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Quote of the moment


The vastly influential Russian-born British historian of ideas, Isaiah Berlin, insisted that systems of values are never internally consistent. In his biography of Berlin, Michael Ignatieff explains:

"The conflict of values—liberty versus equality; justice versus mercy; tolerance versus order; liberty versus social justice; resistance versus prudence—was intrinsic to human life. Liberty ought to have a certain priority—without some modicum of it, he said, 'there is no choice and therefore no possibility of remaining human as we understand the word' but even liberty might have to be curtailed in the interests of social justice. In 'The Pursuit of the Ideal,' this least political of men mounted a defence of the necessity of politics; this least conflictual of men insisted on the inescapability of moral conflict; and this least tragic of men taught the necessity of tragic choice. 'Some of the Great Goods cannot live together. That is a conceptual truth. We are doomed to choose, and every choice may entail an irreparable loss.' The crimes of the century—and he now viewed his own century as the worst in recorded history—were the result of a faith in final solutions, and hence the failure to be reconciled to the limits of human reason and to the inevitability of loss and error."

But let's close this "Worth Thinking About" by noting the wonderful compliment paid to the kind, witty, brilliant, charming Isaiah Berlin in a speech by Harold Macmillan, who was at that time the chancellor of Oxford University:

"I just want you each to ask yourself this simple question about him as a man: if you happened to be in a mood of melancholy or frustration, who would you rather see come into your room than Isaiah Berlin?"

(And wouldn't we all want the people who know us to think of us just like that!)

—See http://shorl.com/fidritugrageja for Isaiah Berlin's "The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and Their History" (Noonday Press, 1999, ISBN: 0374525692)—or look for it in your favorite library. (We donate all revenue from our book recommendations to literacy programs.)