Isaiah Berlin


Me in italics.

These exercises are re-reads, my re-writes of popular looking articles, through the lens of antisocialization theory, that is to say, counting normal punishment as abuse and counting abuse as causative of the human . . . personality flaws.

I’ve done one about an article called “Parenting Doesn’t Matter,” and one called “Do humans really have a killer instinct or is that just manly fancy?” The first was a Nature over Nurture argument from the political Right and the second was just a nice story about science stories about Human Nature. The first one I fought with and refuted, the second, I think I only clarified, added to. This one seems ambitious and dangerous to me, bloody Hell, he’s going after the good guys now, kind of thing.

Yes, I’m sorry, the good guys and the bad guys in this world share a paradigm and only choose sides, and if the good guys were so much more correct, why aren’t they winning? Good guys self-critique.

  1. Take it away, Sir.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” With these words Dickens began his famous novel A Tale of Two Cities. But this cannot, alas, be said about our own terrible century. Men have for millennia destroyed each other, but the deeds of Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Napoleon (who introduced mass killings in war), even the Armenian massacres, pale into insignificance before the Russian Revolution and its aftermath: the oppression, torture, murder which can be laid at the doors of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, and the systematic falsification of information which prevented knowledge of these horrors for years—these are unparalleled. They were not natural disasters, but preventable human crimes, and whatever those who believe in historical determinism may think, they could have been averted.

Jarring to me, from here and now, to hear Hitler’s name in the middle of all those communists or supposed communists. Did the whole world still think National Socialism was socialism when he spoke? Just nervous, of course it’s about dictators and pogroms, not Left and Right. Tangential.

Yes, these things could be averted – but they will always have to be, they are the logical end of something, well of AST, antisocialization. A forever aversion will mean a change of lifestyle.

I speak with particular feeling, for I am a very old man, and I have lived through almost the entire century. My life has been peaceful and secure, and I feel almost ashamed of this in view of what has happened to so many other human beings. I am not a historian, and so I cannot speak with authority on the causes of these horrors. Yet perhaps I can try.

LOL. Today, “I’m not a scientist, but” doesn’t come from anyone who should be allowed it, like this fellow. Objection overruled.

They were, in my view, not caused by the ordinary negative human sentiments, as Spinoza called them—fear, greed, tribal hatreds, jealousy, love of power—though of course these have played their wicked part. They have been caused, in our time, by ideas; or rather, by one particular idea. It is paradoxical that Karl Marx, who played down the importance of ideas in comparison with impersonal social and economic forces, should, by his writings, have caused the transformation of the twentieth century, both in the direction of what he wanted and, by reaction, against it. The German poet Heine, in one of his famous writings, told us not to underestimate the quiet philosopher sitting in his study; if Kant had not undone theology, he declared, Robespierre might not have cut off the head of the King of France.

OK, Marx’s followers and the reaction against them, that’s how it’s all one list. Not really cricket that the reaction is also blamed on the new idea, that the reaction is not respected as having an idea of its own – but again, we’re talking about mass murder, not politics. No, hold on, this is the point, communism is a dangerous new idea and the previous idea – royalism? “Competition?” – is seen as default, as only normal and to be expected? Marx, that boat-rocker, huh, what was wrong with the way things were before? Really? Was the French revolution also a lot of blood for nothing?

Maybe only jarring today again?

He predicted that the armed disciples of the German philosophers—Fichte, Schelling, and the other fathers of German nationalism—would one day destroy the great monuments of Western Europe in a wave of fanatical destruction before which the French Revolution would seem child’s play. This may have been unfair to the German metaphysicians, yet Heine’s central idea seems to me valid: in a debased form, the Nazi ideology did have roots in German anti-Enlightenment thought. There are men who will kill and maim with a tranquil conscience under the influence of the words and writings of some of those who are certain that they know perfection can be reached.

OK, maybe I see a crack here.

First, there have always been men who will do that under all sorts of influences and reading hasn’t been a requirement for it.

Let me explain. If you are truly convinced that there is some solution to all human problems, that one can conceive an ideal society which men can reach if only they do what is necessary to attain it, then you and your followers must believe that no price can be too high to pay in order to open the gates of such a paradise. Only the stupid and malevolent will resist once certain simple truths are put to them. Those who resist must be persuaded; if they cannot be persuaded, laws must be passed to restrain them; if that does not work, then coercion, if need be violence, will inevitably have to be used—if necessary, terror, slaughter. Lenin believed this after reading Das Kapital, and consistently taught that if a just, peaceful, happy, free, virtuous society could be created by the means he advocated, then the end justified any methods that needed to be used, literally any.

