A Sense of Reality

A Sense of Reality

by Isaiah Berlin
A New York Times Notable Book of the Year

Isaiah Berlin's The Sense of Reality contains an important body of previously unknown work by one of our century's leading historians of ideas, and one of the finest essayists writing in English. Eight of the nine pieces included here are published for the first time, and their range is characteristically


A New York Times Notable Book of the Year

Isaiah Berlin's The Sense of Reality contains an important body of previously unknown work by one of our century's leading historians of ideas, and one of the finest essayists writing in English. Eight of the nine pieces included here are published for the first time, and their range is characteristically wide: the subjects explored include realism in history; judgement in politics; the history of socialism; the nature and impact of Marxism; the radical cultural revolution instigated by the Romantics; Russian notions of artistic commitment; and the origins and practice of nationalism. The title essay, starting from the impossibility of historians being able to recreate a bygone epoch, is a superb centerpiece.

Editorial Reviews

Scott McLemee
There is a fragment by the ancient Greek writer Archilochus that reads: 'The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.' Much of his surviving work is fairly obscene -- and so, I would prefer to think, was this cryptic sentence, in its original context. But in the hands of Isaiah Berlin, the verse has become a somewhat famous way of sorting influential thinkers and artists into two large bins. Those displaying one grand passion are hedgehogs -- for instance, Proust, playing variations on time and memory -- while the foxes, like Aristotle or Shakespeare, dart with energy and grace over a much wider territory.

Push it too hard, and the distinction turns to mush. Still, it is useful. And on first inspection, Berlin himself looks very foxy indeed. Most scholars are happy in their little burrows, but not Sir Isaiah. His writings have included studies of Machiavelli, the Enlightenment, 19th-century Russian culture, Karl Marx and his progeny and lots else besides. Berlin's essays have made him the intellectual historian most read by people who do not spend a lot of time reading intellectual history. The scope of his work is driven not by cerebral wanderlust, but by a passionate concern to explain, and to defend, the philosophical sources of liberalism, in the fullest sense of that much-abused term.

The articles and lectures assembled in his latest book return constantly to the problems of freedom, the rise of nationalism and the various challenges to liberal ideology from the right and the left.The Sense of Reality is, in effect, the quintessential Berlin. Why, then, is it so disappointing? Berlin's ruminations on pluralism, social engineering and government repression read like dull paraphrases of his earlier work. One of the best pieces -- a study of conflicting attitudes held by Russian intellectuals toward the social role of art, serves chiefly as a reminder of how good Russian Thinkers (1978) really was.

'Nothing can compare with the experience of being made aware of the characteristics of the most intimate instruments with which one thinks and feels,' Berlin says in the title piece. Exactly! And in his best work, he supplies a penetrating reminder of the sources of 'the innermost terms, the most deeply ingrained categories with which, and not about which, one thinks.' But not all of Berlin's work is so illuminating. He has off days, like the rest of us. Several more volumes of scattered materials are, no doubt, in the pipeline. That now appears a somewhat worrisome prospect. -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Berlin is a philosopher of history as well as a historian of ideas, and these nine engaging, previously unpublished essays, broadcasts, talks and lectures written or delivered between 1950 and 1972 confirm the noted Oxford scholar's breadth of vision, humanistic outlook and enormous erudition worn lightly. Deeply skeptical of system-builders of all types, whether Marxists, metaphysicians, Darwinians, positivists or scientists, he regards "-isms" as traps that all ages invent. "Political Judgment," an inquiry into what makes a politician wise or gifted, bristles with practical intelligence. In his boldest essay, "The Romantic Revolution," he argues that 18th-century romanticism, with its emphasis on subjectivity and the inner life, had a transforming effect on ethics, politics and aesthetics: Beethoven's music finds its counterpart in the worship of political individualism exemplified by Napoleon. Berlin finds much to admire in Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore's double-edged critique of colonialism, on the one hand, and in Indians' chauvinist nationalism, on the other. Overall, these essays brilliantly subject to the microscope the ever-lurking forces of irrationalism, doctrinaire ideology, prejudice and amoralism, forces that Berlin dubs the Counter-Enlightenment. (May)
Library Journal
Berlin was the leading historian of Western ideas in the post-World War II period until his recent death. His essays and interviews have now been published in several volumes. In this representative volume, Berlin traces the rise and fall of Fascist and Communist utopian thinking since the beginning of the 19th century. (LJ 5/1/97) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Originally published in 1996 by Chatto & Windus, Ltd., London, England. Throughout his life, Berlin was concerned with such overarching ideas as the nature and significance of history, and the similarities between the qualities of writers and those of historians and statesmen. These concerns are reflected in a collection of nine essays drawn from Berlin's previously unpublished work. Topics include the momentous repercussions of the emergence of romanticism, the difficulties of constructing a systematic theory of history, and the roles of Immanuel Kant and Rabindranath Tagore in the growth of nationalism. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Bryan Appleyard
[A] contemporary master. . .profoundly moving and human. . .[This is] the true Berlinian voice -- vehement and humane. -- The Sunday Times(London)
Kirkus Reviews
More of a motley in scope than previous selections of his essays (The Crooked Timber of Humanity, 1991, etc.), this collection nonetheless displays Berlin's superb erudition and always stimulating insights.

