A Dissent on Isaiah Berlin
By the time Sir Isaiah Berlin died in 1997 at the age of eighty-eight, a thick layer of piety and even reverence had long since come to surround his name, and accordingly the obituaries both here and in England took it more or less for granted that he had been, if not the leading political philosopher of the age, then at least a strong contender for that position. He was celebrated for the brilliance of his mind, for the profundity of his thought, for the depth and range of his learning and—not least—for his steadfast defense of liberal values against their rivals both on the Left and on the Right.
Now, there can be no question that in some ways Berlin was an admirable figure. But there are also grounds for believing that he was overrated as a thinker (whether one classifies him as a political philosopher or more precisely as a historian of ideas). In my judgment, too, he suffered as a person from a serious character flaw that robbed even what many conservatives would consider his best and most valuable ideas of any real force in practice. These ideas were thereby prevented from having the salutary influence they might have exerted at certain crucial and difficult moments.
In due course I will get to my reasons for not joining in the chorus of adulation for Berlin, and why arriving at a more temperate estimate of him seems to me important to our general intellectual health. But I want to dwell first on why, even so, I was hit by a sense of loss when he died and by a great feeling of regret at how few were the hours I got to spend in his company. Sharp as it was at the time, this feeling has now been reignited and exacerbated by a reading of Michael Ignatieff’s new book, Isaiah Berlin: A Life.1 This is an official biography in that it was authorized by Berlin, who cooperated in every way. He did not, however, ask for the right to approve the manuscript. On the contrary, he refused to read it and stipulated that the book be published only after his death.
Ignatieff is a very good and a very intelligent writer, and not the least of his literary virtues is that he has been able to digest ten years of taped conversations with a famously voluble subject, a nonstop talker of legendary proportions, and then to recast all this material which, when transcribed, must have run into thousands upon thousands of pages, into a book running to only a little over 300. In this mercifully brief space, Ignatieff manages to do an excellent, if understandably quite uncritical, job of covering both the thought and the life of Isaiah Berlin.
One problem faced by Ignatieff is that Berlin never produced a major work conveniently pulling together the various elements of his philosophy. Nevertheless, Ignatieff is able to extract a lucid and coherent account of it from the many scattered essays and lectures through which Berlin most naturally expressed himself. But there was also another kind of problem Ignatieff had to contend with in telling the story of Berlin’s life—a life compounded, as Berlin himself once summed it up, of “three strands”: Russian, English, and Jewish.
Being himself of Russian ancestry and a longtime resident of England, Ignatieff was well equipped to unravel the first two of these strands. But not being Jewish, he might have been expected to run into a bit of trouble with the third. Yet he almost always gets things right in dealing with its nuances and complexities—a feat that not that many Jewish writers would have been able to pull off with comparable accuracy, particularly when we consider that the strand of Jewishness in Berlin was further complicated by being both familiar and unusual.
The familiar part is the journey of a Jewish boy of eleven from Riga, Latvia (then under czarist rule), where he was born in 1909 and lived until the age of six, and then Petrograd, where he spent the next five years, to the upper reaches of intellectual life in the new country to which his family had been forced to flee. Countless such journeys with similar outcomes were traversed—both earlier and later, and by both rich and poor—to America: young immigrants arriving with little or no English and themselves or their children becoming within an amazingly short time major figures in the culture as writers, painters, composers, scientists, philosophers, professors, journalists.
One tends to assume that there were fewer such instances in England, whose society, being both more stratified and more insular, was less permeable than America’s to foreigners of any stripe, let alone Jews. Yet as the economist P.T. Bauer—himself a penniless teenage immigrant “of Jewish origin” from Hungary who, capping a distinguished academic career, wound up sitting in the House of Lords—has never tired of pointing out, England was far more welcoming to foreign-born talent than is often imagined. Which is to say that the career of Isaiah Berlin qua intellectual was by no means unique. The faculties of Oxford and Cambridge and the London School of Economics (LSE) had a fair share of immigrant Jews (especially in the physical and social sciences) even before their number was swollen by refugees fleeing from Nazi Germany.
Still—and here we come to the unusual part of Berlin’s story—very few even of the foreign-born English Jews who were knighted, and/or made it to the House of Lords, ever ascended the most rarefied heights of English society to anything like the extent that Berlin eventually did. No doubt not all these people had the insatiable appetite for high society that was one of Berlin’s ruling passions; some of them may positively have disdained dining with duchesses or becoming frequent guests at Buckingham Palace. But whether or not their ambitions ran in that direction, and whether or not, in one of Berlin’s own formulations, they were great “diners-out,” the fact of their Jewishness—however faintly they might have borne its stigmata or however distant they might have grown from the mores and practices of their ancestors—remained enough of a disqualification to keep them in their social place.
There may have been more exceptions to this rule than I am aware of, but the only one I happen personally to have encountered who scaled the same social battlements as Berlin was—and is—George Weidenfeld. A decade younger, a publisher rather than an academic, and a post-Hitler refugee from Vienna rather than from Bolshevik Russia, Weidenfeld still had much in common with Berlin. The two men also had a professional association that turned out to be very important. As Ignatieff informs us:
Weidenfeld had been shrewd enough to see the commercial potential locked up in an obscure essay, “Lev Tolstoy’s Historical Skepticism,” which Isaiah had published in Oxford Slavonic Papers in 1951. By retitling it “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” and putting it out for a general readership with additions by Isaiah, Weidenfeld did more for Isaiah’s public reputation than any other publisher.
Like many (most?) of their foreign-born English co-religionists, above all in the universities and the intellectual world outside them, both men became thoroughly assimilated into British culture and as Jews they were both frank nonbelievers. Being such, they were also nonobservant, though they might (Berlin much more regularly than Weidenfeld) attend a synagogue on the High Holy Days or a seder on Passover. In Berlin’s case, as he himself quipped, “the Orthodox synagogue is the synagogue I am not attending”—except, that is, on the High Holy Days; and “wherever he was in the world on Yom Kippur,” we learn from Ignatieff, “he made a point of fasting.” Also, “As long as his mother was alive he celebrated the Passover every year in her house.” But after her death, Berlin being Berlin, the seder naturally tended to turn into “a grand social occasion, with Lord Rothschild, Lord Goodman, the painter R.B. Kitaj and Murray Perahia, the pianist, in attendance.”
