Isaiah Berlin’s third volume of collected essays, Against the Current,1 falls within the area of historical sociology This is the last of the twelve divisions in which Arthur O. Lovejoy, the father of the academic discipline known as the history of ideas, charted the interests and themes customarily explored under that rubric. The field is concerned, among other things, with the ruling ideas, the climates of opinion, the underlying intellectual currents and tendencies that affect historical and social development.
As these and other writings attest, Isaiah Berlin has emerged since Lovejoy’s death as the most distinguished explorer of a vast area of thought in the humanities and social studies. The intellectual styles of Lovejoy and Berlin, however, are quite different and achieve their respective effects of excellence in different ways. Lovejoy was concerned with the intricate structure of argument and had an unerring eye for the weaknesses, breaks, and lacunae in the logical connecting tissues. Biographical details about the thinkers he discussed were at best peripheral: one gets little sense of the flavor and texture of their personalities. Berlin, on the other hand, relates the ideas of his protagonists more closely to their times and lives. Without neglecting the main articulation of the arguments, he presents them more dramatically. The history of thought in his quick-paced exposition unrolls as an exciting battlefield of ideas.
Berlin’s special virtue lies in the skill and imaginative power with which he restates the positions of the thinkers he expounds. This sympathetic insight and persuasiveness sometimes make more credible than the original texts themselves how and why ideas that at first sight appear odd or bizarre seem plausible and valid to those who hold them. The result is that Berlin’s essays possess a compelling interest; they convey a sense of the actualité of the past to our own times and conditions.
The title of this collection expresses the underlying theme of most of the essays. They are devoted to thinkers and movements that contest the central ideas of the Enlightenment and beyond that of the entire Western, rational, scientific tradition. Among these Enlightenment ideas are the views that “human nature was fundamentally the same in all times and places,” and that “one set of universal and unalterable principles governed the world [of] inanimate and animate nature, facts and events, means and ends, private life and public, all societies, epochs, and civilizations. . . .” These dogmas of the Enlightenment were already challenged in the early 18th century by Vico in his criticism of the Cartesian presursors of scientific rationalism. Even earlier, Machiavelli, too, had rejected the foundation stone of pious rationalist moral faith.
Berlin summarizes the more frontal attack on the assumptions and presuppositions of the Enlightenment launched by German thinkers like Hamann, Herder, Fichte, and Schelling with able assists from Burke, Rousseau, and de Maistre. What they rejected in the philosophy of the Enlightenment was its emphasis on the universal, the objective, the cosmopolitan, and the rule of law. They contended that these abstractions could not do justice to the particular, the historical, the parochial, the wisdom of the idiomatic, the spontaneity of the creative mind, the ineffability and mystery of the individual as well as the national spirit. These are the concrete modes in which we encounter experience.
The counter-theses to the doctrines of the Enlightenment and the Western scientific tradition as applied to human affairs are stated by Berlin in chapters on “The Counter Enlightenment,” “The Divorce Between the Sciences and the Humanities,” “Nationalism,” and supplemented by chapters on Vico, Machiavelli, Hume, Hess, Herzen, Sorel, Marx, and Disraeli.
In the chapters devoted to Vico, Berlin presents an eloquent case for the view that there are two radically different approaches to the world represented by the tradition of the sciences and that of the humanities. The first takes as its model the basic pattern of inquiry of the natural sciences, which it regards as applicable to all disciplines and areas of experience. The second is concerned with the values that are central to culture and history, an area in which there is no cumulative growth of knowledge but only growth of insight and understanding won by “informed imagination” and intuition.
Although the thought of the Enlightenment is a preeminent illustration of the scientific approach, Berlin attributes this mode of thought to the entire intellectual tradition of the West from Greek antiquity to contemporary positivism. He dates the first formulation of the notion that we are here confronted with two irreducibly different approaches to the world to Vico, the Neapolitan philosopher. Berlin himself firmly shares Vico’s view. He is familiar with the enormous difficulties this dualistic approach to knowledge faces—for example, how can we test the truth of an insight or attribution of motives without ultimate reference to behavior?—but they are not here explored.
