Isaiah Berlin, Alexander Herzen, and the Pursuit of the Ideal


In May and October 2017 the Isaiah Berlin Legacy Project, based at Wolfson College, Oxford, staged an exhibition of Berlin’s papers at JW3, the London Jewish Cultural Centre on the Finchley Road (postcode NW3). Its subject was 'Isaiah Berlin, Alexander Herzen, and the Pursuit of the Ideal'.
    The display accompanied the staging at JW3 of a major exhibition on the ‘Holocaust By Bullets: the uncovering of Nazi massacres in Eastern Europe 1941–4’, and it was meant to illustrate Berlin's intellectual response to the challenge of totalitarian and fundamentalist systems of thought, which had overshadowed his youth. Berlin became one of the foremost liberal philosophers of the 20th century, and his most important work amounts to a defence of liberty; a rebuttal of totalitarianism; and a rejection of any argument that justifies violent means in the pursuit of utopian ends.
    In all of this he drew inspiration from the 19th-century Russian revolutionary thinker, writer and journalist Alexander Herzen. Berlin freely, indeed joyously, acknowledged the debt that he owed to the man to whom he frequently referred as ‘my hero’. He shared Herzen’s belief that the pursuit of the perfect society ‘invariably leads to blood’. And he echoed Herzen’s warning to humanity against this error, which Berlin believed had made the 20th century ‘the most terrible century of any in the history of the Western world’.
    The JW3 exhibition notes were divided into 3 sections: 1) The Making of A Liberal Philosopher, 2) Alexander Herzen, and the Pursuit of the Ideal; 3) Pluralism and Optimism. The text of each section was divided into three parts, and the whole can be read below.  Berlin's article on the Pursuit of the Ideal can be read in full here.

The Making of a Liberal Philosopher

I. Family and Upbringing
Isaiah Berlin (1909–1997), philosopher and historian of ideas, was born on 6 June 1909 in Riga, Latvia, then part of the Russian empire. He was the only child of Mendel Borisovitch Berlin, a prosperous timber merchant, and his wife, (Mussa) Marie, née Volshonok. Isaiah grew up speaking German as well as Russian.  His parents were well-educated moderately-observant Jews. The wider family, though, was devout, and Berlin drew wry pleasure from the fact that Menachem Schneerson, the influential ‘Lubavitcher Rebbe’ of the Hasidic dynasty, was a distant cousin.
    During the First World War the family left Riga to escape the German advance, eventually settling in St Petersburg (then Petrograd). It was there that Isaiah saw the brutality of the Russian Revolution at first hand, witnessing a policeman being attacked in the street by a mob and dragged away, to his presumed death. Isaiah later maintained that his hatred of political violence stemmed from this early experience.

II. Oxford and Beyond
In 1921 Mendel Berlin was able to move his family to England, where he had business interests.  The Berlins settled in Hampstead, and were naturalized in 1929. Isaiah soon learned English, and won scholarships to St Paul's School, and Corpus Christi College, Oxford.
    In autumn 1932 he was elected to a prize fellowship at All Souls, becoming the first Jew to be elected in the college's 500-year history. Isaiah studied philosophy at All Souls, but also wrote a celebrated biography of Karl Marx. Published in 1939, it has never been out of print, and displays the author’s talent as a historian of ideas.
    During the Second World War Isaiah was attached to the British Embassy in Washington. A Liberal Zionist, he worked secretly there to further the cause of a post-war Jewish state. In Washington he extended his large network of social contacts. He made friends easily, kept many of them for life, and once said, revealingly, that ‘only the human landscape matters’.

III. The Public Intellectual and Pluralism
At Oxford and beyond Isaiah gained a reputation as a brilliant conversationalist, and it was joked that his knighthood, in 1957, was for ‘services to conversation’. But it was by talking so widely, and sometimes indiscreetly, that he clarified his ideas. He was a profound, original, and fearless thinker, and as the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford he made a landmark contribution to the debate on political liberty.
    At the heart of Isaiah’s famous 1958 lecture ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ was his doctrine of ‘pluralism’, which he defined as: ‘the conception that there are many different ends that men may seek and still be fully rational […] capable of understanding each other and sympathizing and deriving light from each other’. Pluralism denies that there is a universal set of right principles by which we should live, or any single solution to the moral questions facing humanity. It defends liberal democracy, and refutes totalitarian systems.

