Peter Smith

Publications, Lectures and Other Stuff

Isaiah Berlin’s ‘On the Pursuit of the Ideal’

The idea of a perfect society

“The possibility of a final solution—even if we forget the terrible sense that these words acquired in Hitler’s day—turns out to be an illusion; and a very dangerous one. For, if one really believes that such a solution is possible, then surely no cost would be too high to obtain it: to make mankind just and happy and creative and harmonious forever—what could be too high a price to pay for that? To make such an omelette, there is surely no limit to the number of eggs that should be broken—that was the faith of Lenin, of Trotsky, of Mao, for all I know, of Pol Pot. Since I know the only true path to the ultimate solution of the problems of society, I know which way to drive the human caravan; and since you are ignorant of what I know, you cannot be allowed to have liberty of choice even within the narrowest limits, if the goal is to be reached. You declare that a given policy will make you happier, or freer, or give you room to breathe; but I know that you are mistaken, I know what you need, what all men need; and if there is resistance based on ignorance or malevolence, then it must be broken and hundreds of thousands may have to perish to make millions happy for all time. What choice have we, who have the knowledge, but to be willing to sacrifice them all?”

‘On the Pursuit of the Ideal’. By Isaiah Berlin. The New York Review of Books. Vol. 35, No. 4, 17 March 1988. 

On Berlin, see the entry on him in the SEP: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/berlin/

Peter Smith

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This entry was posted on January 24, 2014 by in History of Ideas and tagged , .
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