Sir Isaiah Berlin, born in Riga in 1909, was in Petrograd in 1917 where, at the age of eight, he witnessed the first Russian Revolution and the Bolshevik coup later in the same year. In 1921 his parents moved to England. He had been brought up in Riga speaking Russian and German, and by the time he reached his teens as a schoolboy at St. Paul’s, he was not only trilingual but so polished in learning and language that his acceptance at Oxford was a foregone conclusion.
Except for the three years when he lived first in New York, then in Washington, D.C., working for the British government, and briefly in Moscow in 1945, Berlin has spent his life at Oxford. He completed his university education at Corpus Christi College and remains, to this day, a Fellow of All Souls College, having also held the Chichele Chair in Social and Political Theory there (1957- 1967). The first president of Wolfson College (1966-1975), he was also president of the British Academy from 1974-1978.
The pluralism of Isaiah Berlin’s cultural background is, says John Gray, an important source of the unique liberalism at the core of his thought. That liberalism is “agonistic,” according to Gray—“a liberalism of conflict and unavoidable loss among rivalrous goods and evils.”
Berlin’s Jewish and Russian heritage gave him a passion for ideas and a tragic sense of life whereas the standards of rigor and clarity exemplified in his writing and thinking distinguish British empiricism at its best. His dedication to seeing life as a whole, unflinchingly aware of its tragic dimension, has prevented him from settling for abstractions or rational systems that ignore the complexity of experience.
Human beings cannot rely on absolute rational standards for determining moral action. It is true of many goods, according to Berlin, that they are “rivalrous and conflictual.” We live in a world of “value-pluralism.” Berlin insists that this idea must not be confused with moral relativism. What is foolish is to hold moral behavior to an idea of a perfection that encompasses all the rivalries among the virtues. Reasoning cannot provide such a standard; it cannot resolve all the rivalries under one principle. Although Berlin accepts the idealism of Kant, he is obviously not persuaded that a rationally grounded categorical imperative for moral action is a possibility. Indeed, it is one of Berlin’s principal contentions that many of the dilemmas of practical life, political or moral, are, at bottom, insoluble, radical and tragic, and undecidable by rational reflection.
How does Berlin’s tragic sense of moral action prevent him from despairing of the possibility of a viable human ethics? The answer lies in his belief in the necessity of radical choice. Human beings must make choices, and they must be persuaded of the moral rectitude of the choices they make even if they cannot be guided by universally determined principles. In Berlin’s “agonistic liberalism” the value of freedom derives from the limits of rational choice. His liberalism of conflict among inherently rivalrous goods “grounds itself on the radical choices we must make among incommensurables, not upon rational choice.” Berlin is not, Gray hastens to add, an irrationalist. Although heavily committed to the ideal of rational inquiry, Berlin is nevertheless convinced that the Enlightenment concept of human nature as a constant to be perceived in universalist terms has little to do with the actual dilemmas of moral practice in the real world of experience.
Berlin rejects the view of “man” as a natural object in a natural order subject to natural laws and intelligible in his behavior and nature by reference to those laws. As anyone who knows his famous essays on Leo Tolstoy, Johann Gottfried von Herder, Giambattista Vico, and dozens of other historical figures, Berlin is convinced that “man” is inherently unfinished and incomplete, essentially self-transforming and only partly determinate, at least partly the...
(The entire section is 1634 words.)