Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Isaiah Berlin's Critique of Idealism

Isaiah Berlin was one of the most eminent intellectual historians of the twentieth century. Twenty years ago he wrote an essay about the dangers of idealism.

In it he called for moderation, temperance, compromise and trade-offs. The essay was delivered on his behalf at the University of Toronto.

This week The New York Review of Books, to its great credit, republished the essay.

Berlin began by noting the unexampled destruction visited on the world by Communism. I would add that, beyond the fact that Communism represented a form of idealistic madness, it was also a cultural enactment of atheism.

Berlin wrote:

Men have for millennia destroyed each other, but the deeds of Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Napoleon (who introduced mass killings in war), even the Armenian massacres, pale into insignificance before the Russian Revolution and its aftermath: the oppression, torture, murder which can be laid at the doors of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, and the systematic falsification of information which prevented knowledge of these horrors for years—these are unparalleled. They were not natural disasters, but preventable human crimes, and whatever those who believe in historical determinism may think, they could have been averted.

To make clear his opposition to Germanic idealism, Berlin rejected the notion of historical determinism. He argued for free will and explained that human actions set the course of history; it could have set another course. There was nothing inevitable about the advent of Communism, or, for that matter, its decline. I have argued the same point in my book The Last Psychoanalyst.

Berlin also rejected the notion that Communism was produced by negative human emotions and impulses. Clearly, he had no use for the concept of a death instinct.

For Berlin, Communism was produced by ideas. It was created by those who latched on to a big idea, decided that it would solve all human problems and who concluded that if human lives and human behavior were an impediment to the realization of the idea, they could easily be dispensed with.

In Berlin’s words:

They were, in my view, not caused by the ordinary negative human sentiments, as Spinoza called them—fear, greed, tribal hatreds, jealousy, love of power—though of course these have played their wicked part. They have been caused, in our time, by ideas; or rather, by one particular idea. It is paradoxical that Karl Marx, who played down the importance of ideas in comparison with impersonal social and economic forces, should, by his writings, have caused the transformation of the twentieth century, both in the direction of what he wanted and, by reaction, against it. The German poet Heine, in one of his famous writings, told us not to underestimate the quiet philosopher sitting in his study; if Kant had not undone theology, he declared, Robespierre might not have cut off the head of the King of France.

… in a debased form, the Nazi ideology did have roots in German anti-Enlightenment thought. There are men who will kill and maim with a tranquil conscience under the influence of the words and writings of some of those who are certain that they know perfection can be reached.

… If you are truly convinced that there is some solution to all human problems, that one can conceive an ideal society which men can reach if only they do what is necessary to attain it, then you and your followers must believe that no price can be too high to pay in order to open the gates of such a paradise. Only the stupid and malevolent will resist once certain simple truths are put to them. Those who resist must be persuaded; if they cannot be persuaded, laws must be passed to restrain them; if that does not work, then coercion, if need be violence, will inevitably have to be used—if necessary, terror, slaughter. Lenin believed this after reading Das Kapital, and consistently taught that if a just, peaceful, happy, free, virtuous society could be created by the means he advocated, then the end justified any methods that needed to be used, literally an.

The root conviction which underlies this is that the central questions of human life, individual or social, have one true answer which can be discovered. It can and must be implemented, and those who have found it are the leaders whose word is law.

The deeper problem with idealism, he continued, was that the values it generates are not harmonious. If you apply all of those values in the most extreme fashion, you will find yourself facing contradictions.

By Berlin’s lights, Barry Goldwater should have said: Extremism in the defense of liberty is a vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is a virtue.

Had Goldwater done so, he would have been engaging in conservative thought. As was, he was trafficking in a modernized version of Germanic idealism… a wolf in sheep’s clothes.

Problems arise when politicians have not thought about the deeper philosophical questions and issues.

Berlin explained the problem:

The central values by which most men have lived, in a great many lands at a great many times—these values, almost if not entirely universal, are not always harmonious with each other. Some are, some are not. Men have always craved for liberty, security, equality, happiness, justice, knowledge, and so on. But complete liberty is not compatible with complete equality—if men were wholly free, the wolves would be free to eat the sheep. Perfect equality means that human liberties must be restrained so that the ablest and the most gifted are not permitted to advance beyond those who would inevitably lose if there were competition. Security, and indeed freedoms, cannot be preserved if freedom to subvert them is permitted. Indeed, not everyone seeks security or peace, otherwise some would not have sought glory in battle or in dangerous sports.

Justice has always been a human ideal, but it is not fully compatible with mercy. Creative imagination and spontaneity, splendid in themselves, cannot be fully reconciled with the need for planning, organization, careful and responsible calculation. Knowledge, the pursuit of truth—the noblest of aims—cannot be fully reconciled with the happiness or the freedom that men desire, for even if I know that I have some incurable disease this will not make me happier or freer. I must always choose: between peace and excitement, or knowledge and blissful ignorance. And so on.

Berlin did not mention it, perhaps because it goes without saying, but the progenitor of Western idealism was obviously Plato. In rejecting Platonism, Berlin was offering an exercise in Aristotelian thought.

He rejected drama in favor of temperance and compromise. He recommended that we get over our adolescent enthusiasm for great ideas and set about the hard work of finding the mean between the extremes.

I am afraid I have no dramatic answer to offer: only that if these ultimate human values by which we live are to be pursued, then compromises, trade-offs, arrangements have to be made if the worst is not to happen. So much liberty for so much equality, so much individual self-expression for so much security, so much justice for so much compassion….

So we must weigh and measure, bargain, compromise, and prevent the crushing of one form of life by its rivals. I know only too well that this is not a flag under which idealistic and enthusiastic young men and women may wish to march—it seems too tame, too reasonable, too bourgeois, it does not engage the generous emotions. But you must believe me, one cannot have everything one wants—not only in practice, but even in theory. The denial of this, the search for a single, overarching ideal because it is the one and only true one for humanity, invariably leads to coercion. And then to destruction, blood—eggs are broken, but the omelette is not in sight, there is only an infinite number of eggs, human lives, ready for the breaking. And in the end the passionate idealists forget the omelette, and just go on breaking eggs.


Anonymous said...

I must re-read his "Crooked Timber of Humanity". Wise survey of the topic.

It made him anathema to the Left. And fanatics of all stripes. Gosh, 2 of my few friends are semi-fanatics. In power, fanatics are Monsters.

In fact, I'll go further. For most people, when facts conflict w/their assumptions, they become Outraged!

I just nod my head and look contemplative. I've always considered Plato a fascist. -- Rich Lara

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Rich: Plato was a fascist... the original totalitarian muse of those who would impose the common good. You know, the "philosopher kings" like Hitler, Stalin, etc. They all loved Plato.

I'm not a fan of Berlin's view of "positive rights," in light of our Constitution's framework of negative rights. Beasts need to be kept at bay, which is why a government works best within negative rights that impose limits on government, not the individual. Philosopher kings like Obama like positive rights as a way to impose the common good... in their own demagogic view, of course. I suppose I shouldn't fault Berlin for bringing forth a new theory, but I do tire of Lefties prancing around trying to sound sophisticated with their ideas of positive and negative rights.