Isaiah Berlin’s “Crooked Timber” and the “Bent Twig” of Nationalism

Obviously, there’s a ton of new writing on politics. Thoughtful, anxious books and longform essays about the right wing, especially, about nationalism, authoritarianism. I’m just beginning Kurt Anderson’s Evil Geniuses, as one example, which documents the Right’s efforts, since the late 70s, to dismantle the New Deal and create distracting culture wars as cover. Robert Reich, whose books The Work of Nations, Reason, and others were formative parts of my reading education, has now written a book called The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It. And of course Jane Meyer’s amazing Dark Money was, a few years ago, the new standard in impeccably-researched, dark and incontrovertibly real accounts of Plutocratic moves to undermine American democracy and fairness. 

These books look into America’s recent political past for explicit beginnings and sharp turns. Policies, manifestos. Think tanks. Secret meetings. They’re all there! Despite Anderson’s professed disinclination toward conspiracies, Evil Geniuses is absolutely persuasive about an organized, well-funded, secretive, bait-and-switch to lock in the power of corporations and the rich in the wake of late-60s progressivism and the schisms of the “Me” generation, bad wars, and bad actors in government. 

What is happening? is the question we’re asking over and over now. This is not normal. Is it a Trumpocalypse, as David Frum has it in his book by that name? Is it something that’s always been here, for which Trump is just the most cartoonishly vivid and corrupt avatar, as Kurt Anderson seems to say in his earlier book Fantasyland? Is it something more fundamental, the ugly form of decadence that was predicted of late capitalism, like the critic Terry Eagleton describes in his book Materialism?

These were not the questions I had in mind when I went to re-read Isaiah Berlin’s book The Crooked Timber: Chapters in the History of Ideas. It had been so long since I’d read it, in fact, that I was taking it off the shelf as an escape, as one of those confident, anodyne syntheses of philosophy that would take my mind off the present, reconnect Aquinas with Aristotle or something like that.  

I could not have been more wrong, and The Crooked Timber could not be a more eerily incisive analysis of the current situation. Though it was published as a collection more than 30 years ago, and though it focuses on what may seem like minor historical figures, like Joseph de Maistre (“Joseph de Maistre and the Origin of Fascism”), the clarity of Berlin’s analysis, the specificity of his historical subjects, and his analytical synthesis of rationalism, the romantic, belief and esteem bring this book right to the doorstep of our current crises.

The Crooked Timber is a collection of essays spanning Isaiah Berlin’s career starting in the late 50s, and connecting the themes of his political philosophy: History is concerned with the development of our faculties, of science and rationalism, of human as opposed to absolute truths (“Giambattista Vico and Cultural History”). Progress, moving in fits and starts, crests in the Renaissance, again in the Age of Reason and the rationalism of the Enlightenment. But reason has so many psychological pitfalls and frankly vengeful enemies that history is deranged by the emergence of good ideas at key points, like the French Revolution. New ideas arise and change culture; they are attacked. There are reactions, counter-reactions. Berlin says almost wistfully that “these collisions of values are of the essence of what they are and what we are,” and yet the results of the collisions can be brutal, catastrophic. The Reformation, the Terror, the Counter-reformation. History simply is the expression of human progress, its angry suppression, its eventual reappearance.

“Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made,” Kant says in the quote from which the book takes its name. It’s clear that for Berlin absolutism, such as arises against ordinary human progress, is a real enemy—and a form that fear and suppression often take. Berlin deploys the Kant epigram not to criticize the idea of progress per se but to show how skeptical we should be of “straight things” like the religious orthodoxies, political utopias, and totalizing principles that are the bad guys in his writing.

Even worse and more deranging than absolutes, however, are the ideas that come out of the Romantic movement, which he sees as a “deep and radical revolt against the central tradition of western thought” that peaks in the second half of the 18th century as Germany’s Sturm und Drang (“The Apotheosis of the Romantic Will: The Revolt against the Myth of an Ideal World”). For Berlin, the Romantic is the dethronement of reason by the will, whose poet is Friedrich “high demonic freedom” Schiller and whose philosopher is Fichte, the “true father of romanticism.” It is the replacement of shared truths with personal truths, the elevation of the artist over the thinker, and the irrational, emotional, and violent over the reasoned and hammered out.  One’s own truth is something to be insisted upon, even if it’s wrong. This is the truly massive shift in western culture, and a bad one: the Germans, as Berlin has it, couldn’t keep up with their Enlightened French showboat Encyclopedist neighbors in the sixteenth century and so basically invented Romanticism, and with it the aggrieved blood-and-soil ideologies that became National Socialism and the new American authoritarianism 300 years later in a crooked but unbroken line.

