- The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas by Isaiah Berlin, edited by Henry Hardy
Murray, 276 pp, £18.95, October 1990, ISBN 0 7195 0264 0
Intellectual hero to Noel Annan, whose political heroine is Margaret Thatcher, should Isaiah Berlin be left to the – ‘unfashionable’ – enthusiasms of Our Age? Or consigned to the plaudits that have broken out for his latest volume from the Spectator to the New Statesman? He himself strikes a more modest note. ‘I talk about other people. I examine their views. But what about me?’ he said recently. His opinions were just local currency. ‘My ideas are very English. I’ve thrown in my lot with England. It’s the best country in the world.’ Such loyal self-deprecation is scarcely less suspect.
The Crooked Timber of Humanity is more an elegant restatement than a substantial addition to his characteristic themes. Three quarters of the book consists of essays from the same fund of texts out of which the four volumes of his Selected Writings were assembled at the end of the Seventies, and their topics for the most part retrace familiar ground – Machiavelli, Vico, Herder, Pluralism, Romanticism, Utopianism. Even the longest piece, on Joseph de Maistre, is the enlargement of a portrait already sketched in an earlier comparison with Tolstoy. In a sense, however, this is the interest of the collection: it serves to bring the unity of Berlin’s thought sharply into focus.
A philosopher by training, his main work has lain in the history of ideas – a field which, he maintains, has traditionally been neglected in England. Between the time of Leslie Stephen and, say, Quentin Skinner, that was certainly true. Even today, this branch of studies has far less elbow-room in English than in American universities. Since the Seventies, however, the situation has been changing, and the rise of a new kind of intellectual history, originated at Cambridge, provides the appropriate background for assessing Berlin’s contribution to the field. No other living practitioner has his European zest and range, encompassing Russian and German, Italian and French, not to speak of Ancient literatures, or his capacity to throw out bold generalisations across them. There are two poles to this imagination. On the one hand, Berlin is fascinated by individual – often idiosyncratic – personalities, men like Belinsky or Moses Hess, whom he has depicted in a series of inimitable cameos. On the other hand, he constructs and pursues very general notions, broad idées maîtresses like monism or positive freedom, through swooping pedigrees down time. Perhaps these were the natural units of attention for an analytic philosopher of strong humanistic bent. The contrast, at any rate, with the practice of current historians is marked.
Berlin believes that the specific arguments of a theorist are less important than their general outlook, and the origins of ideas less interesting than their echoes. As much as statement of a method, this is the expression of a temperament. Its fruit is an approach best suited to unsystematic, intuitive thinkers who do not require, and perhaps resist, close conceptual reconstruction. Berlin’s most memorable essays deal with writers like Sorel or Tolstoy, rather than with the major political philosophers of the modern period. The sympathy they reveal for the informal and undoctrinal is one of the attractive features of his work – but it has its costs. Where there are elements in a particular corpus of ideas which for one reason or another are uncongenial to Berlin, his characteristic procedure can free him from the need to accord them proportionate attention. The risks of selective emphasis exist in even the most systematic of treatments, as the controversies in recent Harrington or Locke scholarship demonstrate. But they are greatly enhanced once specific arguments are discounted for general outlooks, documented origins for presumed effects. Berlin’s accounts of, for example, Tolstoy’s view of history, or Herzen’s brand of politics, or Mill’s conception of value, understate central aspects of each: the simple chauvinism of War and Peace, the mysticism in Anna Karenina, the agrarian socialism of the Bell, the declared utilitarianism of On Liberty. The result is to make each sound somewhat closer to their commentator than it really is. His readings of Vico and Herder, the major subjects of his later work, show the same proprietary impulse. Seeing them essentially as precursors of cultural pluralism, the tradition in which he situates himself, Berlin is disinclined to pay much attention to the themes of mental identity and emergent universality in their respective writings, which point in another direction. Machiavelli plays a rather similar role in Berlin’s vision, becoming the stepping-stone to a tolerant liberalism. In this interpretation, the scandal his work provoked lay not in Machiavelli’s counsels of princely crime, but in his equable observation of contrasting civic and Christian virtues. The only evidence for this claim, abundantly disproved by centuries of polemic, is the autobiographical illumination Berlin reports in these pages – the intellectual discovery he himself made on reading Machiavelli. In such annexations, philosophical advocacy visibly takes precedence over historical balance.
