Isaiah Berlin: Affirming – Letters 1975–1997 by Henry Hardy & Mark Pottle (edd) - review by John Gray

John Gray

Notes on Liberty

Isaiah Berlin: Affirming – Letters 1975–1997


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Isaiah Berlin had no very high opinion of his contribution to human thought. Writing in 1978 to the psychoanalyst Anthony Storr, he confessed, ‘Every line I have ever written and every lecture I have ever delivered seems to me of very little or no value.’ Nor did Berlin attach any great importance to the publication of his ideas. Partly this indifference reflected an academic culture – now barely remembered – in which the ‘publish or perish’ imperative did not exist. In the Oxford Berlin knew as a student and as a young fellow at New College and All Souls, building up a large corpus of published work tended to be seen as testimony to careerism or vanity rather than commitment to scholarship. Something of this attitude lasted into the Seventies, and it was only in the Eighties and Nineties that a cult of productivity fully took hold. Today, with universities labouring under a regime in which research and publication are monitored continuously, it is doubtful whether someone like Berlin would be able to find and keep an academic position in Britain.

Henry Hardy became Berlin’s editor in 1974. There can be no doubt that, without Hardy’s stimulus and more than forty years of tireless dedication, few of the twenty-odd volumes of Berlin’s writings that are in print would ever have seen the light of day. Certainly Berlin’s letters would not have been published. That would have been a pity since, as Hardy and his coeditor, Mark Pottle, write in the preface to this fourth and final volume, Berlin’s correspondence is an ‘integral part of his oeuvre’. Extending up to the days before his death, this collection shows Berlin responding to a succession of world events: the rise of Thatcher and Reagan, IRA terrorism, the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Falklands War, the formation of Solidarity in Poland, the emergence of Gorbachev and the fall of the Berlin Wall, among others. In other letters he expresses his thoughts, freely and vigorously, on a number of people he has known or met, including Winston Churchill and Anthony Blunt. Berlin also comments sharply on thinkers and writers of whom he takes a negative view, such as T S Eliot and Hannah Arendt, or else one of admiration mixed with ‘appalling reservations’, as in the case of Solzhenitsyn.

One way of reading this richly absorbing collection is as a running commentary on the closing decades of the 20th century by one of its most civilised and penetrating minds. The most unexpected letters, though, are some long and detailed defences of his own ideas. In July 1991, Berlin responds to a letter from the political scientist Frederick Rosen, who, in a lecture, had made a number of familiar charges against him, such as adopting ‘cold-war’ rhetoric, favouring a minimal state and supporting Hayekian or Thatcherite laissez-faire economics. Berlin’s response is, to my mind, not only highly cogent but also remarkably restrained. Anyone who knew anything at all about him knew that his politics – like those of many so-called ‘cold warriors’ – were those of a Rooseveltian liberal. It is true that Berlin thought of liberty in negative terms, as non-interference by the state and society in what individuals choose or may choose to do; but as he made clear, repeatedly and unequivocally, this didn’t mean that negative liberty should be maximised at the expense of other values, such as social cohesion and the relief of suffering.

This was the chief message of his celebrated lecture ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, delivered in Oxford in 1958. Thirty-odd years on, he reiterates the point in his letter to Rosen:

given other human values – ends of life, as it were – and the sheer needs of social life as such, some of which can, in some degree, be incompatible with each other – given this, liberty of whatever kind must make room for these other values if a decent society is to be established.

Berlin goes on to note a distinction between liberalism and democracy that has since become profoundly unfashionable:

Let me point out that democracies can be exceedingly oppressive, and diminish civil and political liberties very greatly indeed. Do you really think that the Athenian democracy, in its actual functioning … was compatible with the basic liberties … of Socrates, Anaxagoras, Diagoras and other thinkers punished by exile or death (Aristotle only just escaped such a fate)? Do you think that American democracy, which is real, in spite of flaws in practice, which we all recognise, was not oppressive vis-à-vis all kinds of minorities, not merely in McCarthy’s day but in New England in the seventeenth century – the witches of Salem?

Today the thought that democracy can be repressive of liberty is all but forbidden. If a democratically elected government persecutes minorities, we are told, the reason can only be that democracy isn’t working properly. Berlin embodied an older tradition of liberal thought, which recognised that democracy may itself be illiberal – a truth that has not become less pertinent in the quarter of a century that has passed since he reminded his academic correspondent of it.

In a number of letters, including one written only months before he died to a Polish correspondent, Berlin defends his most distinctive idea – that of the pluralism of values. The suggestion that fundamental human goods are not only often incompatible and conflicting, but in some cases also incommensurable – in that there is no rational method of reconciling their contending claims – is one that many find unfamiliar and counterintuitive. Writing in 1993, Berlin observes, ‘I have for many years thought the problem of the incommensurability, and even more the incompatibility, of some values to be central to all ethical, social, political and aesthetic issues, and could never find any treatment of this topic in what is commonly called “the literature”.’

Berlin’s critics have reacted to this value pluralism with a mix of puzzlement and indignation. Can’t ethical life be purged of its seemingly insoluble conflicts and dilemmas by some overarching theory, as Plato, Kant and Bentham believed? If not, we must relinquish one of the most persistent ambitions of Western philosophy. But Berlin wasn’t intimidated by this prospect. When I asked him whether his value pluralism was at odds with the Western tradition, he replied at once, ‘With the human tradition.’

For Berlin what was lacking in philosophy was a sense of reality. His wartime experience working for the British government in New York and Washington had shown him that moral conflicts don’t always have solutions. If there is an unidentified mole in the typing pool leaking information to the enemy, can it be right to fire the entire pool – thereby planting a lifelong mark of suspicion over many wholly innocent people? Berlin thought it could be, but he was clear that there could never be an argument that settled the issue. Unlike most philosophers, he didn’t regret the fact. He preferred the messy human reality, with its intractable conflicts, to fantasies of rational harmony.

This may be why, aside from the more relaxed academic culture of his time, Berlin felt no pressure to publish. Philosophy could clarify what is at stake in our conflicts; it could not resolve them. He sometimes went so far as to say that he had nothing to teach. But this was a mistake, since what he did – in his letters as much as in the many volumes that Hardy teased from him – was to affirm the values whose sometimes tragic collisions he so clearly recognised. Berlin had few illusions about the human world. Even so, he was happy to live in it.

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