nthposition online magazine

On reading Isaiah Berlin


[ opinion - january 10 ]

"The peasantry work, not only for themselves, but for the aristocracy, the army, and for the manufacturers," the poet Percy Shelley wrote in the notes on his poem 'Queen Mab'.

We keep in mind the fact that Shelley wrote those words 200 years ago in an England free from slavery and feudalism, distinct in this regard from Mediterranean lands. In the English Revolution of 1640-60, Parliament had beaten the King because it could appeal to the enthusiastic support of the bankers and builders in town and countryside, to the progressive gentry and yeomen, and to wider groups of the population. England was already a modern nation.

I do not want to live as a mere appendage to the giant leveling corporations that try to rule the world through trade and coercion; rather I want to find the freedom to do what I please within the confines of servitude. One of my teachers always said not to kick against the pricks; another told us to avoid enthusiasm. They were hoping to delay the consequences of Murphy's Law, "If anything can go wrong, it will." Do not make waves is good advice when you are standing with others in shit up to your chins.

On the other hand, some have said that the workers should arise and unite, breaking the chains that bind. Proletarier aller Länder, vereinigt euch! Prolétaires de tous les pays, unissez-vous.

There are no permanent standards in life and art, so there does not exist any sort of Universal Correctness. It is not obtainable because such absolute certainty is a chimera, a pipedream, and an abstraction in the mind. Each way of life can create its own standards, values, and mental universe just as we enter the lives of the Ancient Greeks or the Elizabethan Englishmen through re-creative imagination. We can do it when we try.

All knowledge does not consist of a piece. It is not one whole thing. It is not an abstraction that can be grasped in the mind. It is not a seamless entity. Rather, all knowledge exists in the minds of users who are as different as every language and dialect on earth, and for that matter as different as every kind of music. The world of French speakers, although close, is not the same as the world of English speakers. And, for example, the world of Chinese speakers shares few realities with that of English speakers. We think it is the same world because the worlds come together when trade, design, production, transportation, and distribution are the business at hand, our shared concerns, but even under the weight of shared problems the burdens are felt differently, and so the meaning of everything is different.

The old bromide that everyone is down deep the same is false. People of different languages, cultures, and histories are different in many ways that we cannot see and much less understand. We do not live in the same world. We do not inhabit the same mind space, worldview, or way of seeing the physical world. We see according to our language, categorizing everything in our experience, and this resulting language reinforces itself and our ways of looking at what we see and do.

The right way is our way, whatever it is. And so, for example, the Lakota Sioux Indians had to fight to the death, as if their tribes were one person. And so they did. The ancients knew that all the knowledge and body of a people is present in everyone, in each individual of the group, even in one member of the tribe. That is why the Philistines ran away when David killed Goliath with a single perfectly accurate shot, perhaps with a little help from an angel. Upon seeing their hero defeated, the Philistine army just dropped everything and ran, giving the Israelites then in hot pursuit the victory.


Why we need bosses

The unjust tyrant is lord over the truly simple and just: he is the stronger, and his subjects do what is for his interest, and minister to his happiness, which is often very far from being their own. It follows that the only logical course for any human being is to try to be happily unjust, rather than simple - that is, stupid - and just.

In the first book of Plato's Republic, a "roar" from Thrasymachus rudely interrupts Socrates's measured discussion of the nature of justice. "He could no longer hold his peace," Socrates recalls, "and, gathering himself up, he came at us like a wild beast, seeking to devour us. We were quite panic-stricken at the sight of him." What makes Thrasymachus so angry is the idealistic notion of justice that Socrates tries to defend. The philosopher argues that "justice is the proper virtue of man," but Thrasymachus demands that he give up such woolly abstractions: "I will not have you say that justice is duty or advantage or profit or gain or interest, for this sort of nonsense will not do for me; I must have clearness and accuracy." When one looks at justice clearly, Thrasymachus insists, he finds that it's nothing but the disguise worn by power: "I proclaim that justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger."

The only way we can get justice is by way of power.

There is more than one true answer to every question. Truth is not one thing, not unitary. We shall never be able to organize a society free from superstition, dogma, intellectual dishonesty, cupidity, oppression, mendacity, paltry equivocation, and sin. But we can do without politicians, and try live moral personal lives.

When liberty for the powerful and learned means exploitation of the weak and ignorant, the strong and smart must stop whatever is taking away from the weak and ignorant, and give to the weak and ignorant what they lack. There is no excuse for poverty.