Berlin's career has spanned the century: He witnessed the 1917 revolution in Petrograd, has had diplomatic postings in Washington and Moscow, and has headed Oxford's Wolfson College, the British Academy, and the Royal Opera. His activities have generated a variety of occasional work—lectures, conference papers, radio programs, etc.—from which this collection has been assembled. All of the pieces are distinguished by his informed fascination with the history of ideas. He returns to one of his favorite topics, the impact of Marxism on Russian thinkers. Tolstoy, Turgenev, and the earlier critic Belinsky are considered together in "Artistic Commitment: A Russian Legacy," an exploration of the aesthetic-utilitarian debate in Russian history. "Marxism and the International in the Nineteenth Century," a lecture given on the First International's centenary, is not only an excellent blow-by-blow account of Marx's dealings with the organization, but a superlative gloss on Marxism as action and theory. The collection's wildest card, an essay on the Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, manages to be both an excellent summary of Berlin's ideas on nationalism—its attractions and its discontents—and an appreciation of the underrated pragmatism of the mystic poet. Elsewhere, Berlin dilates magisterially on the links between nationalism and Romanticism and the nuances of political judgment. The two stand-outs, however, are markedly different: In almost Jamesian prose, "The Sense of Reality" and "Philosophy and Government Oppression" come as close to a personal philosophy of history and intellectual freedom as anything Berlin has written.

Penetrating work from the old fox of liberalism, as brilliant in rethinking the past as in recreating its thought.

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Chapter One


When men, as occasionally happens, develop a distaste for the age in which they live, and love and admire some past period with such uncritical devotion that it is clear that, if they had their choice, they would wish to be alive then and not now — and when, as the next step, they seek to introduce into their lives certain of the habits and practices of the idealised past, and criticise the present for falling short of, or for degeneration from, this past — we tend to accuse them of nostalgic `escapism', romantic antiquarianism, lack of realism; we dismiss their efforts as attempts to `turn the clock back', to `ignore the forces of history', or `fly in the face of the facts', at best touching and childish and pathetic, at worst `retrograde', or `obstructive', or insanely `fanatical', and, although doomed to failure in the end, capable of creating gratuitous obstacles to progress in the immediate present and future.

This kind of charge is made, and apparently understood, easily. It goes with such notions as the `logic of the facts', or the `march of history', which, like the laws of nature (with which they are partly identified), are thought of as, in some sense, `inexorable', likely to take their course whatever human beings may wish or pray for, an inevitable process to which individuals must adjust themselves, for if they defy it they will perish; which, like the Fates in the line by Seneca, `ducunt volentem ... nolentem trahunt'. And yet this way of thinking seems to presuppose a machinery in the universe which those who think in these terms do notnecessarily accept, which indeed they may, if they are students of history rather than metaphysics, seek to refute by means of negative instances drawn from their own and others' experience. Nevertheless, even those who try to rebut this way of thinking find that they cannot altogether abandon the concepts in question because they seem to correspond to something in their view of how things happen, although they do not, perhaps, believe in the machinery of determinism which is normally held to be the source of them.

Let me try to make this somewhat clearer. Everyone, no doubt, believes that there are factors that are largely or wholly beyond conscious human control. And when we describe this or that scheme as impractical or Utopian we often mean that it cannot be realised in the face of such uncontrollable facts or processes. These are of many kinds: regions of nature with which we cannot interfere, for example the solar system or the general realm dealt with by astronomy; there we can alter neither the state of the entities in question nor the laws which they obey. As for the rest of the physical world, dealt with by the various natural sciences, we conceive of the laws which govern them as unalterable by us, but claim to be able to intervene to some degree in altering the states of things and persons which obey these laws. Some believe such interventions are themselves subject to laws: that we ourselves are wholly determined by our past; that our behaviour is in principle wholly calculable; and that our `freedom' in interfering with natural processes is therefore illusory. Others deny this in whole or in part, but that does not concern us here, since both sides are willing to grant that large portions of our universe, particularly its inanimate portion, is as it is and suffers what it does whether we will it or no.