Yet nonbelieving and nonobservant though they were, both Berlin and Weidenfeld were entirely open about and comfortable in the skin of their Jewishness, and both were lifelong and highly dedicated Zionists. One might have thought that this would have denied them access to the most fashionable circles. Which is what happened, for example, to Sir Lewis Namier (1888-1960), a Jew from Galicia and a Zionist activist whose great achievements as a historian of 18th-century England were enough to earn him a knighthood and other honors without also securing him entrée (except for purposes of research) into the aristocratic world whose acceptance he yearned for in vain and to whose past he devoted enormous scholarly labor. But no such barrier was erected against Weidenfeld and still less against Berlin.
To be sure, Namier was so acerbic and unpleasant that (as Berlin himself tells us in a touching essay about him) not only was he spurned by the “London clubmen (whom he often naively pursued)” but, even though everyone at Oxford acknowledged his greatness and originality as a historian, he was also even repeatedly passed over for the professorship he coveted there. In the sharpest possible contrast, Berlin and Weidenfeld were so charming and witty and such great raconteurs as to be irresistible companions, whether tete-a-tete or at a large gathering. In combination with these qualities, their Jewishness perhaps lent just the right dose—not too much, not too little—of an intriguing exoticism. Someone once said that if you were in low spirits, there was no one you would rather see walk through your door than Isaiah Berlin. I would say much the same thing about George Weidenfeld, as would many others.
Apart from everything else, Berlin and Weidenfeld had no peers in the realm of classy gossip. Both also specialized in that branch of snobbish Jewish genealogy known in Yiddish as yiches, or distinguished family connections. Once, for instance, when on a visit to London I was invited to tea by Berlin at (where else?) the Ritz, I asked him in the course of an inevitably wide-ranging conversation about a Harvard professor with a name that the professor pronounced very differently from the way it was spelled. “Well, you see,” Berlin replied with a wicked little smile as he told me how the name actually should sound—a pronunciation that immediately gave away its East European origin—the professor did not really mind its being known that he was Jewish, but he most assuredly wanted it thought that his family was not from Minsk or Pinsk but from an aristocratic Sephardi clan “in Mantua or Nantua, as the case may be.” And where Gentiles were concerned, if by chance there were a Jew hidden somewhere in an aristocratic woodpile, Berlin and Weidenfeld would be more certain to have dug him out than the editors of Burke’s Peerage. The question of converted Jews and the children of converted Jews also fascinated them: one of the best things Berlin ever wrote was an essay entitled “Benjamin Disraeli, Karl Marx, and the Search for Identity.”2
Speaking of yiches, Berlin had plenty of it, both in his own right and by marriage. Through his father he was related to the Schneersons, the family of the Lubavitch dynasty of hasidic rebbes; and through his wife Aline, the granddaughter of the banker Baron Guenzburg, he was also connected to one of the richest and most eminent Jewish philanthropists in Europe. (Aline’s inherited fortune was multiplied by her former marriage to a very rich man.) As a Zionist, he had yiches as well: Yitzhak Sadeh, one of the founding fathers of Palmach, the elite striking force of the Haganah, out of which after statehood the Israeli army emerged, was simultaneously his uncle and his cousin.
There was a certain yiches, too, in the fact that Berlin’s Russian childhood differed radically from that of the vast majority of Jews who emigrated from that part of the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Most of them had lived in dire poverty and in the constricted physical conditions of the Pale of Settlement in Russia and the ghettoized shtetlakh of Poland, forbidden or unable to travel outside these areas or to practice certain occupations. But for a variety of historical reasons, the Jews of Riga were exempt from these rules. Berlin’s father was a very well-to-do timber merchant, and his mother, while remaining a reasonably observant Jew, was far more highly cultivated than the typical Russian-Jewish woman of her generation. She read widely in secular literature in several languages, and Russian rather than Yiddish was spoken in the household. Berlin, an only child, even had a governess. Indeed, the family left Russia not because of czarist anti-Semitism but because of the Bolshevik assault on the bourgeoisie, the class to which they belonged. In this respect, the emigration of the Berlins resembled and anticipated the later flight of the prosperous Jews of Germany and Austria who succeeded in escaping from Hitler.
In any event, once the Berlins were settled in England, Isaiah was sent to the upscale St. Paul’s school in London and then to Oxford, where he studied philosophy and would spend most of his professional life as a scholar and a teacher.
To my great good fortune, I have passed many hours in the company of Lord Weidenfeld (as he has been for some years now), but I was not so lucky with Sir Isaiah Berlin (who was both knighted and then decorated with the Order or Merit, or OM, an even higher honor than the life peerage awarded to Weidenfeld). I did, however, see enough of him to get a strong taste of the delights that his company afforded (even one meeting would have sufficed for such a taste). I therefore have no difficulty in understanding why he was sought after as a dinner guest in England by Lady This and the Duchess of That. The same was true of their untitled counterparts in America, whom he first got to know during World War II as a junior official at the British embassy in Washington.
His job in Washington was to write weekly reports on the state of American opinion, to be sent out under the signature of the British ambassador, Lord Halifax. But it was obvious to everyone, including Prime Minister Winston Churchill, that Halifax himself could not possibly have produced such brilliant work, and it soon became widely known that the actual author was, as the Foreign Office reported in response to Churchill’s inquiry, a “Mr. Berlin, of Baltic Jewish extraction, by profession a philosopher.”
Incidentally, Churchill’s discovery of the identity of the author of Halifax’s dispatches led to a wonderful comic episode. “In early February 1944,” as Ignatieff recounts it,
Clementine Churchill informed her husband that Irving Berlin was in London, and could he find time to thank him for his war work. On the contrary, the Prime Minister said, he must come to lunch. . . . The guests included Sir Alan Brooke, Commander of the Imperial General Staff, and the Duchess of Buccleuch. . . . At the head of the table, Churchill kept up a steady stream of talk about the war situation. At the end of lunch, . . . Churchill . . . asked Berlin when he thought the war would end. “Mr. Prime Minister, I shall tell my children and grandchildren that Winston Churchill asked me that question.” By now thoroughly confused, Churchill asked what was the most important thing that Mr. Berlin had written. He replied, “White Christmas.”
