Main Error Mesage Here
More detailed message would go here to provide context for the user and how to proceed
Main Error Mesage Here
More detailed message would go here to provide context for the user and how to proceed

City Journal

Close Nav

Was Liberalism’s Philosopher-in-Chief a Conservative?

from the magazine

Was Liberalism’s Philosopher-in-Chief a Conservative?

Winter 2006
The Social Order

Sir Isaiah (pronounced aye-ZYE-ah) Berlin, who died in 1997 at 88, was one of the last century’s notable talkers. “One was startled from the beginning,” Arthur Schlesinger
said, “by the glittering rush
of words and wit, the dazzling command of ideas, the graceful and unforced erudition, the penetrating assessments
of personalities, the passion for music, the talent for
merriment and, most remarkable of all, the generosity of spirit that led him to treat
all of us as his intellectual equals. He had the exciting quality of intensifying life so that one perceived more and thought more and understood more.”

Such exuberance opened doors; Berlin’s ascent began early. Eleven years after arriving in England as a refugee from the Russian Revolution (the 12-year-old spoke scarcely a word of English), “Shaya” was elected a fellow of Oxford’s All Souls College, the intellectual pinnacle of the realm. When, in 1957, he received his knighthood, a friend, contemplating the slenderness of his œuvre, said that it must have been bestowed in recognition of his services to conversation.

Margaret Thatcher used to chide Berlin for his idleness. “Whenever they met,” Michael Ignatieff wrote in his 1998
biography, “she would ask
him what he was working
on and when he replied not very much, she would shake her finger at him in mock
reproach: ‘You must work,
Isaiah, you must work.’ ‘Yes, madam,’ he would dutifully reply.” Yet he was less of a dilettante than he seemed. When, in the 1970s, the Oxford University Press began reissuing essays that Berlin had published over the years in sometimes obscure venues, it became clear that the man who always called himself a reluctant writer had managed, almost unwittingly, to illuminate searchingly the ways in which people devote themselves to a principle, a vision of life, as well as to propound a theory that undermined the whole notion of living a principled life. A puzzle, evidently—though not a purely academic one: Berlin’s thinking had consequences beyond the Gothic towers of Oxford, not all of them benign.

Berlin’s essay “Winston Churchill in 1940” is his best-known account of how a man finds an ideal and lives up to it. It starts by painting the period after the First World War, in which the mature Churchill lived and worked—the age of “bitter disillusion,” when Lytton Strachey, Bertrand Russell, and the rest of Bloomsbury set out to expose the hollowness, the “false splendours,” of the ideals of the preceding generations. Churchill was himself an object of the scoffers’ ridicule. His rhetoric, the detractors said, was “false” because it was “artificial,” the product of a contrived and anachronistic view of the world, a series of risible clichés (“King and Country,” the “Righteous Cause” of liberty), so much “tinsel and hollow pasteboard.”

Berlin allowed that there might have been an element of self-deception in Churchill’s “grand style,” but it was, he believed, a “necessary illusion.” It enabled Churchill to inspire his people at a time when they badly needed inspiration. Such an imagination as Churchill’s, Berlin said, “fuses hitherto isolated beliefs, insights, mental habits, into strongly unified systems. These, if they are filled with sufficient energy and force of will—and, it may be added, fantasy, which is less frightened by the facts and creates ideal models in terms of which the facts are ordered in the mind—sometimes transform the outlook of an entire people and generation.”

In other words, Churchill had principles, and he knew how to make them compelling. Churchill’s vision of the conflict between English liberty and National Socialist despotism was, Berlin said, “heroic, highly coloured, sometimes over-simple and even naïve.” But it was never false; it was always a “genuine vision,” however much it differed from the prosaic outlooks of those around him. Berlin noted
how Churchill, commenting on a 1940 Foreign Office draft, said that its ideas seemed to him “to err in trying to be
too clever, to enter into refinements of policy unsuited to
the tragic simplicity and grandeur of the times and the issues at stake.” Churchill “created a heroic mood and turned the fortunes of the Battle of Britain,” Berlin argued, “not
by catching the mood of his surroundings . . . but by being stubbornly impervious to it.” Through his rhetoric, he “idealized” his fellow citizens “with such intensity that in the end they approached his ideal and began to see themselves as
he saw them.”

A tour de force, “Winston Churchill in 1940” revealed Berlin’s ability to enter into other people’s minds and understand how they formulate and refine their principles. This faculty—his hero, the Neapolitan sage Giambattista Vico, called it fantasia, a “depth of imaginative insight that characterizes gifted novelists”—was Berlin’s greatest strength. He brought the buried mental processes to life by means of psychological insight, intellectual empathy, and literary skill. His studies of Leo Tolstoy and Benjamin Disraeli, Moses Hess and Chaim Weizmann, Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova, are in the tradition not of the twentieth-century psychologists, with their ambition to strip their subjects of their dignity, but of the literary
essayists of the nineteenth century. Berlin was himself a mandarin, and at its best his style enabled him, as he held his jewels up to the light, to capture their various glints and flashes.