When we examine the world of sentient beings, some portions of it are certainly thought to be governed by `necessity'. There are, to begin with, the effects of the interplay of human beings with nature — their own bodies and what is external to them. The assumption is made that there are certain basic human needs, for food, for shelter, the minimum means by which life can be carried on, perhaps for certain forms of pleasure or self-expression, communication; that these are affected by such relatively fixed phenomena as climate, geographical formation and the products of a natural environment, which take the form of economic, social, religious institutions, and so on, each of which is the combined effect of physical, biological, psychological, geographical factors, and so forth, and in which certain uniformities can be discovered, in terms of which patterns are observable in the lives of both individuals and societies — cyclical patterns of the kind discussed by Plato or Polybius, or non-recurrent ones, as in the sacred works of the Jews, the Christians, and perhaps Pythagoreans and Orphics, the patterns and chains of being which are to be found in various Eastern religions and philosophies, and in modern days in the cosmologies of such writers as Vico, Hegel, Comte, Buckle, Marx, Pareto, and a good many contemporary social psychologists and anthropologists and philosophers of history. These tend to treat human institutions as not proceeding solely from conscious human purposes or desires; but having made due allowance for such conscious purposes, whether on the part of those who found or those who use and participate in institutions, they stress unconscious or semi-conscious causes on the part of both individuals and groups, and, even more, the by-products of the encounters of the uncoordinated purposes of various human beings, each acting as he does partly for coherent and articulate motives, partly for causes or reasons little known to himself or to others, and thereby causing states of affairs which nobody may have intended as such, but which in their turn condition the lives and characters and actions of men.

On this view, if we consider how much is independent of conscious human policies — the entire realm of insentient nature, the sciences of which take no heed of human issues; and such human sciences as psychology and sociology, which assume some kind of basic human reactions and uniformities of behaviour, both social and individual, as unlikely to be altered radically by the fiats of individuals — if all this is taken into account, a picture emerges of a universe the behaviour of which is in principle largely calculable. Naturally we tend to come under the influence of this picture, to think of history as growing in inevitable stages, in an irreversible direction, ideally, at least, describable as instances of the totality of the laws which between them describe and summarise the natural uniformities in terms of which we conceive of the behaviour of both things and persons. The life of the fourteenth century was as it was because it was a `stage' reached by the interplay of human and non-human factors — its institutions were those which human needs, half consciously and half quite unawares, caused to come about or to survive, and because the individual and institutional life of the fourteenth century was as it was, the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries could not but be as they were, and could not resemble, say, the third or the ninth or the thirteenth century, because the fourteenth century had made that quite `impossible'. We may not know what the laws are which social evolution obeys, nor the precise causal factors which function between the life of the individual and that of the `social anthill' to which it belongs, but we may be sure that there are such laws and factors. We realise that this is so if we ask ourselves whether we think that history explains anything, that is, that any light is thrown upon the fifteenth century by what occurred in the fourteenth, in the sense that if we grasp the historical links we shall understand what made the fifteenth century what it was. To grasp this is to see what it is that makes it absurd to suggest that everything in the fifteenth century might have been an exact reproduction of what occurred in the thirteenth century — as if the fourteenth century had never been. And from this there appears to follow that cluster of concepts with which we began. There is a pattern and it has direction; it is not necessarily `progressive', that is, we need not believe that we are gradually approaching some `desirable' goal, however we define desirable; but we are pursuing a definite and irreversible direction; nostalgia for some past stage of it is eo ipso Utopian; for it is like asking for the reversal of the nexus of causes and effects. We may admire the past, but to try to reproduce it is to ignore this nexus. The oak cannot return to the condition of the acorn; an old man cannot, as it were, unlive what he has lived through and literally be young once more, with the body as well as the heart and mind of youth. Romantic hankerings after past ages are virtually a desire to undo the `inexorable' logic of events. If it were possible to reproduce past conditions, historical causality would be broken, which, since we cannot help thinking in terms of it, is psychologically impossible as well as irrational and absurd.