It was only after the lunch was over that Churchill’s secretary “broke the case of mistaken identity to the Prime Minister,” whose bewilderment of course gave way to great amusement. When the “Irving-Winston-Isaiah” story got around, it only served to enhance Isaiah’s already rising status.
Being the genius of sociability he was, Berlin also (and, from the point of view of his professional duties, quite legitimately) used his job to make personal contacts. By the time he returned to England, he had gotten to know practically everyone who was anyone in Washington and New York. Enduring friendships were formed not only with upcoming young academics and diplomats of his own generation like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and George F. Kennan, but also with older public figures like Felix Frankfurter—as well, inevitably, as with great hostesses of the time like Alice Long-worth (the notoriously wicked-tongued daughter of Theodore Roosevelt) and future ones like Katharine Graham (who would in due course become the publisher of the Washington Post and the American social equivalent of a duchess herself).
As I have already suggested, that this should have occurred is not in the least surprising. For, again with the exception of Weidenfeld—who would later travel in many of the same circles on both sides of the Atlantic—I have never in my life encountered a more effervescent conversationalist than Isaiah Berlin. He was not, as Ignatieff acknowledges, a great wit in the Oscar Wilde mode: he did not toss off epigrams that everyone would remember and quote. But there was wit in every other turn of phrase and in the way he framed the conceptions and descriptions with which he regaled everyone within earshot. Words poured out of him in such profusion and such a rush that his interlocutors sometimes had trouble understanding him, or else complained that they themselves could never get a word in when he was at the other end of a conversation. Yet in my own limited experience, I was always struck by how attentive a listener he could be—much more so than most of the great talkers I have known (and I have known my share). His mind was so quick that he could grasp a point one was making before it scarcely had a chance to get out of one’s mouth; and he could give it back in a paraphrase that immediately cut to its intellectual quick.
That Berlin was so awesomely articulate perhaps proved a greater gift to others than to himself. So, at any rate, he seems to have felt. He often denigrated his own achievements, a trait that might be considered the intellectual’s equivalent of the unseemly game of a rich person playing at being poor. Yet Ignatieff, who speaks often of this habit, mainly interprets it as “part of a carefully cultivated strategy . . . intended to deflect and disarm criticism.” Probably it was. For despite his oft-professed indifference to the opinions others held of his work, or for what posterity might say about it, Berlin was very thin-skinned—as the following story I recently heard sadly illustrates.
On the occasion of his eightieth birthday, when tributes were pouring in from all over the world and the British press could hardly find enough space to report on the encomia coming his way, a lone voice—that of the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton—piped up in one paper with a tribute that was not wholly free of a few mildly critical remarks. The scandal this article created within the British intellectual establishment was so disproportionate—Berlin’s friends being as thin-skinned on his behalf as he was on his own—that a man who had been close to Berlin for many years was puzzled: what, he was heard to wonder at a private dinner party, was so terrible about Scruton’s piece? This question was immediately relayed by the drum-beaters in the London jungle to Berlin, who responded to it the very next day with an eighteen-page handwritten letter full of hurt feelings and accusations of betrayal. Berlin even compared Scruton to Goebbels, and refused to retract when challenged by his morally stunned correspondent.
I tell this story not in order to expose Berlin as a hypocrite for pretending not to care about his reputation, but rather as a suggestive piece of evidence for the genuineness of the self-doubt that afflicted him—an affliction that I would guess was caused by his inability ever to write anything that for dazzle and sweep could match his extemporaneous talk. This was a problem he tried to solve by dictating his essays, and his legion of admirers assured him and everyone else that he had succeeded. But Berlin himself, I suspect, knew better, which was why it was only after much persuasion from young disciples that he allowed those essays to be published—some for the first time—in a series of collections that were issued in his later years.
I gather from Ignatieff that Berlin was also tormented by his failure to write the big book, the great book, that was expected of him. When, in those same later years, he made a sustained effort to satisfy this expectation with a major study of Romanticism—a subject upon which he had touched in many of his essays—he spent much time reading and taking notes but, like a graduate student getting bogged down in a doctoral dissertation, he finally had to give it up.
Berlin, of course, was not the only great talker or lecturer whose written work never measured up to his spoken word. For example, anyone who reads Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria is bound to wonder why he was held in such intellectual awe by his contemporaries in the early 19th century; and one might well have felt the same way about Samuel Johnson’s reputation among his own contemporaries a century earlier if there were only his Lives of the Poets to go by and James Boswell had never come along to record his table talk.
Good as Ignatieff’s biography is, he is no Boswell. He therefore cannot help ill-serving his subject, who could really have used a Boswell, all the more so in that Berlin’s published writings, even at their best, are not in the same league as those of Coleridge or Johnson. Coming closer to home for another case in point, I would also cite the American art historian Meyer Schapiro, a Lithuanian-born Jew whose lectures and conversation were in their own style as exhilarating and scintillating and rich in texture and context as Berlin’s, but who similarly had trouble capturing it all on paper and could equally have benefited from a Boswell of his own.
Interestingly, Berlin himself makes a very similar observation about the 19th-century Russian revolutionary Alexander Herzen, who was “a brilliant and irrepressible talker . . . always in an overwhelming flow of ideas and images; the waste, from the point of view of posterity . . . , is probably immense: he had no Boswell . . . to record his conversation.” Yet there was compensation for posterity in Herzen’s memoirs, My Past and Thoughts, which Berlin considered “a literary masterpiece worthy to be placed by the side of the novels of his contemporaries and countrymen, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoevsky.” Never having read this book, I cannot say for certain that Berlin’s praise is more than a bit extravagant, though I strongly suspect that it is. Be that as it may, Berlin himself left behind nothing that even his most fervent admirers would think of placing on so high a plane.
