The Spectacles of Isaiah Berlin

By Assaf Inbari

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

Even though Berlin, like Popper, applied his thesis concerning the roots of totalitarianism to the entire history of European thought, he focused on one specific period, which in his opinion was the most important in the history of the West. Berlin returns to this period, which rocked Europe around 1800, from different angles in almost all his essays. From 1960 on, he identified that historical upheaval with “the Romantic Revolution,” and from 1972 on, he claimed that the rise of nationalism was also a part of it. Once his thesis included references to both Romanticism and nationalism, he gained renown as an intellectual who demonstrated his pluralism by describing illiberal ideological movements candidly, without arrogance or tendentiousness.
But this is a misimpression, one which stems mainly from Berlin’s easy-going style. He did not disparage illiberal writers and currents of thought the way Popper and Hayek did, but reviewed them with a scholarly, “objective” detachment. In all his essays, there is not even one outburst of anger or venom; an Olympian tone is maintained throughout. In every one of his essays one has to extract his point of view from the opinions and cultural associations he pulls out of his pocket in handfuls, like a kindly old man feeding pigeons in the city square. Thanks to the breadth of his horizons, Berlin succeeded in being portrayed as a fox. In fact, he was a hedgehog par excellence, a soft-spoken dogmatist.

Berlin blamed the Enlightenment for sowing the seeds of totalitarian thinking. The arrogance of the Enlightenment’s enlistment of reason in creating a perfect, utterly rational world, spawned the tyranny of Robespierre, and in the twentieth century, the KGB state. Berlin maintains that the Romantic movement was born as a justified counter-reaction to the dogmatic optimism of the Enlightenment. The Romanticists were, in his view, the first pluralists. To be a Romanticist was to be a pluralist.
All the values and motifs normally attributed to the Romantic movement seemed to him erroneous or inessential:
Turbulence, violence, conflict, chaos… the strange, the exotic, the grotesque, the mysterious, the supernatural, ruins, moonlight, enchanted castles… darkness and the powers of darkness, phantoms, vampires, nameless terror, the irrational… Gothic cathedrals, mists of antiquity… the impalpable, the imponderable… it is nostalgia, it is reverie, it is intoxicating dreams, it is sweet melancholy and bitter melancholy, solitude, the sufferings of exile, the sense of alienation, roaming in remote places, especially the East, and in remote times, especially the Middle Ages… energy, force, will, life… wild exhibitionism, eccentricity… the damned soul, the Corsairs, Manfreds, Giaours, Laras, Cains… Satanic revels, cynical irony, diabolical laughter, black heroes….
And so forth.10 In Berlin’s opinion, the essence of Romanticism is not to be found in this nocturnal world. The essence of Romanticism is for him the revolutionary discovery that it is impossible to reconcile conflicting values. “The belief… that somewhere there exists a solution for every problem… is the major assumption that is presupposed in the whole of Western thought up to the point of which I speak,” ruled Berlin.11 He thought that all the thinkers who preceded the Romanticists believed that “goals… cannot possibly conflict with one another.” This is because even if human values are many and varied, in the end “they must form a harmonious whole.”12
According to Berlin, the Romanticists were the first to deny this, and their revolutionary rejection of harmonious monism which everyone in Western culture had believed in and championed until then, was not only the turning point in Western history, but also—from the point of view of an advocate of pluralism—the most welcome philosophical discovery in history: “Even the relativists and the sceptics [from the Greek Sophists to Montesquieu] said no more than that individuals and societies had different needs in accordance with different geographical or climatic conditions, or different systems of law and education, or general outlooks and patterns of life.”13 That is to say, until the coming of the Romanticists, no adequate account was taken of possible conflicts between absolute values.
