Ideas and Their Discontents — A Review

On November 25, 1994, Isaiah Berlin accepted a Doctor of Laws honorary degree at the University of Toronto. His remarks, “A Message to the 21st Century,” were read to the audience. Though he felt sure that the 21st century, “can be only a better time for mankind than my terrible century has been,” we cannot fault him for his misapprehension.

A biographer said that he dictated all his manuscripts. Given this style of composition, what is truly remarkable is his coherent train of thought, especially in longer works. What captured my attention in this essay was the clarity with which he outlined our ongoing problem.

Isaiah Berlin During the Reception of the Erasmus Prize, Oct. 1983 – Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

Historical Reference

Berlin’s essay starts with a historical reference point,

Men have for millennia destroyed each other, but the deeds [of the past] pale into insignificance before the Russian Revolution and its aftermath: the oppression, torture, murder which can be laid at the doors of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, and the systematic falsification of information which prevented knowledge of these horrors for years—these are unparalleled. They were not natural disasters, but preventable human crimes, and whatever those who believe in historical determinism may think, they could have been averted.

Berlin viewed these crimes as due to a drive toward some singular idea of perfection, not merely due to fear, greed, tribal hatreds, jealousy, love of power, etc., though those played a part.

As an illustration of the power of ideas, he relates an observation by the German poet Heinrich Heine, “[he] told us not to underestimate the quiet philosopher sitting in his study; if Kant had not undone theology, he declared, Robespierre might not have cut off the head of the King of France.”

Berlin goes on to say that Heine predicted that armed disciples of German nationalist philosophers would destroy Europe in a way that would make the French Revolution seem insignificant. He then says,

There are men who will kill and maim with a tranquil conscience under the influence of the words and writings of some of those who are certain that they know perfection can be reached.

Ideas Motivate

Berlin plainly states the following,

…If you are truly convinced that there is some solution to all human problems, that one can conceive an ideal society which men can reach if only they do what is necessary to attain it, then you and your followers must believe that no price can be too high to pay in order to open the gates of such a paradise.

Only the stupid and malevolent will resist once certain simple truths are put to them. Those who resist must be persuaded; if they cannot be persuaded, laws must be passed to restrain them; if that does not work, then coercion, if need be violence, will inevitably have to be used—if necessary, terror, slaughter.

He says that this is how Lenin reacted after he read Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. Berlin says that if he (Lenin) could create a “just, peaceful, happy, free, virtuous society,” then this singular, perfect end justified absolutely any means to achieve it. And Lenin pursued his goal with conviction.

Berlin points out that the root of such a conviction is the premise that the central questions of life have one true answer; and once discovered, they must be implemented. Those who have found these answers are law givers and must be followed to the end. He says that opposing leaders fought wars over which answer was right, but each was convinced they had the unique answer and only mankind’s sin or ignorance could thwart them.

One True Answer

He states that this “one true answer to life’s questions” is an age-old problem and it is demonstrably false.

Berlin says that humans, at all times and in all places, desire “liberty, security, equality, happiness, justice, knowledge, etc.” However, these universal values cannot be completely realized simultaneously. He offers the following examples,

  • Complete liberty is not compatible with complete equality…
    • If men were wholly free, the “wolves” would be free to eat the “sheep.”
    • Perfect equality means that human liberties must be restrained so that the ablest and the most gifted [do not overtake] those who would…lose if there were competition.
  • Security, and indeed freedoms, cannot be preserved if freedom to subvert them is permitted…
  • Justice has always been a human ideal, but it is not fully compatible with mercy.
  • Creative imagination and spontaneity…cannot be fully reconciled with the need for planning, organization, careful and responsible calculation.
  • Knowledge, the pursuit of truth—the noblest of aims—cannot be fully reconciled with the happiness or the freedom that men desire…

He concludes, “I must always choose between peace and excitement, or knowledge and blissful ignorance.”

Berlin says that he can offer no silver bullet to restrain the “champions” of one or another of these values, “each of whom,” likely referring to the champions, “tends to trample upon the rest.” However, he offers this modest proposal,

…If these ultimate human values by which we live are to be pursued, then compromises, trade-offs, arrangements have to be made if the worst is not to happen. So much liberty for so much equality, so much individual self-expression for so much security, so much justice for so much compassion.

…Some values clash: the ends pursued by human beings are all generated by our common nature, but their pursuit has to be to some degree controlled—liberty and the pursuit of happiness, I repeat, may not be fully compatible with each other, nor are liberty, equality, and fraternity.

He says, “We must weigh and measure, bargain, compromise, and prevent the crushing of one form of life by its rivals.”


Passionately, Berlin adjures his listeners,

…One cannot have everything one wants—not only in practice, but even in theory.

The denial of this, the search for a single, overarching ideal because it is the one and only true one for humanity, invariably leads to coercion.