Herzen was not Jewish, and neither of course were Coleridge and Johnson. Furthermore, neither Berlin nor Schapiro ever had a truly extensive Jewish education. Nevertheless I cannot help wondering whether there may not have been something deeply rooted in Jewish culture that produced the problem with writing experienced by them and a few other great Jewish talkers I could name. What I have in mind is the intimidating effect that talmudic pedagogy has sometimes had on those who have aspired to its deepest levels. Serious students of the Talmud have often been made to feel that they have no business saying anything at all until they have swallowed not only the vast “ocean” of the talmudic text itself but everything the commentators have said about it over the centuries, by which time they discover that anything they might have to add has been said already, and better, by some ancient forebear.
It is true that enough young people overcome the inhibitions this ethos creates to keep the enterprise alive and kicking; and there are those who are able to move with perfect authority into other areas as well. Being educated almost entirely at a Lithuanian yeshiva, for instance, did not prevent Harry Wolfson of Harvard from going on in later life to produce huge and definitive works on subjects as far afield from the Talmud as the early Fathers of the Church and the great medieval Islamic theologians. Still, all exceptions and qualifications duly noted, rereading Berlin’s essays, with their incessant and compulsive references to the thinkers of the past, I got the sense that something like the inhibition that has stymied many Jewish scholars—imbibed, I would suppose, by osmosis as a child—was operating in him and that he was sincerely bothered by the conviction that he himself had nothing original to add.
I would exempt from this generalization his essay on Machiavelli, which begins with a breath-takingly concise survey of just about every interpretation ever offered of that notorious writer, and only then ventures on a new one of his own. Yet even here, revealingly, Berlin feels constrained to apologize:
Where more than twenty interpretations hold the field, the addition of one more cannot be deemed an impertinence. At worst it will be no more than yet another attempt to solve the problem, now more than four centuries old.
Whether or not there is any validity in my speculation,3 rereading Berlin was a disappointment. Not that this came as a shock, since my very first introduction to him as a thinker about 45 years ago also resulted in disappointment. He was then (1953) teaching at Oxford, his home base for most of his academic life, and I was a student at “the other place” (that is, Cambridge), but the occasion was a lecture he gave at LSE. The lecture followed hard upon a series of six hour-long talks he had delivered in as many weeks on BBC radio on the general theme of “Freedom and its Betrayal.” These talks had become famous not so much because they were difficult and devoted to relatively obscure thinkers like Helvetius and de Maistre as because they were done extemporaneously, from notes, without so much as a pause or a stammer. It was, as Ignatieff rightly says, a “prodigious feat of studied verbal improvisation,” and it drew hundreds of thousands of listeners, turning Berlin, then about forty years old and not yet known outside academic circles, into a veritable national celebrity.
I never heard these lectures, but I did hear about them, and when I discovered that Berlin would shortly be speaking at LSE, I wangled an invitation through a friend who was studying there. The auditorium was packed, with the front rows occupied by all the great eminences of the LSE faculty (including Karl Popper, then at the height of his fame as the author of The Open Society and Its Enemies) and a large pack of highly distinguished academics who had come down from Oxford and Cambridge.
The excitement in the air was intensified by two titillating circumstances. One was that Berlin was to be introduced by Michael Oakeshott, the leading conservative thinker in England who, to the dismay and even horror of the socialists at LSE and elsewhere, had recently been chosen to succeed one of their main intellectual leaders and heroes, the late Harold Laski, as professor of politics. Obviously Oakeshott, the great critic of liberalism, would not wish to praise Isaiah Berlin, the great exponent of liberalism; but how would he get around the problem? And, since this was the first in a series of lectures that had been endowed to honor the memory of Auguste Comte—who a century earlier had, among other things abominable in Oakeshott’s eyes, invented the idea of sociology as a science—Oakeshott would need to figure out how to avoid celebratory words about him as well.
A great hush, charged with suspense, thus descended upon the auditorium as Oakeshott approached the podium. Glancing around with what seemed a look of disapproval bordering on contempt at the size and composition of the audience for this speaker on this subject, he welcomed us all to the first August Comte Memorial Lecture with the reminder that it had been a hundred years since Comte had burst upon the intellectual scene. At this point he paused and again swept the room with a disdainful glance before continuing: “And what a century it has been for him!”
Even Oakeshott’s enemies, who far outnumbered his fans in this crowd, were forced to laugh appreciatively at so masterful a stroke, made even more telling by being left to stand alone with no further elaboration. But now it was Berlin’s turn to get the Oakeshott treatment, and while it did not go down so well with this audience as his handling of Comte, it was also masterful. How fortunate we were, Oakeshott said, to have as our first Comte Memorial Lecturer the man who had so recently dazzled us all with the virtuosity of his performance on the BBC; so great was Mr. Berlin’s virtuosity, indeed, that one might call him “a very Paganini of ideas.”4
This was a very tough putdown to overcome, and Berlin did not do well. Although I was a liberal in those days, and on his side, I came away wondering why so much fuss was being made about him. The lecture was an attack on historical determinism, with which I entirely agreed but which seemed to me obvious, platitudinous, and—most unexpectedly—labored. Nor was I alone in my disappointment. Ignatieff:
The fame he had acquired from “Freedom and Its Betrayal” guaranteed a full turnout; his nervousness was increased by Oakeshott’s barbed encomium to his skills as a lecturer; and he had ludicrously overprepared. The text was much too long for delivery and he began abridging it as he went, wildly putting pages aside, struggling to keep the argumentative thread together, talking in an ever faster, high-pitched gabble. When he staggered to a conclusion, the reactions were perfunctory and polite and he came away, not for the last time, with the uneasy feeling that his peers were asking themselves whether his reputation was deserved.
Eventually, Berlin turned the lecture into a long paper entitled “Historical Inevitability,” which Ignatieff characterizes as “an impressive statement of his most fundamental beliefs.” That it is a statement of his most fundamental beliefs is certainly true; but “impressive”? Reading it today in a much fuller version than the one I heard in 1953, I was prepared to discover that I had been wrong about it back then. Instead, I was struck by how academic it is, how internal to the professional concerns of historians and other scholars, if somewhat less so than some of the other papers he wrote during this phase of his career demonstrating the fallacy of using the physical sciences as a model for history and philosophy—papers like “The Concept of Scientific History” and “Does Political Theory Still Exist?” (These can be found, along with much else that came later, in a recently published anthology of his essays.5 ) What struck me even more forcibly is how little—for all its many references to the world outside—it really touches upon the living impact of the main ideas with which it deals.
