“There have been four sorts of ages in the world’s history. There have been ages when everybody thought they knew everything, ages when nobody thought they knew anything, ages when clever people thought they knew much and stupid people thought they knew little, and ages when stupid people thought they knew much and clever people thought they knew little. The first sort of age is one of stability, the second of slow decay, the third of progress, and the fourth of disaster.” – Bertrand Russell, Mortals and Others (1931: 106)
“Spare me the true believer.” – my father
I recently found the below essay, “A Message to the 21st Century,” written by Isaiah Berlin. Apparently, he wrote it in 1994 after he was given an honorary doctorate degree by the University of Toronto. The heart of the essay is a warning against fanaticism, a reminder of the need to be aware of our own limitations, and the wisdom of the unavoidable need for compromise. We all have values that we hold more dearly than others, but they inevitably clash. Berlin advocated, wisely, that we seek balance among our values (freedom and equality, for example), rather than championing one exclusively above all others.
As Bertrand Russell cautioned, disaster is most likely to occur when we are overconfident in our convictions, particularly when those convictions have little merit. It seems to me that the solution is to retain some humility, no matter how much we think we know (rather than being limited to the people Russell would categorize as ‘stupid.’)
I’ve pasted parts of Berlin’s essay below, boldfacing some of the parts that resonated with me. I recommend reading it in its entirety.
“There are men who will kill and maim with a tranquil conscience under the influence of the words and writings of some of those who are certain that they know perfection can be reached.