Isaiah Berlin’s The Crooked Timber of Humanity

Isaiah Berlin's The Crooked Timber of Humanity

Politics today, especially the American variant, is an extremely divisive topic for people to discuss. I think we’ve all heard it said that the best way to make new friends is to avoid discussing religion or politics. I think that’s generally a true statement — although some folks a eager to discuss politics as spectators rather than to argue for their own personal ideology. Isaiah Berlin was unique in this respect as he argued for a plurality of beliefs. He famously defended himself from the attack of being called a “relativist” and instead described himself as a “pluralist”. This is one of the few topics covered in the collection of essays known as The Crooked Timber of Humanity. As these essays were written in the recently cast shadow of World War 2 and the disturbing revelations of the holocaust (Berlin was himself a Russian Jew, born in Latvia in 1909), many of the other topics included are the rise of fascism, nationalism, communism, and — in a related way, as Berlin illustrates — utopianism and  romanticism.

It must be said  this is not a light read. Some of the arguments Berlin makes depend on some background knowledge of the history of ideas and philosophy in general. As Berlin explores the history of utopianism, he draws on ancient greeks to the scholastics and up through modern philosophers to make his points.

Going back to modern, American politics: One of the overarching, implicit themes of the rhetoric used by both sides (probably more so the right than the left) is a value absolutism (also called “monism” by Berlin). This means that there is one good, perfect, correct value system. This is not necessarily an evil or sinister way to live one’s life (though it has certainly has some negative outcomes). In fact, most of human history has been dominated by this value absolutism. Going back to the ancient greeks and including the judeo-christian religions. From this value/moral absolutism comes utopian ideals. To use Berlin’s words,

Broadly speaking, Western Utopias tend to contain the same elements: a society lives in a state of pure harmony, in which all its members live in peace, love one another, are free from physical danger, from want of any kind, from insecurity, from degrading work, from envy, from frustration, experience no injustice or violence, live in perpetual, even light, in a temperate climate, in the midst of infinitely fruitful, generous nature. The main characteristic of most, perhaps all, Utopias is the fact that they are static. Notion in them alters, for they have reached perfection: there is no need for novelty or change; no one can wish to alter a condition in which all natural human wishes are fulfilled.

The assumption on which this is based is that men have a certain fixed, unaltering nature, certain universal, common, immutable goals. Once these goals are realised, human nature is wholly fulfilled.

Utopias have, since the ancient greeks (and probably beyond), dominated political philosophy. Plato’s The Republic is ostensibly an attempt at building an ideal, utopian, and “just” state. After setting out to define what “justice” is, Socrates creates a “well ordered” state where everyone gets what they deserve and does in life what they are born to do. Indeed, when we talk politics with our friends and family, it seems natural to talk in normative terms about what would be the “best” system and approaching the nearest perfection possible for a political system. It seems that this utopian ideal that leads our thoughts might actually be leading us astray.

If we were attempting to follow Plato’s footsteps and design our own Republic today, how would we do it? What modern techniques could we use to do so? Certainly we have learned a lot since the days of Socrates and Plato where the most rigorous form of inquiry was dialectical (i.e., through debate). Many of the important and salient political arguments made today are based on economic arguments. While economics does concern itself with identifying the most efficient allocation of resources, it is only half the story. There is also the question of social justice. It seems that not many people would deny the importance that the progressive era (1890s to 1920s) had on our country or the civil rights movement (1960s). These are undeniably some of the most important moments in American history and emphasize the importance of the other dimension of progress: social justice. Yet, social justice requires moral assumptions much like economic requires economic assumptions which are clearly obvious (e.g., more available resources are better than less). John Rawls, did provide us with a potent theory for social justice but it is rarely included in our political discourse these days (partly, in my opinion, due to assumptions supposed by the theory).

Yet, there is a problem in the pursuit of utopias, as Berlin points out. In fact, the decline of utopian ideals has already taken place and no political philosopher today would pursue this notion without a firm, value absolutist stance. Going back to Berlin’s definition of (western) utopias, one of the major elements that is incompatible with our own time is that they are static. This would seem antithetical to us today as the world is moving ever faster. New technologies have enabled the world to expand, produce, learn, and innovate faster than ever. How could a static utopian ideal survive such a maelstrom of experimentation and innovation? Well, it seems, it cannot.

When Berlin was young, he witnessed first hand the chaos and violence of the Bolshevik Revolution. Watching mobs drag people into the street and executing them had a lasting impact on his worldview (as it must have had for those who witness the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution first hand). It may have appeared to him from his childhood that this was the problem of value absolutism or a belief that a utopia is possible. Indeed, if a utopia was possibly and that violence was necessary to secure a utopia, does it not follow that the ends justifies the means? If humanity would live in blissful peace in perpetuity, any amount of bloodshed would certainly be a fair price to pay for this, right? Right?

The root of the error here, for Berlin, is the absolutism. Instead, he argues that not only is value pluralism more realistic but that it does not lead to notions that, in turn, lead people to dangerous beliefs. Pluralism argues that there are many good values that are compatible with each other but are not identical. In other words, there are many ways to live a “good” life where you do not harm others in the pursuit of happiness.

The above covers basically the first few essays of The Crooked Timber of Humanity. I would highly recommend the book for those who are interested in moral and political philosophy or history. The subsequent essays on the rise of fascism and nationalism and the role of romanticism in these movements are all extremely interesting and, I think, particularly salient given current events.


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