In making this judgment, I am saying exactly the opposite of what is always said by those who see Berlin as one of the major thinkers of the age. They praise him precisely for addressing himself (as one of them has put it) to “the general reader,” for being “erudite but . . . not academic”; or (in the words of another) for the “everyday practicality” of his writings, and for bringing abstract ideas to life by confronting them through “the people who conceived them.” Yet to borrow a phrase Berlin himself borrowed in another context from his friend and Oxford colleague, the philosopher A.J. Ayer, much that he wrote amounted to nothing more than “a dramatized tautology.” At one point in “Historical Inevitability,” he remarks, “All this seems too self-evident to argue.” I could not agree more. That is how it seemed to me in 1953 and how it seems to me today.
But just as I would maintain that his essay on Machiavelli represents a rare escape from the inhibitions that may have undermined him as a thinker, there are two essays I would exempt from the strictures I have directed at “Historical Inevitability” and the other pieces like it.
The first is the famous “Two Concepts of Liberty.” Here Berlin begins as usual with brilliant summaries of what all the other commentators have said about his subject over the centuries. But this time the survey of past opinion serves directly to clarify a distinction—between negative liberty and positive liberty, the former consisting of freedom from external obstructions to one’s will, the latter of the freedom to pursue a goal defined as the one and only true good—that is anything but academic, having instead the greatest bearing on how different societies have organized themselves politically.
It is also in this essay that he offers what may be the most effective and passionate defense he ever gave of his commitment to “pluralism.” In Berlin’s usage of the term, “pluralism” signifies that “human goals are many, not all of them commensurable, and in perpetual rivalry with one another.” The human fate is to choose among these goals, without the comforting certainty that they have “eternal validity.” But this, he insists, is at least better than the various species of “monism,” according to each of which there is only one ideal we must aspire to and attain through reason or scientific method or revelation or some other means. “There is little need to stress the fact that monism, and faith in a single criterion,” Berlin writes, “has always proved a deep source of satisfaction both to the intellect and to the emotions.” But, he adds, it has also been used to justify “the a-priori barbarities of Procrustes—the vivisection of actual human societies into some fixed pattern dictated by our fallible understanding of a largely imaginary past or a wholly imaginary future.”
To put Berlin’s point a little less abstractly, “monism,” sometimes disguised as “positive liberty,” often leads to totalitarianism, while “pluralism” is at the basis of political freedom and its strongest guarantee.
Then there is the even more famous essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” to whose publishing history I have already alluded. Contrary to what is often assumed, Berlin did not invent this image: as he tells us in the very first sentence, it comes from the Greek poet Archilocus, among whose surviving fragments is the line: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Nor is this mainly another essay about the superiority of pluralism (here represented by the fox) over monism (the hedgehog). Berlin does of course take up that theme and elaborates upon it once again with formulations that he has used before, and will use again, along with some that are new. But as its subtitle informs us, and as we know from the title of the original paper that Weidenfeld persuaded him to elaborate, “The Hedgehog and the Fox” is actually “An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History.”
This is an accurate description as far as it goes, but it is also too modest, since Berlin uses Tolstoy’s view of history—set forth in those large sections of War and Peace that so many readers have found irritatingly boring interruptions of the book’s narrative sections—as a point of entry into the mind and spirit of arguably the greatest novelist who ever lived. Describing the qualities and powers that made Tolstoy great brings out the best in Berlin (as writing with unfailing generosity in appreciation of the genius of others always did):
No author who has ever lived has shown such powers of insight into the variety of life—the differences, the contrasts, the collisions of persons and things and situations, each apprehended in its absolute uniqueness and conveyed with a degree of directness and a precision of concrete images to be found in no other writer.
Going on in these breathless cadences, Berlin picks up even more speed:
No one has ever excelled Tolstoy in expressing the specific flavor, the exact quality of a feeling—the degree of its “oscillation,” the ebb and flow, the minute movements . . .—the inner and outer texture and “feel” of a look, a thought, a pang of sentiment, no less than of a specific situation, of an entire period, of the lives of individuals, families, communities, entire nations.
The celebrated lifelikeness of every object and every person in his world derives from this astonishing capacity of presenting every ingredient of it in its fullest individual essence, in all its many dimensions, as it were: never as a mere datum, however vivid, within some stream of consciousness, with blurred edges, in outline, a shadow, an impressionist representation; nor yet calling for, and dependent on, some process of reasoning in the mind of the reader; but always as a solid object, seen simultaneously from near and far, in natural, unaltering daylight, from all possible angles of vision, set in an absolutely specific context in time and space—an event fully present to the senses or the imagination in all its facets, with every nuance sharply and firmly articulated.
Having delivered himself of this spectacularly unerring account of Tolstoy as a novelist, Berlin then abruptly, and without even a sentence of transition to soften the shock, asserts that “what [Tolstoy] believed in was the opposite.” In other words, it was not enough for Tolstoy to be perhaps the greatest “fox” since Shakespeare (a writer he came to despise and disparage); what he wanted was to be a “hedgehog.” In consequence, he himself
preached not variety but simplicity, not many levels of consciousness but reduction to some single level—. . . some simple, quasi-utilitarian criterion, whereby everything is interrelated directly, and all the items can be assessed in terms of one another by some simple measuring-rod.
I once joked after reading a biography of Tolstoy (the one by Henri Troyat) that he emerges from it looking like a character out of Dostoevsky. Berlin goes even farther—in my opinion, much too far: “Beside Tolstoy, Gogol and Dostoevsky, whose abnormality is so often contrasted with Tolstoy’s ‘sanity,’ are well-integrated personalities, with a coherent outlook and a single vision.” But this presupposes, among other things, that Dostoevsky actually was, as Berlin classifies him (on the basis, I suppose, of his religious beliefs), a hedgehog. I, however, would argue that all great novelists, no matter what convictions they may hold or how single-mindedly they hold them, must necessarily be foxes, and that anyone who lacks the qualities of the fox cannot possibly succeed as a novelist; conversely, very few other kinds of writers can match the foxiness of the novelist.
