There was an Isaiah Berlin in the cave


Berlin’s essay on Montesquieu is a good candidate for the most resonant piece he ever wrote about anything, but even then he stopped short conceptually of the conclusions he was on the point of reaching by instinct. He gives a detailed account of how Montesquieu’s pluralism valued all cultures; and then a further account of how Montesquieu, seeing the danger, wanted to leave room for some cultures being more valuable than others; but he made comparatively little of the device by which Montesquieu furthered the concept of an absolute morality that would apply even in the world of relative values that he had done so much to celebrate. Yet the device was right there in Montesquieu’s prose, and Berlin actually quoted it. “Justice is eternal, and doesn’t depend at all on human conventions.” Berlin thought Montesquieu had merely deepened his problem by saying that there could be universal laws in a relative world. But Montesquieu wasn’t saying that there were universal laws instinctive to all men. He was saying that there were eternal laws instinctive to some of them. Montesquieu argued that it didn’t matter who says torture might be necessary: our better nature, if we have one, tells us it is wrong. He was, in other words, a good man by instinct. The implication is that there were good men among the first men, and bad men too. If Berlin had faced the likelihood that his own goodness, like the evil of Stalin and Hitler, stemmed from a time when there was no idea in mankind’s head except where the next meal was coming from and how to kill it, he might have been better equipped to deal with modern malevolence in its full horrific force. There was an Isaiah Berlin in the cave. He just had less to talk about at dinner, and the food was terrible.

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