Another thinker who preceded the Enlightenment, the implication of whose doctrines, according to Berlin, shattered a cardinal principle not only of the Enlightenment but of the entire Western world since the fall of Rome, was Machiavelli. To him Berlin devotes a masterly essay based on a scholarship so comprehensive as almost to terrify the reader into a state of humility. In it he argues that the true originality of Machiavelli is his recognition that there exist at least two sets of ultimate virtues or moral systems that are incompatible in principle and irreconcilable in practice, and that therefore there is no answer or even sense to the question of what, morally and politically, is the best way of life. Berlin contends that it is a vague sense of this frightening truth that inspires the horror of so many of Machiavelli’s readers, as much as their revulsion at what he specifically condones and prescribes in the behavior of his Prince. For on Berlin’s view, Machiavelli takes for granted, as the supreme end, the existence and health of “a state conceived after the analogy of Peri-clean Athens, or Sparta but above all the Roman Republic,” whose vital functioning requires the deceptions and murders and the other evil things that we associate with Machiavellian policy.
It is perhaps presumptuous for someone who can make no claim to scholarly competence in this field to raise a question about the validity of these views. But a minor difficulty initially presents itself. If what Machiavelli is doing is glorifying the ethos of ancient Greece and Rome by explicating the rationale of its statecraft in relation to its values, why is it that we do not experience the same horror and revulsion when we immerse ourselves in the study of the culture of antiquity as when we read Machiavelli’s advice to those who would rule the state? And granting our disapproval of slavery, and the mitigating influence of Christianity, how do we account for the prolonged and systematic inculcation of the values of classical civilization in the educational systems of Western Europe, often accompanied by dispraise of Machiavelli, its troubador?
What is objectionable in Machiavelli’s outlook is not the attitude expressed in the famous paragraph of The Discourses in which he writes: “When it is absolutely a question of the safety of one’s country, there must be no consideration of just or unjust, of merciful or cruel, of praiseworthy or disgraceful; instead, setting aside every scruple, one must follow to the utmost any plan that will save her life and keep her liberty.” Italicize the word “absolutely” and we have a position which many of Machiavelli’s critics would share when confronting an enemy that would extinguish national existence and freedom. This position does not deny that evil things must sometimes be done—after all, injustices and cruelties are unavoidable in any war; it justifies them on the ground that they are necessary to avoid greater evils.
The impression of the reader of this passage and of The Prince, however, is not that this attitude was valid in Machiavelli’s eyes only in exceptional circumstances or in extreme situations but, as Berlin himself insists, in normal everyday life. The result is the impression that Machiavelli is advocating terror en permanence, the breakdown of all norms of legality, at any real or imaginary threat to the political order. If the Prince regards the country as always in a critical, desperate condition, it is always in a state of incipient or actual civil war. No community whose rulers so conceived its condition could sustain itself except by a barbarous tyranny certain to destroy republican liberties. J. N. Figgis, whose view Berlin mentions only to dismiss it out of hand, seems to me to be perfectly correct in asserting that to adopt these procedures as a rule, as a mode of normal life, rather than when it is truly a question of the actual safety and survival of the lives and freedoms of the citizens of the community, is to suspend “the habeas corpus acts of the whole human race.”
But the correctness of Berlin’s reading of Machiavelli’s intent or of the reasons for posterity’s shocked rejection of his counsel has no bearing on the validity of what Berlin regards as Machiavelli’s “cardinal achievement.” This is to have brought home in vivid fashion the disturbing truth “that ends equally ultimate, equally sacred, may contradict each other, that entire systems of value may come into collision without possibility of rational arbitration, and that not merely in exceptional circumstances . . . but (this was surely new) as part of the normal human situation.” This truth is not as new with Machiavelli as Berlin suggests. Intimations of it are to be found in Greek thought and even in such religious thinkers as Augustine and Pascal. Every form of naturalism is committed to some variant of it.
Most human beings (except hopeless fanatics) have plural and, taken in specific contexts, conflicting ends in life. In our own moral economy we mediate these conflicts by assessing the consequences of alternative actions on the whole constellation of values that are relevant to the problem at hand and selecting what promises to have the most prosperous issue with the least costs. But there are always costs. The phenomenology of the moral experience reveals that our starting point is always a conflict between the good and the good (or the right and the right).
The graver and more complex problems, of course, are those that arise on an interpersonal and inter-cultural level. And I summarize a position that would require a volume to do justice to by saying that the possibility of developing a common morality depends upon our finding a shared interest on which we can either build or, despite basic differences, live and let live. In the absence of a shared interest, even if it is no more than the desire for peace or a tolerance for what is radically incommensurable, war may result. One may be convinced that this view is true and yet remain unpersuaded that Machiavelli implicitly held it or that it “follows from the contrasts he draws between the conduct he admires and that which he condemns.” The civic virtues of Athens and Rome would never have emerged had the conduct Machiavelli admired become the norm and rule of daily life. Nor, I suspect, would the society resulting from this permanent terror have been one in which he himself would have wanted to live.