Was this indeed Romanticism’s innovation? Had there not been recognition of the insoluble conflict between absolute values as far back as the fifth century B.C.E. in the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides? A man’s loyalty to his family was perceived in Greece as an absolute value, as was his loyalty to his city-state, and therefore there was no ultimate solution, only a solution of might, to a situation in which these two values conflicted, as in Sophocles’ Antigone.14 Creon can destroy Antigone, but he cannot destroy the validity of her argument. They are both right, and there is no higher value that can, as with Hegel, provide a “synthesis.” This is not moral relativism; the Athenian tragedies were not concerned with demonstrating the local relativity of human values (i.e., values are mere customs), but with the irresoluble conflict between absolute values.15 “Aeschylus,” writes Nathan Spiegel, “infused tragedy with a dimension of moral and spiritual complexity—a complexity that a man encounters whenever his soul is torn between opposing values each of which is just and valid.”16 This recognition was passed on from the Athenian tragedians to Shakespeare, Racine, Milton, and Dostoevsky.17
Berlin did not agree. In his view, all the philosophers and writers who preceded Romanticism thought that “there is nothing in the nature of men or the world which makes tragedy unavoidable,” because they all believed that “sin, crime, suffering are forms of maladjustment due to blindness.”18 This is a strange claim to say the least, for what is the tragic worldview if not the perception of tragedy as inevitable? And what is Greek tragedy if it does not show us that “sin, crime, suffering” are the lot of every man, wise and moral as he may be, since we are all pawns in the hands of blind fate, and since even in the small domain in which we have control over our lives, we cannot apply one absolute moral value without impinging on another? “For the Greeks,” answered Berlin, “tragedy was error which the gods sent upon you, which no man subject to them could perhaps have avoided; but, in principle, if these men had been omniscient, they would not have committed those grave errors which they did commit, and therefore would not have brought misfortunes upon themselves.”19 Another strange claim, for according to the Greek view fate rules not just human beings but also the gods. Not the gods but fate brings down disasters on human beings, and these disasters are not “errors” that man or god can prevent.
Alongside the Greek culture that believed in a mysterious, incomprehensible, invisible, and omnipotent fate, a culture developed in ancient Israel that believed in a mysterious, incomprehensible, invisible, and omnipotent God. The Bible endowed Western civilization with the notion that, to use Berlin’s words, “your very action expresses—is one with—your convictions. Morality and politics are not a set of propositions: They are action, self-dedication to goals made concrete. To be a man is not to understand or reason but to act; to act, to make, to create, to be free are identical: this is the difference between the animals and man.”20 But Berlin did not write this about the biblical point of view. He wrote it about the Romantic point of view.
Did Berlin not know that the history of his people is the history of a human collective that said “we will do and obey,” because it did not make the observance of the commandments conditional on understanding them? “Self-dedication to goals made concrete,” action and not theory, a doctrine that is all imperatives(without any philosophical statement)—a revolutionary discovery indeed, but an ancient one. Did he not know that the Jewish faith does not perceive reality as the embodiment of cosmic intelligence(as the Egyptians, Chinese and Indians, and Aristotle and Spinoza knew it to be), but as the embodiment of God’s will? Or that it therefore demands that its believers (as Christianity and Islam later demanded) voluntarily control their impulses and needs, and live accordingly in God’s image? And did he not know, when he defined the Romantic community as a community that “insulates itself against outside interference in order to be independent and express its own inner personality,”21 that introverted isolation was his own people’s policy—“a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations”—from biblical times until the present day?
It was not the Romantics but the Athenian tragedians who taught us that conflicting values cannot be reconciled; not the Romantics but the Bible that taught that will is more important than reason. With the Greek legacy on the one hand and the Judeo-Christian on the other, Western culture evolved into one for which non-rationalism was as natural as oxygen. At no time, at least until the French Revolution, was the influence of rationalist philosophers greater than the influence of popes or local preachers, kings, despots, troubadours, and groups of traveling actors, architects of cathedrals and the artists who painted their murals, witch burners, and persecutors of Jews—all those rulers, spiritual shepherds, artists, and other creators of consciousness who made Europe what it is.

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