Isaiah Berlin: A Life
by Michael Ignatieff
Reviewed by Michael Bryson
Sir Isaiah Berlin, philosopher, diplomat, social historian, has been
forgotten more than once. He never wrote the "big book" most intellectuals
leave as their legacy. He was an essayist and a talker. As he slipped
into retirement in the 1970s, he slipped out of the public eye, only to
have collections of his essays return his ideas to the realm of public
discussion. Now, a few years after his death in 1997, Berlin is once again
attracting the attention he deserves, thanks to the excellent biography
by Canadian historian Michael Ignatieff.
Why does he deserve attention? Because in a century torn apart by
ideologues, Berlin time and again struck a note of sanity amidst the near
deafening din. Berlin reached across time and space to articulate the
forces which give rise to alternating waves of social optimism and cynicism.
The so-called visionaries of the left and right have more in common than
either would ever admit.
In his introduction to Berlin's collection Against the Current:
Essays in the History of Ideas, Roger Hausheer summarizes Berlin's
point of view:
The core of his outlook is the belief that the perennial, basic human
problems are not soluble at all; that men can only do their best in
the situation in which they find themselves, with no a priori guarantee
of ultimate success; that men are themselves changed by the efforts
they make to solve the problems of their age or culture, thereby creating
new men and new problems; and that therefore the future problems and
needs of men, and their solution and satisfaction, cannot in principle
be anticipated, still less provided for in advance; finally, that an
indissoluble part of the definition of human nature consists in a cluster
of concepts like free-will, choice, purpose, effort, struggle, entailing
as they do the opening up of new and unpredictable paths to human fulfillment.
The non-gender-neutral language in the above paragraph is, of course,
a reminder that Berlin predated the two or three waves of feminism which
have passed through the decades since the late-1960s. Berlin's thoughts,
however, are useful for explaining both the successes and failures of
that movement. Berlin saw that abstractions like freedom, peace and justice
often worked at cross-purposes in the real world. Ideologues believe abstractions
can be imposed upon history.
Berlin argued time and again the philosophical
assumptions underpinning movements of social optimism (could be socialism,
communism, capitalism or feminism) were unsustainable in the real world.
Asked about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, he said
no solution existed that would be just to both sides. This is the voice
of a realist, not a cynic. Berlin was a poet of the mind, a philosopher
of the heart.
Michael Bryson is the editor of The