The Unique Liberalism of Isaiah Berlin

Article excerpt

The mention of Isaiah Berlin's name these years prompts such thoughts of high civility, good nature and even gentleness that one regularly is suprised anew, encountering the profound subversiveness of his critiques of both classical Western tradition and Enlightenment thinking.

His reading of history and its implications for moral and political philosophy have, necessarily, collided with those of other influential thinkers over the course of an intellectual career spanning 65 years. Leo Strauss called him a relativist, and more recently Michael Sandel, as quoted by John Gray, argued that he "comes perilously close to foundering on the relativist predicament."

Charles Taylor, a philosopher of more optimistic, Benthamite inclination, is a critic, as also have to be mainstream liberals as a class and among whom John Rawls' is the best-known contemporary name. As to other thinkers - conservative thinkers, intuitionists, communitarians and certainly Marxists and other totalitarians - the distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford, is bound to be the target of any and all of them at least some of the time.

It may be, however, that none of these critics will succeed in bringing the daring of his thinking so clearly into view as has Mr. Gray in this intellectual study, "Isaiah Berlin." For the past 20 years a devoted student and enthusiast, Mr. Gray, who is a fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, also has written on John Stuart Mill, from whose thinking his present subject departs on, for example, the issue of rational will, preferring his own, Romantic rather than classical liberal, notion of radical will.

Mention of the Romantics conjures what Isaiah Berlin has called the Counter-Enlightenment. This was the attack by 18th-century critics on the French philosophes' three-legged stool constructed upon the efficacy of reason, belief in the continuing improvability of human nature and the prospect of universal civilization. The Berlin biography of one such critic, the German J.G. Hamann, came out two years ago and was reviewed in this space.

Perhaps the feistiest of that crowd, though, was Joseph de Maistre, "whose insights into the character of language as the embodiment of unconscious historical memory make those of Edmund Burke seem superficial and Whiggish, and whose grasp of the peaceless ferocity of the human animal, and its capacity for and disposition toward self-immolation, renders Hobbes' account of man tame and bland." The sentence is a good example of Mr. Gray's spirited way of putting these things.

A seeming paradox in his subject's thought is in seeing roots of 20th-century totalitarianism in the monist doctrines of the Enlightenment while, contrarily, discerning in Romantic and Counter-Enlightenment notions of mystery and the ineffable (which also gave us Friedrich Nietzsche and D.H. Lawrence) "a major source of modern conceptions of toleration." Mr. Gray saves this for the crescendo closing his chapter on the Counter-Enlightenment, which is the fifth of the book's six, preceded by an introduction in which he argues for what he calls his subject's "value-pluralism" and "agonistic liberalism."

It is value-pluralism with which Mr. Gray begins by explicating the idea's parts: that in the end human values or goods, though objective, are irreducibly diverse, often uncombinable and at times incommensurable. His subject's debts to Giovanni Vico and Johann Herder are well-known to readers, but a shortcut to the subversive heart of his thought is to recall Niccolo Machiavelli's apprehension that it is not always possible for a man both to behave morally and do his duty.

The notoriously pragmatic Florentine yanked Western man out of his prior commitments, whether to Platonic ideal, Aristotelian golden mean or Christian faith in the solubility of problems by reference to God. …