The chapters on Moses Hess and Disraeli and Marx concern themselves not so much with thinkers who are critics of the Enlightenment as with the “search for identity” occasioned by the consequences of the Enlightenment for the Jews of Western Europe. The essay on Hess is not only a sympathetic exposition of Hess’s ideas but a tribute to him as a human being of singular moral purity and who, with respect to the position and future of European Jewry, was uncannily perceptive. It does something to redress the incomplete and patronizing treatment of Hess by those, including this reviewer, who in the past have evaluated Hess’s contributions only in the light of their relation to Marxism and ignored his remarkable anticipations of the case for Zionism. History has vindicated Hess’s insight that socialism as a movement owes its persistent renewals more to its ethical appeal than to economic interests.
Although Berlin disclaims the role of a psychologist, in his fascinating chapter on “Disraeli, Marx, and the Search for Identity” he offers an explanation for Disraeli’s proud and inflated consciousness of himself as a Jew and as a descendant of the Jewish aristocracy of King Solomon’s time, and for Marx’s systematic dispraise of Judaism and anti-Semitic remarks about Jews, in terms of their respective experience as outsiders of their communities. More specifically, he attributes their divergent views and emotional judgments about Jews to a consuming desire to be different from what the conventional prejudice about Jews assumed them to be, to escape from the constraints, discriminations, and social punishments that were visited on Jews, and to the “self-hatred and self-contempt” bred among those who despite themselves secretly wish to belong to the favored groups that despise them. In Disraeli’s case this led to the aristocratic elite with whom he identified; in Marx’s case to the espousal of the cause of the proletariat. Berlin maintains that the psychological need to overcome the taint of their origins was largely at the root of Disraeli’s hostility to the methods of scientific inquiry and of Marx’s faith in his dialectical teleology.
The chapter reads with the gripping plausibility of a well-written novel. But some questions emerge to break the spell it weaves. Except for the element of absurd exaggeration both in Disraeli’s apotheosis of the Jews and in Marx’s denunciation of them, what evidence exists that either was motivated by a compelling desire to transcend his origins? Surely not all Jews to whom Orthodoxy was no longer credible, or who were nurtured in a secular environment, were impelled to seek a new identity? Or are we to infer the phenomenon of self-hatred as an inescapable consequence of anti-Semitism?
“What does seem clear,” Berlin writes, “is that Marx was a man of strong will and decisive action, who decided once and for all to destroy within himself the source of the doubts, uneasiness, and self-questioning which tended to torment men like Börne, Heine, Lassalle, and a good many others including the founders of Reform Judaism. . . .” But in all the voluminous writings of Marx there is not a line to indicate that Marx had any doubts, uneasiness, and self-questioning about himself as a Jew. As for Disraeli, Berlin quotes him as saying: “Fancy calling a fellow an adventurer when his ancestors were on intimate terms with the Queen of Sheba. . . .” Whatever else this signifies, it is not “self-hatred.”
The subtitle of Berlin’s concluding chapter on nationalism is “Past Neglect and Present Power.” In it he reveals that Marx was not alone in misconstruing the significance and enduring influence of nationalism. He maintains that no one anticipated that nationalism would exert the powerful influence it has had in the last third of our century. By nationalism he means not national sentiment, not xenophobia, not patriotism conceived in Santayana’s phrase as “piety for the sources of one’s being” which includes love of country and pride of ancestry. He defines it, rather, as a complex sentiment consisting of four elements: “belief in the overriding need to belong to a nation; in the organic relationships of all the elements that constitute a nation; with value of our own simply because it is ours; and, finally, faced by rival contenders for authority or loyalty, the supremacy of its claims.”
I would modify this somewhat by suggesting that the first element is not the belief in the overriding need to belong to a nation but to this nation (an individual prepared to transfer his allegiance from one nation to another cannot be considered a nationalist). Further, the belief in the organic nature of culture and the loyalty to our nation because it is our own, like the love of our children and parents because they are our own, is closer to what is ordinarily regarded as patriotism than to modern nationalism. It is Berlin’s fourth ingredient—the belief in the supremacy of one’s nation über Alles when conflicts or difficulties with other nations arise—which makes the decisive difference. No one seems able to explain why and how legitimate patriotic feeling becomes transformed into chauvinism or jingoism or whatever name we give to fanatical nationalism; why the virus of nationalism sometimes gets out of hand and results in a kind of self-infection. Minority peoples in identifiable areas of large sovereign states get bitten by the nationalist bug and seek their future in a revival of the glories and myths of their past. Malaysia rather than Switzerland threatens to be the paradigm for multiracial or ethnic nations of our time.
