The Power of Ideas

September 1, 2000
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Isaiah Berlin (Princeton University Press 240 pages, $24.95, 2000)

Contemporary Jewish life, torn by factionalism that turns complementary polarities into warring polarizations, has much to learn from the balanced wisdom of the celebrated historian of ideas, Sir Isaiah Berlin. Bolstered by vast erudition, Berlin challenges the long prevailing absolutistic conceit in western thought: that there are universal, timeless truths that hold for all people, everywhere, at all times; truths that label dissenters as wrong headed heretics.

In many of the essays in this newly edited work by Henry Hardy, Berlin criticizes the two-millennial philosophic credo that all genuine questions have only one true answer; those answers are noble, compatible with one another, and together form a single coherent goal.

Berlin identifies this monistic creed throughout European rational and spiritual thought and warns of the dangers of its oversimplification. He understands the lure of security driving the quest for certainty. The embracing systems they spawn are characteristically one-sided and dismiss the facts and values that do not fit; moreover, they transfer methods from one discipline where they have worked to other disciplines where they distort. Throughout his many essays, Berlin is intent to free us from the Procrustean bed of monolithic orthodoxies that penetrate political, religious, and moral judgment.

Berlin, born in Riga Lithuania in 1909 and educated in England, died there in 1997. He was influenced by the German philosopher and poet Johann Gottfried Herder, who, among others, stressed the plurality of ideals, the plurality of cultures, and the plurality of temperaments. Values are not truths written in the platonic heaven. Rather, they are created by human beings born of different cultures and dispositions.

While espousing the values of pluralism, Berlin does not lapse into relativism. Values are not reduced to matters of subjective taste, “degustubus non disputandum est.” Values are objective and varied. And even when we disagree with the values of others, we must recognize and understand their emergence as the essence of humanity. In contrast to the reductionist creed of monism, the fruits of pluralism are tolerance and dialogue.

Isaiah Berlin, like William James, is a perspectivalist. Like Nietzsche, he combs the history of ideas to conclude that there is no immaculate perception. We may learn from Berlin’s judicious and modest approach to avoid the perils of dichotomous thinking. More often than not, we are presented with forced options, either/or hard disjunctives that box us into partisan, denominational camps. Schismatic either/or thinking produces narrow choices: either particularism or universalism, either revelation or invention, either literalism or fantasy, either law or spirit.

Throughout many of the essays, Berlin warns of the monistic trap that chains us to one obdurate view and denies the richness and complexity of perspectivalism. Many of Berlin’s essays lean upon those ignored thinkers who risked popularity but enlarged the mind and spirit of civilization. They include such thinkers as Giambatissto Vico, J. C. Herder, Benjamin Disraeli, Moses Hess, and Georges Sorrel among others.

Isaiah Berlin’s masterful critique of both absolutism and relativism brings to mind a profound midrash from Pesiktah de Rav Kahana in which the rabbis ponder the meaning of the verse in Exodus “I am the Lord thy God.” How is it, they wonder, for though the voice addressed an entire people, each person heard the voice as if it were addressed to him individually. Rabbi Levi explained “God appeared to them like a mirror in which many faces can be reflected. A thousand may look at it and it reflects each of them. So the text does not say ‘I am the Lord your God,’ addressed to the collective but ‘I am the Lord thy God,’ addressed to the individual.” Other rabbis concur and add their own illustrations. The manna tasted differently to each: to the children, to the young, to the old, each according to their power. God speaks to every person according to his or her power.

The mirror is one, the reflections are many. The voice is one, but the echoes are multiple. It is therefore wise to listen to those who have heard differently and to respect their hearing. It is wise to compare and evaluate the different reflections from the same mirror. In our time when we are experiencing mounting impatience with pluralism and intolerance toward dissenting voices, Berlin’s perspectivalism is healing.

Berlin is sensitive to the excesses of either approach. Monotheism can degenerate into monism and pluralism into anarchic relativism. But a holistic view of our tradition can avoid the extremes of each that are forms of avodah zarah, that strange idolatry that worships a part as if it were the whole. The parts are splinters; they need not be discarded. They must be gathered together and traced to the roots of the Tree of Life and Knowledge.

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Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, a contributing Editor of Sh'ma, is the Spiritual Leader of Congregation Valley Beth Shalom.

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