Isaiah Berlin and the Enlightenment

Sir Isaiah Berlin, as he eventually became, was the leading British intellectual historian of his time. He was born in 1909 in Riga, on the western edge of the Russian Empire. To avoid the Revolution, his family moved to Britain, where the young Berlin pursued a brilliant academic career in philosophy, becoming a Fellow of All Souls College in Oxford in 1932. His many later achievements included the founding of Wolfson College, also in Oxford. As a public intellectual, he was famous as a spell-binding lecturer, much in demand for talks and broadcasts.

Feeling somewhat constrained by Oxford philosophy, Berlin turned increasingly to the history of ideas. No such subject was recognized in mid-twentieth-century Britain, though it was represented in the United States by Arthur O. Lovejoy, author (among much else) of The Great Chain of Being (1933). By the time of Berlin’s death in 1998, the ‘Cambridge school’ of intellectual history, based less on discrete concepts than on the historical study of languages and vocabularies, was well established, thanks to Quentin Skinner and John Pocock. But for some decades Berlin had the field virtually to himself.

Though Berlin’s interests were many and various, he is associated especially with the Enlightenment. And here some oddities occur, which Laurence Brockliss and I sought to explore in a conference held at Wolfson in 2014 and in the resulting book, Isaiah Berlin and the Enlightenment (2016).

Sir Isaiah Berlin, by Walter Stoneman (1957), National Portrait Gallery, London.

Sir Isaiah Berlin, by Walter Stoneman (1957), National Portrait Gallery, London.

Berlin came to the Enlightenment via Karl Marx. In 1933 he was commissioned to write a small book on Marx for a general audience. It appeared in 1939 as Karl Marx: His Life and Environment. Berlin read not only Marx’s voluminous writings but also the authors who had influenced him, including the philosophes of the French Enlightenment. In exploring their work, Berlin, who knew Russian perfectly, was guided by the work of the Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov. Plekhanov’s writings directed him to the radical materialists Helvétius and d’Holbach. They were convinced that human beings came into the world with minds like blank slates (as Locke had argued), owed all their knowledge to external sensations and influences, and could therefore be shaped through education and guided towards perfection.

In all Berlin’s subsequent references to the Enlightenment, this utopian doctrine reappears. The Enlightenment stands for the hope of reshaping the world through rational education and leading humanity towards a perfect society. Naturally Berlin regarded such hopes with scepticism. While respecting the humane intentions of the philosophes, he thought that their programme would involve unacceptable coercion and would risk ironing out the rich diversity of human life into boring uniformity. Above all, it was sure to founder on what Kant, in a phrase Berlin loved to quote, called ‘the crooked timber of humanity’. Human beings were too quirky, too awkward, too cussed to fit into any utopian scheme – and that was fortunate, considering how the utopian hopes invested in the Soviet Union had turned out.

Berlin’s opposition to utopian schemes made him one of the great liberal intellectuals who were much needed during the Cold War period. He has an American counterpart in the New York critic Lionel Trilling, whose novel The Middle of the Journey (1948) culminates in a fine statement of liberal values.

But was Berlin fair to the Enlightenment? He foregrounds thinkers who now seem minor and relatively uninteresting. He never gives extended discussion to the far more complex, more sceptical, and more talented writers Voltaire and Diderot. More curiously still, when the New American Library commissioned him in the 1950s to compile an anthology of philosophical texts, The Age of Enlightenment (1956; re-issued in 1979 by Oxford University Press), most space is given to British writers – Locke, Hume, and Berkeley; of the French, only Voltaire features, and that briefly; and we find a very incongruous writer, Johann Georg Hamann.

Johann Georg Hamann. Image Wikimedia Commons.

Johann Georg Hamann. Image Wikimedia Commons.

Hamann (1730-1788), a fellow-townsman and acquaintance of Kant and other Enlightenment luminaries, was a devout if unorthodox Christian who wrote in a perplexingly opaque style. He dwells on the inadequacy of reason, the limitations of language, the need for a constant dialogue with God who himself speaks in riddles. He represents the antithesis to the utopian optimism that Berlin ascribed to the Enlightenment. Hamann became a central figure in what Berlin called ‘the Counter-Enlightenment’. This term referred to the late-eighteenth-century reaction against Enlightenment universalism in favour of the unique particular. It rejected reason in favour of emotion, ‘progress’ in favour of pessimism; instead of affirming humanity’s basic goodness, it warned darkly of original sin.

