Isaiah Berlin’s “Message to the 21st Century”

The idea that collisions among multiple values are unavoidable when values are defined as “positive abstractions” might seem old hat.

Some of us, however, might not have been so lucky to learn about the idea of value conflicts in our formative years. Some of us might wish to challenge it. Some of us might accept the idea but occasionally, still, catch ourselves searching for a predominant value by which we can shape our lives or that we can prescribe to others.

Whatever the case, Isaiah Berlin’s speech “A Message to the 21st Century,” in which he argues for unresolvable conflicts of values and the resulting need for compromise, batters any such yearnings. (Available to subscribers at nybooks.com)

Berlin’s stated primary evidence is plain: “I am a very old man, and I have lived through almost the entire century” (he lived 1909–1997).

His experiences led him to the following:

We must weigh and measure, bargain, compromise, and prevent the crushing of one form of life by its rivals. I know only too well that this is not a flag under which idealistic and enthusiastic young men and women may wish to march — it seems too tame, too reasonable, too bourgeois, it does not engage the generous emotions. But you must believe me, 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 omelette 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 omelette, and just go on breaking egs.

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