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Isaiah Berlin: A Life by Michael Ignatieff

Ralph Blumenau examines the open book of Isaiah Berlin’s life.

Twentieth century philosophers in England fall into two groups. The bigger is the one whose members engage in analysing the meanings of words and the ways that we use them. While this is undoubtedly an important enterprise, it is often rather arid and does not touch on what is really significant to most people. Bryan Magee, in his Confessions of a Philosopher, compares them to men who spend all their time polishing their glasses, but never put them on their noses to look through them at the world. These philosophers tend to teach us cleverness.

The other, rather smaller group, to which Isaiah Berlin belonged (after having started as a member of the first group), addresses itself chiefly to human concerns, to how we ought to live. I maintain that men like him teach us wisdom. They are often looked down upon by the first group: indeed, in reviewing Michael Ignatieff’s book in The Times, Anthony Quinton says dismissively that Isaiah Berlin was not a philosopher at all “in the academic sense”; that he was “superficial” and “too much attracted to the great world”.

Isaiah Berlin certainly did not live in an ivory tower; and in Michael Ignatieff’s immensely attractive biography we can follow his engagement in the great world. Like many other academics, he worked in government during the Second World War: at the Ministry of Information in New York and then at the British Embassy in Washington and (very briefly just after the war) at the Moscow Embassy. Everywhere and throughout his life his brilliant talk, his engaging personality and (why not?) his zest in making and cultivating contacts led him to be welcomed by a great range of politicians, businessmen and academics. As a committed Zionist, he played a minor but not unimportant role, acting as an intermediary between his friend Chaim Weizmann and American politicians during the period when American attitudes towards the aspiration for an independent Israel were being shaped: Weizmann and Ben Gurion, representing very different attitudes to how Israeli independence might best be achieved, both asked him to move to Israel and play a part in shaping the nascent state (Weizmann wanted him to be his Chief of Staff); but Berlin declined. One reason for this was that he felt himself temperamentally unfitted for the intrigues, infighting and abrasiveness that such a role would involve.

Ignatieff shows repeatedly how, although Berlin had political commitments – particularly to Zionism and to anti- Communism – he shied away from being put into a confrontational position. He did not like making enemies; he liked to please; he was uncomfortably aware of his dual allegiance when working for a British government which was unsympathetic to Zionist aspirations. There seems to me no doubt that the philosophy which would develop in due course was a sublimation of his psychology. It should go without saying that this is not said in denigration of his philosophy: some of the greatest achievements in creativity have been driven by personal needs of this kind. One must judge the value of a philosophy by the quality of the end product, not by its psychological origins.

One of Berlin’s essays is entitled ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox’. The fox, so an ancient Greek once said, knows many things; the hedgehog knows one big thing. Ignatieff argues that Berlin indeed knew many things, but that he had been in search of the one big thing that would make sense not only of the tensions he felt within himself, but also of those which any openminded person must feel when seeing that in so many important conflicts, whether in personal life, in the history of ideas, in politics, or in philosophical situations, there is so much to be said for each side. He found this one big thing in the notion of Pluralism.

Pluralism means that every individual and every society must accept that there is never one absolute value to which other values must be subordinated. There are many values in life which all command respect; but the most important of these – freedom, justice, equality, tolerance, compassion, loyalty – often must collide. Take, for example, Liberty and Equality. Both are rightly sought after; but equality can only be achieved by curtailing the liberty of action which, if granted, will result in some people pulling ahead of others. And even a single value, like equality, has tension built into it: do we look for equality of opportunity or equality of outcome? Again, if we want equality of opportunity, the result may be inequality of outcome; if we want to ensure equality of outcome, we cannot also have equality of opportunity. There are occasions when unavoidable collisions of values – of allegiance or of moral duty, for example – are the very stuff of tragedy.

Berlin was a liberal and believed in rational discussion; but he thought that no amount of rational discussion can resolve these conflicts of values; and for him it was certainly not a solution to give to any one value absolute priority over others which have as good a claim to be universal.