How disappointing, beside these profiles in principled idealism, are Berlin’s ostensibly more ambitious essays on liberty and pluralism. Take “Two Concepts of Liberty,” Berlin’s 1958 inaugural lecture as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford. Many in the audience inclined to a donnish Menshevism, and Berlin, who was not a Marxist, was wary. His lecture was not precisely the “ringing manifesto” for “individual freedom” that some have claimed it to be. He was searching—cautiously—for a way to prevent liberal purists in the tradition of “Jefferson, Burke, Paine, Mill” (he calls this, with a touch of academic pomposity, the tradition of “negative” liberty) from coming to blows with advocates of what he calls “positive” liberty.

With much huffing and puffing, Berlin demonstrated that “positive” liberty is often associated with tyranny. The advocate of “positive” liberty believes that human beings, if they are to achieve true freedom, must be liberated (by force if necessary) from the restraints of their lower selves. “Positive” liberty has appeared in many guises, but Berlin was most concerned with the variety that in the twentieth century piled up so many corpses, the social philosophy that descends from Hegel and Marx. He believed that it was folly for liberals, in their struggle with the proselytes of “positive” liberty, to insist, as Churchill did in his struggle with National Socialism, that their own “negative” liberty was a “sacred, untouchable value.” They must learn the virtues of accommodation. A “practical compromise,” Berlin said, “has to be found.”

In fact, the “practical compromise”—the welfare state—had already been found. But the legitimacy of this originally German concept remained questionable in England and America. Friedrich Hayek, among others, demonstrated that liberal collectivism necessitated sacrifices of individual liberty that would have appalled Jefferson and Macaulay. It was in order to justify these sacrifices and at the same time to preserve “a measure of ‘negative’ liberty” that Berlin set forth, after much beating around various learned bushes, his theory of the “pluralism of values.”

In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, unscrupulous pigs are the agents of evil. In the
pluralist mythology of Berlin, the hedgehog is the villain. Unlike the fox, who, the
Greek poet Archilochus said, “knows many things,” the hedgehog knows “one big thing.” For Berlin, it is man’s hedgehog-like pursuit of “one big thing”—a “good,” a “value,” a “Platonic ideal”—that is
continually getting him into trouble.

This contempt for the hedgehog Berlin expressed most memorably in the lecture “The Pursuit of the Ideal,” which he delivered upon accepting the Agnelli Prize in 1988. Gathered in the Turin opera house (where the orchestra played selections from Beethoven and Tchaikovsky) were many notables; Fiat heir Giovanni Agnelli amused Berlin by saying that he would relieve the tedium of the proceedings by revolving in his mind images of the beautiful women he had known—an undertaking, he boasted, that might easily consume an hour. The lecture Berlin delivered, after the last strains of the Emperor concerto faded away, was at once his pluralist testament and his intellectual autobiography—the most candid of his essays, his account of how his own pursuit of the ideal led him to recognize that the unequivocal embrace of any ideal is a form of “self-induced myopia.”

“Happy are those,” he proclaimed, “who live under a [hedgehog-inspired] 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.”

Though Berlin’s pluralist writings are not free from
ambiguity, two things are clear. First, his approach to ideals and principles resembled Agnelli’s approach to women. In a universe abounding in attractive goods, one must glory in diversity and resist the
singularity of the hedgehog, who attaches too much value to particular manifestations of beauty and virtue. Whether Platonist or Christian, socialist or liberal, the hedgehog has purchased peace of mind by surrendering to some (perhaps virtuous) lie.

Second, Berlin’s pluralist
universe is like a fable of Borges, a puzzle that admits
of no solution; its goods form no harmonious pattern, no “perfect whole.” They “clash” and cancel one another out. “Both liberty and equality are among the primary goals pursued by human beings through many centuries,” he argued, “but total liberty for the wolves is death to the lambs, total
liberty of the powerful, the gifted, is not compatible with
the rights to a decent existence of the weak and the less gifted
. . . . Equality may demand the restraint of the liberty of those who wish to dominate; liberty—without some modicum of which there is no choice and therefore no possibility of remaining human as we understand the word—may have to be curtailed in order to make room for social welfare, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, to leave room for the liberty of others, to allow justice or fairness to be exercised. . . . Some among the Great Goods cannot live together. . . . We are doomed to choose, and every choice may entail an irreparable loss.”

In the Berlinian mythology, the weak soul seeks refuge from the Sturm und Drang of colliding ideals—attempts, like the hedgehog, to escape the danger by rolling himself into a ball. But he does this at the expense of his humanity, for “collisions of values are the essence of what we are,” both collectively, as peoples and nations, and as individuals.

