Isaiah Berlin and the Tragedy of Pluralism
What the great liberal thinker knew about human nature.
The liberalism of the Cold War era was “postwar” not merely in the temporal sense that it came after the conclusion of World War II. More significantly, it was postwar in the thematic sense that it was in large part a response to the cataclysmic human toll of the war and the fear of such monumental bloodshed recurring.
It’s hard to wrap one’s mind around just how much death and suffering took place in Europe between 1939 and 1945. For comparison’s sake, consider these approximate numbers:
American deaths in the Korean War: 33,000 military.
American deaths in Vietnam: 58,000 military.
American deaths on September 11, 2001: nearly 3,000, mostly civilian.
American deaths in Iraq post 2003: 4,500 military and civilian contractors.
American deaths in Afghanistan: 2,400 military and civilian contractors.
Then there’s the number of American deaths in World War II: 416,000, mostly military.
That’s more than seven times the number of deaths in Vietnam, and in less than half the number of years.
But just look at what Europeans experienced (these statistics come from the opening chapter of Tony Judt’s magisterial history Postwar):
Number of Europeans killed in World War II: roughly 36.5 million, well over half of them civilians.
Number of Soviets killed: 16 million.
Number of Jews killed: 6 million.
Number of Poles killed: 5 million.
Number of Yugoslavs killed: 1.4 million.
Number of Greeks killed: 430,000.
Number of French killed: 350,000.
Postwar liberalism took its distinctive shape in response to the war’s unspeakably gruesome events. Why did people of the era end up slaughtering each other with such savagery and destructiveness? How could it be prevented from happening again? What kind of politics would be most likely to secure and maintain peace? And how could such a politics be consolidated—through the inculcation of which truths about the human condition? These were the questions the postwar liberals were ultimately responding to and attempting to answer.
The Enduring Tensions of Morality and Politics
Isaiah Berlin’s most well-known and influential contribution to political theory is the lengthy essay titled “Two Concepts of Liberty,” originally published in 1958. In the essay’s opening sections, Berlin distinguished what he called negative liberty (freedom from external constraint) from positive liberty (freedom to pursue ends of one’s own choosing, along with possession of the means to attain those ends).
The distinction is an illuminating one—as are Berlin’s arguments in support of considering negative liberty to be the more politically fundamental form of freedom, in the sense that it must be secured in a community before that community can safely encourage the pursuit of, and set up programs designed to help people achieve, positive liberty. That’s because the effort to make positive liberty available to all citizens tends to require a vast expansion of government power. If that expansion is not to grow to tyrannical proportions, it must be limited by a prior commitment to a certain baseline of negative liberty.
That doesn’t mean Berlin means to denigrate positive liberty. He wants his reader to see that both the negative and positive dimensions of liberty are choiceworthy and admirable human ideals, but also that they stand in deep tension with each other, requiring a form of negotiation and balance between them in which negative liberty takes priority.
But Berlin doesn’t just highlight the tensions within liberty for its own sake. He does so because he means to draw our attention to the tensions within and among many other moral ideals (or “values,” as he calls them). Consider the following moral clashes: Negative liberty v. positive liberty; liberty of the individual v. the safety and security of the community, group, or nation; deference to authority v. individual autonomy; sanctity and piety v. skepticism, curiosity, and irony.
Berlin maintained that every ideal listed above, on either side of each clash, is worthwhile. He then divided the human world into two broad human types—those who recognize these clashes and accept the need for trade-offs to negotiate them, and those who refuse either to recognize or accept the need for such choices. In an essay written a few years before “Two Concepts of Liberty,” Berlin adapted a saying by the Greek poet Archilochus—“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”—in order to flesh out the contrast.
As my friend and teacher Mark Lilla put it in an essay for the Wall Street Journal about Berlin written a year after his death in 1997: “Hedgehogs believe that all truths—scientific, moral, political, religious—are compatible, and indeed ultimately one. In politics, these are the most dangerous of men.” Berlin called their outlook “monism” (or one-ism). Totalitarianism of the far right and far left were expressions of monistic ideology, which meant that the charnel house of World War II, no less than the liberal West’s high-stakes standoff with Soviet communism in the early years of the Cold War, was a function of people in positions of power in totalitarian governments (and their propagandistic apologists elsewhere in the world) thinking like hedgehogs.