Which is why I think Berlin spoils this otherwise splendid essay by bringing in Joseph de Maistre as another example of a fox who wanted to be a hedgehog. He spoils it in two ways: first by dwelling at length on the question of whether Tolstoy was more influenced by this 18th-century French counterrevolutionary, often considered the intellectual father of the French Right and of French chauvinism, than he was by Stendhal’s novel The Charterhouse of Parma. But unless something more is done with it than Berlin does here, the question of influence is one of those truly academic issues of no great interest to anyone but professional scholars, and it is a weariness to the “general reader” (this one included) to whom Berlin’s work is supposedly addressed.
The other way in which de Maistre’s presence damages “The Hedgehog and the Fox” is that he does not enjoy the stature that would entitle him to co-star with a giant like Tolstoy. Emboldened by having learned from Ignatieff that Berlin was capable of discoursing with an air of authority about books into which he had only dipped, I am willing to admit that my own acquaintance with de Maistre is strictly of the dipping kind—and that, moreover, it took place many years ago. But surely it cannot be wrong to assume that he belongs in a lesser and lower realm than Tolstoy, and that speaking of the two of them as though they existed on the same plane undermines the unsurpassed tribute Berlin pays to Tolstoy himself.
Berlin’s essays, then, could be undeniably impressive, and scintillating to boot, even if they do not seem to me to merit the hymns almost universally sung to his work and his ideas. He certainly deserves great credit for having liberated himself from the sterilities of the logical positivism on which he cut his intellectual teeth, turning his attention instead to the great moral and political questions that had been dismissed as meaningless by his friends and colleagues who belonged to that philosophical school. Coming when and where it did, this in itself was an intellectual achievement, and even a brave one, quite apart from the results it produced.
Possibly the most significant and consequential of those results was to have taught the educated English class, including the radically empiricist and even anti-intellectual historians and philosophers within it, that ideas are of supreme importance in human affairs. Berlin attributed his own appreciation of “the vast and sometimes sinister power of ideas” to his Russian origins, for “Russia is a country whose modern history is an object-lesson in the enormous power of abstract ideas” both for good and ill. It was a lesson the English, much more than the French or the Germans or the Americans, needed to be taught, and some of the adulation that came to Berlin in his adopted country probably originated in gratitude to him for having taught it. (The other side of the coin was that this same stubborn empiricist resistance to big abstract or metaphysical ideas, as Berlin saw it, made England the most civilized and the most politically admirable country in the world.)
He had other impressive qualities as well. No one could surpass him in the extremely difficult enterprise of summarizing and tracing the pedigree of an idea and in cutting to the core of another thinker’s point of view. And he was especially good in dealing with thinkers like de Maistre whose opinions, though repugnant to him, he could invariably summon up the intellectual imagination to describe with sympathy and great insight. His portraits of major Jewish—or formerly Jewish—figures like Marx, Disraeli, Moses Hess, and Chaim Weizmann are also as delightful as they are illuminating.
But what, substantively, does it all add up to? The answer Berlin’s admirers give is that, in an age when fascism and Communism were rampant and sometimes seemed destined to triumph, he developed a profound defense of liberal pluralism that escaped the great pitfall of relativism which (at least in its more extreme forms) he supposedly found just as (or anyway almost as) objectionable as the determinism of such monistic philosophies as Marxism. Yet for the life of me, I cannot perceive any solid logical or philosophical ground in his work for exonerating him from the charge of relativism. He recognizes that relativism, though it can be animated by a spirit of tolerance for and generosity toward other points of view and is thus an antibody to the dangerous disease of fanaticism, is nonetheless vulnerable to a disease of its own: namely, the spinelessness that can develop from the rejection of any absolutes and the correlative failure to develop rock-bottom convictions. But neither his writings nor his own behavior bear out the claim of muscularity that he and others made for his kind of liberalism as compared with some of the other schools of liberal thought emerging from the Enlightenment that he criticized and from which he dissociated himself.
In the last paragraph of “Two Concepts of Liberty,” Berlin approvingly quotes the 20th-century economist Joseph Schumpeter: “To realize the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly is what distinguishes a civilized man from a barbarian.” Or again, in praising one of his heroes, the great Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, Berlin writes:
Weizmann had all his life believed that when great public issues are joined one must above all take sides; whatever one did, one must not remain neutral or uncommitted, one must always—as an absolute duty—. . . take part in the world’s affairs with all the risk and blame and misrepresentation and misunderstanding of one’s motives and character which this almost inevitably entails.
Yet, time after time, it was precisely this “absolute duty” that Berlin failed to discharge. Thus, when the universities—the institution to which he had devoted the better part of his life and which, with all its faults, came closer than any other to embodying the values he so volubly professed—came under assault by the radicals of the Left in the mid- and late 60′s, where was Berlin? To put it charitably, he was nowhere to be seen on the field when the fight was raging most intensely. So much for his willingness to stand, in accordance with Schumpeter’s noble dictum, unflinchingly for his convictions. When push came to shove, it was the relativism that won out over the convictions.
But there is more. I read in Ignatieff that Berlin’s “distaste for the fashionable intellectuals of the 1960′s . . . deepened into something approaching intellectual despair when he surveyed the student revolutionaries themselves.” Ignatieff also tells us that “The whole experience of the 1960′s made him uneasily aware that he had not understood the nihilist consequences of the Romantic esteem for sincerity and authenticity.” He expressed this and kindred sentiments privately in letters to friends (e.g., “I feel depressed by the rapid growth of barbarism . . . among our young men,” whom he then proceeds to compare unfavorably with the “revolutionaries of his own day”), but I personally cannot recollect, and Ignatieff gives no examples of, any pronouncements of this nature by Berlin in public. Just the opposite: in those very years of his “despair,” he became a regular contributor to the New York Review of Booh, in which the radicalism and/or barbarism that so distressed him in private were regularly accorded the greatest respect and found their most sophisticated intellectual defense.