Berlin conceded that individuals and nations must sometimes follow the hedgehog, must choose particular goods and reject others. No person or nation can encompass every good, and not all goods are compatible. The number of values one can embrace, Berlin said, “is finite—let us say 74, or perhaps 122, or 26, but finite, whatever it may be.” We are “doomed to choose,” and every choice is potentially tragic, because it entails a retreat from the humanity of doubt and because it may involve the renunciation of other, equally valuable but antithetical goods. In embracing the good of homeland security, for example, a nation may be forced to curtail personal liberty. An individual, “in order to create a masterpiece,” may, Berlin wrote, “lead a life which plunges his family into misery.”

The weakness of Berlin’s picture begins with the relentless abstraction in which he presented the dilemma that chiefly perplexed him—the collision of liberalism and socialism. This concrete historical crisis he painted in a language shot through with metaphysical ambiguity. His portrait of man as a chooser of values is as unpersuasive a philosopher’s ghost as Rousseau’s Natural Man or the Economic Man of the classical political economists. The descendant of the bloodless, ethereal concept of Man of the eighteenth-century philosophers, Berlin’s value-choosing agent is helpless in the face of clashing ideals because he comes to his choices, as no actual human being does, morally naked. The actual human being brings to his choices a moral history, a pattern of impressions and experiences, of sentiments and ideals, that have been conditioned by religion or vestiges of religious tradition, by the wisdom embodied in customs and manners, by the moral insights transmitted by poetry or art or education, by the truths of our nature. In working up his picture of the anxiety of the choice-maker in the face of competing ideals, Berlin lost sight of the fact that the actual human being comes to his choices furnished with what Edmund Burke called “the wardrobe of a moral imagination,” one that, even in its dressed-down forms, makes some choices almost impossible and others all but inevitable.

Just as misleading is the paper dilemma that Berlin conjures with his metaphysical
oppositions between “total liberty” and “a decent existence,” between submissive “sheep” and “those who wish to dominate.” It’s an odd way to describe the conflict between
liberal and socialist ideals
that Berlin sought to compromise. His “total liberty for the wolves” is a contrived bogeyman, a fabulous nightmare in which Bronze Age beasts sprung from the pages of Nietzsche have been converted to the laissez-faire tenets of the Manchester School. Odd, too, that Berlin should have made liberalism (or libertarianism) the bloody creed, when a body count would doubtless give that palm to the social justice communitarians.

But however distorted his description of the alternatives that the West confronts, it enabled Berlin to portray the value-pluralist welfare state as a crucial bulwark, all that stands between reasonable people and fanatic hedgehogs. Take away the day-care centers and the dole, Berlin implied, and tragedy is inevitable. Militant socialists will march investment bankers off to the gulag, and libertarian fascists will bludgeon welfare mothers with copies of The Wealth of Nations.

It is philosophical inflation to describe this split-the-difference philosophy, as Berlin did, in the language of tragedy, of “doom” and “irreparable loss.” His morbidity is manufactured and, moreover, false to his own essentially happy temperament. Of course, by associating value-pluralism with the dark splendor of Oedipus and Macbeth, Berlin hoped to conceal the thinness that a philosophy of mere compromise is bound to possess. He sought, too, to endow value-pluralism with a portentous air of inevitability, thereby discounting other resources against fanaticism. Not only did Berlin slight Burke’s “moral imagination”—a faculty that operates as a restraint, however imperfect, on all those who have not abjured it: he also undervalued the procedural protections against monomaniacal tyranny found in the older pluralism that descends from John Locke and James Madison, safeguards that protect disparate ideals and at the same time prevent any one of them from exerting dominance.

In his effort to make value-pluralism into something more than an ad hoc theory devised to meet the demands of a particular historical moment (the twentieth-century collision of Marx and Madison) and to justify a particular political settlement (the welfare state), Berlin attempted to endow it with the prestige of universality. Liberty and social justice, he argued, are not the only irreconcilable ideals that force us to make tragic choices. He pointed to the incompatible aspirations of different civilizations and their rival conceptions of human potential. If I would be Pericles, I cannot be Saint Bernard. If
I would be Rockefeller, I cannot be Alcibiades. In dwelling on these antagonistic ideals, Berlin only grudgingly (and rarely) conceded that “there is
a great deal of broad agreement among people in different societies over long stretches of time about what is right and wrong, good and evil.”

