The mouse roars

The Roots of Romanticism

Isaiah Berlin <em>Chatto & Windus, 171pp, £20</em>

This is the text of a series of lectures given by the late Sir Isaiah Berlin in Washington in 1965, and published as part of the drive by admirers of the All Souls political philosopher to boost their hero's reputation and rebut the received opinion that Berlin never wrote a major book. It is in many ways a typical production of the author: extremely lucid but vitiated by intellectual name-dropping. Berlin persuasively argues that Romanticism was a kind of revolt against what he calls the "jigsaw puzzle" view of the universe: that it all makes sense if only we could find all the pieces and fit them together. Making use of an impressive knowledge of late 18th-century German literature, Berlin shows how many of the intellectual currents we think of as peculiarly 20th-century - existentialism, avant-garde theatre, revolutionary voluntarism of the "subjective conditions" variety (Mao, Che Guevara) - all have their origins in the 18th century.

But Berlin has his own tendentious reasons for sympathy with Romanticism. At least in his version of Romanticism (in typical Oxford-philosophy mode he refuses to define it), the movement provides intellectual support for the version of pluralism Berlin spent a lifetime advocating: that no certain and final knowledge is possible, that desirable values collide with each other - freedom with equality, justice with mercy, knowledge with happiness - and therefore that civilised, democratic life is a matter of compromise. So if nothing is written and there are no universal truths freedom means navigating in uncharted waters.

It does not take exceptional insight - and indeed has long been a staple criticism of Berlin's political philosophy - to see that this stance implies moral relativism. Both Berlin and his admirers deny the charge, but their protestations are scarcely convincing, as is clear from the note of tetchiness that arises as soon as this charge is made. Berlin's defenders habitually speak of the accusation of relativism against their guru as "a familiar claim", as if the fact of Berlin's inconsistencies having been noted by so many critics is somehow in his favour. John Gray, for example, in his Modern Masters volume on Berlin, having entirely failed to rebut the charge of relativism, writes: "This familiar criticism . . . need detain us no longer."

Berlin himself, when interviewed, tended to tie himself in knots. After savaging, in the name of empiricism, Hegel and Marx for their apriorism, he was nonetheless quite prepared to smuggle in the notion of self-evident truths when it suited him. In one of his interviews, he says irritably to his interlocutor: "Don't ask me what I mean by decent. By decent I mean decent - we all know what that is." But in most contexts we don't, and surely that is the point. In our normal lives we balance motives against consequences, the Kantian against the Benthamite, we weigh means and ends; many things are decent ceteris paribus, but usually the other things are not equal. Lying is universally condemned as indecent, but we can all think of contexts in which lying might be the moral choice: Dalton as chancellor of the exchequer in 1949, for example, lying to journalists about the impending devaluation of the pound to ward off the greater catastrophe of currency speculation.

Since it was obvious that self-evident truths would logically fall victim to Berlin's own "plurality of values" model, he sometimes adopted a different stance, jettisoning self-evident truths in favour of what he called "universal human values". The subtlety here was supposed to be that Berlin did not commit himself to notions of absolute truth but only to what was universally believed, leaving as an open and irrelevant question the issue of whether what was universally believed was true. Once again Berlin's own intellectual practice subverted this project. In one of his books, after informing us that his judgements are framed in terms of universal human beliefs, he goes on to assert that Prokofiev and Shostakovich are not great Russian composers, but Stravinsky is. I believe the exact opposite. Does that make me a Martian?

But how, on Berlin's system, do you establish who "the greatest creative artists", as he puts it, are in the first place? The suspicion arises that Berlin's "universal human beliefs" are merely those views held in Oxbridge common rooms. Another of his utterances is germane here. "Why do we say that Pascal is a profounder thinker than Russell?" I certainly do not say this, for the hidden premise is clear: a Christian believer is always more "profound" than an atheist. But who is this "we"? Is it the royal or editorial plural? Or is it really, as I suspect, shorthand for the great and the good of All Souls, the etiolated coterie of John Sparrow, Maurice Bowra and the rest? Certainly the Oxbridge sensibility of amused cynical tolerance, and fastidious Jamesian nuance, is on display in the recurring verbal tics Berlin uses - "I dare say", "no doubt", "let us say", "it depends", "to a degree".

When pinned down on his relativism, Berlin liked to mutter that there were obvious "universal values", such as human rights. He never bothered to unpack the various meanings of human rights and the multiple problems they engender, for example, as between the western notion of rights as purely political and legal and the third world conception of socio-economic rights, which goes back to the most basic philosophy of the ancients: primum edere, dein philosophardi - you can talk about democracy when you have filled your belly. And this takes us to another deficiency in Berlin: how he could be pedantic, in a Oxford-philosophy nitpicking mode, when addressing his interrogators, and yet so freely stumbled into vagueness and inexactitude in his own work. Someone talking about the "philosophical tradition" would be interrupted with a rapid-fire objection: "I do not think there is a single tradition." On the other hand, Berlin himself was capable of a statement such as: "Sakharov is a nobler thinker than Lenin." Deeper, broader, more eclectic, these terms make sense, but nobler?

Despite the championing by Henry Hardy, the editor of these posthumously published lectures, John Gray and Michael Ignatieff in his recent biography, it seems clear that Berlin was seriously overrated as a thinker. But was he one of those people whose quest for true values was exemplified more in life than in the work and teachings? Hardly. Christopher Hitchens has recently revealed the from-the-trenchlines support Berlin gave to the hawks in Washington over the Vietnam war, all, naturally, couched in terms of those elusive universal human values. He sneered at the activism of Tony Benn and E P Thompson, but Berlin so lacked the stomach for a fight that he could not even bestir himself to win the wardenship of All Souls. It is clear from his own utterances that Berlin was violently jealous of all other Jewish intellectuals, notably George Steiner and Hannah Arendt, against whom he launches the most vitriolic and patronising animadversions. As for his much-vaunted Zionism, Berlin was one of those who drew the line at actually going to live in Israel because it was "too late for me". As Jean-Baptiste Clamenee says in Camus' La Chute about such excuses: "It is always too late, thank God."

Can we perhaps now have a moratorium on Berlin-worship? The real man, as opposed to the icon, was a journeyman Oxford academic who had a gift for lucidity and was a talented expositor of other people's ideas, but he was not an original thinker nor, it seems, a particularly admirable human being. The notion that he was a major figure in the history of thought says something about our intellectual poverty as we approach the millennium. Berlin was famous for dividing political thinkers into hedgehogs and foxes but, given his inability to fight for any noble (that word again) causes, his true zoological classification was the mouse who wanted to be a lion.