The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas by Isaiah Berlin, edited by Henry Hardy. Knopf, 277 pp., $22.00.
October 1, 2001        

Securus judicat orbis terrarum, says a maxim of Roman law; which means, loosely translated: the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, and the Times Literary Supplement can't all be wrong. Isaiah Berlin is a certified sage, an object of near-universal veneration. "Few writers and intellectuals command the awe and admiration accorded to Sir Isaiah Berlin, and with good reason," declared the Economist recently. "There is, arguably, no more admired thinker in the English-speaking world," began the Boston Globe's review of his latest book, The Crooked Timber of Humanity. Berlin's career has been a rapid-fire sequence of academic honors: Fellow of two Oxford colleges; Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford; President of Wolfson College, Oxford; President of the British Academy; the Erasmus, Lippincott, Agnelli, and Jerusalem prizes; and a knighthood for academic distinction.

The Crooked Timber of Humanity is a twilight volume: it revisits longstanding preoccupations and restates long-held positions, not in order to revise or synthesize but to clarify or embellish. As usual, Berlin's essays blend the history of ideas, the philosophy of history, political theory, and moral philosophy; his approach is relaxed and untheoretical (although sometimes almost dismayingly uncluttered with textual references); his prose style is weighty and graceful.

The unity of Berlin's thought is not far to seek: he has devoted his career to telling a single story. If the master narrative of modernity recounts the gradual progress of emancipation, the alternate, or anti-, narrative describes the costs of that progress: the blindness of enlightenment and the cruelties of emancipation. No sooner was the autonomy of reason secured than the adequacy of reason began to be questioned. Kant's and Hegel's challenges to Enlightenment rationalism are well-known; but Berlin has brought into view, more than any other historian, the full vigor and variety of the anti-Enlightenment tradition. In previous books he showed deep similarities among such marginal and apparently disparate figures as Vico, Herder, Sorel, the nineteenth-century Russian Slavophiles, and Tolstoy as a moral and political thinker. The longest and most substantial essay in The Crooked Timber of Humanity adds Joseph de Maistre to this number, though with due allowance for de Maistre's distorting extremisms.

What these thinkers have in common is epistemological and moral pluralism: a conviction that the aims of scientific method - predictiveness, universal applicability, logical simplicity, ontological parsimony - cannot be imported into the study of psychology, history, or politics. Individuals and cultures are radically diverse, ineffably deep, infinitely complex. Only imaginative identification, a renunciation of the urge to theoretical mastery, and a yielding to the sheer particularity of things can produce genuine understanding.

Even more important than this interpretive pluralism is ethical pluralism. Moral no less than aesthetic values are radically diverse. Both within and among human beings, conflict, or at any rate tension, is inevitable. Compromise is possible, but not perfect harmony. This "banality" (his own characterization) is Berlin's constant, almost obsessive, theme. An astonishingly high proportion of his essays, whatever their subject, employ something like the following formula. Enlightenment political thought is said to rest on three premises: first, that every meaningful, properly formulated question has a single correct answer; second, there exists a reliable method for discovering this answer; third, all these answers must be compatible, since truths cannot contradict one another. It follows from these premises that one (and only one) perfectly rational and harmonious way of life is discoverable. This conclusion is deemed to justify unlimited coercion by those who have attained to this discovery against those who have not. And so the tendency of every utopian movement is totalitarian: when perfectibility is the assumption, coercion must be the result.

Of course Berlin's pluralism has more flesh on its bones than this. In his finest essays - on Vico, Hamann, and Herder in Against the Current, on Herzen, Belinsky, Turgenev, and Tolstoy in Russian Thinkers, and on de Maistre in The Crooked Timber of Humanity - he depicts the rebellion against Enlightenment rationalism through marvelously vivid and dramatic intellectual portraits. But the actual arguments, even in his celebrated "Two Concepts of Liberty" and "Historical Inevitability," are thin.

By his own astute and engaging admission, Berlin is not an original thinker. He is, rather, a supremely effective exponent of the conventional moral and political wisdom. This is not entirely, or even in the main, a disparaging judgment. The conventional wisdom is genuine wisdom. Revolutionary, egalitarian, and utopian rhetoric has been put to deplorable uses in the twentieth century; now and for a long time we would do well to be suspicious of it. To have articulated this suspicion comprehensively and, so to speak, genealogically, with large resources of erudition and eloquence, as Berlin has done, is an important service. So is his lifelong admonition that (to quote his approving summary of Montesquieu's position) "durable and beneficial social structures are seldom simple, that large areas of political behavior always remain very complex and obscure, that a radical change of one part of it might easily lead to unpredictable effects in others, and that the end might be worse than the beginning."

This last, however, is a sentence that Michael Harrington or Rosa Luxemburg might have written - it is, at least, a sentiment they would have endorsed. The conventional wisdom had nothing to teach either of them about respect for individual liberty, and they had a great deal of unconventional wisdom to teach Berlin and the civilization that has lionized him. In every society, some truths are convenient and some are not. To those who expound convenient truths (especially with Berlin's incomparable verve) much is given and much forgiven.