The emotions underlying Berlin’s value-pluralism—the love of fox-like compromises, the horror of the hedgehog’s principled idealism—grew
in part out of his own experience. As a Jew born in the Baltic, raised in England, and educated at Oxford, Berlin inhabited multiple and incongruous homes—comfortably, but always with a trace of a barrier. He felt himself fully a Jew and had no desire to belong to what he called the “Order of Trembling Amateur Gentiles,” yet he was cut off from certain aspects of Jewish culture and was himself an amateur in the spiritual traditions of his people. His relations with his father, a timber merchant, were marked, in later years, by a strain of mutual incomprehension. “As for the Jews,” Berlin told Felix Frankfurter after a visit to Palestine in 1934, “they are most odd and fascinating, and I felt equally uneasy with them and away from them, like relations one hasn’t seen for 30 years or something, to whom one knows one is, even feels, related, but whom one doesn’t really know.”

He was an Englishman, Sir Isaiah Berlin, O.M., Oxford don, pillar of the realm, at home in the Georgian splendor of Headington House, his Oxford residence, and in his rooms in “Albany,” the posh London flats; but however high he rose, he knew that, like Disraeli before him, he would always be at best an exotic in that Anglo-Saxon kingdom. Nor were the Christian traditions central to British culture sympathetic to him. (Visiting a Shinto shrine, Berlin declared that he could worship “any god except the Christian God.”) His life was an exercise in “incommensurable values.”

Berlin hesitated to commit himself beyond his initial attachments to his family, to an abridged version of his hereditary tradition, to Oxford, and to England—bonds formed before he was 20. For years he lived the celibate life of an
old-fashioned don. He enjoyed vicarious glimpses into other people’s lives—he was devoted to gossip, and socialized, Columbia’s Steven Marcus said, “to the point of addiction”—but for a long time he suffered no one to come too close. Eros he submitted to late, at 41, when, according to his biographer, he began “adult sexual life.” Six years later he married. He developed an intense loyalty to Zionism and later to Israel, but he politely turned away when Chaim Weizmann urged him to remain with him and avoid the fate of Justice Frankfurter, who, Weizmann complained to Berlin, “sits there among those Gentiles, seven days a week. How can he? What is he doing?”

Yet it was not Berlin’s wariness of attachment alone that led him to dwell so lugubriously on all that one loses in committing oneself to an ideal, and to pass rapidly over all that one gains. There is another reason why he made Keats’s “negative capability” (a man’s capacity to be “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts,” to feel there “is nothing stable in the world. . . . Uproar’s your only music”) the master principle of pluralism. Berlin had, as a boy living in Saint Petersburg, watched a collision of ideals degenerate into bloodshed. He had seen a czarist policeman, in the last paroxysm of fear, hurried to his death; and he had been present when the Cheka raided his family home. Later, after he emigrated to England, he learned that his uncle had been tortured by Stalin’s agents. The boy who had seen the Russian Revolution with his own eyes was all his life to worry that the smallest surrender of the humility of doubt, the slightest acquiescence in the arrogance of certitude, could put a man on the road to hedgehogism, which was for Berlin “almost always the road to inhumanity.”

The world has changed since Berlin, taking up
his Oxford professorship, declared that value-pluralism might yet save humanity from its “craving” for the “certainties of childhood” and the “absolute values” of the “primitive past.” But for many liberals, it is still 1958 and value-pluralism the bright new idea. Berlin’s theory, devised in the Sputnik era to justify a welfare state that has since been partially dismantled, has become entrenched in modern liberalism and has weakened society’s defenses against the kinds of moral and political tragedy that Berlin himself dreaded.

The most obvious casualty of contemporary value-pluralism is the pluralism it superseded, the pluralism of John Locke and James Madison. The older pluralism was in part procedural; it emerged in the aftermath of the Reformation, when the West puzzled over how to keep people of different religions from killing one another. Locke’s answer was to tolerate different religious beliefs, a then-novel idea enshrined in the Toleration Act, a pillar of the Whig settlement worked out after Britain’s Glorious Revolution in 1688. During the drafting and ratification of the U.S. Constitution a century later, James Madison elaborated a more sophisticated theory of pluralism. A nation’s interests and factions could be made, by an ingenious constitutional machinery, to check and balance one another. Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville, studying France’s revolution, saw another justification for pluralism. The various groups—the little platoons—that make up civil society act collectively as a salutary check on the power of an aggrandizing government and are for that reason a valuable element in the state.

Old-fashioned pluralists sought to protect dissenters, minorities, and unpopular points of view. They never attempted to discredit mainstream moral traditions and popular creeds. On the contrary, they believed that these were necessary to the preservation of ordered liberty. By contrast, modern value-pluralism has prompted government to accord second-class status to traditional and popular forms of belief as part of its effort to promote the value-pluralist ideal of diversity. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Supreme Court began invoking a version of value-pluralism in deciding religious-freedom, freedom-
of-speech, and “alternative-lifestyle” cases. Under the new standard, the values of minority groups that embody an
épater les bourgeois spirit must be not simply tolerated but accorded a privileged status, for such contrarian opinions counteract the influence of the dominant hedgehogs. By the same token, a system of belief that commands the assent of a large body of citizens is under the new pluralist standard suspect; however tolerant it appears, such a creed may lead to tyranny.

