canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Isaiah Berlin: A Life
by Michael Ignatieff
Viking, 1998

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 Danforth Review.







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