After writing some thoughts on Isaiah Berlin, I came across Norman Podhoretz’s splendid essay on Berlin. Podhoretz’s article is worth reading for all sorts of reasons, but I wanted to call attention to just one part of it.
In writing about a dinner party in New York given for the Berlins by Lionel and Diana Trilling and attended by Podhoretz and his wife Midge Decter, as well as the British poet and critic Stephen Spender, Podhoretz referred to it as “one of the best and most serious discussions I have ever participated in.” The reason, he wrote, is, “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.”
That description has stayed with me since I read it, in part because of how rare it is. Our tendency is to do what the attendees of this dinner avoided doing: portraying those with whom we disagree as cartoonish figures. We delight in creating strawmen and setting them ablaze, which saves us the more difficult intellectual work of answering the best (rather than the worst) arguments of those who hold beliefs different than ours.
The second reason Podhoretz’s account impressed me is that the conversation was oriented, or so it seems to me, toward truth-seeking rather than simply affirming one’s pre-existing attitudes. Now, I wouldn’t pretend for a minute the personalities who assembled at the Trilling home didn’t have strong views or deep convictions; they clearly did. But engaging in a conversation that includes the proper conditions of discourse — free of rancor, cliches, and partis pris— allows for the kind of back and forth that elicits greater understanding all the way around.
I should add that I reject, and have a certain disdain for, the belief that truth always lies equidistant between two positions. Some positions are simply wrong — and some political philosophies and systems of government better align with human nature and reality than do others.
At the same time, there is something from Book VII of The Republic we can all learn from. The philosopher Leo Strauss considered it “the best image of the human dilemma,” according to Ken Weinstein. “That image, of men in a cave, shackled so they can only see the shadows of images projected on the wall, is a metaphor for the ancient city, for the notion that men are bound to horizons shaped in some sense by the dominant opinions of their day.” What a person in search of the truth needs to do, Weinstein wrote, is to “escape the cave and turn his soul to the blinding light of the sun.”
How to unshackle ourselves is a complicated matter. For some, like Strauss, it involved turning to the great minds of the past. For others, it is found in the kind of conversations Podhoretz wrote about. For still others it is found in a community of writers and thinkers who have the ability to refine our way of looking at the world. And for still others it comes in solitude, and perhaps in prayer.
Here’s the thing, though: none of us can fully extricate ourselves from the dominant opinions of our day. In this world we see through a glass darkly; we can know only in part. Some people perceive truth more fully than others, but truth is still fragmentary. The shadows on the wall never fully disappear. And so we are all in need of dialogue, of conversation, and even, from time to time, of correction. As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.
Berlin made precisely this point in an interview. In admitting he was deeply sympathetic to the values of the Enlightenment, Berlin added,
I am interested in the views of the opposition because I think that understanding it can sharpen one’s own vision, clever and gifted enemies often pinpoint fallacies or shallow analyses in the thought of the Enlightenment. I am more interested in critical attacks which lead to knowledge than simply in repeating and defending the commonplaces of and about the Enlightenment. You know, it can be tedious to assert again and again that John Stuart Mill was right against Hobbes, or that Sakharov is a nobler thinker than Lenin… If you believe in liberal principles and rational analysis, as I do, then you must take account of what the objections are, and where the cracks in your structures are, where your side went wrong: hostile criticism … can reveal truth… I do not share, or even greatly admire, the views of these enemies of enlightenment, but I have learnt a good deal from them.
This can be overdone, of course. Critical attacks are sometimes silly, sometimes lacking in wisdom, and sometimes the product of bad faith. But to understand where the “cracks in your structure” are — to seriously engage the arguments made by clever and gifted opponents — is both admirable and uncommon. It’s true enough the light of the sun can be blinding. But it’s still better than shadows.