Nationalism and populism come directly out of the Romantic, in other words, out of the particular and personal against the general. This is where Berlin’s writing is so prescient. As he says, “Nationalism is an inflamed condition of national consciousness which can be, and on occasion has been, tolerant and peaceful. [But] it usually seems to be caused by wounds, some form of collective humiliation.” As Berlin says, “to be the object of contempt or patronizing tolerance on the part of proud neighbors in one of the most traumatic experiences that individuals or societies can suffer.” In Berlin’s example, the Germans, lagging behind their European and especially their French counterparts during the Renaissance “discover in themselves qualities superior” to their neighbors, qualities based on “unexhausted vital powers”, deliberate provincialism and the rejection of learning and sophistication. Berlin describes this as a “pathological exaggeration of one’s real or imaginary virtues, and resent and hostility toward the proud, the happy, the successful” (Italics mine). For me this is the beating heart of the book and the thing that makes it so extraordinary—and so timely: Aggrievement and shame are the real engines here! Fuck ideas, fuck fellow-feeling! Fuck level playing fields and “what relations between men have been, are, might be and should be.”

The uncanny relevance of this was really brought home to me as I listened to a recent “Trumpcast” episode with Virginia Heffernan and Ben Rhodes, writer and former White House staffer. Rhodes said the animating force of the far right in America this last decade has been disgrace. The hallmarks of the conservative agenda were so thoroughly repudiated by the spectacular failures of the financial crisis (deregulation) and the Iraq War that true believers were left with nothing but shame, resentment and vengefulness. Which puts us in one of Berlin’s convolutions right now, actually, one of those moments like the French Revolution that pit the rational against the aggrieved irrational in ways that almost can’t help but go crooked.   

Meditation for Non-Dummies: The Sam Harris brand of mindfulness

I have “meditated” and failed at meditation and actually meditated or done something like it, in fits and starts, for many years. I haven’t ever been “good” at it. My mind is too easily prone to distraction. But I feel like I’ve been doing something calming and productive, something that generally makes me feel better and may have some more durable effects on my state of mind.

But right now I am using Sam Harris’s meditation app, Waking Up, going through its daily practices almost daily, and I’m getting intimations of a different, wider, and in some ways more difficult kind of practice, and it makes me wonder what I was doing before.

A real orthodoxy has formed around the basic practices for mindfulness meditation: You pay attention to your breath, you gently but firmly dismiss thoughts that form, you pay attention to the sounds around you, also the sensations in your body. Breath, sound, sensation—these are the three things that can guide you into an awareness of the present and evict your errant thoughts. Every approach to mindfulness meditation I know of uses some combination of them.

Waking Up uses these as well. But about this and every other received truth around mindfulness, Harris is more…I don’t know…more methodical, discerning, and illuminative than anyone I’ve heard on the subject. Meditation is “easy” but it’s hard! There is a real method here, based on real insights about how the brain works, how it conceives of the world and its self. You can’t simply barge into meditative states by having someone say in your earphones, over ambient music, and with a reverbed-out voice, “pay attention to your breath”. Or at least I couldn’t. And I tried a bunch.

Waking Up builds. It instructs. The daily lessons and practices are meant to subtly introduce, then accustom, and then educate your brain to the work of mindfulness, in a particular order, and at a slow steady rate, as Harris himself says. It’s a little strenuous! And very, very gradual. But for me the combination of practice and lesson, of feeling and knowing, is perfect.

Just as one example of an area where Harris’s method builds some real support for the meditator, consider the practice of opening your eyes during meditation. To broaden your awareness, you may very well want to include sight, to be mindful about what you see as well as the other contents of your mind. But blithe recommendations about this practice—or no guidance at all—pretty much insures that you’re going to get lost–in these bright objects, or thoughts about them, or the screen near by. For Harris, opening your eyes is a discreet, mapped milestone in your practice (maybe around day 10?), for which he has experiential, practical and even neurophysiological advice to share—during the practice itself. Other areas: The difference between attention and consciousness. The problem(s) of free will. It’s weird. You’d think that his practical, rational, and repeated inputs would distract, but for me they deepen awareness. And reform it.

I was already a super-fan of Sam Harris’s, so maybe I’m biased. Maybe I’m seeing things. I’ve thought of his work in neuroscience, political thought, debate, atheism, spirituality and meditation as separate, distinguished contributions. But on Day Fifteen or so in Waking Up, which is the name of the meditation app discussed here, and his neuroscience-inflected in-app lessons and his podcast interviews, all of which I support through his Patreon, I think you can see a synthesis of a lot of these separate projects, a fusion of rationality, spirituality, and the science of mind that really works.