We may be told that such expressions as `anachronism' are surely themselves sufficient to convey this truth: to describe somebody or something as an anachronism is to say that he or it is not characteristic of the general pattern of the age. We do not need much argument to convince us that there is something gravely deficient in a historian who thinks that Richelieu could have done what he did just as well in the 1950s, or that Shakespeare could have written the plays which he wrote in Ancient Rome, or Outer Mongolia. And this sense of what belongs where, of what cannot have happened as against that which could, is said to imply the notion of an irreversible process, where everything belongs to the stage to which it does and is `out of place' or `out of time' if mistakenly inserted in the wrong context.

So far so good. We are committed to no more than that there are some criteria of reality — that we have some methods for distinguishing the real from the illusory, real mountain peaks from cloud formations, real palms and springs from mirages in the desert, real characteristics of an age or a culture from fanciful reconstructions, real alternatives which can be realised at a given time from alternatives realisable, it may be, in other places and at other times, but not in the society or period in question. It is in terms of some such principle that various historical theorists stake out their claims. Asked why Shakespeare could not have written Hamlet in Ancient Rome, Hegelians would speak of the Graeco-Roman spirit, with which such thoughts, feelings and words as Shakespeare's were not compatible. Marxists might refer to `relationships' and `forces' of production, which in Rome were such as to have `inevitably' generated a cultural superstructure in which Virgil could function, and Shakespeare could not have functioned, as he did. Montesquieu would have spoken of geography, climates, the `dominant spirit' of different social systems; Chateaubriand of the difference made by Christianity, Gobineau of race; Herder, the folk spirit; Taine — race, milieu, the moment; Spengler, the self-contained `morphology' of mutually exclusive cultures and civilisations; and so forth. To be Utopian, to perpetrate anachronisms, to be unrealistic, `escapist', not to understand history or life or the world, is to fail to grasp a particular set of laws and formulae which each school offers as the key to its explanation of why what happens must happen as it does and not in some other order. What is common to all the schools is a belief that there is an order and a key to its understanding, a plan — either a geometry or a geography of events. Those who understand it are wise, those who do not, wander in darkness.

And yet there is something peculiar about this, both in theory and in practice. In theory, because no attempt to provide such a `key' in history has worked thus far. No doubt much valuable light has been thrown upon past conditions by emphasis on hitherto neglected factors: before Montesquieu and Vico, the importance of customs and institutions, of language, grammar, mythology, legal systems; of the influence of environmental and other undramatic, continuous causal factors in explaining why men behaved as they did, and indeed as an instrument for revealing how the world looked to men relatively remote in time or space, what they felt and said, and why and how, and for how long and with what effect — all this was largely unrecognised. Marx taught us to pay more attention to the influence of the economic and social condition of individuals; Herder and Hegel to the interrelations of apparently diverse cultural phenomena and to the life of institutions; Durkheim to unintended social patterns; Freud to the importance of irrational and unconscious factors in individual experience; Sorel and Jung to the importance of irrational myths and collective emotional attitudes in the behaviour of societies. We have learned a great deal; our perspective has altered; we see men and societies from new angles, in different lights. The discoveries which have led to this are genuine discoveries and historical writing has been transformed by them.

But the `key' escapes us. We can neither, as in astronomy or even geology, given initial conditions, confidently reconstruct — calculate either the past or the future of a culture, of a society or class, of an individual or a group — save in instances so rare and abnormal, with such gaps, with the assistance of so many ad hoc hypotheses and epicycles, that direct observation is more economical and more informative than such attempts at scientific inference. If we ask ourselves how much we really can tell about a given period in a culture or a given pattern of human action — a war, a revolution, a renaissance of art or science — from knowledge of even its immediate antecedents or consequences, we must surely answer: scarcely anything at all. No historian, however steeped in sociology or psychology or some metaphysical theory, will attempt to write history in so a priori a fashion. When Hegel attempted this, with the courage of his anti-empirical prejudices, the result was seen as somewhat erroneous even by his followers; so too Spengler, when he insists that the streets of Greek cities were straight and crossed each other at right angles because of the geometrical spirit of the Greeks, is easily shown to be writing rubbish. The theorists of history certainly supposed that they were providing historians with wings enabling them to span great territories rapidly, as compared with the slow pedestrian rate of the empirical fact-gatherer; but although the wings have been with us now for more than a century, nobody has, as yet, flown; those who, as Henri Poincare remarked in an analogous connection, tried to do so came to a sorry end. The attempts to substitute machines, methods of mass production, for the slow manual labour of antiquaries and historical researchers have all broken down; we still rely on those who spend their lives in painfully piecing together their knowledge from fragments of actual evidence, obeying this evidence wherever it leads them, however tortuous and unfamiliar the pattern, or with no consciousness of any pattern at all. Meanwhile the wings and the machinery are gathering dust on the shelves of museums, examples of overweening ambition and idle fantasy, not of intellectual achievement.