One evening during this period—just when, disillusioned with the radical Movement that I too had in recent years been defending, I felt constrained to break with it altogether—I attended, along with my wife, a small dinner party given for the visiting Berlins by my former teacher Lionel Trilling and his wife Diana in New York; the only other guest was one of Berlin’s oldest and closest friends, the British poet and critic Stephen Spender. To the delight of the Trillings, who had never approved of my association with the Left of the 60′s and were pleased by my growing disaffection with it, I seized upon the occasion to ask Berlin why he was willing to collaborate so closely with the New York Review. Though Spender too was writing regularly for it, I did not address this question to him, because I knew that he, as Ignatieff puts it, prided himself on “communing with the young” (he had even had himself hoisted into one of the buildings occupied by the radicals at Columbia where, of course, Trilling was the great luminary of the faculty). Yet along with everyone else in the room, Spender joined in what turned out to be one of the best and most serious discussions I have ever participated in. Contentious issues and their many ramifications were explored with frankness on both sides, without any rancor, and with everyone trying to do justice to the position against which he was arguing instead of reducing it to an easily ridiculed caricature.6
My challenge to Berlin, however, did not focus only on the issue of student radicalism; it also concerned Israel. “You still consider yourself a Zionist, don’t you?” I asked him. “Certainly,” he replied. “Then,” I pressed on, “why do you lend your prestige and support to a paper that regularly publishes enemies of Israel like Noam Chomsky and I.F. Stone?” This question seemed to take Berlin by surprise and for once in his life he did not have a ready riposte. But after a few seconds he responded, and with the friendliest possible smile: “I see. You are accusing me of being a fellow-traveler of a fellow-traveler.”
He did not follow up this witticism with a defense either of the New York Review or of himself. There was, after all, no denying that Stone (in that period of his life) and especially Chomsky were bitter enemies of the Zionism to which Berlin had been committed all his life. This commitment even formed the basis of his understanding that nationalism was ineradicable (an understanding not common among liberals of his era, who mostly regarded it as the major cause of Nazism and lesser evils), and that utopian efforts to ignore or wipe it out in pursuit of the ideal of an internationalist brotherhood were doomed to fail. Such efforts, he warned, were even as likely to lead to mass murder as nationalism in its more aggressive phases could and did.
Instead, therefore, of trying to justify his connection with the New York Review, Berlin stood pat on his witty remark and sat for a while giving my question what looked like thoughtful consideration as we moved on to the general question of student radicalism. Yet as time went on, and as the attacks being mounted in those years by the Left against Israel became ever more ferocious, he remained as silent as he did about its assault on the universities and the liberal ethos embodied in them.
In Ignatieff’s interpretation, Berlin comforted himself with the thought that as an exponent of “liberal moderation,” he was following the example of his beloved Ivan Turgenev, the great 19th-century Russian novelist who in his own day had incurred the disfavor both of the Left and the Right. Turgenev, says Ignatieff,
was accused throughout his career of ingratiating himself with the authorities and revolutionaries alike, and of securing the trust of neither side. Even Herzen, who respected his literary genius, thought Turgenev an equivocating old maid in politics.
Having supplied this softening and rosy context, Ignatieff gets to the most serious criticism that can be made of Berlin:
Such, in crude terms, was the charge whispered behind Berlin’s back throughout his steady ascent through the upper reaches of English life: . . . . All of these failings amounted to the single indictment that he lacked the existential courage to stand and be counted.
Ignatieff makes a valiant, if unsuccessful, effort to show that Berlin was innocent of the whispered charge. But Berlin himself was honest enough to recognize how much truth there was in the indictment, for (as Ignatieff himself emphasizes) “the charge of cowardice bothered him all his life” and “caused him real anguish.” As well it should have done, considering how fearful he was of taking public political stands that might jeopardize his evergrowing intellectual and social prestige, or that might—to throw his own words on Weizmann back at him again—expose him to “the risk of blame.”
A particularly distasteful example of his aversion to such risks concerned the writer Goronwy Rees, who had been Berlin’s dear friend for many years. Some time after Guy Burgess, a mutual friend of theirs, escaped to Moscow just as he was about to be arrested as a Soviet agent, Rees published a series of articles about his now notorious old companion in a sensationalist tabloid. There he gave details of Burgess’s libertinism as an incorrigible drunk and a wildly promiscuous homosexual, and strongly intimated that other spies like him were still at large in the British establishment. (He meant the art historian Anthony Blunt, who had not yet been exposed.)
For turning on dear old Guy in this vulgarly anti-Communist way, Rees was excommunicated by virtually the whole intellectual establishment of the country, most of whom, though loyal Englishmen themselves, found a certain merit in the novelist E.M. Forster’s declaration that, given the choice, he would rather betray his country than his friend. But even Berlin, a principled and passionate anti-Communist who, Ignatieff assures us, “never had any difficulty thinking of himself as a cold warrior, as a liberal defender of the capitalist world and its freedoms,” joined in the anti-Rees orgy. More unlovely yet, when Berlin ran into the left-wing journalist Tom Driberg at the Indonesian embassy in Moscow and heard that Driberg would be seeing Burgess, he asked him to send the traitor “his warmest love” and to tell him that “none of us are speaking to Goronwy.” This, despite the fact that Berlin’s stated reason for being angry with Rees in the first place was that he thought Rees had hintingly accused him of having once been in cahoots with Burgess.
The two men later had something of a reconciliation, and the day after Rees died, Berlin wrote in a letter of consolation to Daniel Rees that “Your father’s death is a deep grief to me”—so deep that he would be unable to speak at the memorial service: “too much painful feeling.” Later, however, when he was invited to speak anyway, he begged off on the ground that he did not know how to deal with Rees’s own suspected involvement in espionage. More likely the truth was that he did not wish to make so public a gesture of identification with a man who had come to be regarded as a renegade by much of the world Berlin lived in.7
Zionism and the fruit it bore in the state of Israel might seem to have provided Berlin with the chance to show some bravery; and at two points, at least, they did. Being an outspoken Zionist did indeed require courage in the England of the 30′s and then again during the period of fierce anti-Zionism of the Attlee-Bevin government that came into power right after the war and that was aggravated by the Jewish struggle to drive the British out of Palestine. This was especially true in the social circles in which the young Berlin aspired so passionately to move as a full-fledged member. But his loyalty to the Jewish people was so solid and unswerving that it overcame his social ambitions and anxieties.
