Against the Current

by Isaiah Berlin
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Against the Current

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3351

One, ldquo;Man has one terrible and fundamental wish: he desires power, and this impulse, which is called freedom, must be the longest restrained. Quanta of power alone determine rank and distinguish rank: nothing else does.” Two, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.” Three, “A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper, and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors.”

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Here are three major political ideas. About each of them one is bound to have certain questions. The reader will probably want to know whose ideas they are, whether they harmonize with what he already believes, and why they are defensible. Under one’s breath, one may ask if any of the ideas is dangerous to his interests. The question least likely to be asked is: “When were such ideas first conceived?” If the reader has identified the source of the ideas (in this case: Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, and Edmund Burke), he feels little inclined to wonder if these thinkers were expressing much older intellectual positions. Discovering the true origin of an idea, the conditions under which it was first formulated, its progress in the history of thought, the conditions in which it seems to generate passionate advocacy—this sort of endeavor seems at best antiquarian and at worst irrelevant.

But is it? Is it insignificant to know that the current enthusiasm for rural revitalization, ecologically responsible living, and “voluntary simplicity” is a reappearance of “primitivism,” a philosophic bias as old as Diogenes and the Cynics? Is it irrelevant to recognize in the current debate between “scientific creationists” and evolutionists the shape of the Huxley-Wilberforce encounters of the 1860’s? Can any important insights emerge from realizing that European terrorists are sustained by the intellectual and behavioral legacy of Mikhail Bakunin, Sergei Nechayev, and Georges Sorel?

Those who defend inquiries into “the history of ideas” (and Isaiah Berlin is a giant among such defenders) make several claims. They argue that, like individuals, cultures evolve certain “life-themes”—enduring preoccupations, passions, tensions, and tendencies. These express themselves in intellectual products as well as in art and action. Over time, thematic development occurs, novel variations are introduced, different keys tried. In Western culture, for example, the quest for a “state of nature” or golden age of simple purity is extraordinarily intense. Its sources are not only Judeo-Christian, but also Greek and Roman. In the writings of contemporary proponents of rural living, one hears the strongest echos of Cato the Elder’s On Farming as well as Virgil’s Eclogues. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Jefferson, John Ruskin, William Morris, Arthur Joseph Penty, and Henry David Thoreau are only a few of the elaborators of what W. J. Keith calls “the rural tradition.” By knowing something about this tradition, one can appraise what is truly novel or important in any of its contemporary manifestations. Conversely, without such knowledge, one is liable to overestimate the significance of movements and ideas springing afresh out of the tradition.

There is, however, a far more important claim made for the history of ideas. According to Arthur O. Lovejoy, the founder of the discipline in the United States, to study such general notions as Romanticism, evolutionism, naturalism, and primitivism is to become aware of the general structure of major intellectual viewpoints. The full ramifications of a deeply felt philosophic bias come into view, its “logic” grows more apparent and the ambiguities to which it is subject stand out in clearer relief. Lovejoy thus distinguished thirteen different versions of pragmatism, and he drew attention to the fiendish permutations and confusions to which the concept of “nature” is subject. He also demonstrated how, when combined with other notions and transferred to the plane of politics, the romantic notion of Streben (striving, struggle) “eventually destroyed, in many minds, the conceptions of a universal standard of human conduct and the sense of a common human destiny.” Thus, Lovejoy and his followers assert their custody over a special source of knowledge.

There is still another defense made of the history of ideas. It is based on the fact that there are great moments of philosophic insight—flashpoints of pure understanding (which may at the same time contain huge quantities of error and delusion). Some thinkers have literally been knocked out by the sheer power of an intellectual vision: one thinks of Martin Luther, René Descartes, Rousseau, Otto von Gierek, Charles Darwin. They spent decades explaining themselves, trying—often without total success—to articulate their discoveries. Inevitably, their attempts became entangled in the events of their personal histories, local polemics, and the vagaries of language. They failed to follow up fruitful clues, digress into irrelevant avenues, mature too far beyond original syntheses. (One thinks here of the recent fascination with Marx’s early, abandoned writings on alienation.) The force, however, of their insight remains. By returning to their work—as opposed to that of their “more advanced” contemporary disciples and expositors—readers may perhaps recover new insights of their own. Or, as the case may be, discover the seeds of new notions only dimly grasped by the thinker in question. Or, in the instance of a powerfully mistaken thinker such as Auguste Comte or Herbert Spencer, espy the true source of a modern dilemma.

