The Proper Study of Mankind

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In several of the seventeen essays in The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays, Isaiah Berlin finds it necessary to state what he is not: a historian, an economist, or a specialist in international relations. Nor is he a philosopher, at least in the sense of the originator of a system of thought. One of his academic positions was “professor of social and political theory.” The majority of the essays in this book, published a year after his death, fall into the category usually referred to as the history of ideas.

Perhaps the most appropriate label for Berlin is polymath. He read deeply and widely in the works of the West’s thinkers—and not only in the indisputably great. A glance at the hundreds of names in the editors’ index, from V. S. Abakumov to Stefan Zweig (there are eleven other names beginning with the letter Z, for example), suggest the scope of Berlin’s range of allusion. Not only did he become familiar with philosophers from Zeno to Alfred Ayer, but he also thought deeply about them and their intellectual relationships. To read him is to discover how ill-read one is in comparison.

Making this embarrassing discovery does not mean that a trip through these essays is an immensely dull or difficult task, however, for Berlin is always a stimulating and provocative commentator on, and creative comparer of, the writers whom he has mastered. To use one of his best-known examples, he not only distinguished between Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevski as fox and hedgehog, respectively, but went on to characterize Tolstoy as a fox by nature who nevertheless “believed in being a hedgehog”—that is, a man whose knowledge encompassed a variety of diffuse and even contradictory things, but who cherished and sought the vision of a unifying principle.

Berlin produced few books in his long writing career. The essays that editors Henry Hardy and Roger Hausheer present here are in Berlin’s more typical mode, although they vary in length from the nine pages of “President Franklin Delano Roosevelt” to the seventy-seven of “Herder and the Enlightenment.” Many are revisions and expansions of lectures, such as the one on Johannn Gottfried Herder. Hardy’s bibliography of Berlin’s writings at the end of the book indicates that the selections are substantively representative, two striking exceptions being the short essay on Roosevelt and a review of one volume of Winston Churchill’s history of World War II. Berlin did not normally write on political figures, but he believed in great men, and these two men met his criteria. The Churchill essay, first published in 1949, is the earliest of the seventeen essays; the latest, “The Pursuit of the Ideal,” appeared in 1988.

Several themes recur throughout the volume, as throughout Berlin’s work as a whole. The subtitle of his 1975 essay “The Apotheosis of the Romantic Will” identifies a Berlinian focal point: “The Revolt Against the Myth of an Ideal World.” Thinkers from Plato to St. Thomas Aquinas were monists. However much they differed philosophically, they held in common that truth must be unitary. Diversity in thought, far from being valued, as is often the case today, was regarded throughout these centuries as evidence of failure on somebody’s part, whether through ignorance or malice, to achieve the truth. Berlin sees the beginnings of the breakdown of monism in the Renaissance, but he is struck by the persistence of this mental habit in the Western intellectual tradition even to this day. Genuine philosophical questions— which of course include moral questions—are considered to have only one true answer. Furthermore, although answers to these questions are often difficult to find, they are deemed at least potentially knowable, and since one truth cannot contradict another, they must be compatible. Seekers of the partial truths that collectively constitute Truth have looked for them in sacred texts; in the pronouncements of religious, philosophical, or scientific experts; in revelation or inspiration or intuition or nature or reasons; they have, however, agreed that they could apprehend them in some manner.

Berlin dissents. His study of a tradition that he prefers to call pluralism rather than relativism discloses a tradition of dissent from the prevailing monism. In his 1953 essay “The Originality of Machiavelli,” he interprets Niccolò Machiavelli’s Il Principe (The Prince, 1531) not as an attack on Christian morality but as an acknowledgment that the moral systems of Christianity and of politics are two different and incompatible systems, the latter being much closer to the moral ideal of the Roman Republic. Furthermore, Machiavelli did not pretend that such princely activities as murder, deception, and betrayal, which many of his readers have found so appalling, were “good” by any moral standard, only necessary in some instances to promote the well-being of the State—a good of enormous...

(The entire section is 2035 words.)