Thomas Masaryk once asserted that the only thing that would ever unite the nations of the earth and abate the raging fever of nationalism would be a threat to their survival from denizens of outer space. And history shows that the necessity of struggling against a common enemy is a unifying force. But not always. Churchill’s offer to France of a national union when Hitler was in the ascendancy was not accepted. And explain it as one will, the threat of Communism to Western Europe has so far not led to an impressive degree of cooperation and willingness to sacrifice, or to evanescence of fanatical nationalisms.
Why should it be so difficult for a good German or good Frenchman to be a good European, or for a good European to be a citizen of the world? Do not human beings have reasonable grounds for believing that what they have in common, when a conflict arises, is more important than what divides them? The crucial element that is too often missing is this desire to seek reasonable grounds.
Aside from what may be said by way of comment on Berlin’s treatment of individual thinkers, there remains the larger issue of the conflict between the Enlightenment and its opponents which he takes as his main theme. Berlin is well aware of the complexity of this theme, and of how variant are the intellectual emphases in those loosely classified as Enlightenment thinkers as well as their critics and enemies. After all, if thinkers like Diderot, Rousseau, Hume, and Kant are to be considered figures of the European Enlightenment, their differences are in some respects much more important than their similarities. And if we stretch the term “irrationalism” to include all those who entered the lists against the Enlightenment, surely there are worlds of difference between thinkers like Herzen and Hess, on the one hand, and others like Sorel, enraptured precursors of totalitarianism, not to mention nationalist and racist extremists who believed that the Enlightenment was responsible for the Second Fall of Man, the French revolution.
It seems to me that it is necessary to draw a distinction between the critics of the Enlightenment and its enemies. Critics of the Enlightenment did not contest the validity of reason or scientific method as compared to alternative, traditional ways of reaching truth about the nature of the physical and social world or of settling conflicting claims on how best to further human welfare. They took issue either with some dominant conception of reason or the presumed scope of scientific method or with particular conclusions of a historical and political character. In this sense, Marx and Hess were not hostile to the Enlightenment; they regarded themselves as inheritors of its traditions, replacing its inadequate conceptions of man and society with historically more realistic and therefore more scientific views. Where, with respect to social reform and revolution, the thinkers of the Enlightenment taught that good will and human readiness were all, Marx and Hess stressed the ripeness of the conditions required for successful action. Bentham scoffed at the notion of natural rights central to the writings of most of the philosophers of the Enlightenment, yet sought by reliance on his calculus of pleasure and pain to diminish human suffering and improve the human estate. For all their criticisms of their predecessors, the utilitarians were really men of the Enlightenment.
The controversies between the various schools of rationalism and empiricism are family quarrels. They are of an entirely different order from the position of those who opposed the Enlightenment with reasons of the heart or gut, thinking of the blood, the authority of history, divine revelations, or self-certifying intuitions. Whatever the excesses and errors of Enlightenment thought, they could always be checked by further reflection; and whenever they influenced action, they could be judged and modified by their fruits in experience. But the ideas of the enemies of the Enlightenment, even when they were well-intentioned, allowed for no self-corrective procedures; and when they acquired power, their absurdities led periodically to mass atrocities.
Perhaps the greatest division among Enlightenment thinkers was between those who thought they could derive a way of life from the principles of the physical world, who in effect imposed an ethos upon a cosmos, and those who recognized that at best the physical order conditioned the achievement of the good society, whose nature was independent of the truths of the physical world. Berlin is well aware of this. He tells us that the entire Enlightenment believed that the nature of man was fundamentally the same in all times and climes but goes on to indicate the compatibility of such a view with differences so profound that they seem more significant than the nominal agreements:
What the entire Enlightenment has in common is denial of the central Christian doctrine of original sin, believing instead that man is born either innocent and good, or morally neutral and malleable by education or environment, or at worst, deeply defective but capable of radical and indefinite improvement by rational education in favorable circumstances, or by a revolutionary reorganization of society. . .
This covers quite a spectrum of readings about the nature of man as a basis for reasonable programs and expectations of social change. All we need do is to make explicit the realization that man is a finite, limited, imperfect creature and therefore always open to the solicitations of evil and the corruption of power and place—the kernel of the Christian myth of original sin—to box the compass of secular positions about the nature of human nature. This leaves, as the permanent legacy of the Enlightenment, meliorism or the belief in the possibility of change in human nature.
1 Viking, 375 pp., $15.95.