The history of ideas clearly holds immense fascination for its modern practitioners. Of these, Isaiah Berlin ranks as an authentic master. Maurice Bowra said of Berlin: “Though like Our Lord and Socrates he does not publish much, he thinks and says a great deal and has had an enormous influence on our time.” The company in which Berlin deserves to be placed includes John Plamenatz, Sheldon Wolin, Leo Strauss, Judith Shklar, and Frank E. Manuel. These are major recent expositors of the key social, political, and religious concepts underlying, informing, and perhaps also bedeviling Western culture. Like many of them, Berlin began as a professional philosopher, and his writings have never lost the precision and rigor which any prolonged encounter with that discipline engenders. Even his early writings, however, reveal a dedication to broad, varied, and humanistic studies. In the first decade of his academic career (1929-1939), he published more pieces on music than on philosophy. His little classic Karl Marx: His Life and Environment came out in 1939, the same year in which a major article on the problem of verification appeared. This period also witnessed the beginnings of his distinguished ventures into the translation and criticism of Russian literature.

Following the war, Berlin’s writings (and they were far more numerous than Bowra was aware) showed him to be working along a complex series of intellectual pathways. For the most part, Berlin expressed himself in longer essays rather than in books. Henry Hardy, whose fine bibliography forms an appendix to Against the Current, has categorized Berlin’s oeuvres as follows: first, Russian essays, dealing mainly with literary and political giants of the nineteenth century; second, philosophical papers, which also include some of Berlin’s more systematic contributions to political theory; third, essays in the history of ideas; fourth, memoirs of and tributes to twentieth century figures, especially scholars and statesmen; fifth, Jewish studies; and sixth, musicological writings. In the last five years, Hardy has undertaken to collect, edit, and publich the most significant of Berlin’s essays. Thus, the first category’s principal essays are now available in Russian Thinkers (1978), the second in Concepts and Categories (1979), the third in Against the Current (1980), the fourth in Personal Impressions (1981). Hardy reports that Berlin is presently working certain of his earlier essays into a volume on the intellectual origins of Romanticism.

Berlin is clearly a writer of the most wide-ranging interests and concerns. In an era of radical overspecialization, he stands as an uncompromising polymath—an interdisciplinary bridger of categories and chasms. Yet, is there a core of unity within all this diversity? A superficial inspection of Against the Current would suggest that there is none. Its thirteen essays appear to be mainly two sorts: those treating individual thinkers and those discussing a complex of key ideas. Niccolò Machiavelli, Giambattista Vico, Montesquieu, Alexander Herzen, Moses Hess, and Georges Sorel each have essays devoted specifically to them. That these seminal and intriguing theorists constitute a very diverse group hardly needs pointing out. The thematic pieces include a study of the gulf separating the sciences and humanities; a discussion of how nineteenth century political ideologists of various loyalties underestimated the appeal of nationalism; a major account of the sources of European opposition to the Enlightenment; and an application of Johann von Schiller’s distinction between naïve and sentimental art. Again, the pattern seems to be one of almost complete variability.

Yet, after a careful reading of the volume, one has the feeling that Against the Current possesses a clear, if very deep-lying center of gravity. Berlin’s preoccupations are indeed diverse, but they all arise from the same source: an exceedingly complicated attraction-repulsion reaction to the intellectual program of the Enlightenment. Enveloped in an almost pure atmosphere of Enlightenment ideas and feeling, most Americans are unaware of how it is possible to oppose this powerful Weltanschauung. To extend the range of tolerance through education, to open the secrets of nature via good scientific method, to isolate problems calmly and subject them to technological solutions, to govern through the rational instrumentalities of Constitution and Congress, to purify religion of its entanglements with both witchcraft and priestcraft, to free economies from the dead hand of governmental control, to demand that every sphere of human endeavor display progressive and rational movement, these are the most fundamental and cherished assumptions. They are held with an ever surer conviction because, on the whole, they have succeeded.