The double standard is apparent in the 1996 Romer v. Evans case, in which the Court struck down an amendment to Colorado’s constitution that prohibited the creation of special rights (beyond those which all citizens enjoy) for homosexuals. In his dissent in Romer, Justice Scalia argued that the Court, forsaking its role as neutral umpire in a pluralist society, had chosen “to take sides” in a “culture war” and impose upon the nation values “favored by the elite class from which the Members of this institution [the Court itself] are selected.” The old standard of “equal protection of the laws” was being superseded, Scalia maintained, by a “novel and extravagant constitutional doctrine” of “preferential treatment under the laws” for views at odds with “traditional American values.”

Under the new pluralist standard, it is lawful to burn an American flag on the town-hall steps, for flag burning is respectable in the eyes only of a small number of citizens, while it is unlawful to reserve a moment for silent prayer in the public school. School prayer does not, even remotely, amount to a constitutionally prohibited “establishment” of religion, but it stands for a sentiment embraced by the majority of Americans and is for that reason, under a value-pluralist analysis, a danger to the republic. Value-pluralism, as applied by the courts, has ceased to be a machinery of impartial arbitration and has become what Berlin never intended it to be: a dogmatic, discriminating creed in its own right, one that delegitimates the mainstream beliefs that have shaped the American moral imagination. We may, as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has opined, “live in a pluralistic society,” but for the value-pluralist, some values are more equal than others.

If value-pluralism has debauched the courts, its effect on the welfare state has been still more demoralizing. Berlin saw the welfare state as the one system able to mediate between (what he considered to be) the incompatible ideals of liberty and fairness. His hope lay in the welfare state’s bureaucratic blandness. Welfare-state liberals traced their inspiration to the technocratic reformers of the early twentieth century, who were convinced that the progress of society depended on the administrative capabilities of what the young Walter Lippmann called a “specialized class” of experts and social engineers, armed with the insights of social science and clinical psychology. Berlin, with his humanist inclinations, could not personally have found this technocratic utopianism appealing; yet the very dullness of the welfare state’s credo, he seems to have thought, was a recommendation. The stolidity of the bureaucracy would forestall the impulse to extremism or revolution, whether on the Left or the Right.

If the welfare state was useful to value-pluralism, value-pluralism was as useful to the welfare state. In the 1940s and 1950s, the faith in scientific planning that had originally inspired welfare-state liberals began to fade. In The End of Reform, Alan Brinkley observed that during the last years of FDR’s rule, many New Dealers became disenchanted with the “statist planning” that had once been their hope. In the postwar years, it became evident that the rule of the experts had produced not Herbert Croly’s New Republic or Graham Wallas’s Great Society but the
spiritual poverty of the welfare office, with its whiff of Lysol and futility. Value-pluralism supplied welfare-state liberals with a fresh justification for what remained of their progressive dream—their antipathy to the middle-class
conventions that stifle, to the Pleistocene morality that prevailed before the advent of the social worker, the guidance counselor, and the clinical psychologist. In the 1960s, value-pluralist liberals began to use welfare-state programs to cut the tie between mainstream behavioral norms (such as hard work and self-discipline) and the material rewards of a good life. When, in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher advocated a return to the “Victorian virtues,” value-pluralists committed to a morally neutral welfare state denounced her fiercely.

Corrosive, too, has been the influence of value-pluralism in schools. One of the fruits of Berlin’s philosophy is multiculturalism, whose defenders have used the Berlinian notion of a universe of “incommensurable values” to extirpate the weed of “Eurocentric” or “dead white male” civilization. For the multiculturalist, all values are equal, except those of the West. It’s a radical-chic version of the Oxford skepticism that underlay Berlin’s own value-pluralism (“nothing new or true,—and no matter,” as Emerson characterized it). Though Berlin was wary of the multicultural movement, its apologists justifiably regard him as a patron saint: they are faithful to the central aspiration of the value-pluralist philosophy, a world in which no principle is taken too seriously.

Berlin always maintained that value-pluralism “is not relativism.” But his multicultural heirs might be forgiven for supposing that one of his objects was to make it harder for people to say that some ideals are true and others false, some good and others evil. Evil, for the value-pluralist, is the consequence of a too-passionate idealism; it results when hedgehogs push a particular value too far, as Germany’s National Socialists did when they took an end that was not in itself objectionable—the cohesiveness of the national community—and transformed it into something perverse, the ideal of German racial superiority. Thus Berlin can speak, bizarrely and disconcertingly, of “Nazi values.”

