Against the Current

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

ph_0111207219-Berlin.jpg Isaiah Berlin Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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.”

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...

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