Thursday, February 19, 2004

Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) on John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

He was loyal to movements, to causes, and to parties, but could not be prevailed upon to support them at the price of saying what he did not think to be true. A characteristic instance of this is his attitude to religion. His father brought him up in the strictest and narrowest atheist dogma. He rebelled against it. He embraced no recognized faith, but he did not dismiss religion, as the French encyclopaedists or the Benthamites had done, as a tissue of childish fantasies and emotions, comforting illusions, mystical gibberish and deliberate lies. He held that the existence of God was possible, indeed probable, but unproven, but that if God was good he could not be omnipotent, since he permitted evil to exist. He would not hear of a being at once wholly good and omnipotent whose nature defied the canons of human logic, since he rejected belief in mysteries as mere attempts to evade agonizing issues. If he did not understand (this must have happened often), he did not pretend to understand. Although he was prepared to fight for the rights of others to hold a faith detached from logic, he rejected it himself. He revered Christ as the best man who ever lived, and regarded theism as a noble, though to him unintelligible, set of beliefs. He regarded immortality as possible, but rated its probability very low. He was, in fact, a Victorian agnostic who was uncomfortable with atheism and regarded religion as something that was exclusively the individual's own affair.

(Isaiah Berlin, "John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life," chap. 4 in his Four Essays on Liberty [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969], 173-206, at 203-4 [essay originally published in 1959])


This story will crack you up. (Thanks to James Taranto of OpinionJournal for the link.)

Scruton on Kant on the War in Iraq

Roger Scruton is the author of Kant in Oxford University Press's Past Masters series. He believes (as I do) that Immanuel Kant--whom Simon Blackburn describes as "the greatest philosopher of the last three hundred years"--would support the war in Iraq. See here for the argument. (Thanks to Robert Hessen for the link.)

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