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Washington Diarist

Whatever the satisfactions of the liberal view of the world, simplicity is not among them. I do not mean that liberalism has a corner on complexity: there has been altogether too much liberal vanity of that sort. I refer, rather, to the liberal picture of existence. The picture is not of the one but of the many. Liberalism is a grand retort to the dream of oneness, which was a beautiful philosophical fantasy with sordid political consequences. From Parmenides to Marx—mystics and materialists have both propounded such a vision—the monist temptation flourished. It was the exciting suggestion that everything is really a single thing, and all problems have a single solution; that the contradictions will all be reconciled, or are mere appearances that may be dispelled by a privileged and all-encompassing standpoint that will reveal the latent harmony of a deeper and completely unified reality. This was what liberalism, or the liberalism in which I was schooled, denied. It held that, since abstract ideas can have concrete effects, the promotion of totality in the understanding of human affairs was a foundation of the cruel and catastrophic arrangements of power to which totality gave its name. The two most formidable enemies of holistic doctrine in our time—is it still our time?—were Isaiah Berlin and Daniel Bell. Berlin insisted upon the essential pluralism of human values, Bell insisted upon the essential pluralism of human life. They were both dedicated to the refutation of what Berlin called “some ultimate, all-reconciling, yet realizable synthesis.” (In one of his lowest moments, Leo Strauss grotesquely caricatured this liberty-loving ideal of incommensurability as relativism.) Bell, who died a few weeks ago, was a hero of the many against the one. He believed that existence is “radically disjunctive,” that society is best understood “as being composed of diverse realms, each obedient to a different ‘axial’ principle.” There is the economic realm, animated by the principle of efficiency, and the political realm, animated by the principle of equality, and the cultural realm, animated by the principle of the fulfillment of the self; and the integrity of the realms, and their autonomy, must be defended against the coercions of ideologies and final solutions. The worst and most dangerous mistake, for Bell, was to confuse the realms, or to reduce them, or to run them into each other. For they do not add up; there is no sum. Bell liked to invoke the Jewish concept of havdalah, or differentiation, and he was a master mavdil. He knew it all so as to repudiate the all. Raised as it was upon a lucid and learned antipathy to the hope for the complete integration of all human pursuits and goals, Bell’s liberalism was a celebration of the partial, the provisional, the limited, the curious, the fallible, the free.

(Click here to read Daniel Bell's articles for TNR.)

Once upon a time, before there were public intellectuals, there were intellectuals. They were journalists, but not entirely; scholars, but not entirely; experts, but not entirely. The happiness that they experienced in the life of the mind was not a professional happiness. They possessed a romantic conception of their calling and a sense of responsibility about their era. They did their best thinking in the fray. They enjoyed history’s heat. They fought. They never stopped fighting. They had causes and they had enemies. They were proud to be known by their enemies. They were self-important, but they were also important. They corrected opinion, and transformed it, with argument and erudition. They altered the course of their culture and their society. Dan was perhaps the most exemplary among their company, the most complete intellectual among the intellectuals. The reach of his mind was dazzling. “Sociology is one of the humanities,” he wickedly declared: when he analyzed telecommunications, he cited Sartor Resartus and Erewhon, and when he studied efficiency in American industry, he adduced Virgil, Augustine, Montaigne, Gropius, Crane, Duchamp, Chaplin, and Housman. But there was nothing decadent about Dan’s polymathy, because it was never far from the invigorations of polemic. He played a central role in the finest hour of the intellectuals of his day, the war against Stalinism and its influence upon American culture and politics. About communism, collectivism, and utopianism he was singularly disabused. Dan liked to say that his Kronstadt was Kronstadt. When he would recount his adventures in the Congress for Cultural Freedom in Europe in the 1950s, I would regret that I was born too late for that brawl. He always kept his head and he never lost his nerve. He demonstrated by example that liberalism is not the “center” or the “middle” or any kind of calibrated or compromised point midway between the left and the right; it is its own position, to which one is led by reason, experience, decency, and honor.

Dan’s mental sobriety did not carry him all the way to a disenchanted world. He recognized that instrumental reason and “functional rationality” were not enough. They belonged in their realm and nowhere else. Like Lionel Trilling, he articulated a liberalism that, while skeptical of the supernatural, knew the radiance, sometimes dark, of the imagination, and even of the soul. “Culture is always a ricorso,” Dan wrote, because “the existential questions remain.” And religion is “a constitutive aspect of human experience because it is a response to the existential predicaments which are the ricorsi of human culture.” The foremost among those predicaments, for him, was the inevitability, and the finality, of death. Dan was prescient about many social developments, and one of them was “the return of the sacred.” Many years ago, over a quiet meal on his back porch, I asked him about the view of many thinkers after the war that concepts of transcendence had to be put away, because they had served as a source of the recent enormities. I wanted them back. Hadn’t the church just helped to bring down communism in Poland? Weren’t the totalitarianisms secular tyrannies? Didn’t the new program of vigilance go too far, and impoverish the inner life? Dan’s sparkle suddenly vanished and in a melancholy whisper he said: “We knew how much we were giving up.” He was not a believer; he was a rationalist with resonance, for whom the stupendousness of existence was a challenge to the complacencies of the secular mind. I know now that he gave up less than he conceded that day, though never his vigilance. And what he taught me I will not give up.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor for The New Republic. This article ran in the March 3, 2011, issue of the magazine.