Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Isaiah Berlin

I was lent a superb book by Ham and Cecilia Lloyd for my trip to Japan, Michael Ignatieff's Life of Isaiah Berlin. It's a masterpiece, illuminating his philosophical writings so elegantly and self-effacingly that one is left with a clear perspective on a fascinating life and mind.

Here are a few excerpts:

1. All his life, he attributed to Englishness all the propositional content of his liberalism: 'that decent respect for others and the tolerance of dissent is better than pride and a sense of national mission; that liberty may be incompatible with, and better than, too much efficiency; that pluralism and untidiness are, to those who value freedom, better than the the rigorous imposition of all-embracing systems, no matter how disinterested, better than the rule of majorities against which there is no appeal.' All this he insisted, was deeply and uniquely English.

2. Jewish energy is described as pushiness; cleverness becomes arrogance; exuberance turns into vulgarity; affection is seen as sentimentality. He never entirely ceased seeing his own people through the eyes of their detractors.

As he wrote to Felix Frankfurter, 'the trouble about the Israelis is not only their partly unconscious conviction born of experience that virtue always loses and that only toughness pays, but a great deal of provincialism and blindness to outside opinion'.

3. Nor were his spirits lifted by his exposure to the 'great big glaring sunlit extrovert over-articulated scene' of America. In a letter to his father, he admitted that Americans were 'open, vigorous, 2x2=4 sort of people, who want yes or no for an answer' but he longed for the company of people with a European 'nuance'. To his Oxford friend Mary Fisher he confessed that he was miserably homesick for the complex and mysterious social mazes of Oxbridge: there were no mazes in America, nothing but flat, clear vistas. Conversation with Americans were equally disappointing: 'a total lack of salt, pepper, mustard'. Though his view of Americans softened as he grew to know them well.

4. In the four Bryn Mawr lectures, he set out the distinction he was later to make famous between negative and positive liberty. Only at this stage he called them 'liberal' and 'romantic'. Until Rousseau, liberty had always been understood negatively, as the absences of obstacles to courses of thought and action. With Rousseau, and then with the Romantics, came the idea of liberty being achieved only when men are able to realise their innermost natures. Liberty became synonymous with self-creation and self-expression. A person who enjoyed negative liberty - freedom of action or thought - might none the less lack positive liberty, the capacity to develop his or her innermost nature to the full.

Berlin evidently approved of the ideals of self-realisation. The danger lay in the idea, latent in Enlightenment rationalism and Romanticism alike, that men might be so blinded by their true natures - by ignorance, custom or injustice - that could only be freed by those revolutionaries of social engineers who understood their objective needs better than they did themselves.

' This is one of the most powerful and dangerous arguments in the entire history of human thought. Let us trace its steps again. Objective good can be discovered only by the use of reason; to impose it on others is only to activate the dormant reason within them; to liberate people is to do just that for them which, were they rational, they would do for themselves, no matter what they in fact say they want; therefore some forms of the most violent coercion are tantamount to the most absolute freedom.'

To free a man, Isaiah insisted, was to free him from obstacles - prejudice, tyranny, discrimination - to the exercise of his own free choice. It did not mean telling him how to use his freedom.

5. It had been a mistake for the philosophers of the Enlightenment to suppose that men and women could live their lives according to abstract principles, cosmopolitan values and what he called 'idealistic but hollow doctrinaire internationalism'.

'This rejection of natural ties seem to me noble but misguided. When men complain of loneliness, what they mean is that nobody understands what they are saying: to be understood is to share a common past, common feelings and language, common assumptions, possibility of intimate communications - in short, to share common forms of life.'

6. Convention does not in itself imply slavery; it is largely that instinctive law that arises out of mens' fear of anarchy, which is as far removed from freedom as tyranny itself. In this function convention is often a safeguard of inner liberty, creating as it does a broad external disciplinary equality which leaves room for complete inner non-conformity. It hurts no man to conform if he knows that conformity is only a kind of manners, a sort of universal etiquette.