Toward the end of “The Pursuit of the Ideal,” Berlin apologized for the absence in his philosophy of a visionary gleam—a flash of poetry, of moral splendor. Value-pluralism was, he conceded, a “little dull as a solution,” a “very flat answer, not the kind of thing that the idealistic young would wish, if need be, to fight and suffer for, in the cause of a new and nobler society.”

To be sure, the great difficulty with pluralism, in both its old (Madisonian) and new (Berlinian) incarnations, is that it offers the heart so little. The old pluralism is pragmatic, procedural, a machine for impartial arbitration. The new value-pluralism is avowedly hostile to the old inspirational traditions. Both pluralisms appeal only to reason, not to the imagination. As such, they share what John Stuart Mill and Lionel Trilling diagnosed as liberalism’s greatest weakness: its tendency to “envisage the world” in a “prosaic” way.

Abraham Lincoln understood the problem and offered a solution familiar to Americans. In an 1838 essay, he argued that, unless America’s republican institutions could inspire a more visceral sense of nationhood, they might perish from civic apathy. To “fortify” the republic against such a decline in public spirit, Lincoln proposed the development of public myths and rituals, a “political religion of the nation.”

A quarter of a century later, in the midst of his country’s great crisis, Lincoln confronted the problem again. He did not attempt to create a “political religion of the nation” de novo but rather sought to ally the brilliant pluralist system of America’s Enlightenment Founding Fathers with the country’s original Puritan spiritual inspirations. The residue of these
older credos, even in an age of iron and steam, possessed a power of mystic apprehension that Lincoln believed could awaken the spirit of his people by giving them a nobler conception of the meaning and destiny of their republic.

It was not a rhetorical conjuring trick; Lincoln reverted to the language of the King James Bible because it spoke of something eternal in the human condition—of the way men find their way through confusion and suffering to truth. The Civil War was an agonizing struggle to vindicate a truth about the value of freedom. If slavery is not wrong, Lincoln said, nothing is wrong. The Union was worth fighting for—was worth dying for—because it was founded on the “self-evident truth” that men are not created slaves. They “are created equal.” America, Lincoln said, was “dedicated” to this proposition. No fox-like reservations for him; to such an ideal men might offer up the “last full measure of devotion” and in its name might “consecrate” the soil with their blood.

Of course, evil may corrupt the loftiest idealism. Pericles, Thucydides wrote, said that Athens embodied so beautiful an ideal of greatness that her citizens became her “lovers.” The image is enchanting, yet it foreshadows the arrogance that would bring the city low. Berlin, taking such cautionary examples to heart, argued that because some idealisms have degenerated into violence and evil, we ought to regard all idealisms with the deepest suspicion. Trouble is, this position has obliged a generation of liberal pluralists to keep not only Hitler and Lenin, but also Lincoln and Churchill, at arm’s length. It has forced them to speak of their own convictions, insofar as they dare to have convictions, in a tone of embarrassed apology; has forced them to speak dismissively of their civilization’s virtues; and has forced them to throw up their hands and say that everything is really very complicated and that all one can do is refrain from being too enthusiastic, too certain, too free from doubt. They fail
to see that prudence has its
own forms of zeal, and understatement its own blindnesses and stupidities. The cautious, agnostic, equivocal virtues (of a Neville Chamberlain, say) have led not less often to disaster than the heroic and forthright ones.

Value-pluralism—praised by its present-day apologists, in their dreadful jargon, as a theory that fosters a “zone within which individuals will freely associate to pursue shared purposes and express distinctive identities, creating a dense network of human connections called civil society”—is undoubtedly a flawed philosophy, a formula for the pasteurization of the human spirit. But Berlin himself remains an appealing figure. He possesses the power of his contradictions. The different personas emerged, one after another, in the flood of talk for which he was celebrated. At one moment he was the Jewish chacham, the scholar of gifts from whom great things were expected, expectations that proved to be a burden. Now again he was the convivial Oxford don, delighting in high-table tittle-tattle about the great world. Next he was the acutely perceptive Russian psychologist, possessed of an insight into the soul that enabled him to function at All Souls as a churchless abbé, a father-confessor who shrived the suppliants who came to his rooms.

At other times, he was a searcher, pursuing, like Pierre in War and Peace, a solution to the enigma of life. His quest was more methodical than most. Berlin’s writings are a catalog, at times a laundry list, of the various answers that philosophers have proposed, not only the great figures but also the more obscure sages, Campanella and Nicholas of Cusa, Festugière and Mandelberg-Posadovsky, ghostly intelligences roused by Berlin from their slumber in dusty libraries. The cacophony of competing solutions is painful: Berlin spoke a “Babel of voices,” a “monstrous muddle,” and the reader of his essays feels as though he has entered the philosophical Hell of Milton, where the demonic sages “reason’d high,”

And found no end, in wandring mazes lost. . . .
Vain wisdom all, and false philosophie.

