Mindslaughter and the united front

Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” (delivered as a lecture in 1958) begins with a meditation on political ends and means. “Where ends are agreed,” he writes, “the only questions left are those of means, and these are not political but technical, that is to say, capable of being settled by experts or machines, like arguments between engineers or doctors. That is why those who put their faith in some immense, world-transforming phenomenon, like the final triumph of reason or the proletarian revolution, must believe that all political and moral problems can thereby be turned into technological ones.” It is simply a matter of political engineering. This is of course what Oakeshott calls “rationalism in politics.”

Berlin then comments that if a stranger visited a British of American university, he would surely think that all the questions of ends has been settled, “for all the serious attention that is paid to fundamental problems of politics by professional philosophers.” That is, our professoriat act as though they believe that all the old debates about the social and political order, debates that go back in the West at least to Socrates and in the East at least to Confucius, have been decided. In Berlin’s view, this habit of mind “is both surprising and dangerous.”

Surprising because there has, perhaps, been no time in modern history when so large a number of human beings, in both the East and the West, have had their notions, and indeed their lives, so deeply altered, and in some cases violently upset, by fanatically held social and political doctrines. Dangerous, because when ideas are neglected by those who ought to attend to them – that is to say, those who have been trained to think critically about ideas – they sometimes acquire an unchecked momentum and an irresistible power over multitudes of men that may grow too violent to be affected by rational criticism.

I think it was an awareness of just this danger that made the great historian Robert Conquest write, in one of his last books, Reflections on a Ravaged Century (2000), that in an age dominated by what he calls “mindslaughter” — the destruction of intellect by ideas that have “grown too violent to be affected by rational criticism” — Yeats’s description of the state of affairs just before the Second Coming might not be right. When Yeats wrote that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity,” he implied that the best needed to acquire a “passionate intensity” of their own — but Conquest isn’t so sure. Maybe what the world needs is more people who are skeptical by temperament, inclined to suspect certainty, wary of passions and their resulting intensities.

Conquest says, citing Orwell, that he wants to resist “the lure of the profound.” I have not been able to find that Orwell ever wrote that, though perhaps he said it to Conquest — I believe they knew each other, and Conquest wrote an incisive poem about Orwell. Why resist profundity, or at least the quest for it? There’s a hint at the beginning of Christopher Hitchens’s book Why Orwell Matters, which is dedicated to Conquest with these words: “premature anti-fascist, premature anti-Stalinist, poet and mentor, and founder of ‘the united front against bullshit.’” What the desire for profundity lures us into is bullshit.

Maybe we don’t need any more passionate intensity for a while. Maybe we need to revivify the United Front Against Bullshit.