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Political Ideas in the Romantic Age

by Isaiah Berlin

(Chatto & Windus / 292pp. / £25.00)

Review by Hugh Lawson-Tancred

WHEN astronomers seek to find out about a very remote celestial body, they often take a nearer star as their reference. It is a little like this to study the ideologues of the European revolutionary age through the lens of Isaiah Berlin, the protagonist of liberal pluralism in the malignant fog of the Cold War: it is never quite possible to tell whether one is learning about Rousseau, say, and the rise of the Jacobins, or about Berlin and the shadow of the gulag.

In reality, to read Berlin is to gain a fascinating insight into the relationship between the ideological environment of the late eighteenth, early nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, and, by contrast, that of the early twenty-first. Berlin consistently maintains – and nowhere more robustly than in Political Ideas – that the pensées of the savants “form the basic intellectual capital on which, with few additions, we live to this day”. This was a plausible, but not indisputable, claim in 1950, whereas it is an implausible, but on reflection not absurd, one today. In any case, the perceived relationship between the Enlight-enment and the world after 1945 is surely the key to Berlin’s work. He saw himself as a combined custodian and pathologist of the liberal tradition, or perhaps a prudent family solicitor constantly on defending the basic intellectual capital against the fluctuations of the ideological market place and ever alert to the possibilities of capital growth. As long as the Enlightenment and its immediate aftermath remain a beacon for liberals, Berlin’s careful tending of the flame will be valuable and valued.

Political Ideas in the Romantic Age is the latest product of the systematic re-issue of Berlin’s works by the indefatigable Henry Hardy. It is based on lectures delivered at Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, in the spring of 1952. Hardy describes it as Berlin’s Grundrisse, a large project not completed to the author’s satisfaction but which formed the raw material for much later work. In the form in which it now emerges from its half-century of slumber, it constitutes Berlin’s “longest book”. It would, however, be quite wrong to regard it as any kind of summa – it is certainly not possible to ‘do’ Berlin by reading it. It does contain most of his major hallmark topics – positive and negative freedom, rational and romantic liberalism, the fallacies of determinism and the proper uses of historicism – and his usual close, perhaps too close, engagement with the intellectual personalities of his heroes and villains. Yet the treatment here is relatively inchoate in comparison with the later monographs, notably the masterly Two Concepts of Liberty.

Stylistically, it bears some traces of its origins in the lecture hall. For those lucky enough to have heard him lecture, Berlin’s performances were indeed unforgettable. He had the ready mastery of the material characteristic of his era but added to it an extraordinary passion and, at his finest, panache, which set him apart from Taylor or Rowse or Ayer. Inevitably, something of this is lost on translation to the page.

The four chapters (preceded by an interesting retrospectively-composed Prologue) correspond to the four original lectures. The first and last – dealing respectively with Berlin’s ultimately doomed attempt to construct a coherent account of political theory as a kind of normative science, poised half way between objective and subjective discourse, and with his highly influential revival of the historicism of the then little known Vico and Herder – are the least interesting, or at any rate most overshadowed by later work. The two central chapters, however, on Enlighten-ment and Romantic conceptions of freedom, are vintage Berlin. There are certainly flaws, such as his absurdly uneven treatment of Rousseau (used, I suspect, as a whipping boy for Hitler and Stalin), but the 120 pages of these chapters overall represent a compellingly sustained engagement with the concept of freedom in European political discourse. At its heart lies Berlin’s smouldering hostility to any ‘instrumentalist’ conception of freedom, as a means to achieving some further, supposedly higher purpose, and his eloquent espousal of the Kantian, romantic conception of freedom as the full realisation of the self.

The range of characters paraded is wide and by no means always as familiar to us as Berlin at least took it to be to his audience – how many of us have seriously read our Pufendorf? Nor is the account of them in the present work as rigorous and objective as would now be standard in a work of ‘popularising’ history of ideas. But that, I think, matters little: the point of Berlin is that he is himself the last of the thinkers that he describes, the continuation of the tradition that he celebrates. It is as though the playwright enters the stage, perhaps in the role of a kind of chorus leader, and following his lead, we ourselves feel at times a little like chorus members.

Hugh Lawson-Tancred is a Departmental Fellow in Philosophy at Birbeck College, London.

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