Where so many others had failed to find a persuasive Answer, it was, Berlin concluded, futile to make yet another attempt, to add another flawed theory to philosophy’s ash heap. And so he proclaimed his anti-Answer—value-pluralism, his theory that there is
no Answer. Yet he never bothered even to paper over value-pluralism’s ambiguities, to endow it with a merely verbal coherence, to make it the subject of the Big Book that he was expected to write but never did. Life was too amusing to devote to such labors.

Berlin preferred instead to investigate philosophies that possessed those qualities value-pluralism did not. In The Magus of the North, he described the German mystic
Johann Georg Hamann’s critique of the French Enlightenment in terms reminiscent of Lionel Trilling’s critique of liberalism. Hamann, Berlin wrote, despised the ideals of such philosophes as Helvétius: they did “not delve into the depths and splendours of the ravaged human soul. . . . In a world built by Helvétius there would be no colour, no novelty, no thunder or lightning, no agony or transfiguration.” Berlin’s
best work, in fact, concerns
the insights into the human condition of thinkers antipathetic to the liberal tradition—Hamann and the German Romantics, Tolstoy and Disraeli, Machiavelli and Sorel. He wrote little on liberal minds (as distinct from liberal theories): there is an essay on Mill, a piece of puffery about FDR, a eulogy of Felix Frankfurter, not much more. The liberal mind seems not to have interested him very much.

By contrast, the Catholic reactionary Joseph de Maistre intrigued him, captivated him. Maistre occupies a special place in Berlin’s imagination, akin to that which Samuel Taylor Coleridge filled in
the thought of John Stuart Mill. Though recoiling from Coleridge’s conclusions, Mill profited from his encounter with a philosopher who “saw so much farther into the complexities of the human intellect and human feelings” than liberal-utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham. Berlin similarly drew back from Maistre’s “violent” mind, but he found him “bolder, more interesting, more original” than any political thinker of his age, including Burke. Maistre, in Berlin’s account, is “penetrating and remarkably modern,” “vigorous, brilliant, original and amusing,” a “ferocious critic,” “icy, smooth, clear.” His thought is “dry light against the flickering flame,” conveyed in language that rises to “classical dignity and beauty.” His insights are “passionate but lucid,” “bold and penetrating,” “exceedingly pungent,” “unique” in their “grasp,” similar to but “far more powerful” than Burke’s. Beside Maistre, Rousseau and Hugo are “turbid” and “gushing,” Flaubert “an imperfectly drained marsh.”

For Berlin, Maistre’s “genius consists in the depth and
accuracy of his insight into
the darker, less regarded, but decisive factors in social and political behaviour.” Maistre was “an original thinker, swimming against the current of his time, determined to explode the most sacrosanct platitudes and pious formulas of his liberal contemporaries.” Maistre conducted his attack on liberalism “with much exaggeration and perverse delight,” yet also “with some truth,” for the Savoyard thinker perceived, as liberals did not, “the persistence and extent of irrational instinct, the power of faith, the force of blind tradition.” Maistre showed, as few others have, “the willful ignorance about their human material of the progressives—the idealistic social scientists, the bold political and economic planners, the passionate believers in technocracy.” Maistre understood, as liberals and progressives did not, “the impalpable strands which hold societies together and give them their strength.” He knew, as they did not, that “societies have a general soul, a true moral unity, by which they are shaped” and that a government, if it is to retain its hold on its citizens, must have “its dogmas, its mysteries, its priests.”

Maistre saw, as the liberals did not see, the “unexplained and unexplainable depths.” He felt, as they did not feel, the “dark unanalysable . . . poetry of the world.” He fathomed,
as they never could, man’s infinite capacity for self-destruction, apparent at once in his desire to exalt and to abase himself, to suffer, to prostrate himself before the powers
that be. For all Maistre’s “paradoxes” and “descents into
sheer counter-revolutionary absurdity,” he was able, Berlin contended, to look unflinchingly at what “humane and optimistic persons tend not to want to see,” and for this reason
he was often “a better guide
to human conduct” than the starry-eyed reformers: “at any rate [he] can provide a sharp, by no means useless, antidote to their often over-simple, superficial and, more than once, disastrous remedies.”

Particularly valuable, Berlin believed, were Maistre’s insights into the moral vocabulary of civilizations, the “accumulated wealth of meaning” with which the “mere passage of time enriches an old language, endowing it with all the fine, mysterious properties of an ancient, enduring institution.” For Maistre, “thought is language,” and language “enshrines the oldest historical memories of a people or a church.” Maistre understood that a civilization’s, a culture’s, literature contains an inheritance of knowledge deeper than the reach of mere philosophy, particularly Enlightenment philosophy. “Since words are the repository of the thought and feeling and view of themselves and of the external world of our ancestors, they embody also their conscious and unconscious wisdom, derived from God to form experience,” Berlin wrote in his précis of Maistre. “Hence ancient and traditional texts, especially those contained in sacred books which express the immemorial wisdom of the race, modified and enriched by the impact of events, are so many valuable quarries whence expert knowledge, zeal and patience may extract much hidden gold.”