And then to destruction, blood—eggs are broken, but the omelet is not in sight, there is only an infinite number of eggs, human lives, ready for the breaking.

And in the end the passionate idealists forget the omelet, and just go on breaking eggs.

Along with Berlin, I must urge us to examine our beliefs. Are we pursuing a “single, overarching ideal,” with which all will be well, and without, we will not lift a hand, in the here and now, to improve our fellow citizens’ lot? If that’s a yes, get over yourself; put your hand to the plow, do not look back, and humbly serve your fellow citizens in your community, state, and nation in the ways you are able.

Who Is Karl Marx? September 24, 2018, YouTube, PragerU

The Historical Origins Behind the Subversion of the Constitution

In his Claremont Review of Books article, “The Left Side of History,” Allen C. Guelzo reviews Bradley Watson‘s book Progressivism: The Strange History of a Radical Idea. According to Guelzo, “Watson has crafted, not so much a historical genealogy of Progressivism, as its historiography .” However, what I found interesting was Guelzo’s description of the descent of American Thought from colonial idealism into post-civil war despair and twentieth century destruction.

Guelzo opens his review with the following passage,

Progressivism, in its original 19th-century form, was the offspring of pessimism. Part of that pessimism was a revulsion at what the Civil War had done and, more to the point, failed to do. It had taken an America whose driving intellectual forces were enthusiastically religious, artistically naïve, and absolute in their moral self-confidence, and plunged it into a four-year bloodbath led by incompetent generals, pockmarked by genocidal massacres (as at Fort Pillow and the Crater), and frothing with stupidity, greed, and fraud.

Overall, approximately one out of every ten white American males of military age in 1860 was dead by 1865 from some war-related cause. Even after the war, the federal government would be paying pensions to nearly one million Union veterans or their dependents, at a total cost (by 1900) of almost 22% of all federal expenditures.

And for what? Emancipation, yes. Union, yes. But the promise that emancipation would produce an egalitarian, biracial society was cruelly smashed by the failures of Reconstruction, and reunion only resulted by the 1880s in a revival of the same old alliance of corrupt Northern Democrats and white-hooded Southern Democrats that had brought the country to the brink of war in the first place.

…The sheer volume of destruction, human and economic, unhinged something in the American mind

Into this ‘slough of despond’ fell Charles Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. Wikipedia notes that Darwin did not mean, by the term ‘races,’ our narrow definition; but, instead, species groups such as honeybee nests and human tribes. The book was first released in Great Britain in 1859 and grew in influence in America.

Guelzo says of Darwin’s Origin of Species, “…The book portrayed physical existence itself as a pointless, directionless evolution, by means of “natural selection,” from nothing in particular to nothing in particular. …In the new Darwinian universe, ideas were biological mechanisms. They did not convey truth; they were tools to assist one’s adaptation to the relentless organic processes of natural selection.”

This nihilistic idea struck a chord with late nineteenth century philosophers. Charles S. Peirce wrote in his 1878 article, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear”,

And what, then, is belief? It is the demi-cadence which closes a musical phrase in the symphony of our intellectual life. We have seen that it has just three properties: First, it is something that we are aware of; second, it appeases the irritation of doubt; and, third, it involves the establishment in our nature of a rule of action, or, say for short, a habit. As it appeases the irritation of doubt, which is the motive for thinking, thought relaxes, and comes to rest for a moment when belief is reached.

But, since belief is a rule for action, the application of which involves further doubt and further thought, at the same time that it is a stopping-place, it is also a new starting-place for thought. That is why I have permitted myself to call it thought at rest, although thought is essentially an action. The final upshot of thinking is the exercise of volition, and of this thought no longer forms a part; but belief is only a stadium of mental action, an effect upon our nature due to thought, which will influence future thinking.

And, as Guelzo says, William James defined pragmatism with greater clarity in his book Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, 1907,

Pragmatism, on the other hand, asks its usual question. “Grant an idea or belief to be true,” it says, “what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?”

The moment pragmatism asks this question, it sees the answer: True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate, and verify. False ideas are those that we cannot. That is the practical difference it makes to us to have true ideas; that, therefore, is the meaning of truth, for it is all that truth is known-as.

This thesis is what I have to defend. The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. Its verity is in fact an event, a process: the process namely of its verifying itself, its veri-fication. Its validity is the process of its validation.

As Isaiah Berlin has said,

…Philosophical concepts nurtured in the stillness of a professor’s study could destroy a civilization… Our philosophers seem oddly unaware of these devastating effects of their activities.

Guelzo says that the descent from disillusionment with Natural Law to Evolution’s purposelessness resulting in a philosophy of “what works,” pointed “toward the creation of a new American society, a society which had the chastened flexibility of a Darwinian organism rather than the rigidity of abstract truths. Creating that society was what Progressivism promised to do.”