The great system-builders have in their works both expressed and influenced human attitudes towards the world — the light in which events are seen. Metaphysical, religious, scientific systems and attitudes have altered the distribution of emphasis, the sense of what is important or significant or admirable, or again of what is remote or barbarous or trivial — have profoundly affected human concepts and categories, the eyes with which men see or feel and understand the world, the spectacles through which they look — but they have not done the work of a science as they claimed, have not revealed new facts, increased the sum of our information, disclosed unsuspected events. Our belief that events and persons and things belong where they belong inevitably, inexorably, and per contra our sense of Utopia and anachronism, remain as strong as ever; but our belief in specific laws of history, of which we can formulate the science, is not too confident — if their behaviour whether as historians or as men of action is any evidence — even among the minority of those who pursue such topics. It is unlikely, therefore, that the first springs from the second; that our disbelief in the possibility of `a return to the past' rests on a fear of contradicting some given law or laws of history. For while our attitude towards the existence of such laws is more than doubtful, our belief in the absurdity of romantic efforts at recapturing past glories is exceedingly strong. The latter cannot, therefore, depend upon the former. What, then, is the content of our notion of the inevitable `march of history', of the folly of trying to resist what we call irresistible?

Impressed (and to some degree oppressed) by true considerations about the limits of free human action — the barriers imposed by unalterable and little alterable regularities in nature, in the functioning of human bodies and minds — the majority of eighteenth-century thinkers and, following them, enlightened opinion in the last century, and to some degree in our own, conceived the possibility of a true empirical science of history which, even if it never became sufficiently precise to enable us to make predictions or retrodictions in specific situations, nevertheless, by dealing with great numbers, and relying on comparisons of rich statistical data, would indicate the general direction of, say, social and technological development, and enable us to rule out some plans, revolutionary and reformist, as demonstrably anachronistic and therefore Utopian — as not conforming to the `objective' direction of social development. If anyone in the nineteenth century contemplated seriously a return to pre-Raphaelite forms of life it was unnecessary to discuss whether this was or was not desirable; it was surely enough to say that the Renaissance and the Reformation and the Industrial Revolution had in fact occurred, that factories could not be dismantled and great mass industries turned back into small-scale crafts, as if the discoveries and inventions and changes in forms of life which these had brought about had never been, that there had been advance in knowledge and civilisation, in the means of production and distribution, and that whatever might occur next, it was beyond the wit and strength of man to deflect a process which was as uncontrollable as the great uniformities of nature. Opinions might differ as to what the true laws of this process were, but all were agreed that there were such laws, and that to try to alter them or behave as if they were not decisive was an absurd day-dream, a childish desire to substitute for the laws of science those of some whimsical fairy-tale in which everything is possible.

It was true that the great men who had first achieved the triumph of this new scientific attitude — the anti-clerical philosophers and scientists of the late seventeenth century and the eighteenth century — had over-simplified things. They evidently supposed that men were to be analysed as material objects in space and that their lives and thoughts were in principle deducible from the mechanical laws which governed the behaviour of their bodies. This the nineteenth century felt to be too crude a view, and it was condemned as `mechanistic' by the German metaphysicians, as `vulgar materialism' by the Marxists, as non-evolutionary and insufficiently `organic' by Darwinians and positivists. Such mechanical laws might account for that which is largely unaltered throughout recorded human history — the permanent chemical, physical, biological and physiological consequences of cause and effect, or functional (or statistical) interrelations, or whatever was the central category of these sciences. But history did not consist of mere short-term repetitions: development occurred; a principle was wanted to account for continuous change and not merely for `static' difference. The thinkers of the eighteenth century had been too deeply infatuated by Newton's mechanical model, which explained the realm of nature but not that of history. Something was needed to discover historical laws, but — as the laws of biology had differed from the laws of chemistry, not merely in applying to a different subject-matter but in being in principle other kinds of laws, so history — for Hegel the evolution of the spirit, for Saint-Simon or Marx the development of social relations, for Spengler or Toynbee (the last voices of the nineteenth century) the development of cultures, less or more isolable ways of life — obeyed laws of its own; laws which took account of the specific behaviour of nations or classes or social groups and of individuals which belonged to them, without reducing these (or believing that they should or could be reduced) to the behaviour of particles of matter in space, which was represented, justly or not, as the eighteenth-century — mechanistic — ideal of all explanation.