Does Berlin’s insistence that there are no absolute values make him a relativist? He denied that: relativism, he thought, refuses to make moral judgments between different value systems, and often claims that they are merely socially determined. Berlin did make moral judgments: he thought that some values (but not others) are universal. These enter so deeply into our concept of what it means to be human that someone who lacks them is not regarded as “fully a man at all”. It is statements like these that perhaps made Anthony Quinton write that Berlin was “superficial” and not a philosopher “in the academic sense”. In a televised interview with Ignatieff shortly before his death Berlin admitted that, in the last resort, his own choice of ultimate values was based on emotions: his hatred of violence and of coercion.

If our reason cannot resolve the tensions between values, it can at least help us to manage them. We do this by keeping the values in pragmatic balance; and that means that we have to accept trade-offs - even in the awareness that each trade-off “may entail an irreparable loss”. Societies and individuals committed to Pluralism have to make choices without the comfort of knowing that their choice has been a perfect and wholly satisfactory one. There is no such neat intellectual solution to the problems of human life. Berlin was fond of a quotation from Immanuel Kant: “From the crooked timber of humanity no entirely straight thing can be built.”

Did this necessity of choosing make Berlin an existentialist? In another interview with Steven Lukes, he said “In a sense, I am an existentialist – that’s to say I commit myself … to constellations of certain values.” Perhaps the word ‘commitment’, with its existentialist overtones, troubled him: by the time he did the televised interviews with Michael Ignatieff, he used the more modest word “plumping”, and also said that he was, temperamentally, a sitter on the fence. (I am not sure how you can stay sitting on the fence and plump at the same time!) And in fact I would say that he differed from existentialists in two major respects: existentialists, once they have made a commitment to a cause, do not generally continue to examine what is on the other side of the fence, perhaps because, if they did, their commitment to what was so often a political struggle would be weakened. Berlin was incurably interested in the other side of the fence, and was not a political activist: he never took part in demonstrations, resisted signing manifestoes, and was sometimes accused by others (and even accused himself) of lacking political courage. And yet he did have some very firm convictions.

One of these was that a plural society requires tolerance. Tolerance becomes very much easier if we can develop empathy, an understanding for a structure of values that may not be the same as ours. We ought, thought Berlin, to be tolerant towards all ideologies that are not inherently intolerant of others. Never, I think, has this message been more important than in today's multi-cultural societies.

His own empathy, however, extended much further than trying to understand from within the various thought systems that respected the values which he had defined as universal: he was as fascinated by those ideologies which he regarded as inhuman as he was by those he shared. Ignatieff quotes him as saying that, in the case of those who lack the moral values he thought universal “I shall begin to speak of insanity...”. But in another interview (with Steven Lukes) Berlin said that he would never describe Nazism as mad. It did indeed rest on totally perverted axioms, but upon these axioms its theorists did erect an intellectual structure: how else could one explain that fascism was espoused not just by thugs, but by many academics at universities and by thinkers in other walks of life? Even more so was this the case with Marxism: he detested it, but he truly understood it from within. Ignatieff comments that “Berlin was the only liberal thinker of real consequence to take the trouble to enter the mental worlds of liberalism’s sworn enemies.” And although liberalism and nationalism, usually allies in the first half of the 19th century, parted company thereafter, Berlin was also one of those rare modern liberals who had respect for nationalism. The freedom to give expression to national identity was an important freedom, but of course it must not itself become oppressive of other people’s national identity.

This review, written for a journal of ideas, has singled out from Michael Ignatieff’s volume (with the occasional reflection that is not in the book) just the ‘one big thing’ that Berlin found in the idea of Pluralism. There has not been the space here to deal with his discussion of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ liberty. As its title suggests, this is a biography that focuses most strongly on the philosopher’s life. An exposition of his ideas is skillfully woven into the narrative. It is not until we are two-thirds of the way through the book, when Berlin had reached the age of forty, that we come upon the chapter headed ‘Late Awakening’: awakening, that is, to the ideas for which he became famous. But I cannot praise highly enough the loving and vivid portrait of Isaiah Berlin that Ignatieff has given us and the fascinating account of his private and public life. I have resisted describing the most moving and beautiful passages in the book: the opening chapter in which Ignatieff describes the ten-year sequence of conversations he had with Berlin; the great set-piece of the epiphanic meeting with the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova; the wonderful last few pages. Truly, Isaiah Berlin had found his ideal biographer.

© Ralph Blumenau 1999

Ralph Blumenau teaches philosophy at the University of the Third Age in London.

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