Guelzo notes that this same influence pervaded the institution of professional historians which developed “virtually parallel to pragmatism and Progressivism.” Guelzo, quoting Watson says, “[P]rofessional American historians were, in various ways, thoroughly progressive from the get-go.” Guelzo says that this was “largely because the historians shared the infatuation with “[t]he ever-shifting interactions between organism and environment” that characterized Darwin’s evolution—and that became so vital a component of Progressive politics.”

Therefore, Guelzo says that Samuel Johnson’s assessment (Rambler 156, 14 September 1751) no longer applies, “Every government…is perpetually degenerating towards corruption, from which it must be rescued at certain periods by the resuscitation of its first principles, and the re-establishment of its original constitution.”

Progressivism saw (and sees) History as an evolving organism served by humans. Even the Founders’ Constitution, based on Natural Law, was merely an emanation of History’s development, no more valid or foundational as any other historical gyre.

In 1893, progressive historian Frederick Jackson Turner postulated that the process of the moving frontier line and its cleansing effect upon the pioneers resulted in American democracy, egalitarianism, rejection of high culture, and violence. As Turner put it, “American democracy was born of no theorist’s dream; it was not carried in the Susan Constant to Virginia, nor in the Mayflower to Plymouth. It came out of the American forest, and it gained new strength each time it touched a new frontier.” Ironically, Turner’s frontier thesis is cited in arguments for American Exceptionalism.

Progressive historian Charles A. Beard, in his 1913 book, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States contends that the Constitution of the United States was formulated to preserve the Founding Fathers’ financial interests. Beard asserted that the Constitution was written by a unified elite to protect its personal property, loans to the nascent government, and economic status. The authors of The Federalist Papers merely represented this interest group.

However, Beard denied he directly proposed this thesis in his 1935 Introduction. He claimed to have only hinted at it, “The only point considered here is: Did they [the Constitutional Convention members] represent distinct groups whose economic interests they understood and felt in concrete, definite form through their own personal experience with identical property rights, or were they working merely under the guidance of abstract principles of political science?” His text then examines the financial interests of numerous convention attendees.

Guelzo, quoting Watson, says, “[t]he progressive idea, simply put, is that the principled American constitutionalism of fixed natural rights and limited and dispersed powers must be overturned and replaced by an organic, evolutionary model of the Constitution that facilitates the authority of experts dedicated to the expansion of the public sphere and political control, especially at the national level.”

Watson defines five principles of Progressivism:

There are no fixed or eternal principles that govern.

The state and its component parts are organic [and] involved in a struggle for never-ending growth.

Democratic openness and experimentalism…are the fertilizer of the organic state.

The state and its components exist only in History.

Some individuals stand outside this process…an elite class, possessed of intelligence as a method.

The elite class leads the masses into promised utopias through any means necessary, exempting themselves from strictures which lead to hardship or any responsibility for failure.

Watson says that the American constitutional order stands on “permanent principles of political right derivable from a proper understanding of [fallen] human nature,” whereas, “Rejecting any account of an unchangeable human nature, the Progressives went deep to attack the heart of American constitutionalism.”

Finally, Guelzo urges us to understand the forces that prevailed over the post-Civil War American society,

Before the Civil War, only about 7% of American manufacturing was organized in corporations; by 1900, corporations accounted for 69% of all American manufacturing. Between 1897 and 1905 alone, 5,300 small-scale firms were consolidated and reorganized into just 318 corporations, and 26 super-corporations (or “trusts”) controlled 80% of major American industrial output.

Americans were facing an economy organized on very different principles than the one the founders knew.

The founders had dreaded power as the great threat to liberty, but they had conceived of political power as the form it was most likely to take. After 1865, it was economic power which emerged as the greatest challenge to liberty, and if one can say anything in defense of the Progressives, it should be that they saw this shift all too clearly, even if they mistook the best means for dealing with it.

…On the other hand, it would be less than candid not to admit that historians have been too much the ideological allies of Progressivism to permit themselves to see its rejection of natural rights constitutionalism as Progressivism’s master flaw.

Progressivism has evolved over the years; yet its allegiance to History and ascent to human perfectibility apart from God’s unmerited favor remains. In this uncertain period, Steven F. Haywood, in his editorial for City Journal, “Pouring on the Gasoline,” admonishes,

But that’s where we are right now, with large numbers of Americans utterly alienated from many of their fellow citizens. The causes and responsibility for this can be debated another day. [To this situation,] Harry Jaffa [wrote]: “In a republic, the sobriety of the citizens replaces the force of authority as the principal source of order.” If we do have a train-wreck election, it will be the sobriety of Americans that saves us. 

Let us therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded.

“Our Embattled Constitution” – Harry V. Jaffa, February 25, 2015, YouTube, Hillsdale College