Berlin did not share these beliefs. But, by his own account, he found the Counter-Enlightenment a salutary reminder of the insufficiency of Enlightenment values. One of Berlin’s favourite ideas was that humanity had to choose or compromise between incompatible goods. Enlightenment, reason, and liberty were excellent; but to embrace them you had to relinquish other values which were also good.

Neither Berlin’s conception of the Enlightenment, nor that of the Counter-Enlightenment, would be generally accepted now. But the tension he found between them illustrates an undeniable moral dilemma in human life. And his expression of this dilemma may well be found memorable and challenging, long after his conception of intellectual history has retreated into the past.

– Ritchie Robertson

Advertisements

Une réflexion d’Helvétius, à propos des récents événements qui ont ensanglanté la France et le monde

Dans son livre De l’esprit paru en 1758, Helvétius s’efforce de montrer, au chapitre 25 du discours III, que la force des passions est proportionnelle à la grandeur des récompenses qu’on leur propose pour objet. Pour prouver la vérité de ce rapport, il cite d’abord l’exemple des conquistadors espagnols et des flibustiers, «échauffés de la soif de l’or», puis passe aux anciens Germains, «animés de l’espoir d’une récompense imaginaire, mais la plus grande de toutes, lorsque la crédulité la réalise», et enfin aux Sarrasins qui, persuadés par Mahomet «que le Très-Haut leur a livré la terre, qu’il fera marcher devant eux la terreur et la désolation», se lancent avec ferveur dans le jihad:

«Frappés de ces récits, les Sarrasins prêtent aux discours de Mahomet une oreille d’autant plus crédule, qu’il leur fait des descriptions plus voluptueuses du séjour céleste destiné aux hommes vaillants. Intéressés par les plaisirs des sens à l’existence de ces beaux lieux, je les vois, échauffés de la plus vive croyance et soupirant sans cesse après les houris, fondre avec fureur sur leurs ennemis. Guerriers, s’écrie dans le combat un de leurs généraux, nommé Ikrimah, je les vois ces belles filles aux yeux noirs; elles sont quatre-vingt. Si l’une d’elles apparaissait sur la terre, tous les rois descendraient de leur trône pour la suivre. Mais, que vois-je? C’en est une qui s’avance; elle a un cothurne d’or pour chaussure; d’une main elle tient un mouchoir de soie verte, et de l’autre une coupe de topaze; elle me fait signe de la tête, en me disant: Venez ici, mon bien-aimé… Attendez-moi, divine houri; je me précipite dans les bataillons infidèles, je donne, je reçois la mort et vous rejoins.

Tant que les yeux crédules des Sarrasins virent aussi distinctement les houris, la passion des conquêtes, proportionnée en eux à la grandeur des récompenses qu’ils attendaient, les anima d’un courage supérieur à celui qu’inspire l’amour de la patrie: aussi produisit-il de plus grands effets, et les vit-on, en moins d’un siècle, soumettre plus de nations que les Romains n’en avaient subjugué en six cents ans.

Aussi les Grecs, supérieurs aux Arabes, en nombre, en discipline, en armures et en machines de guerre, fuyaient-ils devant eux, comme des colombes à la vue de l’épervier. Toutes les nations liguées ne leur auraient alors opposé que d’impuissantes barrières.

Bataille de Poitiers

Bataille de Poitiers en octobre 732, par Charles de Steuben (1830s).

