The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library

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Berlin once described the main burden of his work as ‘distrust of all claims to the possession of incorrigible knowledge about issues of fact or principle in any sphere of human behaviour’.  His most fundamental conviction, which he applauded when he discerned it in the writings of others, and adopted in an enriched form as his own, was that there can never be any single, universal, final, complete, demonstrable answer to the most ultimate moral question of all: How should men live? This he presents as a denial of one of the oldest and most dominant assumptions of Western thought, expressed in its most uncompromising form in the eighteenth century under the banner of the French Enlightenment. 
Contrary to the Enlightenment vision of an eventual orderly and untroubled synthesis of all objectives and aspirations, Berlin insisted that there exists an indefinite number of competing and often irreconcilable ultimate values and ideals between which each of us often has to make a choice – a choice which, precisely because it cannot be given a conclusive rational justification, must not be forced on others, however committed we may be to it ourselves. ‘Life may be seen through many windows, none of them necessarily clear or opaque, less or more distorting than any of the others.’

Each individual, each culture, each nation, each historical period has its own goals and standards, and these cannot be combined, practically or theoretically, into a single coherent overarching system in which all ends are fully realised without loss, compromise or clashes. The same tension exists within each individual consciousness. More equality may mean less excellence, or less liberty; justice may obstruct mercy; honesty may exclude kindness; self-knowledge may impair creativity or happiness, efficiency inhibit spontaneity. But these are not temporary local difficulties: they are general, indelible and sometimes tragic features of the moral landscape; tragedy, indeed, far from being the result of avoidable error, is an endemic feature of the human condition. Instead of a splendid synthesis there must be a permanent, at times painful, piecemeal process of untidy trade-offs and careful balancings of contradictory claims.

Intimately connected with this pluralist thesis – sometimes mistaken for relativism, which he rejected, and which is in fact quite distinct – is a belief in freedom from interference, especially by those who think they know better, that they can choose for us in a more enlightened way than we can choose for ourselves. Berlin’s pluralism justifies his deep-seated rejection of coercion and manipulation by authoritarians and totalitarians of all kinds: Communists, Fascists, bureaucrats, missionaries, terrorists, revolutionaries and all other despots, levellers, systematisers or purveyors of ‘organised happiness’. Like one of his heroes, the Russian thinker Alexander Herzen, many of whose characteristics he manifested himself, Berlin had a horror of the sacrifices that have been exacted in the name of Utopian ideals due to be realised at some unspecifiable point in the distant future: real people should not have to suffer and die today for the sake of a chimera of eventual universal bliss. 

Berlin always discussed these ideas in terms of specific individuals, not in the abstract, remembering that it is the impact of ideas on people’s lives that give them their point. Here he was served by his unusual capacity for imaginative identification with people whose visions of life varied greatly and were often distant from his own. This enabled him to write rich and convincing accounts of a wide range of figures, historical and contemporary: Belinsky, Hamann, Herder, Herzen, Machiavelli, Maistre, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Vico; Churchill, Namier, Roosevelt, Weizmann; and many others. His descriptions of those with whom he is in the closest sympathy often have a marked autobiographical resonance: he said of others, with dazzling virtuosity, what he would not have been willing to say of himself, what he probably did not believe of himself, though his words sometimes fit his own case precisely. Had he been sufficiently interested in his life and opinions for their own sakes, he would have been his own ideal biographer; but he would also have been a different man. 
© Copyright Henry Hardy 1997 N E X T > > 

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The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library