As, however, the account I have just given about the evening at the Trillings demonstrates, the same loyalty—which I have not the slightest doubt Berlin continued to feel—was not enough to loosen his world-famously loose tongue when it took even greater courage to defend Israel, this time not only in high society but also in the universities and among intellectuals in general. Or rather, it loosened his tongue to the opposite effect. Here is how Ignatieff describes Berlin’s decision to make a rare public pronouncement about Israel toward the end of his life:
Like his hero Turgenev who, when dying of cancer, had dictated “A Fire at Sea” . . . to acquit himself of a charge of cowardice, Berlin dictated a public appeal for political compromise in Israel. On 16 October 1997, on no one’s initiative but his own, he composed a statement imploring Israelis to accept a final partition of the land with the Palestinians. . . . The alternative, he warned, was an interminable cycle of terrorist chauvinism on both sides and savage war.
Incredibly, Berlin thought, and Ignatieff agrees, that this statement showed courage. Of course, the fact is that it merely put Berlin solidly in line with the opinion being voiced by practically everyone else in the world. I am not suggesting that these were not his true sentiments. After all, in what may well have been the only time in his life he ever did such a thing, he had once refused to shake the hand of Prime Minister Menachem Begin because, as head of the Irgun in the pre-state period, Begin had been responsible for the bombing of the King David hotel, which then served as the headquarters of the British mandatory forces. And if a rumor going the rounds can be believed (it seems plausible enough), Berlin declared after Benjamin Netanyahu became Prime Minister that he had never hated anyone so much in his life.
In making the case for Berlin’s greatness as a philosopher of liberalism, Ignatieff argues that
empathy was, for Berlin, the core liberal attitude—the capacity to be open, receptive, unafraid in the face of opinions, temperaments, passions alien to one’s own. . . . The result was a moral psychology of liberal life which, while unsystematic, was as deep as anything within the liberal canon since Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments.
Well, while such empathy could be summoned forth by Berlin for the extreme rightist views of a Joseph de Maistre, it clearly ran smack up against its limits where the hawkishness of the Israeli Right was concerned.8 Nor did his commitment to and capacity for toleration extend to serious religious belief:
Happy are those who live under a discipline which they accept without question, who freely obey the orders of leaders, spiritual or temporal, whose word is fully accepted as unbreakable law; or those who have, by their own methods, arrived at clear and unshakeable convictions about what to do and what to be that brook no possible doubt. I can only say that those who rest on such comfortable beds of dogma are victims of self-induced myopia, blinkers that may make for contentment, but not for understanding of what it is to be human.
Admittedly, Berlin seems to have been thinking here more about the followers of fascist leaders than about Roman Catholics or hasidic Jews like his own Lubavitcher cousins. Nevertheless, in this statement, so violently discordant for an apostle of tolerance to let slip from his pen, he makes not the slightest effort to distinguish between the “spiritual” and the “temporal.” All the more outlandish do I find this when I read in Ignatieff that
For all his skepticism . . . he was repelled by the callow anti-clericalism of the Voltairian Enlightenment and had traced most of the evils of the 20th century to the idolatry of secular reason. “Stone-dry atheists,” he once wrote, “don’t understand what men live by.”
Yet the very same person who could write and think such things was capable of denying to the truly religious an understanding of “what it is to be human” (!) and to lump them together with fascists and Communists.
An extraordinarily brilliant man, then, a conversationalist of genius, and the most amusing companion one could ever hope to have, but not the great thinker he is so often taken to be. Even less is Berlin the moral hero that his biographer tries to make of him in an effort to cover over the spinelessness that the relativistic core of liberalism, even in its most sophisticated and civilized form, invariably brings out when determined challenges are posed to it, especially from the Left.
We see this once again today in the supine response of liberals to “multiculturalism,” which can be understood as a diseased mutation of the plur
1 Metropolitan Books, 336 pp., $35.00.
2 The essay appeared originally in 1970 in Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England, and was then reprinted ten years later in Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, edited by Henry Hardy and published in this country by Viking.
3 And I should make it clear that Berlin would have dismissed it as “absurd,” just as he did, conversely, when his father (as Ignatieff writes) would “attribute his son’s memory and scholarly achievements to his rabbinical ancestors.” The same is true of the subject of yiches. Fascinated though he was by it, in his view, as summarized by Ignatieff, to take pride in one’s origins was “to surrender to the dubious determinism of the blood.”
4 In Ignatieff’s version, the phrase Oakeshott used was “Paganini of the platform,” but I am pretty certain that my version is the correct one. I did not know, however, that (again according to Ignatieff) T. S. Eliot, another conservative, had earlier come up with a barbed compliment of his own in congratulating Berlin for the “torrential eloquence” of the BBC lectures. Good, but in this case I would award the palm to the political philosopher rather than the poet.
5 The Proper Study of Mankind, edited by Henry Hardy and Roger Hausneer. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 667 pp., $35.00.
6 To my astonishment and, if truth be told, disgust, I later learned that in reporting back to their friends in England on this discussion, Berlin and Spender said that they had spent a whole evening being berated by the editor of COMMENTARY (as I then was) merely because they wrote for a rival publication. No wonder Berlin was (so Ignatieff reveals) sometimes accused of being “feline” as a gossip.
7 Neither the story about the message Berlin sent to Burgess through Driberg nor the one about his refusal to speak at Rees’s memorial service comes from Ignatieff (who skates hastily over Berlin’s relations with Rees on the one side and Burgess on the other). I found them in Jenny Rees’s fascinating book about her father, Looking for Mr. Nobody: The Secret of Goronwy Rees, which was published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson in England but has never found an outlet in America. Her sources were Driberg’s autobiography, Ruling Passions, and the letters she found among her father’s papers.
8 Namier once ranted (in Berlin’s paraphrase) that “The Jews of England were victims of pathetic illusions—ostriches with their heads in some very inferior sands. . . .” For Namier, this was typically intemperate, but as always with him, there was something to it. Witness the fact that English Jews like Isaiah Berlin, who could write so movingly about Churchill, and even Churchill’s own biographer Martin Gilbert, have been advocates of a “peace” policy toward the Arabs that in the European context they would not have hesitated for a second to denounce as appeasement or to predict could only lead to war.