Isaiah Berlin – A Prophet Without A Cause

It is June 25, 2007.  The graduation season has ended.  The Joint Judicial Conference and Annual Meeting of the Maryland State Bar Association is over.  Various rhetorical prescriptions for the future professional and personal fulfillment of High School and College graduates have been freely distributed at graduation ceremonies and even in this column.  In addition, at the Joint Meeting of the Maryland State Bar Association and the Judicial Conference lawyers and judges discussed and, even at times, debated various proposals to improve the efficiency of the Courts, to inspire greater trust and confidence in the justice system, and to do what lawyers and judges do better.

After all that, it was time for me to finish unpacking which I still haven’t completely accomplished since “retiring” as a “full-time judge” last January to pursue other vocations and ventures.  In doing so, I came across some memorabilia which reminded me of the day I first realized that there was still a lot I didn’t know.  That revelation came to me in the year 1969 at the ripe old age of 22.

1969 was, as most baby boomers can take judicial notice of- the year after 1968.  In 1968, I was a 3rdyear student at the University of Virginia.  I had bestowed upon me the title of “Virginia Student Coordinator” for the Robert Kennedy for President Campaign.  This imbued me not only with youthful enthusiasm but also the hubris and naivete to accompany it.

In June of 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy was taken from us by an assassin’s bullet.  Many of us who were devoted to him and his cause were disillusioned.  Some were devastated.  He had grown with us and cared about what we cared about with an intensity that we noticed and shared.  His tragic death caused many of us to reflect on such questions as “Why do bad things happen to good people?”, “What is the answer to overcoming evil in the world we live in?”, etc.

In June 1969 I graduated from the University of Virginia.  The War in Vietnam was raging and The Draft was a part of every graduate’s life including my own.  Within two weeks I had a Notice for a Physical.  Two weeks after getting the Notice that I had passed, I had a Notice to Report in September 1969 for Basic Training and Advanced Infantry Training presumably to be trained to fight in a war that I opposed both politically and personally for reasons that historians can explain better than I can in this space.  It did however bear some striking resemblance to the basis for the opposition to the current war of choice in Iraq.  This caused me and many other young people similarly situated to intensify our search for answers to questions which coalesced our politics and our personal lives in ways that were being driven home every day by the newspaper stories, pictures, and TV news describing body bags brought home as well as death and casualty counts.

The flip side of being young in 1969 was that we were still in a time when grand theories such as liberation, revolution and historical inevitability as well as the aspirations which accompanied them were still around.  The columnist Charles Krauthammer has described 1969 as a year when “to be young was heaven- and to be seized with intimations of heavenly omniscience”.

The proffered answers to all of these universal, if not cosmic, questions were plentiful.  As Krauthammer noted almost a decade ago, there was “Marxism for the masochistic”, there was “Trotskyism; for the near-psychotic”, and there was “Maoism”.  In addition to “Marxism and its variants there was the lure of such philosophers as Rousseau, the foremost theorist of mass and participatory democracy and supremacy for the free and “popular will”.  All were espoused loudly particularly by radical student leaders of the era in speeches and pamphlets whose tone exuded confidence and at times an arrogant assumption that they knew the answers to everything.

In the midst of this late 60’s turbulence and the rhetorical efforts to bring order, if not sense, to it while browsing in a bookstore looking for answers to my questions, I discovered a book entitled “Four Essays on Liberty” by a now deceased political philosopher, Isaiah Berlin. Berlin, in my opinion, was one of the greatest political philosophers, certainly of his time and perhaps for all time.

The most famous of those essays is entitled “The Hedgehog and the Fox”.  In that essay, Berlin creatively and cleverly divides the great thinkers of history into those who have one big idea (hedgehogs) and those who have many small ones (foxes).

Clearly Berlin was partial to foxes.  He believed that single issues, fixed ideas, single-minded ideologies are dangerous and lead to arrogance and inhumanity.  He therefore stood intellectually in the way of those who proclaimed they had found the one true path to political salvation.  To block their way, Berlin interposed in their path the concept of “pluralism- the many pathed way”.

“Four Essays on Liberty” articulated that concept.  In separate essays Berlin illustrated that what the monists, the believers in “the one true truth”, proclaim is not freedom.  It may sound glorious and uplifting.  But it is not freedom and if you buy into it the price you pay will be at least part of the freedom which you now enjoy.

Freedom, says Berlin, is being left alone.  It is a sphere of autonomy, an invisible political and, at times, personal space that no authority may invade.  This freedom is directly threatened by the “higher callings” pedaled by most ideological monist prophets, who preach that there is “one true value above all” which must govern everything we do.

In the past this has been heralded as equality by Marx and fraternity by Rousseau.  In addition, certain religious fundamentalists have and many still preach that the only entry into heaven is acceptance of their particular religious doctrine.  Even “historic inevitability” is bunk says Berlin, who in effect, characterizes it as a kind of religion for atheists.

Isaiah Berlin sums up his message in his fourth and final essay.  There, he articulates convincingly his central message, which in a nutshell, is that no one knows the secret as to what is or should be the ultimate end and goal of life.  There are many ends, each deserving respect and it is out of thispluribus that we get freedom.

Berlin’s argument seems a lot more compelling, if not obvious, now than it did when I first discovered it in 1969.  Indeed history has, since 1969, vindicated it by burying the pretenses of Marxism and many other dogmatic and utopian preaching. But it is certainly far from being universally accepted which is illustrated by the radical Islamists who train terrorists daily to destroy our freedom to reject their view of life which has no liberty in it.

Even now, Berlin’s theory is questioned by other philosophers such as the Philosopher, Leo Strauss, who in his essay, “Relativism” points out that Berlin’s position is paradoxical in that it made Pluralism- the denial of one supreme, absolute value- the supreme, absolute value.

Isaiah Berlin, as Charles Krauthammer has pointed out, had a “fecund, restless mind- which moved from one idea to another (often in the same sentence!)”.  For this reason he was never able to establish a grand intellectual edifice of his own.  He remained forever a fox.

Even so, I’m ordering some more copies of “Four Essays” and sending it to some of the young people I saw graduate this year and maybe some of the older people who watched them.  Pluralism may be the conventional wisdom of today in a way it clearly was not in 1969.  But it is continuously being challenged here at home by religious fundamentalists whose adherents replace diverse Justice Department Civil Rights Attorneys with “Good Americans” and by “Radical Islamists” throughout the world whose activities do not respect borders.

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