Isaiah Berlin, “The Decline Of Utopian Ideas In The West”

Beginning as a literary historian and essayist, [Herder] maintained that values were not universal; every human society, every people, indeed every age and civilization, possesses its own unique ideals, standards, way of living and thought and action. There are no immutable, universal, eternal rules or criteria of judgement in terms of which different cultures and nations can be graded in some single order of excellence, which would place the French – if Voltaire was right – at the top of the ladder of human achievement and the Germans far below them in the twilight regions of religious obscurantism and within the narrow limits of provincialism and dim-witted rural existence. Ever society, every age, has its own cultural horizons. every nation has its own traditions, its own character, its own face. every nation has its own centre of moral gravity, which differs from that of every other: there and only there its happiness lies – in the development of its own national needs, its own unique character. – Isaiah Berlin, “The Decline Of Utopian Ideas In The West”, in Crooked Timber Of Humanity, p. 37


Thomas More's Utopia, a vision of the perfect society, which many found truly boring.

Thomas More’s Utopia, a vision of the perfect society, which many found truly boring.

One of the most creative and interesting, if relatively obscure, twentieth century Marxist thinkers is Ernst Bloch. While best known, at least in theological circles, for his massive The Principle Of Hope, his first major work was entitled The Spirit Of Utopia. Rather than denying the utopian roots of Marxist thought, Bloch embraced it, tracing lines from literary and philosophical utopias through Marxist thought to the promise these ideas held for declining bourgeois society. The Principle Of Hope is little more than an expansive extrapolation of this idea, offering the interesting idea that even our dreams, day and night variety, hold the key to revolutionary thought and praxis; that human culture has always been about expressing this desire for a human society both free and just. It would take a lifetime to delve through the depths and nuances of Bloch’s thought and writings, but he can certainly lay claim to being the foremost proponent of a kind of Utopian Communism despite Marx’s (and later Lenin’s) dismissal of such as unscientific.

Isaiah Berlin, on the other hand, wants us to take a look at Utopias through a slightly different set of lenses. Berlin highlights utopias from Plato’s Republic through those of the Renaissance, up to and including the systematic philosophical presentations of thinkers like Hegel and Marx. At the heart of all these notions sits three propositions:

The first proposition is this: to all genuine questions there can only be one correct answer, all the other answers being incorrect. . . .

The second assumption is that a method exists for the discovery of these correct answers. Whether any[one] knows or can, in fact, know it, is another question; but it must, at least in principle, be knowable, provided that the right procedure for establishing it is used.

The third assumption, and perhaps the most important in this context, is that all the correct answers must, at the very least, be compatible with one another.(p.24)

From these seemingly self-evident logical truths spring centuries of western speculation about what a truly just society would look like. With the success of a revised scientific method in the 17th century, it became clear, particularly to the French philosophes that such techniques should be applied to human social life. Once human nature was scientifically understood, constructing the perfect human society would the, in principle, be achievable. For Berlin, however, the idea of an achievable utopia rests upon one more sinister, and logically inescapable, truth:

[T]he doctrine common to all [Utopian] views and movements is the notion that there exist universal truths, true for all [people], everywhere, at all times, and that these truths are expressed in universal rules, that natural law of the stoics and the medieval church and the jurists of the Renaissance, defiance of which alone leads to vice, misery, and chaos.{p.30)

If, in the words of our won Declaration of Independence, there exist “self-evident truths”, their rejection or denial is more than simple error. Something sinister is afoot, a desire for power for its own sake rather than the good of all persons. Equating truth with virtue, the denial of universal truths is the denial of universal human good. Rooted not in faulty reason but a vicious desire for the oppression of others, difference becomes error becomes a moral and legal threat to the very existence of the commonwealth, rooted as it is in universal, timeless, truths that extend to human nature. Such persons need more than simple correction: they need to be removed from society, by force if they do not accept the truths they deny.

Berlin continues:

[I]f the doctrine of the French Enlightenment – and indeed, the central western assumption, of which I have spoken, that all true values are immutable and timeless and universal – needs revising so drastically, then there is something radically wrong with the idea of a perfect society. The basic reason for this is not to be found among those which usually advanced against Utopian ideas – that such a society cannot be attained because [people] are not wise or skillful or virtuous enough, or cannot acquire the requisite degree of knowledge, or resolution, or, tainted as they are with original sin, cannot attain perfection in this life – but is altogether different. The idea of a single, perfect society of all [humanity] must be internally self-contradictory, because the Vlahalla of the Germans is necessarilyy different from the ideal of future life of the French . . . But if we are to have as many types of perfection as there are types of culture, each with its ideal constellation of virtues, then the very notion of the possibility of a single perfect society is logically incoherent.(p.40)

In these early decades of the 21st century, we continue to be assaulted – in ever expanding ways – with these conflicts, even within what are considered comfortably liberal, pluralistic societies in the west: Utopias of various religious, racial, ethnic, and nationalist stripes on the one hand, while the far more tentative, certainly less heroic vision of liberal pluralism insists that our human survival rests in no small part on accepting difference as just that, rather than error.

[I]f one believe [Utopian] doctrine to be an illusion, if only because some ultimate values may be incompatible with one another, and the very notion of an ideal world in which they are reconciled to be a conceptual . . . impracticability, then, perhaps, the best that on can do is to try to promote some kind of equilibrium, necessarily unstable, between the different aspirations of differing groups of human beings . . . But this is not, prima facie, a wildly exciting programme: a liberal sermon which recommends machinery designed to prevent people from doing each other too much harm, giving each human group sufficient room to realise its own idiosyncratic, unique, particular ends without too much interference with the ends of others, is not a passionate battle-cry to inspire [people] to sacrifice and martyrdom and heroic feats. (p.47)

If this essay sounds remarkably like the first, there’s good reason. The essays in this volume center on these ideas: the age-old search for a human polis without a source of social tension and conflict usually results in terrorist regimes from the ethnic cleansers through Stalinist terror to the nightmares of Kampuchea. While certainly less exciting, the promotion of the liberal virtues of pluralism (distinct from relativism), diversity, trading off social security for the greater social good of allowing others to live as they choose at least has the virtue of rarely resulting in masses of human beings being murdered. With Christian, Muslim, and Hindu fundamentalism morphing to Christian, Muslim, and Hindu terrorism against their religious foes; with even “moderate” Christian denominations like my own United Methodist continuing to hear demands for doctrinal orthodoxy as the final determinant of who can and cannot be called a Christian; with the shrill voices of American exceptionalism silencing the quiet mention that other folks like their own countries just fine and don’t need us sticking our overlarge, overarmed noses in to their lives; with all this, liberal pluralism might not be the call to arms some believe we need. It is, however, a good way to keep people and societies and countries alive and intact and relatively stable.

Social conflict and change, of course, will always exist. The means through which it is managed, however, need not be violent. Recognizing the full humanity and legitimacy of others different from ourselves is the beginning of the possibility of human survival.