The title of this volume provides a graphic illustration of the point. ‘Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made’: Immanuel Kant dixit. By dint of repetition – the statement is cited once in Russian Thinkers, twice in Against the Current, three times in Four Essays on Liberty, and twice more in The Crooked Timber itself – Berlin has virtually made of it a saw. Here, we are given to understand, is a signal expression of that rejection of all perfectionist utopias which defines a humane pluralism. But what was the actual force of the text from which the sentence is taken? The ‘Idea for a General History in a Cosmopolitan Perspective’ is a terse, incandescent manifesto for a world order still to be constructed, and a world history yet to be written.
If there is a single prophetic vision of the political agenda now apparently unfolding before us two centuries later, it is this. Fukuyama might have done better to appeal to Kant rather than Hegel. The message of the ‘Idea’ is not the diversity of values, the imperfectibility of institutions or the contingency of history. What Kant celebrates is the driving force of competition – the mutual ‘antagonism’ implanted in the human species by nature, as the motor of social progress. It is the dynamic of the rivalry for honour, riches and power that has generated every step of civilisation. Social advance, Kant argues, has at length reached the point where the task for humanity can be the realisation of a civil society under the rule of law, guaranteeing freedom for all. But this can only be complete when external relations between states obey the same principles of peaceful union as the internal relations between their members. Humanity will have to endure many devastations and upheavals before such a league of peoples comes to pass. But the natural laws which govern the development of our species, engendering a productive common order out of colliding individual wills in the form of a competitive economy which strengthens the state, should in the end also lead to the formation of a world society out of the conflicting states, in which the full potential of the human race would come to fruition.
Meanwhile, the greatest difficulty in achieving civic union within a state derives from the fact that ‘man is an animal that needs a master,’ to ‘break his own will and oblige him to obey a generally valid will whereby each may be free’ – but can only find such a master among other men, who are also animals that need to be mastered in their turn. It is this problem, of the unruliness of the ruler, that occasions the comment Berlin has taken for his motto. Kant, however, is referring not to humanity as a whole, as unfittable into any symmetrical scheme, but to the fallibility of any individual as sovereign. ‘The highest magistrate should be just in himself and yet be a man.’ It is this task, as Kant puts it, that is beyond fulfilment. He makes the distinction immediately clear, in a way that brings home sharply the distance between Kant’s argument and Berlin’s inference. The inhabitants of other planets may be able to perfect themselves in their individual lives: ‘with us it is otherwise; only the species can hope for this’ – ‘but if we accomplish nature’s mission well, we can certainly flatter ourselves that we may occupy no mean rank among our neighbours in the cosmic order.’
In other words, the collective destiny of humanity, working through the deficiencies of its individual members, reveals what Kant calls ‘the hidden plan of nature to bring into existence an internally and externally perfected political constitution.’ The naturalism and finalism of this vision are at the antipodes of Berlin’s outlook. So far from Kant insisting on the irremediable crookedness of humanity in general, he uses the self-same term – krumm – to describe the kind of timber humanity need not become in a well-ordered civic union, where something straight – gerade – is just what can indeed be made. ‘Only in such an enclosure as civil unification offers can our inclinations achieve their best effects; as trees in a wood which seek to deprive each other of air and sunlight are forced to strive upwards and so achieve a beautiful straight growth; while those that spread their branches at will in isolated freedom grow stunted, tilted and crooked.’ The imagery of the bent and the straight, in other words, tells the opposite story from its proverbialisation.