(lightly modified for submission to the University of Chicago)
I am not disembodied Reason.
Nor am I Robinson Crusoe,
alone upon his island. Isaiah Berlin2
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: From Riga to London…………………………………...
Chapter 2: A Spectator in God’s Theater…………………………...
Chapter 3: The Postwar Confrontation with Religion……………...
Chapter 4: Reformulating Liberalism……………………………...
Preface This essay represents my attempt to grapple with the meaning of Isaiah Berlin’s life and work. It is not a dispassionate consideration of his thought; those seeking that are directed to George Crowder’s excellent Isaiah Berlin: Liberty and Pluralism. Nor is it a biography, as Michael Ignatieff has already written a very fine one. It is rather my attempt to answer the following personal question: why is it that Berlin is such a wildly attractive figure to me? I had dabbled in philosophy and intellectual history before encountering Berlin. But when I read him for the first time, I felt like Cro-Magnon Man stumbling upon New York City. Ideas came to life, and the history of thought became exciting and important.
The army that sprang from the dragon’s teeth was not staid and dull. Berlin delights in ideas that flash instead of plod, coming from thinkers more like the warriors of the Old Testament than the benevolent preachers of the New. And when I began to read Berlin’s purely philosophical works, it struck me that these terrifying but fascinating ideas were not absent from his own thought: modified, surely, but not entirely ignored as they were by other liberals, then and now. This essay is my attempt to ascertain how and why Berlin’s ideas “flash” like those of de Maistre, instead of seeming limp and dull like those of John Dewey and Karl Popper, two of the most estimable liberals of the 20th century. Berlin’s wit, which has ever remained his most attractive feature to me, is much closer to the aristocratic hauteur of the conservative Waugh than the bitter acerbity of Bertrand Russell. As the Queen Mother once reputedly said of Isaiah Berlin: he is “such fun!”3
Now that the 20th century has at last lurched to its ignoble end, it is possible to cast the cold eye of hindsight on the century that J.G. Ballard called “the marriage of reason and nightmare.” The 20th century was about very many things, but it might be said that the primary issue around which history clustered was identity. How is a human being defined? Is it true that, as John Donne said, “no man is an island, entire of itself”? Or is each human being an individual with no important ties to any of his fellows? Supposing Donne is correct: with whom do I have my true meaning? With my family, my church, my nation, my race? Or with the course of History itself? Or with God? The 20th century had no dearth of brilliant minds, and they stepped up in support of each of the solutions that I have just outlined, in addition to innumerable others.
The Jew is, in many ways, the symbol of the century. James Joyce certainly thought so. When he attempted to portray the consciousness of modern man in Ulysses, he chose a Jew, Leopold Bloom, as his subject. Yuri Slezkine agrees, and goes so far as to propose that “the modern age is the Jewish Age.”4 Joyce and Slezkine choose the Jew as emblematic because the Jewish people had been dealing with the complexities of identity ever since the formation of the Diaspora. It is only in the 20th century, when national borders were changing by the year and populations were being shuttled about like so many chess pieces, that the rest of the world “caught up” with the Jews and became immediately concerned with these issues. Time and again throughout history, the Jews had been forced to confront the most basic of questions: what does it mean to be a Jew? This inevitably lead to the larger question: what does it mean to be a human being? It was no accident that Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, the two modern thinkers who have done most to revolutionize our notions of identity, were each Jewish.
I begin, then, with the controversial and perhaps audacious claim that Isaiah Berlin is one of the central figures of the century. He was not a politically powerful man, of course; armies did not heed his command. He was not even especially famous in his lifetime, as the Berlin “cult” dates back only a decade or so. He did not attach himself to high-profile public movements, nor was he the chief ideologue of a powerful political party. These sorts of positions were open to Berlin, but he rejected them. He would have agreed with Pushkin: “My greatest wish, a quiet life/And a big bowl of cabbage soup.” Berlin did not want power or fame; he wanted to live his life as he chose, boisterously and spontaneously and among close friends. Berlin is not unique in this: there are very many non-powerful people, myself included, who are not, in fact, the central figure of their century. Where, then, does Berlin’s centrality lie?
Berlin dealt with the question of national identity more openly and directly, and with more subtlety, than most anyone else. His life and work can be seen as an attempt to answer the question asked by Misha Gordon in Doctor Zhivago: “What does it mean to be a Jew?”5 Perhaps Berlin’s unsuitability for public life stemmed from the terrific complexity of his private life. Isaiah Berlin was not solely, or even primarily, a Jew. He had to balance this facet of his identity with equally powerful Russian and English ones. Those are more obviously evident in Berlin’s life and work, and Berlin effortlessly locates their respective influence in “The Three Strands in My Life,” an autobiographical essay penned in 1979. As Berlin himself readily admitted, the influence of his Jewish inheritance is not nearly so easy to codify; although he occasionally wrote about Jewish topics, he wrote no Jewish volume to complement Russian Thinkers (1978). And while he was acquainted with the elite of Israel, he never moved there and never assumed a powerful position in its government.
It is significant, though, that Berlin ends his autobiographical essay with the Jewish “strand” of his identity. The reader does not suppose that it is unimportant, or an afterthought; rather, Berlin states that his Jewish roots are too deep-rooted for him to even consider. “As for my Jewish roots, they are so deep, so native to me, that it is idle for me to try to identify them, let alone analyze them.”6 I do not think that this is an “idle” task; it is, in fact, the one that I have chosen for myself. I will begin, in the first two chapters, by following Berlin’s life from his birth to middle age, focusing on his relationship with his Jewish identity. The final two chapters will consider the impact of this engagement on his mature thought.
Berlin always valued his Jewish heritage and the traditions that went along with it. But he valued his English and Russian identities as well, and he reserved the right to navigate these national commitments, as well as his political ones, as he saw fit. This simple assertion of human dignity placed Berlin in opposition to both the left-wing and right-wing thinkers of his immediate context. Berlin emphasized the sanctity of the individual, and thus always remained a liberal; however, his belief in the sacred right of the individual to choose, as he was forced to do all his life, necessitated a radical reformulation of the liberal tradition. It is this synthesis, unstable as it might be, that makes Berlin a titanic figure of the century.