Pour leur résister, il eût fallu armer les chrétiens du même esprit dont la loi de Mahomet animait les musulmans; promettre le Ciel et la palme du martyre, comme saint Bernard la promit du temps des croisades, à tout guerrier qui mourrait en combattant les infidèles: proposition que l’empereur Nicéphore fit aux évêques assemblés, qui, moins habiles que saint Bernard, la rejetèrent d’une commune voix. Ils ne s’aperçurent point que ce refus décourageait les Grecs, favorisait l’extinction du christianisme et les progrès des Sarrasins, auxquels on ne pouvait opposer que la digue d’un zèle égal à leur fanatisme. Ces évêques continuèrent donc d’attribuer aux crimes de la nation les calamités qui désolaient l’Empire, et dont un œil éclairé eût cherché et découvert la cause dans l’aveuglement de ces mêmes prélats, qui, dans de pareilles conjonctures, pouvaient être regardés comme les verges dont le Ciel se servait pour frapper l’Empire, et comme la plaie dont il l’affligeait.

Helvetius

Charles Adrien Helvétius, par Louis Michel van Loo, 1755.

Les succès étonnants des Sarrasins dépendaient tellement de la force de leurs passions, et la force de leurs passions des moyens dont on se servait pour les allumer en eux; que ces mêmes Arabes, ces guerriers si redoutables, devant lesquels la terre tremblait et les armées grecques fuyaient dispersées comme la poussière devant les aquilons, frémissaient eux-mêmes à l’aspect d’une secte de musulmans nommés les Safriens [Sufrites]. Échauffés, comme tous réformateurs, d’un orgueil plus féroce et d’une croyance plus ferme, ces sectaires voyaient, d’une vue plus distincte, les plaisirs célestes que l’espérance ne présentait aux autres musulmans que dans un lointain plus confus. Aussi ces furieux Safriens voulaient-ils purger la terre de ses erreurs, éclairer ou exterminer les nations, qui, disaient-ils, à leur aspect, devaient, frappées de terreur ou de lumière, se détacher de leurs préjugés ou de leurs opinions aussi promptement que la flèche se détache de l’arc dont elle est décochée.

Ce que je dis des Arabes et des Safriens peut s’appliquer à toutes les nations mues par le ressort des religions; c’est en ce genre l’égal degré de crédulité, qui, chez tous les peuples, produit l’équilibre de leur passion et de leur courage.»

– Gerhardt Stenger

Helvétius and Voltaire

Claude-Adrien Helvétius

Claude-Adrien Helvétius (1715–1771)
after Louis-Michel van Loo
(Toulon 1707 – Paris 1771), 1759.
Oil painting on canvas. Unsigned.
Ickworth, Suffolk. © National Trust Images

Helvétius is remembered today, three hundred years after his birth, mainly for two controversial treatises: De l’esprit (1758) and De l’homme (1773). The furore surrounding the publication of De l’esprit was particularly intense, and the ensuing affaire soon reached the status of being one of the great literary scandals of the age. De l’homme added more fuel to the flames.

Voltaire’s connection with Helvétius predates this notorious affaire and can be traced back to 1738. The fourth of the Discours en vers sur l’homme is dedicated to ‘M. H***’, [1] and it is clear from their first exchange of letters between July 1738 and August 1740 that Voltaire was immediately impressed with the young Helvétius. On Helvétius’s appointment as fermier-général in 1738 he composed a poem in his honour, the Epître à Monsieur Helvétius. [2] He sent his ‘cher élève des muses, d’Archimede et de Plutus’ a copy of the Eléments de la philosophie de Newton, and invited him to Cirey (D1560, D1581): ‘Nous avons ici un fermier général qui me paraît avoir la passion des belles-lettres’ (D1570).

The aspiring poet sent Voltaire two poems, the Epître sur l’amour de l’étude and Sur l’orgueil et la paresse de l’esprit, on which Voltaire offered advice in the Remarques sur deux épîtres d’Helvétius and in the Conseils à Helvétius sur la composition et sur le choix du sujet d’une épître morale. [3] Voltaire’s letter of 14 August 1741 (D2529) marks the end of a remarkable three-year sequence of letters in which he had acted as Helvétius’s ‘directeur pour ce royaume des belles-lettres’ (D1673). Their correspondence would then lapse for seventeen years, not resuming until 1758, the year of De l’esprit.

