Saturday, March 31, 2018

Before they recycle

On Isaiah Berlin:

Sir Isaiah's liberalism is very different from most liberallsms. They rest on a view of human dignity, as in Kant, or on a view of human happiness, as in Mill, or on an ideal of the equal moral value of all lives, as in our contemporaries Ronald Dworkin and John Rawls. Sir Isaiah’s liberalism seems to embrace all of these but to rest on none of them. 

His liberalism is thus unsettling -and hard to describe. His famous essay on Tolstoy’s theory of history, “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” drew its epigraph from an enigmatic remark of the pre-Socratic sage Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Sir Isaiah’s liberalism is the liberalism of the fox; there is no one big truth on which the liberal. can, let alone on which he must, take his stand. Dignity, happiness and moral equality are all valuable, and only a madman would deny it. But there are many other valuable things in the world for which we can readily imagine ourselves sacrificing any Of these; an individual will sacrifice his or her own happiness for the sake of ’fame or to achieve artistic; success, a nation will sacrifice almost anything for the, Sake or national honor and glory. , The idea that the ends of life are plural, not unitary, is the one big idea that Mr. Gray seizes on as the key to Sir Isaiah’s politics. But it is an idea that presents two large difficulties. The first is that it is not at all clear What it amounts to. It is not news that there are many different goals We might set ourselves -some of us want to be lawyers, some of us would rather play basketball, some of us want ‘to watch “Aida,” some of us would rather listen to the Beatles. To give the thought some bite, we have to add that there is no right answer to the question of which life is the best one for us, individually or generally. This Mr. Gray offers as the basis of what he here and elsewhere calls “agonistic” liberalism: the thought that a free society is a place where individuals and indeed the whole society work out their own particular fates. And his book is an exploration of what that entails. “ 
That leads'to the second large difficulty. An emphasis on' the plurality of the ends of life and on the limited role of reason in deciding among them offers no particular support to liberalism. A benign and 'unaggressive conservatism is at least ' as plausible a political, outcome --as witness British conservatives like David Hume in ,the 18th century and Michael Oakeshott in the 20th. If there 
is no arguing over 'the ends of 1' 1f should we not settle for the cause? 
Sir Isaiah himself has not. 

It can’t be said that he is wholly successful. Indeed, it can’t be said that he sets himself a task at which success is to be expected. In particular, Mr. Gray makes life needlessly hard for himself by exaggerating Sir Isaiah’s nuanced and delicate doubts about some of the ambitions of the Enlightenment into a real hostility to the Enlightenment. For all of Mr. Gray’s own emphasis on the great gulf between Sirlsaiah and the ‘radical anti-Enlightenment, his Berlin sometimes sounds like Nietzsche in a dyspeptic moment. It is, as he himself insists, one thing to acknowledge, as Sir Isaiah does, the exaggerations of rationalism, quite another to embrace irrationalism. There are many routes to liberal conclusions, but the contempt .in which the existentialist, anti-Enlightenment tradition has held all forms of. liberalism‘makes the agonistic route a particularly implausible one. . The difficulties that an intelligent and energetic critic -a friendly critic too, Whose admiration for his subject is only just this side of idolatry -can get himself into 'suggest that it is not an ac-1 cident that Sir Isaiah’s commentators have been few in number and their output slight. It may be that Sir Isaiah’s affinity with the fox goes farther than even Mr. Gray can handle and that Sir Isaiah has chosen to write about politics in his indirect, historical and biographical fashion because he wishes not to be committed to one view of human nature, one view of the nature of liberalism, one view of the problems of the modern world. In which case the attempt to tidy him up will be, at best, an instructive failure. ‘

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