Berlin's frequent animadversions on Marx and Marxism are, unfortunately, a contribution to conventional unwisdom. The notion that Marx is responsible for the Gulag is, of course, a terrible simplification. Berlin himself has warned more than once against it. Nonetheless, it's hard to see what other sense to give comments like this:

[For Hegel and Marx,] a large number of human beings must be sacrificed and annihilated if the ideal is to triumph. ... The path may lead to a terrestrial paradise, but it is strewn with the corpses of the enemy, for whom no tear must be shed, since right and wrong, good and bad, success and failure, wisdom and folly, are all in the end determined by the objective ends of history, which has condemned half mankind - unhistorical nations, members of obsolete classes, inferior races - to what Proudhon called "liquidation" and Trotsky ... described as the rubbish heap of history (The Crooked Timber of Humanity, p. 198).

Or this:

Marx - and it is part of his attraction to those of a similar emotional cast - identifies himself exultantly ... with the great force which in its very destructiveness is creative, and is greeted with bewilderment and horror only by those whose values are hopelessly subjective, who listen to their consciences, their feelings, or to what their nurses and teachers tell them. ... When history takes her revenge ... the mean, pathetic, ludicrous, stifling human anthills will be justly pulverized. ... Whatever is on the side of victorious reason is just and wise; whatever is on the other side ... is doomed to destruction (Four Essays on Liberty, p. 62).

At one remove from Marx himself, "Marxist sociology" teaches:

It is idle for the progressives to try to save their reactionary brothers from defeat: the doomed men cannot hear them, and their destruction is certain. All men will not be saved: the proletariat, justly intent upon its own salvation, had best ignore the fate of their oppressors; even if they wish to return good for evil, they cannot save their enemies from "liquidation." They are "expendable" - their destruction can be neither averted nor regretted by a rational being, for it is the price that mankind must pay for the progress of reason itself: the road to the gates of Paradise is necessarily strewn with corpses (The Crooked Timber of Humanity, pp. 178-79).

All this is superb prose, but as an account of Marx's historical materialism, it is tosh. Marx doubted - correctly, as the bloody history of the American labor movement demonstrates - that capitalists would give up without a fight or that they would (even by their own standards) fight fair. That's about all his infamous revolutionary amorality amounted to. To talk darkly of liquidating half mankind or pulverizing human anthills - that is, to assimilate Marxism to Stalinism - is mere mischief.

I do not mean that Berlin tailored his rhetoric to flatter the prejudices of his Establishment audience, or anything of that sort. On the contrary, he seems to me all unselfconscious integrity, incapable of altering an adjective, much less an opinion, for the sake of the Erasmus, Lippincott, Agnelli, and Jerusalem prizes together. He obviously believes every word he has written about Marx, many of which are just and penetrating. But if Berlin didn't believe and hadn't frequently and eloquently expounded these damaging half-truths about Marx during the central decades of the Cold War, I doubt he would have been the object of so much institutional affection and gratitude.

The fervent gratitude he inspires is, in a way, the most remarkable thing about Berlin's career. He has written comparatively little; it obviously strikes exactly the right chord. "People are pleased," observes Russell Jacoby ("Isaiah Berlin: With the Current," Salmagundi, Winter 1982), "to find a man of learning who does not accuse them or their society of unspeakable crimes. ... Berlin reassures his readers in a prose studded with the great names of Western culture that complexity is inevitable, solutions, impossible; the threat is from the utopians and artists who imagine a better world."

The critique of utopia is certainly the nerve of Berlin's writings. Like his critique of Marx, it is surprisingly simplistic for so renowned an evangelist of complexity. Sometimes it is not even minimally informative. Berlin frequently tries to make mere repetition or enumeration do the work of detailed analysis. By and large, his strictures are pronounced rather than proved.

Take this passage from "The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West":

Broadly speaking, western Utopias tend to contain the same elements: a society lives in a state of pure harmony, in which all its members live in peace, love one another, are free from physical danger, from want of any kind, from insecurity, from degrading work, from envy, from insecurity, from degrading work, from envy, from frustration , experience no injustice or violence, live in perpetual, even light, in a temperate climate, in the midst of infinitely fruitful, generous nature. The main characteristic of most, perhaps all, Utopias is the fact that they are static. Nothing in them alters, for they have reached perfection: there is no need for novelty or change; no one can wish to alter a condition in which all natural human wishes are fulfilled (The Crooked Timber of Humanity, p. 20).

In short, the Garden of Eden minus original sin. But consider what are perhaps the five most influential utopian fictions in English: Thomas More's Utopia, Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, William Morris's News from Nowhere, H. G. Wells's A Modern Utopia, and Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia. No characteristic from Berlin's list applies categorically to all five applies categorically to all five; or indeed, arguably, to any of them. All members of all these utopian societies are liable to some danger, want, frustration, envy, violence, insecurity, and tedious work, however insignificant compared with present-day levels. They are cooperative, egalitarian, technically advanced commonwealths, not idylls of static perfection. Pace Berlin, no "metaphysical" theories of human nature are required to accept them (with whatever reservations) as inspiring models or programs, only a lively and discriminating moral imagination.

