Friday, January 10, 2014

Note On Michael Ignatieff's Isaiah Berlin: A Life

Just finally finished Michael Ignatieff's excellent biography of Isaiah Berlin. When I read the extensive discussion of many of Berlin's views, I felt often that he says exactly what I think in how I see the world. But one thing different is Berlin's fascination with religious content even though he was a skeptical atheist. The virtue of that content for him was at least two fold: abstracted atheism for him was way too far from the way people actually live and in that was thin intellectual gruel; and even more importantly that content and the pervasive fixity of religious belief formed an important reminder of the limits of reason. The failure to see those limits, the seed of positive liberty, was the cause of the great horrors of the twentieth century, Fascism and Communism. I don't agree with that analysis and would argue that you can reject religion and still hold to reason as it gets practiced in liberal democracies without falling into a moral abyss. In a word, the rejection of religion need not engender totalitarian horrors. I took some offense at Berlin's fascination with the story of Isaac as revealing something awesome and magnificent in that blind and unwavering display of faith, the same thing that delivered Kierkegaard from his fear and trembling. I have always deeply reviled that story and the idea of such a God who so tests Abraham's faith. I'm with Leonard Cohen on that one--his Story of Isaac.

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