To understand how to live and act, whether in private or in public life, was to grasp these laws and use them for one's purposes. The Hegelians believed that this was achieved by a species of rational intuition; Marxists, Comtists and Darwinians, by scientific investigation; Schelling and his romantic followers, by inspired `vitalistic' and `mythopoeic' insight, by the illumination of artistic genius; and so on. All these schools believed that human society grew in a discoverable direction, governed by laws; that the borderline which divided science from Utopia, effectiveness from ineffectiveness in every sphere of life, was discoverable by reason and observation and could be plotted less or more precisely; that, in short, there was a clock, its movement followed discoverable rules, and it could not be put back.

These beliefs were rudely shaken by the evidence of the twentieth century. The notions, the ideas and forms of life which were considered to be inalienable from, `organically' necessary to, the particular stage of historical evolution reached by mankind were broken or twisted out of recognition by new and violent leaders: Lenin, Stalin, Hitler. It is true that these acted as they did in the name of their own historical or pseudo-historical theories, the Communists in the name of dialectical materialism, Hitler in the name of racial hegemonism. But there was no doubt that they achieved what had hitherto been regarded as virtually impossible, contrary to the laws of advancing civilisation — a breach of the inexorable laws of human history. It became clear that men of sufficient energy and ruthlessness could collect a sufficient degree of material power to transform their worlds much more radically than had been thought possible before — that if one genuinely rejected those moral, political, legal concepts which were regarded as firm, as much elements of their own historical phase as its material arrangements, and if, moreover, one did not shrink from killing millions of human beings, against accepted beliefs as to what was feasible, against what was thought right by the majority in one's own time, then greater changes could be introduced than the `laws' allowed for. Human beings and their institutions turned out to be much more malleable, far less resistant, the laws turned out to be far more elastic, than the earlier doctrinaires had taught us to believe. There was talk of a relapse into — a deliberate return to — barbarism, which according to the earlier revolutionary theories was not merely regrettable but wellnigh impossible.

It was a truth to the reception of which there was every kind of resistance. Thus when in Russia a regime openly and boldly exterminated many of the achievements of Western civilisation — both in the arts and, to some degree, in the sciences, certainly in politics and morals — on the ground that these belonged to the ideology of a minority condemned by history to destruction, this holocaust had to be represented, not as the reversal which it was, but as the continuation of a revolutionary leap forward of this very civilisation in the direction in which it had been proceeding previously, although in fact (unlike the great French Revolution) what occurred represented an almost total change of direction. This could not be stated, because the doctrines in the name of which the revolution was carried out — and which, ironically enough, the revolution did so much to expose and discredit — were too strongly ingrained as official radical shibboleths to which lip-service was still paid. Hitler, with a better understanding of what he was doing, proclaimed that he was indeed returning to an ancient past, and seeking to undo the effects of the Enlightenment and of 1789; and, although his plan was regarded as a mad dream, a sadistic neomedieval fantasy which could not be realised in the twentieth century, and largely discounted accordingly by liberals, conservatives and Marxists alike, who shall now say that he totally failed? He ruled for only a dozen years, and in the course of them transformed the outlook and structure of life of his subjects beyond the expectations of the wildest historical and political thinkers of Western (and Eastern) Europe; if he lost in the end, he lost by so narrow a margin that it does not need an eccentric imagination to conceive that he might have won, and that the consequences of his victory would have finally reduced to nonsense the doctrines according to which his rise and his victories were demonstrably impossible.

In 1944 a plan was submitted at the Quebec Conference by Henry Morgenthau, US Secretary of the Treasury, whereby German industries were to be dismantled and the entire country turned back to pasture. It was a plan which could scarcely be taken seriously, although Roosevelt is said — I do not know how reliably — to have briefly inclined towards it. Nevertheless, those who were horrified by it and resisted it conceded that it was practicable. Yet the very notion that some such plan could be put into operation would have struck most historians, philosophers, statesmen, most intelligent men in the late nineteenth century — say at any time before 1914 — as wildly Utopian. To this degree Lenin, Hitler and Stalin and their minor followers elsewhere, by their acts rather than their precepts, demonstrated the truth, horrifying to some, comforting to others, that human beings are a good deal more plastic than was hitherto thought, that given enough will-power, fanaticism, determination — and no doubt a favourable conjunction of circumstances — almost anything, at any rate far more than was hitherto thought possible, can be altered.

