October 11, 2006

American at the Academy

Isaiah Berlin defended the narrow ground of the intellectual liberal middle ground throughout his life, both as ambassadorial staffer, envoy to writers in Russia and Fellow of All Souls. Amongst his many attempts at defence, Berlin warned against the dangers of utopian thinking, spying in the schemes of Helvetius, Rousseau and others the origins of totalitarian thinking- in the soirees of the philosophe he saw the colours of the swastika slowly emerging. Plans of perfection he thought encouraged men to mould and cut their fellow creatures into creations of their minds: attempting a perfect equal commonwealth led to the horrors of the gulag and creating a paradise for Germans to the horrors of the Holocaust.

Berlin's warnings have become famous throughout the world on subjects like this and have been challenged many times. Bernard Bailyn today attempted to critique some of Berlin's ideas at the British Academy, attempting to show that a search for perfection was not unreconcilable with civilisation. Berlin had attempted to show how a searcher for perfection became tempted by his vision to disregard the imperfect spectacle of the men he knew, Bailyn attempted to show conditions in which that had not happened. Bailyn beleived that throughout North America during the 16th and 17th Century, religious zealots had designed perfect commonwealths which attempted largely to reproduce the conditions of heaven upon earth. Spanish proconsuls, Dutch radicals, English refugees from the calamity of civil war, religiously heterodox Protestants and religiously conventional Jesuits all exploited at various times the space of the new continents (new to Europeans) to imagine and create a truly new world.

Professor Bailyn's case was that this showed that a dream for perfection and a callous disregard for human rights were sometimes not linked as intimately as Berlin wanted us to think. The answer for a Berliner (apologies for hopeless puns, they just call out to be made) is that given huge space and minimal force, Professor Bailyn is right. Religious radicals in 17th Century America like Roger Williams found that they had almost no followers, when their fellowship grew too vast disputes thinned them out and religious sects biffurcated indefinitely and almost infinitely. Roger Williams ended his life living in a cave with his wife, praying alone because noone else was perfect enough to join him. Both the fact, that Williams expected vengeance in heaven (something Osama Bin Laden seems curiously uninterested in) and the fact that he could not physically control his fellowship, could not stop them wandering westwards into the wilderness, meant that he never tried to take the options that Stalin did.

Professor Bailyn's criticisms of Isaiah Berlin are interesting for their content- the historical analysis is fascinating- but they ultimately fail to hit their mark. He does not defend Berlin's main target, the search for perfection amongst atheist or deist enlightenment philosophers, and his analysis is geographically and historically confined- powerless people, Bailyn informs us, can't commit mass murder. Berlin I suspect would sagely nod- and point out that when searchers for perfection have power, have still on the whole murdered huge numbers of people and Bailyn has offered no theoretical or historical refutation of Berlin's central argument- however amusing his anecdotes may be.


edmund said...

i think his analyis also seems to ignoe that williams and all saw true perfectino in general as being only attainable in heaven-whcih would seem to strengthen rather than weaken berlins point