The Book of Isaiah: Personal Impressions of Isaiah Berlin

David L. Tubbs

For many years, academic critics of Isaiah Berlin (1909–1997) complained that he wrote little, but spoke much—that is, too much. In retrospect, this criticism is easy to explain. Besides being a scintillating interlocutor, Berlin was a “public intellectual.” Yet his renown as a university lecturer, political analyst, and media commentator did not stop detractors from pointing out his failure to produce a grand work of scholarship commensurate with his abilities. (Despite its merits, Berlin’s only book—a study of Karl Marx—was essentially written for non-specialists, and could not be considered anyone’s magnum opus.)

In the final decades of his life, however, Berlin’s reputation began to change. Largely through the efforts of editor Henry Hardy, scholars discovered that Berlin had written considerably more than previously believed. Hardy collected many of Berlin’s essays, some of which had been wallowing in obscurity, and reissued them in books. The result has been a rich harvest of Berlin’s writings, appearing over the last thirty-odd years. The publication of these books has led to significant scholarly engagement with Berlin’s ideas in several disciplines, notably political theory, moral philosophy, Russian studies, and Jewish history.

Nonetheless, Berlin has his critics, including Norman Podhoretz, Michael Knox Beran, Leo Strauss, and A.N. Wilson. Podhoretz, Beran, and Strauss argue that Berlin failed to provide sufficiently principled grounds for opposing communism, while Wilson attacks him for an overall lack of seriousness and a host of personal failings, including hypocrisy.

By itself, The Book of Isaiah will not end any debates about Berlin’s ideas, but it should contribute to the vindication of his name, especially with respect to the criticisms just listed. The book consists of relatively short essays, some previously published and some written by academic and cultural luminaries, exploring different aspects of Berlin’s life and thought. The book’s publication in 2009 coincided with the centenary of Berlin’s birth, and Hardy has included an appendix, comprising a family tree and an essay written in the late 1940s by Berlin’s father. Mendel Berlin’s “For the Benefit of My Son” relates the history and distinguished ancestry of his family. The book’s real value, however, lies in the wealth of information it provides about a prodigiously learned man who led a fascinating life and waged important intellectual battles in the cause of freedom and free institutions.

Consider Berlin’s opposition to communism. Some conservative critics argue that Berlin undermined his opposition by flirting with or embracing moral relativism. As one allegedly damning piece of evidence, they cite the conclusion of “Two Concepts of Liberty” (1958), in which Berlin quotes economist Joseph Schumpeter: “To realize the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly is what distinguishes a civilised man from a barbarian” (Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 1943).

Although it might have been preferable for Berlin to omit this quotation, this one line does not make him a moral relativist. The context of the essay surely matters, and it is sensible to read “Two Concepts of Liberty” as an argument against sundry apologists for the Soviet Union and its geopolitical allies. In this regard, we have little reason to think that quoting Schumpeter undermined Berlin’s argument, since at least two essays in The Book of Isaiah suggest otherwise. Poet and Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky remarks that Berlin’s Four Essays on Liberty (which includes “Two Concepts of Liberty”) “for three years [i.e., before Brodsky’s forcible expulsion from the USSR] served…as an antidote to all sorts of demagoguery in which my native realm was awash.” Similarly, Beata Polanowska-Sygulska, a Polish scholar, found Berlin’s essays on liberty to be invaluable resources in making sense of Poland’s suffering under communism.

Moreover, on a large historical matter not unrelated to the Schumpeter quotation, Berlin was correct. The idea of freedom he sought to defend in that essay—“negative” freedom, or the principled limitation of human obstacles to possible choices—was, according to most scholars, unknown in the ancient world, at least in its more robust forms, such as religious and intellectual freedom. This implies that certain putatively timeless principles are not coeval with all societies, including Western societies before the modern era.

Those who would like to label Berlin a moral relativist need to consider other matters. Several essays in The Book of Isaiah attest to Berlin’s sustained efforts to distinguish ethical pluralism from moral relativism. As Berlin argued in “The Pursuit of the Ideal,” pluralism is the view that “there are many different ends that men may seek and still be fully rational, fully men, capable of understanding each other and sympathizing and deriving light from each other” (1988). Every society has clear notions of good and evil and there is “broad agreement” across time about basic ideas of right and wrong. With some effort, we may understand and perhaps respect the values of societies or civilizations very different from ours, such as medieval Japan or classical Greece, even if we choose not to embrace them.

Values, however, are not infinite. Berlin once wrote, for example, that it seemed impossible to conceive of a society that worshipped wood, qua wood, and not (say) as a symbol of life, strength, fertility, or the sacredness of Athena’s grove. That values are circumscribed in this way allows communication across cultures and the critical assessment of the values of other cultures.

