Against the Current

By Isaiah Berlin 1979

There’s a lot to like about Isaiah Berlin.  As one of the best historians of ideas, he covers not only the best-known figures, but also draws our attention to unjustly neglected thinkers and overlooked general trends.  Most importantly, he does make a serious effort to understand the positions of those on the losing side—the critics of modernity, the dissenters from the established liberal views, people like Herder, de Maistre, or Sorel.  Although a moderate liberal himself, Berlin seems to have a fascination with critics of the Enlightenment.  That said, Berlin’s conclusions always seem a bit off to me.  This is because, whoever he discusses, he always seems to read them through the lens of his two big ideas:

1)      It is possible that there is more than one valid conception of the good life, more than one set of virtues, and that these sets of virtues may conflict.  It may be that an individual or society can only have one virtue at the expense of another, and that there’s no unitary natural law to tell us which virtues to favor.  Berlin doesn’t explicitly affirm that this really is the case, but he treats it as one of the big interesting ideas.  In this collection of essays, he attributes this idea in some form to Machiavelli, Vico, and Montesquieu, which, in my opinion, makes these thinkers seem more interesting than they really were.  Although each of them may have described incommensurable systems, it’s not hard at all to tell which system each favored, and none of them seemed very concerned about losing the virtues of the other systems.

2)      Berlin divides European thinkers in a unique way.  First, there is the Enlightenment view, which is basically that there is a single best way of doing things, and we can discover it through reason.  This “Enlightenment” view includes not only the philosophes, but also the Greeks, Romans, and medievals.  Then there is the romantic view, which can be summarized as saying “it’s better for you to do your own thing, because what matters is not being right, but being authentic.”  The “you” in the previous sentence might be an individual, or it might be a group.  Several essays in this collection concern romantic nationalism and its concern for the authentic expression of national cultures.  In Berlin’s scheme, the Enlightenment was actually defeated in the nineteenth century, and the twentieth century has been largely shaped by romantic impulses.  While I find this organization of thinkers interesting, it is ultimately unconvincing.  Take three famous thinkers:  Aquinas, Voltaire, and de Maistre.  In Berlin’s scheme, the first two would be classed closer to each other than either is to the third.  Doesn’t that seem odd?  In fact, what strikes me about most of the rationalist and romantic thinkers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is that, even though they had very different reasoning styles, they always seemed to reach the same conclusions:  republicanism, sexual permissiveness, hatred for the Roman pope and the Russian tsar.  Beneath the differences was a common core:  the emancipation of human will at the expense of conceptions of a meaningful universe.  Some preferred to say they were bringing the world under rational management, others that they were freeing human creativity.  In either case, the goal was to free the human will from the restrictions of religion and tradition.  Given this fundamental convergence, the differences between rationalists and romantics seem almost a matter of rhetoric.

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  1. […] Against the Current by Isaiah Berlin […]

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