Isaiah Berlin certainly understands the intense appeal of Enlightenment ideas. His discussion of Voltaire in the essay “The Divorce Between the Sciences and the Humanities” reveals the deepest appreciation not only of this great publicist’s achievement, but also of the entire movement he so forcefully led. Berlin is a Jew and possesses that sharpened historical consciousness which characterizes so many Jewish intellectuals. He knows what the Enlightenment meant to his forebears. Through the agency of Napoleon’s armies, it meant the removal of ghetto walls, the opening of forbidden careers, the possibility of intermarriage, full membership in the political community, liberal education, and, in Western Europe, an end to persecutions and pogroms. The “Jewish essays” in this collection—“The Life and Opinions of Moses Hess” and “Benjamin Disraeli, Karl Marx and the Search for Identity”—beautifully detail the benefits bestowed on European Jewry by the Enlightenment and illustrate the special nature of its appeal to aspiring Jews.

Berlin is also a British philosopher. His development has therefore taken place in an environment dominated by such powerful champions of scientific epistemology as Bertrand Russell, the early Ludwig Wittgenstein, A. J. Ayer, Karl Popper, and F. P. Ramsey. As Roger Hausheer points out in his fine Introduction to Against the Current, while Berlin rejected the stances of logical positivism, he did so as “a sympathetic insider.” In Hausheer’s view, he is “someone who has fully grasped—perhaps too fully—the aims and methods of the intellectual movement he criticises.”

From what standpoint then does Berlin attack Enlightenment modes of thought? The answer to this question is not easily come by, for Berlin mounts few frontal attacks. The Enlightenment, as Berlin shows in his expositions of Descartes and Voltaire, had little use for careful historical studies, since history (and human studies generally) “seemed incapable of yielding precise definitions, clear rules of evidence, axioms, from which true conclusions could be deduced by unassailably valid means.” Berlin, in contrast, seems uneasy working in anything other than a historical framework. By conviction, he allows his own view to surface only in the midst of historical analysis. This method is grounded in the assumption, defended first by Vico, that despite their resistance to deductive and mathematical strategies, historical and cultural studies yield real knowledge—knowledge in some ways more “useful” than that gained in natural and mathematical sciences.

The sort of historical materials Berlin chooses to work in, therefore, tell a great deal about the position he is formulating. His bibliography betrays little interest in John Locke, Jefferson, Jeremy Bentham, Baron von Humboldt, the classical economists, or constitutional theory. Rather, he focuses on the likes of Machiavelli, Rousseau, Johann von Herder, Johann Fichte, Marx, French and Russian anarchists, Sorel and syndicalism, and the formulators of Zionist thought. Appropriately, the first essay in Against the Current is “The Counter-Enlightenment,” a vivid survey of romantic, anti-rationalist, nihilistic, and reactionary thinkers from the nineteenth century. In other essays, Berlin returns again and again to a group of thinkers who, like himself, are apostates from the creeds and doctrines of the Enlightenment: Vico, Herder, Johann Hamann, Rousseau, Moses Hess, and Georges Sorel. Particularly telling is Berlin’s fascination with the “émigré of the Aufklärung,” Johann Georg Hamann.

In his Philosophic Dictionary (1764), Voltaire complained that, despite the existence of “a natural law entirely independent of all human conventions,” existing laws differ markedly from country to country. Too often, law is but the will of brutal despots, who are indifferent to the advantages which a law framed “with general and systematic views” might confer. The diversity of conflicting legal systems paralleled, Voltaire believed, the confusion among types of religious profession. Although everyone knows that all religious doctrines can be reduced to a few simple affirmations (“there is a God, and he must be just”), ignorance and stubborn prejudice insure the survival of warring sects and cults. In the long run, however, both religion and law are bound to give way to the progress of mathematical, natural, and social sciences, whose advance widens the area of deductive certainty as well as incontrovertible fact. Generality, systematic unity, mathematical demonstrability, impersonal rationality, these attributes will characterize the laws and religious creeds of the future. Hamann, Voltaire’s young Prussian contemporary, came to see the future with very different eyes.

A father of German Romanticism whom Kierkegaard called “The Emperor,” Hamann was a citizen of Königsberg and friend of its most illustrious figure, Immanuel Kant. Like Kant, Hamann received his religious nurture in a pietist Lutheran family but went on to embrace the advanced ideas of German liberalism. Reports Berlin, “He first made his name with a translation of a French treatise on commerce, accompanied by a disquisition of his own on the effects of trade and the social value of merchants.” He became a devoted reader of David Hume, went on a visit to progressive England, and seemed about to become “a promising publicist in the service of the German Aufklärung.” In his late twenties, however, Hamann underwent a spiritual volteface. Ironically, the crisis was both triggered and resolved by the enlightened ideas of Hume.

