The Crooked Timber of Humanity

In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Henry Hardy carefully edited four volumes of Sir Isaiah Berlin’s essays, collectively entitling them Selected Writings. Russian Thinkers (1978) examined the ideas of Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, Vissarion Belinsky, Aleksandr Herzen and other nineteenth century giants. Concepts and Categories (1979) consisted of sometimes difficult but always rewarding technical philosophical essays. Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas (1980) analyzed both the intellectual program of the Enlightenment and contradictory, anti-rational reactions to it. Personal Impressions (1981) was a collection of memoirs concerning statesmen, academicians, and writers.

Hardy wryly calls The Crooked Timber of Humanity “the fifth of four volumes,” since half of its essays had been excluded from Against the Current, another was essentially written by 1960 but then set aside, and only three were written during the 1980’s. The title of the present volume is derived from the German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s declaration, in a 1784 essay, that “out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made”—an admonition, as Berlin interprets it, against dogmatism and perfectionism.

Isaiah Berlin’s credentials as a philosopher and historian of ideas are daunting. He is a polymathic thinker who taught social and political theory at Oxford from 1938 to 1967, became president of its Wolfson College until 1975, was president of the British Academy, from 1974 to 1978, and holds honorary degrees and fellowships from the most distinguished universities of the United States, England, Scotland, Wales, and Israel. As an erudite historian of ideas, Berlin has no equal in the English- speaking world, and he expresses himself in prose of exceptional clarity and elegance, even though he was born in Riga, Latvia, and had to master English when a schoolboy.

Berlin’s style is remarkably distinctive among contemporary writers of nonfiction. His syntax is intricate, compound-complex, a rush of clauses and propositions that combines formal precision with intellectual passion, achieving rhetorical sonorities and nobility while usually avoiding bombast or preciosity. The nineteenth century prose of Thomas Macaulay and John Ruskin might be among Berlin’s models; assuredly not the plain, succinct modes of E. M. Forster or George Orwell. The effect is to render the process as well as results of a brilliant scholar’s pursuit of ideas.

In The Crooked Timber’s first essay, “The Pursuit of the Ideal,” Berlin threads strands of his intellectual autobiography. In reading Tolstoy and other writers of the mid- nineteenth century, he found a common belief that the world’s central problems had solutions and that these could be discovered and implemented by mankind. At Oxford, when a student, he read the writings of many philosophers, particularly rationalists and empiricists, who were convinced that society could be reorganized so that prejudices, unexamined dogmas, and all political cruelties and stupidities could be eliminated. All these views shared the tenets of Platonic idealism, that “all genuine questions must have one true answer…that there must be a dependable path toward the discovery of these truths…[and] that the true answers, when found, must necessarily be compatible with one another and form a single whole.”

The first thinker who shook Berlin’s faith in this theory of progress was Niccolo Machiavelli, who regarded the Christian virtues of humility, acceptance of suffering, unworldliness, and hope for an afterlife as impractical for governing a state. Machiavelli argued that ruling instead requires such pagan virtues as courage, vitality, self-assertion, and a capacity for ruthlessness and cruelty. Machiavelli profoundly disturbed Berlin’s confidence in the cosmic harmony of values.

Machiavelli’s skepticism was sharply reinforced by the work of Giambattista Vico, who founded the modern doctrine of cultural pluralism. According to Vico, every society has its own sense of itself, its own vision of reality. These visions differ with each successive social whole, so that the values of, for example, the Homeric Greeks differed sharply from those of Renaissance Florence or seventeenth century France.

Further challenging the universalism of Platonism was the German eighteenth century philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder, who compared national cultures in many lands and periods, insisting that every society has its own center of moral gravity, or life-style. People may seek many differing goals, yet they are capable of understanding and learning from each other. Still, concludes Berlin, persuaded by Vico and Herder, “the notion of the perfect whole, the ultimate solution, in which all good things coexist, seems to me to be not merely unattainable…but conceptually incoherent.… We are doomed to choose, and every choice may entail an irreparable loss.”

Moreover, the concept of a perfect society may well be highly dangerous: If a head of state is convinced that his is the one and only true path toward solving society’s problems, he may end up becoming Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, or Pol Pot,...

(The entire section is 2172 words.)