To cast aside this moral poetry was, for Maistre, “suicidal lunacy.” Yet this is precisely what liberal reformers were continually doing (and what the deconstructionist academy does today). The reformer “annihilates” the “virtue” of the old texts and “dehydrates them of their significance,” leaving what is “profound and fertile” in them to evaporate.

If Berlin found much truth in Maistre’s critique of liberalism, he was careful to keep the Savoyard at arm’s length. He connected Maistre to “the paranoiac world of modern Fascism,” yet a number of what he characterizes as the philosopher’s “dark” insights into history, suffering, and “the expiation of sin” resemble nothing so much as the views of Lincoln in the Second Inaugural, in which the sixteenth president cloaked himself in the language of the Bible and invoked “the providence of God” to explain America’s dark and bloody experience of slavery and civil war. The Maistre Berlin gives us—“consumed by the sense of original sin,” fearful lest men, in their “self-destructive stupidity,” fall yet again into “the bottomless abyss of anarchy and the destruction of all values”—sounds less like a proto-Nazi than a prophet warning against those weaknesses in human nature that make a regime like Hitler’s possible. Nor did Berlin explain why this staunchly Catholic philosopher and ultramontane champion of the pope—a man who felt himself to be “the last defender of a civilization that was perishing”—ought to be considered the begetter of Goebbels and Mussolini. Berlin’s hastily sketched contention that “modern totalitarian systems . . . combine the outlooks of Voltaire and Maistre” rings hollow; it is his eloquent appreciation of Maistre’s profundity that rings true.

Berlin portrayed himself as a value-pluralist, yet his essays on value-pluralism—“Two Concepts of Liberty,” “Political Ideas in the Twentieth Century,” “Does Political Theory Still Exist?”—contain what is surely his worst writing. They are repetitive, shaggy, shapeless, filled with labored sentences and tortuous digressions. By contrast, his essays on imaginative anti-liberals are alive with the exuberance of discovery. This chasm at the heart of his work—the divide between decent (but uninspiring) value-pluralism and exhilarating (but dangerous) idealism—he seems not consciously to have perceived; certainly he never pretended to have bridged it.

But there are clues. In his essay on Mill, Berlin described how that divided philosopher rebelled against liberal utilitarianism—the Mill family business—to pursue a deeper culture of the mind. Mill’s “unceasing revolt against his father’s outlook and ideals,” Berlin wrote, was the “greater for being subterranean and unacknowledged.” The same can be said of Berlin’s subterranean revolt against what is unintelligent in liberalism. In his work on romantic anti-liberals, Berlin wrote sympathetically of all that is lacking in the liberal imagination: an acknowledgment of the importance of poetry and tradition, an understanding of evil, a feeling for the moral imagination, a recognition of man’s need for the inspiration of an ideal.

Berlin’s critique of liberalism was subterranean in part, I suppose, because he had no desire to be a prophet without invitations. Value-pluralism made Berlin a celebrity philosopher, a yogi to the postwar Anglo-American political establishment. Supple, plastic,
flexible, Berlin’s value-pluralism was congenial to the spirit of an age, a moment when
the West lost confidence in
its traditions and sought a precarious refuge in accommodation, in moral détente, in the ethically elastic. Berlin rushed from Rothschild house parties at Waddesdon to the soirées of Joe Alsop in Georgetown; he tutored the Kennedys at the White House and rushed off with the Arthur Schlesingers and the Walter Lippmanns to the Plaza, where Truman Capote was tossing his garter to Kay Graham.

Like his establishment patrons, Berlin feared extremism on the Left, yet was not a
sufficiently confident liberal to dismiss socialism altogether. Rather than swim “against the current,” he crafted an apologia for the welfare state and slighted the moral imagination—an admittedly imperfect defense against fanaticism, but the best we have. He attempted to throw over his papier-mâché philosophy the veil of the tragic, but he is least plausible when he poses as a
tragic sage. How could one immersed in lacrimae rerum have steeled himself to so many dinner parties? (Perhaps his mornings were Sophoclean, leaving the evenings free
for Fellini.) Yet in his most perceptive moments he was better than this, was a man who kept, however slyly, a
nobler faith.

Up Next
from the magazine

In Defense of Memorization

Progressive educators call it “drill and kill,” but learning poetry by heart empowers kids. Michael Knox Beran Education, The Social Order, Arts and Culture


Send a question or comment using the form below. This message may be routed through support staff.