Bicycle Diaries: On Isaiah Berlin, Part IV

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On Isaiah Berlin, Part IV

Continuing with Clive James
But we can't ask philosophers to predict events. What we can ask of them is that they should illuminate realities. The big reality that Berlin did not illuminate was the force of evil. His original background among the analytical philosophers, none of whom liked abstractions, may have stuck to him even after he broke away. Wittgenstein, by whose linguistic scrupulosity Berlin was buffaloed, said nothing about the Nazi assault on the Jews until it was all over. He had to see the photographs of the liberated death camps before he finally realised that the Nazis had meant what they said: a late and hard way to find out that death really is an event in life. For most of the philosophers, evil was a word: too large a one, and thus lacking in specificity. But evil is a reality, as Berlin 's fellow philosopher Stuart Hampshire discovered. Hampshire didn't reason his way to that conclusion. He arrived at it emotionally, when he interrogated Kaltenbrunner at Nuremberg. Wedded to ideas, Berlin missed the opportunity to develop his political theories from his feelings. His love of music might have given him the hint. Quality is art's equivalent for the truth: Aron said that. Berlin, didn't, but he felt it. When it came to great music, Berlin was alive to the composer's all-comprehending tragic sense that made it great.

When it came to history, he had the tragic sense, but somehow he never got it into his writings. It went the way of his grandfathers, into a mental realm where threatening facts are received but not attended to, like brown envelopes from the Council piling up on the hall table. There are prose writers, stretching from Thucydides and Tacitus onward, whose plain language gives us the thrill of poetry because they can face the full rage of chaos and still use its power to reinforce their sense of order. The passage in Tacitus about Sejanus's daughter is an uncanny forecast of the girl who gave her age to the German sergeant of engineers at Babi Yar . What Tacitus says would drive us to despair of it had not driven him to a perfect sentence. There is a gravitas beyond eloquence. Montaigne is often like that. From more modern times, Burckhardt is invariably like that, even when going wild about the arts. As Berlin did, he loved Verdi — after the premiere of Aida he had to calm himself down with beer — but he could give you the same lift when he talked about Torquemada. From Berlin's own time, we can read Golo Mann's essays and the section of his Deutsche Geschichte dealing with the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich; we can read it in the book reviews Lewis Namier wrote after the war, when the German generals were cranking out the autobiographies that proved they had known Hitler was a madman even though they had known nothing about what he did; we can read the paragraphs that sympathetically but decisively discredit Georg Lukacs in the third volume of Leszek Kolakowski's Main Currents of Marxism ; we can read the chapter of Benedetto Croce's Storia d'Europa nel secolo decimonono that devastatingly analysed the Soviet Union as early as 1931; we can read Abba Eban's Personal Witness , a diplomatic memoir that leaves Metternich's sounding simple-minded; we can read a lot of prose like that and get the same thrill. Not always sprightly but always dense with implication, it is the unmistakeable and addictive music made by those who have felt on their own skins, even if only as a flash of heat from the far horizon, the full destructive power of human history and are still wedded to making sense of it. Berlin could hear it in his beloved Herzen. He could not, however, quite produce it himself, and it might well be because he couldn't let thought give way to feeling. But feeling is thought's wellspring. The clue was staring him in the face, in his essay about Montesquieu.

What the great humanists have, and learn to overcome, is an apprehension that humanity might be worthless. Berlin lacked that apprehension, and it would be quixotic to regret it. It might have eroded his gusto, which is one of his most lavish gifts to us. Nobody who ever heard his booming burble in the lecture hall as he delivered an unbroken hour-long extravaganza from notes written on a tram-ticket will ever forget his incarnation of benevolent mental energy. An invention from the ground up, like the Wolfson college he created in his later years, he was part of the landscape. But he paid the sure penalty for being in the swim. As a theoretician, his chief concerns were not the threats to democracy from without, but the conflicts within. Most of what he said about those was bound to become unremarkable. His celebrated distinction between positive and negative liberty is now the common debating point between and within all the main political parties. Every parent knows that you restrict liberty if you ban smacking. Every child knows that you increase it. There is nothing thought provoking about the dichotomy because there is nothing except the dichotomy. The same applies to his celebrated pluralism. In a free society, what else is there? Dangerously, he left in the air the question of whether good ends could be reconciled. The missing answer left the way open for the suggestion, recently popularised by Donald Rumsfeld, that some ends might have to be pursued by bad means: a tempting idea that Berlin got from Machiavelli.

But it is only an idea. Its refutation was formulated by Montesquieu. Berlin 's essay on Montesquieu is a good candidate for the most resonant piece he ever wrote about anything, but even then he stopped short conceptually of the conclusions he was on the point of reaching by instinct. He gives a detailed account of how Montesquieu's pluralism valued all cultures; and then a further account of how Montesquieu, seeing the danger, wanted to leave room for some cultures being more valuable than others; but he made comparatively little of the device by which Montesquieu furthered the concept of an absolute morality that would apply even in the world of relative values that he had done so much to celebrate. Yet the device was right there in Montesquieu's prose, and Berlin actually quoted it. “Justice is eternal, and doesn't depend at all on human conventions.” Berlin thought Montesquieu had merely deepened his problem by saying that there could be universal laws in a relative world. But Montesquieu wasn't saying that there were universal laws instinctive to all men. He was saying that there were eternal laws instinctive to some of them. Montesquieu argued that it didn't matter who says torture might be necessary: our better nature, if we have one, tells us it is wrong. He was, in other words, a good man by instinct. The implication is that there were good men among the first men, and bad men too. If Berlin had faced the likelihood that his own goodness, like the evil of Stalin and Hitler, stemmed from a time when there was no idea in mankind's head except where the next meal was coming from and how to kill it, he might have been better equipped to deal with modern malevolence in its full horrific force. There was an Isaiah Berlin in the cave. He just had less to talk about at dinner, and the food was terrible.

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