Kritisk recension av Isaiah Berlins brev

Artikel i TLS av A.N. Wilson om Isaiah Berlins brev, den andra volymen som just har utkommit. Väldigt kritisk text. Nästan så att jag tappade sugen på att läsa böckerna (hade annars planerat att sätta igång med första volymen ”1928-1946” ganska snart).

The whole volume, indeed, fills the reader with a gloom which was surely not intended by the editors. If the reader, and even more the conscientious reviewer, who has read each page with notebook in hand, feels that the exercise of reading was a waste of time, that only half explains the misery that the exercise provokes. Reading the book, after all, takes only a week. But writing these tedious, infelicitous, prolix letters took fourteen years of a clever man’s life. […]

The letters are not worth the effort required of them. There is not one which comes anywhere near being a good letter, and nearly all of them are thunderingly boring.

Å andra sidan kanske man inte ska dessa omdömen alltför seriöst. Timothy Garton Ash skrev mycket uppskattande om breven (första volymen) i nyrb.

Och en del av Wilsons kommentarer är uppenbart missvisande.

Noel Annan praises Berlin’s “detestation of cruelty” – but who, apart from the Marquis de Sade and perhaps Robert Mugabe does not detest cruelty?

Den kommentaren är korkad på gränsen till det vulgära. Rada upp 1900-talets politiska teoretiker och tänk efter. Framförallt, det är skillnad på ”detest” och ”detest”. Wilson får Berlins inställning att låta som en plattityd, men det hela är mer komplext. Här är Judith Shklar:

Many years ago, a deeply religious Roman Catholic friend said to me, with some irritation, ”Why must you liberals bring everything down to cruelty?”

What could he have meant? He was, and is, the most gentle and kindly of men, and a principled defender of political freedom and social reform. As a Christian, he obviously regarded cruelty as a dreadful vice. He was not defending cruelty or abandoning liberal politics; rather, he was explicitly rejecting the mentality that does not merely abhor brutality, but that regards cruelty as the summum malum, the most evil of all evils. And he was reminding me that, although intuitively, most of us might agree about right and wrong, we also, and of far more significance, differ enormously in a way we rank the virtues and vices. Those who put cruelty first, as he guessed, do not condemn it as a sin. They have all but forgotten the Seven Deadly Sins, especially those that do not involve cruelty. Sins are transgressions of a divine rule and offenses against God; pride, as the rejection of God, must always be the worst one, which gives rise to all the others. Cruelty, as the willful inflicting of physical pain on a weaker being in order to cause anguish and fear, however, is a wrong done entirely to another creature. When it is marked as a supreme evil, it is judged so in and of itself, and not because it signifies a rejection of God or any other higher norm. It is a judgement made from within a world where cruelty occurs as part both of our normal private life and our daily public practice. By putting it irrevocably first—with nothing above it, and with nothing to excuse or forgive acts of cruelty—one closes off any appeal to any order other than that of actuality.

To hate cruelty with utmost intensity is perfectly compatible with biblical religiosity, but to put it first does place one unalterably outside the sphere of revealed religion. For it is a purely human verdict upon human conduct, and so puts religion at a certain distance. But while this tension is inherent in the decision to put cruelty first, it is not just religious skepticism that prompts this moral choice. It emerges, rather, from the recognition that the habits of the faithful do not differ from those of the faithless in their brutalities, and that Machiavelli had triumphed long before he had ever written a line. To put cruelty first, therefore, is to be at odds with both religion and politics. My Catholic friend perhaps thought all this through carefully, but I suspect that he merely sensed it, for I think few people have really considered most of the implications of putting cruelty first.

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