Wednesday, 18 December 2019

On The Contradictions In Human Values

Isaiah Berlin’s key teaching is that it’s not possible to create a society in which all human values have been achieved. Human values often contradict each other—for instance, justice is not compatible with mercy; pursuit of truth cannot be reconciled with happiness or the idea of total freedom; if you have peace, then you may lack in excitement; if you have knowledge, then you may lack blissful ignorance. What Berlin says about Turgenev in his essay, “Fathers and Children: Turgenev and The Liberal Predicament,” (Chapter 6; Russian Thinkers by Isaiah Berlin), can he said about him as well:

“Civilization, humane culture, meant more to the Russians, latecomers to Hegel’s feast of the spirit, than to the blasé natives of the West. Turgenev clung to it more passionately, was more conscious of its precariousness, than even his friends Flaubert or Renan. But unlike them, he discerned behind the philistine bourgeoisie a far more furious opponent—the young iconoclasts bent on the total annihilation of his world in the certainty that a new and more just world would emerge. He understood the best among these Robespierres, as Tolstoy, or even Dostoevsky, did not. He rejected their methods, he thought their goals naive and grotesque, but his hand would not rise against them if this meant giving aid and comfort to the generals and the bureaucrats. He offered no clear way out: only gradualism and education, only reason. Chekhov once said that a writer’s business was not to provide solutions, only to describe a situation so truthfully, do such justice to all sides of the question, that the reader could no longer evade it. The doubts Turgenev raised have not been stilled. The dilemma of morally sensitive, honest, and intellectually responsible men at times of acute polarization of opinion has, since his time, grown world-wide. The predicament of what, for him, was only the ‘educated section’ of a country then scarcely regarded as fully European, has come to be that of men in every class of society in our day. He recognized this predicament in its very beginnings and described it with incomparable sharpness of vision, poetry, and truth.”

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