The banisters upon which the system-builders of the nineteenth century have taught us to lean have proved unequal to the pressure that was put upon them. The techniques of modern civilisation, so far from guaranteeing us against lapses into the past or violent lunges in unpredictable directions, have proved the most effective weapons in the hands of those who wish to change human beings by playing on irrational impulses and defying the framework of civilised life according to some arbitrary pattern of their own. It became a question of where revolutionaries were prepared to stop — a moral more than a psychological question — since the resistance of habit, tradition, 'inexorable' technological progress collapses easily before sufficient and determined assaults. Efforts were made to prove that these assaults themselves followed a pattern, that whether they came from the right or the left, they too — the advances of totalitarianism — were inevitable, as progress towards individual liberty had once been proclaimed to be. But such analyses lacked the old superb conviction of those nineteenth-century prophets and seers who thought that they really had, at last, solved the riddle of history, and once and for all; it became all too clear that these were mere half-hearted, dispirited efforts to peer into a crystal ball, so suddenly once again covered with the mist of uncertainty after the lucid mirage of two centuries in which the rays of science were alleged to have pierced through the night of historical ignorance. Now, once more, it was only a movement of shadows, indeterminate and unsubstantial, describable only in terms of approximations, inspired guesswork, short-term conclusions from local phenomena, liable to be upset by too many unknown and apparently unknowable factors.

The obverse side of this was, of course, an increased belief in the efficacy of individual initiative — the notion that every situation was more fluid than had been supposed in more tranquil times — which pleased those who found the scientific and determinist picture or the Hegelian teleology too cut and dried, too stifling, too unpromising of novelty; too narrow for the assertion of revolutionary energies, for the testing of violent new sensations; and terrified those who seek order, tranquillity, dependable values, moral and physical security, a world in which the margin of error is calculable, the limits of change are discoverable, and cataclysms are due to natural causes only — and these in principle predictable with the advance of scientific knowledge. The social world certainly seems more disturbing, fuller of undiscovered perils, than hitherto; but then it would follow that there is a career more open to talents, provided they are audacious, powerful and ruthless enough.

Under these circumstances, it may be asked, why cannot we reproduce, let us say, the conditions of the fourteenth century, if we should wish to do so? True, it is not easy to upset the arrangements of the twentieth century and replace them by something so widely different; not easy, but surely not literally impossible? If Hitler, if Stalin, could transform their societies, and affect the world to so vast a degree in so short a time; if Germany could have been `pastoralised'; if all the warning voices about how easy it would be to end human civilisation by this or that destructive weapon, how precarious the whole establishment is, are telling the truth; then surely there is a field for creative no less than for destructive capacities? If things are less fixed than they seemed, do not such terms as `anachronism', the `logic of the facts' and the rest begin to lose their force? If we can, given the opportunity, operate more freely than we once believed that we could, what does divide Utopian from realistic planning? If we really believe that the life of the fourteenth century is preferable to that of the twentieth, then, if we are resolute enough and have enough material resources, and there are enough of us, and we do not hesitate to commit all that resists us to the flames, why cannot we `return to the past'? The laws of nature do not prevent us, for they have not altered in the last six centuries. What then is it that stops us — stops, say, neomedieval fanatics from working their will? For there is no doubt that something does do so, that even the most extreme among them scarcely believe that they could literally reproduce some past golden age, Merrie England, the Old South, or the world of le vert galant, in the sense in which Communist or Fascist fanatics believe that they can cause the world to go through a transformation no less violent — to divert it, as it were, from its previous path by at least as sharp an angle.