By contrast, relativism is the view that differences in value are akin to differences in taste, about which nothing more needs to be said—much as one man prefers red wine, while another prefers white.

To some of his critics, such as Michael Knox Beran, Berlin’s approach is untenable and pernicious, and opens the door to radical “multiculturalism.” Even Roger Scruton, in an important and generally positive reappraisal of Berlin’s work published in The New Criterion in September 2009, is vexed by his pluralism. Perhaps Berlin has created some confusion, because on at least a few occasions he wrote of a plurality not just of values, but of moralities.

But if some find his pluralism indefensible or unintelligible, others find it compelling. The political theorist William Galston is one such person; Bernard Williams, George Crowder, and Joshua Cherniss—all contributors to The Book of Isaiah—are others. Most scholars who respond favorably to Berlin’s pluralism tend to be left-of-center, but few, if any, are radicals. Indeed, because his pluralism emphasizes the incommensurability of certain values, it can be characterized as an anti-radical or anti-utopian doctrine.

In the modern West, for example, Berlin identified personal liberty, representative democracy, legal equality, and adherence to the rule of law as core political values. But he also endorsed the aims of certain nationalist movements and projects meant to reduce economic inequality, such as the New Deal, suggesting that these, too, might advance other legitimate political or social values.

Since core political and social values can often conflict with one another, the idea of a grand synthesis of these values, in which they all harmonize, is conceptually incoherent. It is nonetheless a seductive and dangerous idea, inspiring extremists on both the left and right and sometimes leading to bloodshed. For, as Berlin notes near the end of “The Pursuit of the Ideal,” if a definitive harmonization of values were possible, then “no cost would be too high to obtain it.”

This is not the place to resolve the debate about Berlin’s pluralism. But the debate itself conveys some idea of what Berlin achieved.

The late Allan Bloom once said that a truly liberal education consists more in clarifying large questions than in answering them definitively. By this criterion, Berlin contributed much to the goals of liberal education. In any fair-minded reckoning, he can be credited with helping to articulate or elucidate the following matters:

  • What is the most cogent modern understanding of political freedom?

  • Is personal freedom valuable as an end in itself? Or, is it only instrumentally valuable?

  • Are all values commensurable, as utilitarians tend to assume?

  • Are pluralism and relativism conceptually distinguishable?

  • Are nationalism and the main variants of classical liberalism compatible?

  • Is Zionism a morally legitimate political aspiration for the Jewish people?

  • What were the central aims of the Enlightenment and that intellectual movement which Berlin and others designate “the Counter-Enlightenment”? What were the theoretical shortcomings of each?

Posterity will be the ultimate judge of Berlin’s contributions to political theory and the other disciplines mentioned earlier. Posterity will be less interested in Berlin’s reputation as a teacher, even though this was central to his identity. By most accounts, Berlin scores high here. The picture that emerges from The Book of Isaiah is of a generous and enthusiastic Oxford don willing to spend large amounts of time replying even to strangers who wrote to him.

It is appropriate to mention this aspect of Berlin’s character because he also had flaws, and some critics seem to enjoy dwelling on them. Based on a few essays in The Book of Isaiah and two large volumes of letters that Hardy has edited, we know that Berlin sometimes misrepresented his feelings towards his colleagues, feigning affection and devotion when there was none. He also loved to gossip. But these tendencies are ubiquitous in higher education. That does not make the tendencies attractive, but it might counter some of the harsher assessments from critics such as A.N. Wilson, who comes close to dismissing Berlin as a frivolous and treacherous social climber.

Contrary to what Wilson suggested in a July 15, 2009, Times Literary Supplement review, The Book of Isaiah is not just a collection of fulsome encomia. There is abundant praise within its covers, but there is criticism as well (though none of it mean-spirited), particularly in the pieces by Bryan Magee, Jennifer Holmes, and Henry Hardy himself (in an interview with Kei Hiruta).

American conservatives committed to reforming American higher education may sometimes wonder whether any academics on the left still exemplify the traditional scholarly and intellectual virtues. On a dispassionate reading of his life, Berlin—a man of the left, but not the far left—did. He may not have been saintly, yet his contributions are weighty, and have stimulated some of the best humanities scholars of our time. Even if the praise might be too high, philosopher Leszek Kolakowski’s reference to Berlin as a “giant” of the twentieth century should provoke interest in the man and his ideas.

The Book of Isaiah is not the ideal introduction to Berlin’s thought. That appellation should probably go to The Proper Study of Mankind (1997), a collection of Berlin’s most important essays. But The Book of Isaiah complements the latter nicely, and brings its author to life in many ways.

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