Revolutions, Omelettes, and Philosophy

What on Earth can revolutions, omelettes, and philosophy have in common? A lot, as it turns out! At least if you think about it from the perspective of Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997). He was a philosopher, a thinker, a historian of ideas, and, according to many (I agree with them), one of the most fascinating, capturing, and creative minds of the 20th century. 

The curious fusion of these three seemingly totally disparate notions comes from his essay “My Intellectual Path”. He wrote it in 1996, his last work, and it was published in 1998. In it, Berlin looks back at his career and summarises his main ideas and beliefs. Among them is one of his towering contributions to our intellectual landscape – the idea of pluralism of values as opposed to its eternal enemy, probably as old as humanity itself, monism, or the notion that there is and can be only one right answer to all our meaningful questions, the wellspring of all dogmatism. Here is what Berlin has to say about it in his essay “My Intellectual Path”, his final work.

“The Encyclopedists [here Berlin refers to the French philosophers, writers and thinkers of the 18th century who set out to “liberate men from darkness – clerical, metaphysical, political and the like” by promoting science and compiling the Encyclopédie, a general encyclopedia of knowledge] believed in scientific method as the only key to such knowledge; Rousseau and others believed in eternal truths discovered by introspective means. But however they differed, they belonged to a generation which was convinced that it was on the path to the solution of all the problems that had plagued mankind from its beginnings.”

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He goes on to explain the conceptual basis and the deep-rooted belief underlying these tireless (and largely futile) human efforts. I cannot help but remember the Greek myth of Sicyphus, a man condemned to eternally vain activity. Is there a chance to break the spell?

“A wider thesis underlay this: namely, that to all true questions there must be one true answer and one only, all the other answers being false, for otherwise the questions cannot be genuine questions. There must exist a path which leads clear thinkers to the correct answers to these questions, as much in the moral, social and political worlds as in that of the natural sciences, whether it is the same method or not; and once all the correct answers to the deepest moral, social and political questions that occupy (or should occupy) mankind are put together, the result will represent the final solution to all the problems of existence.”

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This may appear naive and not the way we, modern people, think nowadays. Yet, is that really so? Are we being honest with ourselves? Berlin suggests that this search for the illusive One Truth has been with us since ancient times and, crucially, it still is with us today.

“This is a philosophia perennis – what men, thinkers, have believed from the pre-Socratics to all the reformers and revolutionaries of our own age. It is the central belief on which human thought has rested for two millennia.”

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Berlin’s own conviction differs. He observes and recognises the great diversity that characterises humanity (and, indeed, all nature). This is what leads him to the idea of pluralism of values.

“I do not know why I always felt sceptical about this almost universal belief, but I did. It may be a matter of temperament, but so it was… I came to the conclusion that there is a plurality of ideals, as there is a plurality of cultures and of temperaments.”

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The most obvious and almost immediate criticism of any kind of pluralism is to take it to the extreme and accuse it of relativism. This means, in short, that there is no objective reference, that everything is relative and varying with individual perspectives. If that were the case, we could never agree on anything if we happened to hold different views. There would be no common ground since that would imply limiting the plurality of valid beliefs. And if we don’t want to fall into complete anarchy, pluralism needs to defend its position against such criticism. Berlin does that elegantly, in my view. He addresses the problem in the following way.

“I am not a relativist; I do not say ‘I like my coffee with milk and you like it without; I am in favour of kindness and you prefer concentration camps’ – each of us with his own values, which cannot be overcome or integrated. This I believe to be false. But I do believe that there is a plurality of values which men can and do seek, and that these values differ. There is not an infinity of them: the number of human values, of values which I can pursue while maintaining my human semblance, my human character, is finite… And the difference this makes is that if a man pursues one of these values, I, who do not, am able to understand why he pursues it or what it would be like, in his circumstances, for me to be induced to pursue it. Hence the possibility of human understanding.”

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This is an important point Berlin makes. Human values are not of infinite number, they are limited. Granted, each of us individually might not experience or pursue all of them, but that does not mean that the spectrum of human values is endless. Indeed, if it were, how would we ever hope to understand each other? Moreover, if being human is at least party defined by holding and pursuing typically-human values, then it makes sense that the available range is finite. After all, we, humans, are also finite. This leads us to the second crucial point Berlin makes about human values. He thinks they are objective.

“I think these values are objective – that is to say, their nature, the pursuit of them, is part of what it is to be human being, and this is an objective given. The fact that men are men and women are women and not dogs or cats or tables or chairs is an objective fact; and part of this objective fact is that there are certain values, and only those values, which men, while remaining men, can pursue… for all human beings must have some common values or they cease to be human, and also some different values else they cease to differ, as in fact they do. That is why pluralism is not relativism – the multiple values are objective, part of the essence of humanity rather than arbitrary creations of men’s subjective fancies.”