Foxes, by contrast, “see the complications of living in a world of many truths and are less quick to judge,” according to Lilla. “They do not deny the notion of truth; they simply see that we cannot always reconcile all things that are truly good and thus must make compromises among them.”
Here is how Berlin himself put the point toward the conclusion of “Two Concepts of Liberty”:
[T]he ordinary resources of empirical observation and ordinary human knowledge … give us no warrant for supposing that all good things, or all bad things for that matter, are reconcilable with each other. The world that we encounter in ordinary experience is one in which we are faced with choices between ends equally ultimate, and claims equally absolute, the realization of some of which must inevitably involve the sacrifice of others. … 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.
Berlin uses the term “tragedy” here, and that’s fitting, for this is a deeply tragic view of human experience and politics. It denies the possibility of any ultimate solution to the deepest problems, because they are rooted in tensions intrinsic to moral and political life. Berlin called this outlook “pluralism” (or many-ism), and he maintained that the most honest and decent way to live in light of the pluralistic reality of existence is to cultivate a liberal temperament rooted in a baseline tolerance for tension and agonistic contestation over the highest ideals, as well as an appreciation for difference.
This meant that liberal governments needed to find a way to create citizens temperamentally predisposed toward thinking and acting like foxes.
A Plea for Liberal Pluralism
To my mind, the most comprehensive, concise, and moving summary of Berlin’s pluralistic liberalism can be found in several paragraphs of a “short credo” he composed for a ceremony commemorating his acceptance of an honorary degree at the University of Toronto on November 25, 1994, three years before his death:
Justice has always been a human ideal, but it is not fully compatible with mercy. Creative imagination and spontaneity, splendid in themselves, cannot be fully reconciled with the need for planning, organization, [and] careful and responsible calculation. Knowledge, the pursuit of truth—the noblest of aims—cannot be fully reconciled with the happiness or the freedom that men desire, for if I know that I have some incurable disease this will not make me happier or freer. I must always choose: between peace and excitement, or knowledge and blissful ignorance. And so on.
So what is to be done to restrain the champions, sometimes very fanatical, of one or other of these values, each of whom tends to trample upon the rest, as the great tyrants of the twentieth century have trampled on the life, liberty, and human rights of millions because their eyes were fixed upon some ultimate golden future?
I am afraid I have no dramatic answer to offer: only that if these ultimate human values by which we live are to be pursued, then compromises, trade-offs, [and] arrangements have to be made if the worst is not to happen. So much liberty for so much equality, so much individual self-expression for so much security, so much justice for so much compassion. My point is that some values clash: the ends pursued by human beings are all generated by our common nature, but their pursuit has to be to some degree controlled—liberty and the pursuit of happiness, I repeat, may not be fully compatible with each other, nor are liberty, equality, and fraternity.
So we must weigh and measure, bargain, compromise, and prevent the crushing of one form of life by its rivals. I know only too well that this is not a flag under which idealistic and enthusiastic young men and women may wish to march—it seems too tame, too reasonable, too bourgeois, it does not engage the generous emotions. But you must believe me, one cannot have everything one wants—not only in practice, but even in theory. The denial of this, the search for a single, overarching ideal because it is the one and only true one for humanity, invariably leads to coercion. And then to destruction [and] blood….”
This statement was delivered on Berlin’s behalf and was subsequently published under the title “A Message to the 21st Century,” which pleases me greatly, since it indicates that the insights Berlin took from the bloodstained middle decades of the 20th century speak also to our times.
I very much believe that to be true.
Damon Linker writes the Substack newsletter “Notes from the Middleground.” He is a senior lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania and a senior fellow in the Open Society Project at the Niskanen Center.
A version of this essay was originally published at Notes From The Middleground.
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