Let us try to imagine what such a return to the past would entail. Supposing a man did get into his head to re-establish the conditions of his favourite time and place — to recreate them as closely as he could — what steps would he take? To begin with he would have to acquaint himself as minutely as he could with the former life which he wished to re-establish. He must suppose himself to know something about the form of life in question to have fallen so deeply in love with it. Whether his knowledge is real or delusive is for the moment not relevant. Let us assume that he is more than a sentimental enthusiast, that he is a profound student of history and the social sciences; he will then know that, in order to attain to a certain form of life, more must be done than to wear certain types of clothes, eat certain types of food, reorganise our social lives in accordance with certain sorts of patterns, or possess certain religious beliefs. We will not succeed in doing this, but merely go through our parts like actors on a stage, unless the bases of such life, economic, social, linguistic, perhaps geographical and ecological as well, are appropriate, that is, of such a kind as to make his ideal society possible and, indeed, natural and normal. Undaunted he sets about — let us assume him to be, if not omnipotent, at any rate in control of very powerful material resources, and to have to deal with singularly impressionable and docile human beings — he sets about to transform all the required natural and artificial conditions accordingly. If he is fanatical enough and isolates his society sufficiently from contact with the outer world (or, alternatively, if his experiment is world-wide in extent), he may at any rate in theory succeed to some degree. Human lives are radically alterable, human beings can be re-educated and conditioned and turned topsy-turvy — that is the principal lesson of the violent times in which we live. In addition to vast material resources and extraordinary skill in using these, he must also have an astonishing knowledge about the age which he is seeking to reproduce and the causes and factors which made it what it was. But let us assume that he has these too, and understands London in the fourteenth century, let us say, or Florence in the fifteenth, as no one has ever known it before. He will know it better certainly than its own inhabitants could have known it; for they took too much for granted, too much seemed so normal and habitual to them, so that they could not, however self-conscious the most analytical and critical of them may have been, notice the climate, the network of habits and thoughts and feelings in which they lived, in the way in which an outside observer, able to compare it with phenomena sufficiently unlike it to emphasise its peculiarities, can do. Nevertheless, it is clear that however skilful, minute, fanatically thorough such a reconstruction were, it would fail in its principal objective — the literal recreation of some past culture. And that not at all for the most obvious causes — because one's knowledge is liable to error, because one is looking at the golden age from some later vantage-point, different from that from which the Londoners in the fourteenth or Florentines in the fifteenth could possibly view themselves and others — for even if the creator of this world may himself be debarred from observing things from two points of view at once, yet he can skilfully and consciously, using the methods pilloried by Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, at any rate manufacture human beings whose viewpoint is transformed in the requisite fashion — nor, again, because of the many obvious practical difficulties in the realisation of so eccentric a scheme: all these could, at least in theory, be disposed of. Nevertheless, however triumphantly these are overcome, the result will always seem curiously artificial — a skilful forgery, a piece of synthetic antiquarianism grafted on inescapably contemporary foundations.

It seems clear that in trying to acquire knowledge about the world, external or internal, physical or mental, we inevitably notice and describe only certain characteristics of it — those which are, as it were, public, which attract attention to themselves because of some specific interest which we have in investigating them, because of our practical needs or theoretical interests: aspects of the world in terms of which communication between men takes place; characteristics which may be misunderstood or misdescribed, knowledge of which is in some degree important, that is, makes a difference to our activity, whether designed for use or pleasure; interested or disinterested objects of action or thought or feeling or contemplation. And we feel that we progress in knowledge as we discover unfamiliar facts and relationships, particularly when these turn out to be relevant to our principal purposes, to survival and all the means thereto, to our happiness or the satisfaction of the many diverse and conflicting needs for the sake of which human beings do what they do and are as they are.

What is left out of such investigations is what is too obvious to need mentioning. If we are anthropologists, and describe human habits or beliefs, we regard as worthy of notice and report those respects in which other tribes differ from us, or those in which they resemble us unexpectedly because their many differences might make us think otherwise. We do not record the obvious: for example the fact that the natives of Polynesia prefer being warm to being cold, or dislike hunger or physical pain; it is too tedious to record this. We take it for granted, quite naturally and justifiably, that if these natives are human beings, this will be true of them as it is of us, and of all the other human beings we have heard of — it is one of the components of normality. Neither do we report that the heads of these Polynesians are three-dimensional and that they have space behind and in front of them — this too almost follows from the definitions of these terms and must be taken for granted.

Chapter one continues

Meet the Author

Sir Isaiah Berlin was born in Riga, Latvia, in 1909 and immigrated to England in 1921. Berlin's achievement as a historian and exponent of ideas earned him the Erasmus, Lippincott, and Agnelli Prizes. He also received the Jerusalem Prize for his lifelong defense of civil liberties. A Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, he was the author of ten other books. Sir Isaiah died in Oxford in November 1997.

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