Similarly, in "The Apotheosis of the Romantic Will" Berlin declares that

thinkers from Bacon to the present have been inspired by the certainty that there must exist a total solution: that in the fullness of time ... the reign of irrationality, injustice and misery will end; man will be liberated, and will no longer be the plaything of forces beyond his control - savage nature, or the consequences of his own ignorance or folly or vice; that this springtime in human affairs will come once the obstacles, natural and human, are overcome, and then at last men will cease to fight each other, unite their powers, and cooperate to adapt nature to their needs ... (Crooked Timber of Humanity, p. 212).

This Berlin regards as an absurdity, a Sorelian "great myth" of perfect harmony through a scientifically-arrived-at "total solution" - the sinister implications of that phrase are almost certainly intended. To me, on the contrary, it seems an entirely reasonable and humane goal (though patronizingly and tendentiously formulated by Berlin, to be sure) - a goal that implies neither psychological nor intellectual nor moral uniformity, nor any perfect harmony, fortuitous or coerced.

A final example, from the same essay. According to Berlin, the Romantics have done well for humanity by dealing a "fatal blow" to the notion that

rational organization can bring about the perfect union of such values and counter-values as individual liberty and social equality, spontaneous self-expression and organized, socially directed efficiency, perfect knowledge and perfect knowledge and perfect happiness, the claims of personal life and the claims of parties, classes, nations, the public interest. If some ends recognized as fully human are at the same time ultimate and mutually incompatible, then the idea of a golden age, a perfect society compounded of a synthesis of all the correct solutions to all the central problems, is shown to be incoherent in principle (Crooked Timber of Humanity, p. 237).

If this passage is purged of exaggeration and caricature - or even if one merely removes the words "perfect" and "golden age" - then the incoherence vanishes, or at least requires a good deal more demonstration than Berlin provides, either in this essay or (despite his reputation as the theorist of political pluralism) anywhere else.

Would any of those to whom the above beliefs are ascribed - that is, the "many who put their trust in rational and scientific methods designed to effect a fundamental social transformation" - acknowledge them in the form here proffered by Berlin? I doubt it. Again and again - almost without exception, in fact - Berlin trivializes and dismisses utopianism by means of such phrases as "earthly paradise," "the perfect life," "a perfect and harmonious society, wholly free from conflict or injustice or oppression," "a static perfection in which human nature is finally and fully realized, and all is still and immutable and eternal." But has any utopian writer, no matter how deluded, ever really promised perfection? Any influential utopian writer? Most influential utopian writers? Even if the answer to that last question were "Yes" (and if it is not, then Berlin's central claim about utopianism is untrue), the important issue raised by the utopian tradition would not be "Is humankind perfectible?" but "How perfectible is it?" How far can we go? And why can't we even make a start?

Notwithstanding his famously varied interests and extraordinary range, Berlin has never found the occasion to raise, much less come to terms with, these urgent and obvious questions. He has instead devoted himself to addressing continual reminders about the unattainability of perfect harmony to a civilization that cannot rouse itself to legislate a decently progressive income tax or do more than gesture fitfully at homelessness, global hunger, and a score of other evils for which a doubtless imperfect posterity will doubtless curse and despise us. Berlin will not, I'm afraid, win the Scialabba Prize.

He will survive that disappointment; for all his frequent and graceful self-deprecation, he evidently enjoys, along with everyone else's, his own good opinion. Near the end of his splendid essay on Turgenev is a passage of what is unmistakably self-description:

... the small, hesitant, not always very brave band of men who occupy a position somewhere to the left of center, and are morally repelled both by the hard faces to their right and the hysteria and mindless violence and demagoguery on their left. Like the men of the [18]40s, for whom Turgenev spoke, they are at once horrified and fascinated. They are shocked by the violent irrationalism of the dervishes on the left, yet they are not prepared to reject wholesale the position of those who claim to represent the young and the disinherited, the indignant champions of the poor and the socially deprived or repressed. This is the notoriously unsatisfactory, at times agonizing, position of the modern heirs of the liberal tradition (Russian Thinkers, p. 301).

This is a perfectly honorable position, but it is not, as far as I can see, an agonizing one. It seems, in fact, quite a comfortable one. Turgenev, it is true, was not comfortable. But then, he tried long and hard to find common ground with the "indignant champions of the poor," rather than merely informing them that not much, alas, can be done. Berlin is, of course, in favor of whatever can be done; but what in particular that might be, and why not more, never seems to be his immediate concern. "The concrete situation is almost everything," he advises, concluding an essay entitled "The Pursuit of the Ideal." The concrete situation is just what he has rarely had a word to say about.

Forty years ago Irving Howe wrote: "But if the ideal of socialism is now to be seen as problematic, the problem of socialism remains an abiding ideal. I would say that it is the best problem to which a political intellectual can attach himself." So it was, and still is. And Berlin still hasn't.