Isaiah Berlin’s The Crooked Timber Of Humanity

The Crooked Timber Of HumanityIsaiah Berlin has been on my reading list for over a year, but that list is long and he was quickly buried by further additions. And then I happened, by accident, on the Philosophy section of a local bookstore, and there he was. I expected to enjoy him. I did not expect to devour him. My readings in philosophy were initially spurred by what I can only describe as a gnawing sense of unease with the modern left. The more I read, the greater this uneasiness grew, until it metastasized into what is today a conviction that much of what passes for unquestioned truth among modern liberals is regressive at best, repressive at worst. Under the reign of those championing so-called “social justice,” opinions are highly regulated, dissent openly discouraged and the wide range of morality restricted to a narrow band. What Isaiah Berlin so astutely realized, and argues with unrivaled lucidity, is that the Platonic ideal, the belief that life’s moral questions have single, compatible answers, and that these answers will be preferred by all people, is a falsehood, and, what’s worse, one that can only encourage the worst kind of despotism. The volume’s title comes from a quotation (or, rather, a misquotation) from Kant, which reads, in full, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.” Exactly how crooked humanity’s timber is remains a matter of debate, but my readings in evolutionary biology have supplied me with the vocabulary to express what poetry and literature and religion have been arguing for millenia: that we are, indeed, crooked. The essays making up this volume explore the philosophy of Counter-Enlightenment thinkers, including Giambattista Vico, Johann Gottfried von Herder and Joseph de Maistre, the last of whom receives the fullest treatment in an essay lasting nearly one hundred pages. From these giants of Western philosophy, whose prescriptions nonetheless horrify, Berlin derives his critique of what he believes to be three insupportable presuppositions of the Enlightenment:

In the first place that, as in the sciences, all genuine questions must have one true answer and one only, all the rest being necessarily errors; in the second place that there must be a dependable path towards the discovery of these truths; in the third place that the true answers, when found, must necessarily be compatible with one another and form a single whole […].

These are the foundational principles of utopian thinking, common to philosophers as diverse as Thomas More and Edward Bellamy, and in our time evidenced most clearly in Marxism and its offshoots. Here is Berlin embodying the authoritarian mindset engendered by the uncritical acceptance of these tenets:

Since I know the only true path to the ultimate solution of the problem of society, I know which way to drive the human caravan; and since you are ignorant of what I know, you cannot be allowed to have liberty of choice even within the narrowest limits, if the goal is to be reached.

When societies (and universities!) place restrictions on freedom of speech, this is the mindset being embodied. When mere dissent is viewed as proof of a moral deficiency, this is the mindset being embodied. In short, this is the worst face of the modern left, a moral puritanism rivaled only by the religious puritanism of the Inquisition. Here, again, is Berlin, summing up the breathless arrogance required to be so bold and so self-assured:

We are doomed to choose, and every choice may entail an irreparable loss. Happy are those who live under a discipline which they accept without question, who freely obey the orders of leaders, spiritual or temporal, whose word is fully accepted as unbreakable law; or those who have, by their own methods, arrived at clear and unshakeable convictions about what to do and what to be that brook no possible doubt. I can only say that those who rest on such comfortable beds of dogma are victims of forms of self-induced myopia, blinkers that may make for contentment, but not for understanding of what it is to be human.

Emerson, in his way of saying much in few words, put it this way: “God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose – take what you will, you can never have both.”

Berlin draws from the contradictions inherent in the moral universe a renewed argument for pluralism: a just society is one in which the variable expressions of humanity can co-exist peacefully. This may require tradeoffs, it may require concessions, but it is, in the final account, infinitely preferable to the repressive and authoritarian enforcement of a single morality, a single way of being. “In a society in which the same goals are all universally accepted,” writes Berlin, “problems can be only of means, all soluble by technological methods. That is a society in which the inner life of man, the moral and spiritual and aesthetic imagination, no longer speaks at all.” I side with Berlin: our humanity is too steep a price to pay for moral order.