Friday, November 23, 2012

Humane political thought as it arises from facing the conflict in ourselves (Books - Isaiah Berlin: A Life by Michael Ignatieff)

I had felt enough of the influence of Isaiah Berlin on contemporary political thinkers and writers who I like to read, that I wanted to know who he was.  For this, I turned to Michael Ignatieff's affectionate biography Isaiah Berlin: A Life (Vintage 2000).  Born in Latvia in the early 1900s, living briefly in Russia, and an eventually taking refuge in England, he became more English than the English, rising through the ranks of academia to the level of Oxford don.  He was an intellectual with a powerful gift for talking about ideas. His mature thought brought together history, philosophy, and psychology to consider contemporary politics with complexity and compassion.  He served as a valued advisor to Churchill and John F. Kennedy.

 It is an exile's prerogative to love an adopted home with an absence of irony that is impossible for a native.  Isaiah more or less accepted everything the English liked to believe about themselves: that they were practical, untidy, eccentric, fair-minded, empirical, common-sensical and that ubiquitous word, decent.  He was a version of Englishness frozen in the moment when he first encountered it in the 1920s: the England of Kipling, King George, G. K. Chesterton, the gold standard, the empire, and victory. The long slide into imperial decline and self-doubt lay decades ahead.  Narrow-minded provincialism, philistinism and insularity played no part in his idea of England.  If the English took to him, it was because he offered them back their most self-approving myths.
It is the strength of Ignatieff's concise admiring book that he brings to life what Berlin did in the ephemeral role of public intellectual: the context out of which his thinking was born, and the value it had (and continues to have) to the communities in which he lived: academic, religious-cultural, and political.

Ignatieff sends home the essential humanity of Berlin's thinking more than anything else, bringing him to life in these pages as a man who thought.  For instance, he drew strong parallels between Berlin's love of music and the way he structured his thought.
Musical and moral qualities were never entirely distinct in his mind.  It was for both moral and musical reasons that Toscanini became Berlin's abiding artistic hero: the Toscanini who demanded a personal apology from Mussolini, for his treatment at the hands of fascist thugs, was inseparable from the implacable disciplinarian who could take an orchestra through three bars countless times in search of a fugitive perfection that only he could hear...

There is a strong analogy between what Berlin learned from Toscanini and what he was to learn from Bertrand Russell: that artists and thinkers of greatness have core ideas, which, however complex the adumbration and defences of it may be, is always simple.  Once found, it unlocked the nature of a work.  Berlins work as an interpreter of intellectual figures of the past was always sought to reveal a thinker's essential melodic line.  He also admired Toscanini's artistic modesty, his respect for composers' intentions.  'When he said the least good composer is higher than the best conductor, he mean it.'  Berline too always presented his own insights as if they were merely adumbrating the melodic lines of intellectual composers greater than himself.
Ignatieff stresses how the struggles and paradoxes of the human begin Berlin gave rise to his value as a political thinker.  On the one had, he possessed tremendous self-doubt and was unable to find romantic fulfillment until late middle age.  On the other, he served an influential role for Britain during the Second World War, interacted with the Kennedys, Boris Pasternak and Virginia Woolf.  His friendship with the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova is touchingly rendered by Ignatieff.  Their meeting had an indelible influence on Berlin's belief's regarding liberty in a political context.

Ignatieff's book sends home that Berlin's contribution to 20th century political thought was in communicating the value of ideas not as fleshless abstract things but
as what human beings lived for and by... 'they are indeed the central complex of relations of a man towards himself and to the external world.'
Berlin came to see internal conflict not as a sign of weakness but as a manifestation of humanity.
...the self was torn by competing impulses; the ends and goals that human beings pursued were in conflict.  Berlin made human dividedness, both inner and outer, the very rationale for liberal polity.  A free society was a good society because it accepted the conflict among human goods and maintained, through its democratic institutions, the forum in which this conflict could be managed peacefully. 
Berlin's mature work merged history, philosophy, politics, and psychology.  I can imagine that today he would probably fold in a little neuroscience.  Berlin didn't merely truck in ideas, he looked at the human being who forms and lives out of them, and the multiple contexts in which he must experience their consequences.  People live publicly and privately, in the political sphere and the cultural one.
All serious political choice involved loss, not merely trade-offs or compromises but genuine sacrifice of desirable ends: so much liberty sacrificed for so much equality or justice sacrificed for the sake of mercy, and so on.  "If, as I believe, the ends of men are many, and not all of them are in principle compatible with each other, then the possibility of conflict - and of tragedy - can never wholly be eliminated from human life, either personal or social.'  Loss was inevitable, because values were in conflict and because human reason was incorrigibly imperfect.  Reason could clarify the facts, but choice itself was an act of will, instinct and emotion and as such a gamble made in the dark.
After an endless political race in my country that concluded just a few weeks ago, and which reeked of intolerable over-simplicity, a fear of ideas, and an unwillingness to ask anyone to make sacrifices for others, this book was a welcome antidote.  What a relief to read about a political thinker so humane, flawed, and clear-headed.

1 comment:

C.B. James said...

Wonderful review. Isaiah Berlin is a name I'm sure I've heard before but can't quite place. You probably know the feeling. Now I can place him a little better.