Alexander Herzen, and the Pursuit of the Ideal

I. The Worst Century
In November 1992 Isaiah wrote to a young Japanese correspondent, Fumiko Sasaki: ‘I do think our century is about the most horrible there has ever been, if you think of the sufferings, unnecessary brutalities and exterminations that have happened.’
    He had lived in the shadow of the Russian Revolution, and witnessed the rise of the dictators in the 1930s, culminating in the horrors of the Second World War and the Holocaust. The Volschonoks and Schneersons of Riga, including Isaiah’s maternal and paternal grandfathers, perished in the massacres perpetrated there by the Nazis, and Latvian fascists, in November and December 1941.  Isaiah did not learn of their fate until the end of the war.

II. From the Other Shore
In seeking a philosophical answer to totalitarianism Isaiah was aided by the chance discovery, while researching his biography of Karl Marx, of the works of the 19th century Russian revolutionary thinker Alexander Herzen. ‘I went to the London Library and by pure accident stumbled on Herzen […]. I knew there was a bearded sage – nineteenth-century, heavy stuff – and then I saw his name, so out of pure curiosity I took out one volume, and never looked back. He became a central figure in my life.’
    Herzen’s imperious rejection of any attempt to justify violent means in pursuit of utopian ends appealed to Isaiah’s liberal instincts, and he turned again and again to Herzen’s works. They provided him with ‘a general arsenal of intellectual weapons’ in the fight against totalitarianism and fundamentalism.
    Isaiah wrote the Introduction to the 1956 English edition of Herzen’s From the Other Shore, a work that he considered to be of enduring relevance to the 20th century, especially during the era of the Cold War. He readily acknowledged that his approach to Herzen was: ‘permeated by anti-totalitarian, and in particular anti-Communist, feeling’.

III. The Agnelli Prize
In November 1987 Isaiah learned that he was to be the first recipient of the biennial ‘Senator Giovanni Agnelli International Prize for the Ethical Dimension in Advanced Societies’. By recognizing ‘outstanding contributions’ in the field of ethics, the prize sought to strengthen public awareness of ethical problems, and encourage action.
    At the prize-giving ceremony in Turin, on 15 February 1988, Isaiah presented a succinct statement of his ‘general credo’, entitled ‘On the Pursuit of the Ideal’. This drew heavily on the inspiration of Herzen, and was published in the New York Review of Books the following month.
    In ‘The Pursuit of the Ideal’ Isaiah made the case for a pluralist approach to ethics: ‘The notion of the perfect whole, the ultimate solution, in which all good things coexist, seems to me to be not merely unattainable – that is a truism – but conceptually incoherent; I do not know what is meant by a harmony of this kind. Some among the Great Goods cannot live together. That is a conceptual truth. We are doomed to choose, and every choice may entail an irreparable loss.’

Pluralism and Optimism

I. The Dangers of Monism
In January 1991 the Norwegian writer and commentator Lars Roar Langslet met Isaiah in London to discuss the latter’s writings on political thought. The resulting interview was published later that month in the Norwegian daily newspaper Aftenposten as ‘Mennesket lever i kraft av ideologiene’ – ‘Man lives by the power of ideologies’.
    Langslet had considerately sent his questions in advance, and Isaiah’s detailed written response included a clear warning of the dangers of ideological monism – the antithesis of the pluralism in which he himself believed: ‘Whenever men have believed that there was one ultimate solution to all human ills, and have tried to work towards it against all odds, all moral considerations, the result has too often been only the suffering and torture and blood of innocent victims. That is my case against ethical, but above all political, monism and the dream of the perfect life on earth.’

II. A Message to the 21st Century
Despite living through what he regarded as ‘about the most horrible’ century that humanity had known, Isaiah remained optimistic about the future. On 25 November 1994 he accepted the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws at the University of Toronto, and prepared a short statement for the ceremony, which was read on his behalf.
    It is a message of liberalism and optimism, combining a strong argument for the open society with an eloquent restatement of Berlin’s central idea of pluralism: the notion that, because values are by their very nature not always compatible, intelligent compromise will be called for.

III. The Hedgehog and the Fox
Isaiah’s best known work is undoubtedly his 1953 essay on Tolstoy's theory of history, entitled ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox’. The essay develops the idea first put forward by the ancient Greek lyric poet, Archilochus, that ‘the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing’.
    Tolstoy, according to Berlin, was a fox who wished to be a hedgehog, a genius who understood with penetrating insight the complexity and variety of the human condition, but who nevertheless sought in vain for a unifying principle, which alone would lead to salvation.
    Berlin himself is regarded as the archetypal fox, and the range of subjects on which he wrote attests to this – from pure philosophy to political theory, from music and drama to art and literature.
    But in the doctrine of pluralism, arguably his most important contribution to political thought, and to society at large, he appears, albeit fleetingly, in the guise of the hedgehog – who tells us ‘one big thing’.