Isaiah Berlin, “The Pursuit Of The Ideal”

Herder’s view, and Vico’s . . . is what I should describe as pluralism – that is, the conception that there are many different ends that [people] may seek and still be fully rational, fully [human], capable of understanding each other and sympathising and deriving light from each other, as we derive it from reading Plato or the novels of medieval Japan – worlds, outlooks, very remote from our own. Of course, if we did not have any values in common with these distant figures, each civilization would be enclosed in its own impenetrable bubble, and would not understand them at all. . . . Intercommunication between cultures in time and space is only possible because what makes[us] human is common to them, and acts as a bridge between them. But our values are ours, and their are theirs. We are free to criticise the values of other cultures, to condemn them, but we cannot pretend not to understand them at all, or to regard them simply as subjective, the products f creatures in different circumstances with different tastes from our own, which do not speak to us at all. – Isaiah Berlin, “The Pursuit Of The Idea”, in The Crooked Timber Of Humanity, p.11


Sir Isaiah Berlin

Sir Isaiah Berlin

Seminary is a place for interesting conversations. Working in the campus bookstore as I did, I was part of some truly memorable ones, not least when a faculty member would come down and decide to chat. One who did this pretty regularly was the late Rev. Dr. James Logan. For a reason lost in the mists of time, he thought it would be a good idea to come down and engage any comers in a discussion of inter-religious dialogue. I sat and listened for a while. I made a single contribution, after listening to someone talk about the necessity of proselytizing in the midst of such a  dialogue. Dr. Logan wondered aloud if such would even be possible, say, with a group of Buddhists, whose view of the world is so strikingly different from the Christian. I piped up from my corner, saying, “I can just hear that exchange. The Christians would say, ‘We understand your position, but you need to understand ours.’ The Buddhists would all say, ‘Really? You understand us? We don’t, so please tell us!'” The notion of trying to convert others who hold their religious faith both with strength and sincerity is insulting. Far better, it seemed to me then (and now), to just chat about what it is we believe, how we live out those beliefs, share our very different struggles, laugh at our very different failures, celebrate our very different successes, and so on.

It wasn’t long after this particular exchange that I ran across the book The Crooked Timber Of Humanity. I had heard of Isaiah Berlin, reading something from him while an undergraduate studying political philosophy. The book was on our shelves, I think a special order that someone never picked up. The spring I was married I thought it might be an interesting summer read. I had no idea that – yet again – I would be reading something that would (a) put in to words that made sense things I had been thinking for quite a long time; (b) expand my understanding of what was and is possible and impossible in the realm of human social and political life; and (c) offer a vision of life in which the multiplicity of human ways of life need not be reconcilable, but rather negotiable.

The first essay, “The Pursuit Of The Ideal”, is a general introduction to themes readers would encounter throughout the volume: a general presentation of two distinct ways of understanding human social and political life; the working out of general ideas both of Vico and Herder, very different thinkers who at least shared the idea that particular societies generated their particular ways of life that are unique to them, unrepeatable in theory and practice (Vico was writing in particular to Italians who yearned for a return of the Roman Republic), and the recognition that incompatible values and ways of life does not necessitate violence. As Berlin notes in this very first essay, even individual persons have incompatible ends in their lives, always demanding this or that means that lead away from one and toward the other. The issue isn’t the reduction of the multiplicity of human ends to a single set of ends. Rather, the social and political challenge is learning to live with such incompatibilities, not only across societies but within them.

Herder went further [than Vico] and compared national cultures in many lands and periods, and held that every society had what he called its own centre of gravity, which differed from that of others. If, as he wished, we are to understand Scandinavian sagas or the poetry of the Bible, we must not apply to them the aesthetic criteria of the critics of eighteenth -century Paris. The ways in which [people] live, think, feel, speak to one another, the clothes they wear, the songs they sing, the gods they worship, the food they eat, the assumptions, customs, habits which are intrinsic to them – it is this that creates communitieis, each of which has its onw ‘life-style’. Communties may resemble each other in many respects, but the Greeks differ from Lutheran Germans, the Chinese differ from both; what they strive after and what they dear or worship are scarcely ever similar. (p.10)

The trick, of course, is not just recognizing this. It is recognizing this and assenting to this reality without any feelings of threat from these differences. Our way of life as Americans is not at all threatened by the hundreds of distinct sub- and micro-cultures within it. On the contrary, to be American is to be in the midst of so much difference and celebrating it rather than subsuming it. This position is challenged by many in the United States and always has been. That I can understand those who disagree with me, all the while refusing to accept what they say as a way forward for us as a country is precisely what Berlin is writing about.

As this is a general introduction, I’ll just leave this here for the moment. I do wish to quote Berlin, however, toward the end of the essay:

Of course social or political collisions will take place; the mere conflict of positive values alone makes this unavoidable. Yet they can, I believe, be minimised by promoting and preserving an uneasy equilibrium, which is constantly threatened and in constant need of repair – that alone, I repeat, is the precondition for decent societies and morally acceptable behaviour, otherwise we are bound to lose our way. A little dull as a solution, you will say? Not the stuff of which calls to heroic action by inspired leaders are made? Yet if there is some truth to this view, perhaps that is sufficient.(p.19)

At a point in our history when our politics has become flooded with demands for principled action, refusals to compromise, and the emptying of any usable vocabulary for social compatibility, there is indeed something both noble and heroic about a point of view that insists the only way to continue to live and thrive as a society and polis is removing principles from our politics, embracing compromise as the way human beings live with one another, and – perhaps – get us going again as a nation.