First, I think Marx offered a solution to a single human problem, economic oppression. As a personal aside, I too get this complaint, that I’m trying to solve “everything,” and that don’t I know it can’t be done? And I too think I have solved only one thing, social oppression.

For the paragraph, I don’t buy it. I think the dream, the utopia exists, but for ambitious people, for leaders and groups, it’s only gaslighting nonsense, who really imagines paradise to be inhabited by naught but murderous psychopaths, who really thinks that when only the Nazis remain that this is heaven and the murder machine will stop and everyone will treat each other well again? I’m saying that the process is the point, that there really isn’t an endgame, that genocidal schemes are for the here and now and we need to understand why that would be. Of course it’s some game theory arithmetic about feeling safest when you’re on the march to war, because then you are holding the dull end of the spear whereas during “peace,” someone else might pick it up. It seems a coin toss, making this decision, war or peace, but antisocialization theory says that you are a weighted coin, that the game is rigged to come up war 51% of the time, the war room’s house advantage, because you, as a human being are mistreated constantly for some greater good that surprise! only turned out to be another war.

He said it was assumed, it was part of the question, that whatever must be done must be done – and now he’s describing the incremental steps of how a society gets to where it began, he said the violence was authorized from the start, and then he goes off on a tangent about how it’s an argument, the bad guys are trying to convince someone of something and “resorting even to violence” to do it. Again, the politics, selling the idea isn’t the point, violence sells one idea, violence, that’s the deeper, biological point. Both Hitler’s and Stalin’s goons produced the same things, the only things violent goons ever produce, victims, not ideological allies.

I’m sorry. It’s not logical, except under the assumption of a bad human nature. It is not neutral logic that paradise is brought on by a purge, anyone who thinks that has a slant towards violence and not towards paradise. Of course, he saw all that history, of course, one sees a bad human nature. It’s just that nature is a relative term, something is natural, unless you dreamed it up and made it happen, that’s a different sort of natural. We need to be able to imagine a thinker without the bias.

The root conviction which underlies this is that the central questions of human life, individual or social, have one true answer which can be discovered. It can and must be implemented, and those who have found it are the leaders whose word is law. The idea that to all genuine questions there can be only one true answer is a very old philosophical notion.

I fear he’s telling us what they said, the dictator’s reasons for torturing their victims, “We need to change their minds!” The entire question could be much simpler for him to just say they were lying when they said that. Again, the “root conviction,” is two root convictions, that there is an answer, and that it must be implemented, by force if necessary. The first may be worth a look. The second is psychopathy, and that our sad critic seems to accept it also is a bit hopeless, isn’t it?

Wait, maybe it’s not so bad, maybe the solution is the other way about, rather that the problem is the other way about, OK, I have two problems. The second thing is nuts, fascism, but his point is it’s bad, right, his dual root conviction, and I don’t like much better that the first thing, the idea that there is one solution is somehow bad. Why would that be a problem? I mean it is, twice this week, that has been the complaint about my talk, the comeback, “well, there is no one answer,” like it’s a rule or something. Why? Because if there was, we’d have to kill everyone who didn’t get it?

Don’t be putting those words in my mouth, I never said that, in fact the idea totally refutes my one miracle answer.

Because if there was one answer, the people with the answer would kill the people who don’t like it, and again, we accept that? It would seem to betray a prediction, that the one answer to our problems couldn’t possibly be stop hurting and killing each other, huh. Bias. When you have a shit idea of human nature, you expect the answer to be a slaughter, even when the answer is supposed to be unknown.

The great Athenian philosophers, Jews and Christians, the thinkers of the Renaissance and the Paris of Louis XIV, the French radical reformers of the eighteenth century, the revolutionaries of the nineteenth—however much they differed about what the answer was or how to discover it (and bloody wars were fought over this)—were all convinced that they knew the answer, and that only human vice and stupidity could obstruct its realization.

And violence is the answer to stupidity and doesn’t literally cause it. When did a blow to the head ever make anyone smarter? Imagine getting that far with that thought OK, I’ve worked out exactly what would save humanity from itself but people are too dumb to do it so let’s trying killing a bunch of folks again, maybe it’ll work one of these times.