A great skeptic, Hume had argued that neither causal agency nor the existence of the external world can be proven beyond all doubt. When one assigns to a particular affect such-and-such a cause, one may have ample reason for doing so; but one cannot be positive that the effect did not proceed from some other agent altogether—for example, the action of a jinn. Thus, for Hume, natural laws are merely observed regularities. That the regularities should remain the same and that they should continue to exhibit the same apparent causal background is a matter of faith. For Hamann, this was a stunning insight. It meant nothing less than a confirmation of his pietist sense that faith was the central fact of all existence. Hume had stated that “men are carried by a natural instinct or prepossession to repose faith in their senses.” In Hume’s view, this primitive act could not itself be rationally justified. If this is so, rejoined Hamann, then man is first a believing, feeling, and confidence-reposing animal—not a deducing, measuring, and calculating one.

On this basis, Hamann proceeded to erect a whole antirationalist point of view. As Berlin explains, for Hamann “all knowledge can be obtained solely through direct confrontation with reality provided by the senses, by instinct, by the imagination, by the immediate, uncontradictable insight of the poet, the lover, the man of simple faith.” In Hamann’s view, truth is always particular, never general. He came to abhor the general laws and neat systems so treasured by Voltaire and the Encyclopedists. He evolved a special notion of language which entailed the view that the words of the Bible were God’s voice. Nature and history were expressions of “a divine language to convey spiritual truths to an untrammelled understanding, nor corrupted by the formulas of the sophists of Paris.” God is a poet, not (as he was for the Deists) a clockmaker or mathematician. Divinity dwells always in particulars, and humanity rises to its proper calling by dwelling richly on the growing, untidy, sensuous world of the particular.

As Berlin expounds Hamann’s views (especially in the essay “Hume and the sources of German Anti-Rationalism”), the reader senses his own spirit warming to this bizarre eighteenth century iconoclast.Glaube [belief, faith] is for Hamann a kind of sense; faith, like the senses, cannot be refuted by reason, it is not its creature; its findings need no evidence, it does not rest on grounds, it is not subject to doubt; it may be delusive, but it cannot be corrected by calculation or rational argument, certainly not by the constructions of the scientists, which are, at best, mere practical devices for utilitarian purposes, which say nothing to the soul or the senses, through which alone God and nature speak to us. The wiseacres of Paris, like their allies in Berlin, who dissect nature, deal with dead matter: they know a great deal and understand little. Man is not born to reason, but to eat and drink and procreate, to love and hate, agonise and sacrifice and worship. But they know nothing of this in Paris, where the monstrous cogito has obscured the sublime sum.

One is reminded here of a remark about Berlin made by A. J. P. Taylor. When Berlin is near a subject that expresses some of his own deepest judgments, “The divine afflatus descends upon him. The sentences get longer and longer, the thought soars higher and higher, and what began as an essay in literary criticism ends as utterance of the Delphic Appollo.”

Hamann’s ideas are not all accepted by Berlin, but the general drift of the German’s work is. As shown by Berlin’s famous analysis of Leo Tolstoy in “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” he is impressed by the pluralistic, rough-textured, confusing, antinomian feel of the world. What Berlin says about Vico and Sorel convinces the reader that Berlin too sees man as an active, willful being who knows best the things he makes (and knows only dimly the inner nature of the physical world). His discussions of Moses Hess and Nationalism reveal an anti-Enlightenment suspicion of internationalism, doctrinaire communism, and utopias of all sorts. The long essay on Machiavelli seems to suggest that radical philosophic pluralism is Berlin’s starting point. He implies that the Western quest for a unified, monistic structure of law and value is imperialistic and indefensible. Berlin calls upon his readers to contemplate a universe of many irreconciliable value systems; he even implies that the physical world is not the expression of a single unified structure of law.

Against the Current is a brilliant and engaging book. Its length, philosophic sophistication, and subject matter guarantee that its appeal will be very limited. Those who have little background in intellectual history probably ought not to tackle it. On the other hand, the lucidity of the writing, the wonderful structuring of the essays, and the enormous contemporary significance of the analysis will confirm Berlin’s reputation as a writer unable to produce anything but first class work. In any case, this book should do much to lift the standing of the history of ideas, which has long been a stepchild in academic and learned circles.

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