imagination, and not the philosopher, the knight of reason, is the exemplary human being, the Romantic “genius.” Art is the most important human activity, and of all forms of art, music and poetry are the most important, because the nocturnal, ecstatic-demonic potential of music and poetry is greater than that of any other art form.32 That was the essence of the Romantic revolution: The idea that art was more important than anything else, not for expressing shapely “beauty,” but for expressing the “sublime,” the terrifying, the nocturnal.33
Berlin attributed a pluralism to Romanticism that was not there, and did not see what was there. He was night-blind. It is important to differentiate between an error derived from a specific shortcoming in an intellectual’s way of thinking and an error arising from his agenda. Berlin’s night blindness derived from his agenda, from which also derived his error in understanding the second major object of his attention: National consciousness.

Inasmuch as Berlin made his name as an interpreter of Romanticism, he was revered as a liberal who recognized the significance of nationalism. True, he recognized its significance as a historical phenomenon—but who does not recognize it as such? Serious recognition of nationalism is admission not just of its historical importance, but of its ideological importance.
Berlin was indeed a Zionist, but as Avishai Margalit remarks, “Berlin’s Zionism was not an ideology which derives from primary principles such as nationalism or liberalism. His Zionism was for him more akin to a family business than to a doctrine.”34 In other words, Berlin was a Zionist without having clarified what his philosophical attitude was towards the question of nationalism. Moreover, his support for Zionism in fact diverged from his political philosophy, since this support was not compatible with his hostility towards other nationalist movements, as Richard Wollheim notes.35 If he hadn’t been Jewish, he likely would have opposed Zionism in the same way he had opposed the other nationalisms.
Nationalism, as Berlin understood it, is essentially a modern European phenomenon. The self-esteem of the Germans, the Italians, the Poles, and the Russians was badly damaged around 1800 both as a result of the efforts of rulers like Frederick the Great and Peter the Great to impose the values and manners of the French Enlightenment, and to an even greater extent as a consequence of Napoleon’s military and cultural conquest. In other words, not only is nationalism essentially European, but it is merely an emotional reaction to humiliation and indignity. It is not a reasoned political philosophy or worldview—in fact, it is doubtful if it is at all worthy of the description “worldview,” since it is purely emotional. It is a collective convulsion, a reflex, a response to some excruciating irritation, as one scratches one’s psoriasis.
Berlin is duly aware of the difference between chauvinist nationalism and tolerant national consciousness. “Nationalism is an inflamed condition of national consciousness which can be, and has on occasion been, tolerant and peaceful. It usually seems to be caused by wounds, some form of collective humiliation.”36 The reader may well get the impression, therefore, that Berlin is referring only to chauvinist nationalism—not peaceful national consciousness—as an “emotional fever,” and this impression raises the expectation of a non-volatile discussion of national consciousness. For if “national consciousness” does not mean chauvinism, what kind of ideological position is it? Our expectation goes unfulfilled. Berlin has nothing to say about nationalist ideology; he says only what everyone already knows: Chauvinism and national consciousness are not the same thing. One does not know, therefore, what he means when he writes that “what we are seeing, it seems to me, is a world reaction against the central doctrines of nineteenth-century liberal rationalism itself, a confused effort to return to an older morality.”37 Chauvinism or national consciousness? The difference is of no importance, for after all, one way or the other, he considered them to be nothing more than a reaction to liberal rationalism—and Berlin, being a liberal, cannot therefore recognize it as a political philosophy. It is not a form of reason, merely a reaction.38

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