This is the idea of which I spoke, and what I wish to tell you is that it is false. Not only because the solutions given by different schools of social thought differ, and none can be demonstrated by rational methods—but for an even deeper reason. The central values by which most men have lived, in a great many lands at a great many times—these values, almost if not entirely universal, are not always harmonious with each other. Some are, some are not. Men have always craved for liberty, security, equality, happiness, justice, knowledge, and so on. But complete liberty is not compatible with complete equality—if men were wholly free, the wolves would be free to eat the sheep. Perfect equality means that human liberties must be restrained so that the ablest and the most gifted are not permitted to advance beyond those who would inevitably lose if there were competition. Security, and indeed freedoms, cannot be preserved if freedom to subvert them is permitted. Indeed, not everyone seeks security or peace, otherwise some would not have sought glory in battle or in dangerous sports.

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, 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 even 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.

OK, I think I hear him, the wrong idea is that there is a one-size fits all solution and that even if everyone were smart, there would still be conflict and that attempts to impose a universal solution have only resulted in even worse nightmares. That is inarguable, at least for me, but – of course – but I would split that hair of “here is a universal solution, take it or die,” that seems like two things to me. I feel like he’s shouting at us repeatedly that it’s one and that if anyone suggests humanity as whole does anything wrong that they are also suggesting we all be killed for it, and I repeat that’s what Hitler shouted at him, isn’t it, that’s the dictator’s lie, his excuse for a lot of massacres, that the solution creates a necessity for pogroms?

Did he put his disease in us? Can we not imagine that “solution” used to have a bigger, better meaning before Hitler put his stink on it, that not every solution is death and that death is in fact not a solution at all anyway, but the problem? Berlin is making a better point, but he’s using this awful one of theirs to do it and again I don’t understand how this could be, it must have been such a different world.

I think this too is the bias, the bad human nature, that knowledge “will not make me happier or freer.” I agree with his list of conflicts, but it is not the beginning and the end, there are more things under Heaven. It could not, if we were bad, if human life were bad, if bad news were all there was to find, then yes, knowledge couldn’t lead one to happiness – and it is because we suspect that and make our choices accordingly that the world tends to be what we see.

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?

What if we found some way to restrain only the violence, and let the rest carry on with its natural ebb and flow? What madness would unrestrained gentleness wreak? What pogrom would these extremist anti-violence people unleash with their awful one-size-fits-all totalitarianism?

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, 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.

I’ll shut up and let him finish. Reading it this year, in 2020, should make the point that this good fellow didn’t get it right, like pretty much everybody else.

And it trails off from there as it all does, again, there is no hope in the answer when the question was “considering Man’s fallen state, what can we expect?” I’m finished, I said it already, he’s right, purges are bad; but he’s wrong, finding an answer is not the problem, saying there is no answer, or no answer without purges, is the problem. Accepting evil as inevitable is the problem, making a bad assumption about human nature is the problem, it brings all these nightmares into the realm of possibility when it all should be unthinkable.

Mr. Berlin sounds like a man of his time, if I disliked him I’d say he sounds like a royalist or something, like what was so wrong with the world before, the new ideas are the problem, they’re rocking the boat when we were managing our eternal conflicts just fine, as well as can be expected. And he was right – but the improvement in human consciousness that antisocialization theory could be has the power to make him wrong again, to move us into a more understandable world where science and ideas could be more than weapons. If he could have known that within his world of balanced conflicts, the good things that make it are also the bad things that tear it all down. Again, if he, and all of us were looking for the causality in the here and now and not in some proposed initial condition.

As a final apology, I regret the time and sort of hope I don’t post this, honestly, Berlin hasn’t said anything anyone talks about anymore, nothing the indifference of time hasn’t already sort of polished off. I need to try this on someone from this century, worry about conversations among the living.

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, blood—eggs are broken, but the omelette is not in sight, there is only an infinite number of eggs, human lives, ready for the breaking. And in the end the passionate idealists forget the omelette, and just go on breaking eggs.

I am glad to note that toward the end of my long life some realization of this is beginning to dawn. Rationality, tolerance, rare enough in human history, are not despised. Liberal democracy, despite everything, despite the greatest modern scourge of fanatical, fundamentalist nationalism, is spreading. Great tyrannies are in ruins, or will be—even in China the day is not too distant. I am glad that you to whom I speak will see the twenty-first century, which I feel sure can be only a better time for mankind than my terrible century has been. I congratulate you on your good fortune; I regret that I shall not see this brighter future, which I am convinced is coming. With all the gloom that I have been spreading, I am glad to end on an optimistic note. There really are good reasons to think that it is justified.

© The Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust 2014

Oh, I’ll post. A blog needs a heartbeat.



Jeff in italics,

Oct. 23rd.,  2020

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