We have the greatest resources and wealth in the entire history of humanity. Yet we keep failing to protect the weak, feed the poor, help the needy and spread the good
On Nov. 25, 1994, Isiah Berlin, the famous political philosopher and historian of ideas, sent a short speech to be read on his behalf at the University of Toronto where he was awarded an honorary doctorate. The key argument of his "short credo," as he called it, was something expected of a historian of ideas: It is not human greed, stupidity or socio-economic conditions that have shaped human history and caused so much suffering. There is no doubt that they have played their evil part in history. But it is the power of wrong ideas that have led people to their death and rendered the world an insecure and ugly place. Given the fact that the man-made human suffering is not abating, a critical analysis of the relationship between the socio-political circumstances that throw people into despair and the ideas that make them commit terrible crimes remains as relevant as ever.
Berlin was aware of the tensions between facts and ideas. But he wanted to draw attention to a particular strand in modern thought. He believed that the terrible disasters of the last century "were, in my view, not caused by the ordinary negative human sentiments, as Spinoza called them - fear, greed, tribal hatreds, jealousy, love of power - though, of course, these have played their wicked part. They have been caused, in our time, by ideas; or rather, by one particular idea."
That one particular idea was the absolute validity of one idea for all human problems. Berlin explained it with a reference to Marx: "It is paradoxical that Karl Marx, who played down the importance of ideas in comparison with impersonal social and economic forces, should, by his writings, have caused the transformation of the twentieth century, both in the direction of what he wanted and, by reaction, against it."
Marx held that history and human nature were driven by social and economic forces but then became his own anti-thesis when his own ideas changed the course of European history in the 20th century. Marx's passion for justice as reflected in the "Communist Manifesto" has not lost its relevance to this day. But his many predictions about the future of capitalism, the proletariat or the class struggle turned out to be mostly wrong. Yet, what kept the Marxist tradition going was a deeper conviction about the power of ideas, which Berlin takes to task.
As he puts it, "if you are truly convinced that there is some solution to all human problems, that one can conceive an ideal society which men can reach if only they do what is necessary to attain it, then you and your followers must believe that no price can be too high to pay in order to open the gates of such a paradise." On secular or religious authority, all extremists believe that they have the solution for the problems of humanity and that only they have it.
Berlin is right to point to the danger of ideas when they become absolutist and destructive. But the problem is not limited to Marxism as an ideology. In contrast to the power of ideas, humans have also caused themselves deep pain and suffering because of their inability to think. Thinking wrong and not thinking at all lead to the same drama. Failure to distinguish between right and wrong, good and evil, justice and injustice is a failure of both intellectual judgment and moral discernment. It is caused by social and political facts on the one hand, and ideas and minds on the other. When converged, they lead to the betrayal of human reason.
Hannah Arendt reached this disturbing conclusion at the Eichmann trial in 1961. What caused the Holocaust, one of the greatest evils of history, she concluded, was not greed, lust, wrong ideas or even stupidity but "thoughtlessness." The "banality of evil", her famous phrase that got her into trouble in the Jewish and intellectual circles of the time, was an expression of the fact that Eichmann as a Nazi soldier had stopped thinking. Instead, he became a machine with cliché responses to orders without any regard to the consequences of the orders he executed. There was no space left for him to think. It is not that Eichmann was stupid; rather, he was thoughtless. What leads human beings to be devoid of thought and accept thoughtlessness as a legitimate state of existence is the scandal of reason in our age.The unsettling question is whether we human beings can think properly in an age in which thinking has been emptied of its core elements and meaning. Many do not even bother about thinking and contemplation when greed, stupidity and thoughtlessness are rewarded. When thinking is lost, moral reasoning goes down the drain.
Today, the thoughtlessness that permeates our world extends from extremism and terrorism to sex, violence, drugs, racism, human trafficking and other ills of our age. We have the greatest resources and wealth in the entire history of humanity. Yet we keep failing to protect the weak, feed the poor, help the needy and spread the good. Destructive ideas and thoughtlessness lead to the vicious cycle of error, pride and suffering. To stop this this, we need to have a proper understanding of both the facts and the ideas that shape our attitudes towards other human beings and the world around us.
About the author
Presidential spokesperson for the Republic of Turkey