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Of course, we may debate the use or applicability of the concept of objectivity when discussing human values, but, for our purposes here, I think that is not the point. Berlin proposes an interesting idea. His multiple values concept – pluralism – consists of a finite number of typically-human values that are not dreamt up or called into existence from thin air by some individual or another. Rather, they exist because and as long as humans exist. They represent one of characteristics of our species. And a curious idea emerges from such take on values. Namely – we humans can understand each other (at least in principle, if we really want to, we have that possibility), which means that we have something in common. At the same time, however, we all differ from one another since there are no two identical human beings (not in a natural way). This means that people are similar and different simultaneously. A complex contradiction, aren’t we? But if so, then we need something that reflects this complexity at the foundation of our societies. Neither monism, nor relativism can tackle that, as they go to oversimplified extremes, each in its own way.

“If pluralism is a valid view, and respect between systems of values which are not necessarily hostile to each other is possible, then toleration and liberal consequences follow, as they do not either from monism (only one set of values is true, all others are false) or from relativism (my values are mine, yours are yours, and if we clash, too bad, neither of us can claim to be right). “

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It is perhaps easier to understand why relativism is not a sustainable view in the long run for any society. But what is wrong with monism? After all, if we ever actually do get it right, then we would finally have the perfect life, perfect society and perfect world, wouldn’t we? It is in these well-meant fantasies (sometimes not so well-meant at all) that the dangers of ‘one ultimate truth’ approach lurk.

“…monism – the ancient belief that there is a single harmony of truths into which everything, if it is genuine, in the end must fit. The consequence of this belief…is that those who know shuld command those who do not. Those who know the answers to some of the great problems of mankind must be obeyed, for they alone know how society should be organised, how individual lives should be lived, how culture should be developed. This is the old Platonic belief in the philosopher-kings, who were entitled to give orders to others. There have always been thinkers who hold that if only scientists, or scientifically trained persons, could be put in charge of things, the world would be vastly improved. To this I have to say that no better excuse, or even reason, has ever been propounded for unlimited despotism on the part of an elite which robs the majority of its essential liberties.”

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And now, finally, we come to the place in our story where the eggs and the omelette come on stage. You will never look at eggs the same after this. On that note, now I understand why I have always been very sceptical about revolutions.

“Most revolutionaries believe, covertly or overtly, that in order to create the ideal world eggs must be broken, otherwise one cannot obtain the omelette. Eggs are certainly broken – never more violently or ubiquitously than in our times – but the omelette is far to seek, it recedes into an infinite distance. That is one of the corollaries of unbridled monism, as I call it – some call it fanaticism, but monism is at the root of every extremism.”

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There is another reason why monism is dangerous. It tricks us into the delusion that a perfect world, an ideal life is something even theoretically possible. But if a world is to be perfect, then all of our most cherished values must also attain perfection. This is impossible even in principle. Some values are incompatible with each other and can coexist only if compromises are made, which can hardly be described as a perfect, ideal world.

“Liberty, in whichever sense, is an eternal human ideal, whether individual or social. So is equality. But perfect liberty (as it must be in the perfect world) is not compatible with perfect equality. If man is free to do anything he chooses, then the strong will crush the weak, the wolves will eat the sheep, and this puts an end to equality. If perfect equality is to be attained, then men must be prevented from outdistancing each other, whether in material or in intellectual or in spiritual achievement, otherwise inequalities will result… Similarly, a world of perfect justice – and who can deny that this is one of the noblest of human values? – is not compatible with perfect mercy… either the law takes its toll, or men forgive, but the two values cannot both be realised… Liberty and equality, spontaneity and security, happiness and knowledge, mercy and justice – all these are ultimate human values, sought for themselves alone; yet when they are incompatible, they cannot all be attained, choices must be made… And if this is so… then the very notion of the ideal world, for which no sacrifice can be too great, vanishes from view.”

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Finally, let us round up the topic of revolutions, emelettes, and philosophy of these with the following words that Berlin uses to bring his last essay to an end. It is sobering, provoking, and challenging us to think hard and careful about the next big perfect-world-ideal we might be tempted to follow.

“To go back to the Encyclopedists and the Marxists and all the other movements the purpose of which is the perfect life: it seems as if the doctrine that all kinds of monstrous cruelties must be permitted, because without these the ideal state of affairs cannot be attained – all the justifications of broken eggs for the sake of the ultimate omelette, all the brutalities, sacrifices, brain-washing, all those revolutions, everything that has made the twentieth century perhaps the most appalling of any since the days of old, at any rate in the West – all this is for nothing, for the perfect universe is not merely unattainable but inconceivable, and everything done to bring it about is founded on an enormous intellectual fallacy.”

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keep exploring!

2 thoughts on “Revolutions, Omelettes, and Philosophy

  1. I just finished reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind and his thesis is in line with moral pluralism. He argues that our moral values are sort of like taste buds. We as humans all share the same taste buds, but:

    1. Our cultures, which have different cuisines, use different foods satisfy the same desires (ie. for sweetness). We all have basic conceptions of things like fairness, harm, authority , purity. – but have a range of practices which can satify these morals.

    2. Some people prefer certain tastes over others. Depending on what your values are, you may have a tendency to value fairness over authority\tradition or purity etc.

    Like

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