Isaiah Berlin’s The Proper Study Of Mankind

The Proper Study Of MankindIn Alexander Pope’s immortal “Essay On Man,” the poet reminds his reader of a Socratic principle: “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; / The proper study of mankind is man.” This is Isaiah Berlin’s undertaking in The Proper Study Of Mankind, to compile, compare and contrast different visions of humanity, and to trace the influence of these visions across the centuries. The book’s 700 pages, fragmented into eminently readable essays, invite the reader into a civil conversation with men like Condorcet, Diderot, Herder, Machiavelli and Tolstoy – men whose ideas often came into very uncivil conflict – and with Berlin’s steady guidance we come to appreciate their insights, to understand the appeal of their ideas.

As in The Crooked Timber Of Humanity, Berlin’s aim is to promote pluralism by stressing the inherent incompatibility of human aims and values, and I would argue that today, in an age of mass immigration and often violent cultural battles, his insights demand our attention. In Machiavelli, for example, Berlin sees for the first time an original recognition, an inherent and irreconcilable incompatibility between what he calls the ethics of Rome, focused on the perfection of the body politic, and the ethics of Christianity, focused on the perfection of the individual.

Machiavelli’s cardinal achievement is, let me repeat, his uncovering of an insoluble dilemma, the planting of a permanent question mark in the path of posterity. It stems from his de facto recognition that ends equally ultimate, equally sacred, may contradict each other, that entire systems of value may come into collision without possibility of rational arbitration, and that this happens not merely in exceptional circumstances, as a result of abnormality or accident or error […] but as a part of the normal human situation.

Prior to Machiavelli, Berlin argues, there were profound disagreements about moral ends, but no one had suggested “that there might exist ends – ends in themselves in terms of which alone everything else was justified – which were equally ultimate, but incompatible with one another, that there might exist no single universal overarching standard that would enable a man to choose rationally between them.” This assumption about the compatibility of human ends still forms the foundational belief of many naive Westerners, even those most vociferously arguing for diversity as an axiomatic good, and the folly of this belief is playing out daily in deeply segregated neighborhoods in France and England.

Perhaps the most interesting essay is entitled “Herder and the Enlightenment,” and may be credited with reviving interest in the German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder and the writers of Germany’s Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Drive”) movement. Herder looked with horror on the idea, advanced by men like Voltaire and Condorcet, that all of human activity could one day fall under the sway of reason, that there will come a time when universal aims, and the means to achieve them, are known and pursued to the common good of all. He abhorred centralization because he celebrated what was unique, organic and spontaneous in even the smallest of human societies, and he recognized that the tendency towards central control, embodied for him in the State, meant the absorption of group differences. For Herder, the imperial conquest of one nation by another and the submission of the will of the citizen to a centralized governing body are but two forms of the same evil. And the poetry, music and myths of a given nation are nothing less than an expression of its values, values that can only be the product of that particular nation (or tribe, or state, or culture). Elizabethan England could no more produce a Homer than ancient Greece could produce a Shakespeare. The consequence of this is two-fold: first, the artist is to be revered as chief chronicler of the spirit of a time and place; second, to understand (let alone to evaluate) a different civilization requires more than just an appeal to universal principles; it requires an uncommon act of imaginative empathy, of the kind that novelists and poets are particularly adept at. “Not a man, not a country, not a people, not a State, is like another. Hence the True, the Beautiful, the Good in them are not similar either.”

I delight in reading Berlin. Unlike so many of today’s pontificators, liberal and conservative, he does not paper over the moral quandaries and conflicts produced by the clashing of values, nor does he seek to demonize those with values different than his own. He manages the remarkable feat of mediating between contradictory ideas without being prescriptive, on the one hand, or descending into masochistic relativism, on the other. He renders the difficult intelligible and the archaic and seemingly defunct frighteningly relevant. And he does all of this in lucid, engaging prose. In our increasingly multicultural, global age, Berlin demands our attention.