Voltaire’s disapproval of De l’esprit can be seen in ‘Du mot quisquis de Ramus, ou de La Ramée’ in the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, [4] and he resented the fact that Helvétius had never discussed the treatise with him. However, the warmth of his affection, never fully reciprocated, would survive their differences. In 1760 and 1761 he pressed the case for Helvétius’s election to the Academy (D9047, D9600), telling Helvétius that he was ‘mon confrère dans le petit nombre des élus qui marchent sur le serpent et sur le basilic’ (D9777).

Their friendship had already started to cool in 1741, and in the 1760s the ideological distance widened as Helvétius gravitated towards d’Holbach and the materialists. By 1767 Voltaire had ceased to see Helvétius as his disciple, but the soft spot he had for the man he once called ‘l’espérance et le modèle des philosophes et des poètes’ (D2096) would endure: ‘Je n’aimais point du tout son livre, mais j’aimais sa personne’ (D17572). The masonic lodge to which Voltaire was admitted on 7 April 1778 was Helvétius’s lodge, and it was Helvétius’s masonic apron that he wore for the ceremony of induction before the bust of his ‘ami charmant’ (D2147).

– David Williams

While writing this it was with great sorrow that I learned of the death of Alan Dainard on 19 December 2014. An eminent member of the French Department at the University of Toronto, Alan was one of the founder members of the editorial team lead by David Smith of the Correspondance générale d’Helvétius, the first volume of which appeared in 1981 under the joint imprint of the University of Toronto Press and the Voltaire Foundation. He was also the General Editor of the Correspondance de Madame de Graffigny to which he dedicated most of his scholarly life. The fifteenth and last volume of this edition is due for publication by the Voltaire Foundation in 2015. Alan will leave a gap in our ranks not easily filled.

[1] OCV, vol.17, p.491.

[2] OCV, vol.18A, p.297.

[3] OCV, vol.18C, p.41-68, 79-82.

[4] OCV, vol.43, p.85-90.

Happy birthday Denis Diderot! A letter from Marian Hobson

Cher Denis Diderot, happy 300th birthday!

birthdaydiderotWherever you are – for you were a non-believer all your life, and the afterlife you looked forward to was one of infinitely recyclable molecules living on in ever new combinations. A process possibly without end, spinning out like the cosmos itself, but one that was sufficiently complex to leave room for human intervention.

So for 20 years of your life and against the odds you edited the Encyclopédie, aiming to consolidate what was known about agriculture, art, theology, trade – a raft of subjects that probably no other European would have dared bring together – in order that intervention might improve, and wrongs in human systems and thought be at least discussed, and if possible righted.

However, that changing of opinions and recycling of molecules requires energy – that you also knew. In deliciously underhanded ways you developed yours by writing: for instance, dialogues of speculative science prefiguring cloning (Le Rêve de D’Alembert); a hilarious novel (Jacques le fataliste), anticipating le nouveau roman of the 1950s and 1960s, one presenting a net of random co-occurrences out of which events develop in a way that mimics freedom. Your novel forms a net which thus appears as the paradoxical opposite of a linear, causal determinism, and from it we see that these apparent opposites take in each other’s philosophical washing: What is it to be free? Not to be determined. To be determined? Not to be free.

Notably kind, you yet had a talent for comedy and satire which you hid in unpublished work, the satire in the form of a novel-cum-dialogue (Le Neveu de Rameau). Unlike your friend-enemy Rousseau, you are not in the Panthéon; your work doesn’t appear as a set philosophical text in that summum of your country’s education ladder, the written exam of the agrégation en philosophie.DiderotJacquesFatalist01

Your accolades are less of the Establishment, are more wayward and in the future – you will be translated by Goethe, be used as a springboard towards the dialectic by Hegel, and Freud will be glad to find in you a past confirmation of his Oedipus complex. Your work ghosting for others (the atheist d’Holbach), commenting on and round them (Helvétius and the believer Hemsterhuis) and collaborating namelessly on a history of colonialisms (L’histoire des Deux-Indes) has gently rocked beliefs without inculcating dogma or doctrine. We can’t turn you into a memorial, not yet anyway, there is too much to do. You make us keep on thinking. Thank you for all this, cher Denis Diderot!

-Marian Hobson

To find out more about Diderot, please visit our dedicated page.