Introduction: pluralism and the Greeks
1. PLURALISM IN HISTORY To chart the course of pluralism is not a straightforward task. Isaiah Berlin devoted much of his career as a historian of ideas to chronicling and combating the hegemony in Western theory of pluralism’s great rival, monism. But what we know about the development of pluralism itself—that is to say, which thinkers and which ages can safely or ﬁrmly be placed in the pluralist ‘camp’—lacks a comparable certainty. In this way, Berlin sought to draw attention to pluralism as it featured in history: the rare and ﬂeeting challenger to the giant of monism, the David to monism’s Goliath. By focusing on the relationship between monism and pluralism and, more particularly, on the disproportionate prevalence of monism in comparison with pluralism, Berlin was able not only to illustrate the uniqueness of the pluralist perspective but to underline the normative importance in identifying it. From the birth of philosophical speculation over two-and-a-half millennia ago, he tells us, there emerged a thought-pattern which was to dominate the way people would conceive of themselves, the world, and their relationship to it. It was a thought-pattern which would become an unparalleled intellectual and spiritual driving-force. Central to this pattern is the idea that there exists a single and harmonious order to the universe—a ‘cosmic jigsaw puzzle’—that it is the goal of human affairs somehow to reﬂect. Berlin recognized that this idea and the broader outlook it inspired rested on three fundamental assumptions: that to all genuine questions there is only one answer—this is truth; that true answers to such questions are, in principle, knowable; and that these true answers cannot clash
with one another.1 On the matter of whether such questions could be answered, in practice, by imperfect men (who were, at different times, too weak, too ignorant or too wicked to do so), of the right place to look for those answers (in sacred texts, in the laboratory, in the pure heart of a simple man), and of the proper method for discovering them (through prayer, rational calculation, or deep self-reﬂection), there was certainly disagreement through the ages.2 But on the key issue of the singularity of truth and the existence of an ideal man and an ideal society, Western history had exhibited a striking conformity of belief.3 Interrupting the long march of monism, however, Berlin was able to perceive pockets of resistance to this popular notion that truth, ethics, and knowledge were one thing and one thing only. On his view, it was a notion ‘that only a handful of bold thinkers have dared to question’.4 Machiavelli, for instance, understood the fundamental irreconcilability of Christian and pagan conceptions of virtue;5 Vico and Herder both believed in the inexhaustible diversity and incommensurability of cultures;6 and there were ﬂickers of doubt from other sources as well: Montaigne, Montesquieu, and J. S. Mill, to name a few.7 The heretic ﬁre of pluralism also burned among the ancient Greeks.8 In fact, Berlin often drew examples from their world. And while he was not a professional classicist,9 he did see that the roots of monism lie in Ionian physics,10 that Plato was, in his words, ‘the ﬁrst coherent systematic monist’,11 and that, in between the staunch monism of the pre-Socratics, on the one hand, and of 1 2
Berlin 1990: 5–6, 24–5, 183, 209; 2000: 5–7; 2002: 290–4. See e.g. Berlin 1998: 425–6. 3 This point is made in some detail by Parekh, ‘Moral Philosophy and its Antipluralist Bias’, in Archard 1996. The importance of ‘the one’ and of unity more generally was (and is) a prominent feature of Eastern philosophy and religion as well. See Arber 1957: ch. 1 and O’Keefe in Archard 1996. 4 Berlin 1990: 68. 5 See Berlin 1998: ‘The Originality of Machiavelli’. 6 See, among others, Berlin 1990: ‘Giambattista Vico and Cultural History’ and 1998: ‘Herder and the...