Sir Isaiah Berlin: Notes on Prejudice

Notes on Prejudice

For more information about Isaiah Berlin, see the Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library. For permission to reprint any material by Isaiah Berlin, contact Curtis Brown Group Ltd.

Isaiah Berlin liked to allude to a passage in Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy where Russell says that, if we are to understand a philosopher’s views, we must “apprehend their imaginative background,”1 or the philosopher’s “inner citadel,” as Berlin calls it.2 The character of one of the main rooms in Berlin’s own citadel is vividly expressed in some hurried notes Berlin wrote for a friend (who does not wish to be identified) in 1981. His friend was due to give a lecture, and wrote to Berlin to ask for suggestions about how he might treat his theme. Berlin had to go abroad early on the day after he received the request, and wrote the notes quickly, in his own hand, without time for revision or expansion. The result is somewhat breathless and telegraphic, no doubt, but it conveys with great immediacy Berlin’s opposition to intolerance and prejudice, especially fanatical monism, stereotypes, and aggressive nationalism. Its relevance to the events of September 11, 2001, hardly needs stressing.

Berlin’s manuscript is reproduced here in a direct transcript, with only a few adjustments to make it easier to read. I have omitted material relevant only to the specific occasion.

—Henry Hardy


Few things have done more harm than the belief on the part of individuals or groups (or tribes or states or nations or churches) that he or she or they are in sole possession of the truth: especially about how to live, what to be & do—& that those who differ from them are not merely mistaken, but wicked or mad: & need restraining or suppressing. It is a terrible and dangerous arrogance to believe that you alone are right: have a magical eye which sees the truth: & that others cannot be right if they disagree.

This makes one certain that there is one goal & one only for one’s nation or church or the whole of humanity, & that it is worth any amount of suffering (particularly on the part of other people) if only the goal is attained—“through an ocean of blood to the Kingdom of Love” (or something like this) said Robespierre3: & Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, & I daresay leaders in the religious wars of Christian v. Moslem or Catholics v. Protestants sincerely believed this: the belief that there is one & only one true answer to the central questions which have agonized mankind & that one has it oneself—or one’s leader has it—was responsible for the oceans of blood: but no Kingdom of Love sprang from it—or could: there are many ways of living, believing, behaving: mere knowledge provided by history, anthropology, literature, art, law makes clear that the differences of cultures & characters are as deep as the similarities (which make men human) & that we are none the poorer for this rich variety: knowledge of it opens the windows of the mind (and soul) and makes people wiser, nicer, & more civilized: absence of it breeds irrational prejudice, hatreds, ghastly extermination of heretics and those who are different: if the two great wars plus Hitler’s genocides haven’t taught us that, we are incurable.

The most valuable—or one of the most valuable—elements in the British tradition is precisely the relative freedom from political, racial, religious fanaticism & monomania. Compromising with people with whom you don’t sympathize or altogether understand is indispensable to any decent soci-ety: nothing is more destructive than a happy sense of one’s own—or one’s nation’s—infallibility, which lets you destroy others with a quiet conscience because you are doing God’s (e.g. the Spanish Inquisition or the Ayatollas) or the superior race’s (e.g. Hitler) or History’s (e.g. Lenin–Stalin) work.

The only cure is understanding how other societies—in space or time—live: and that it is possible to lead lives different from one’s own, & yet to be fully human, worthy of love, respect or at least curiosity. Jesus, Socrates, John Hus of Bohemia, the great chemist Lavoisier, socialists and liberals (as well as conservatives) in Russia, Jews in Germany, all perished at the hands of “infallible” ideologues: intuitive certainty is no substitute for carefully tested empirical knowledge based on observation and experiment and free discussion between men: the first people totalitarians destroy or silence are men of ideas & free minds.


Another source of avoidable conflict is stereotypes. Tribes hate neighbouring tribes by whom they feel threatened, & then rationalize their fears by representing them as wicked or inferior, or absurd or despicable in some way. Yet these stereotypes alter sometimes quite rapidly. Take the nineteenth century alone: in, say, 1840 the French are thought of as swashbuckling, gallant, immoral, militarized, men with curly moustachios, dangerous to women, likely to invade England in revenge for Waterloo; & the Germans are beer drinking, rather ludicrous provincials, musical, full of misty metaphysics, harmless but somewhat absurd. By 1871 the Germans are Uhlans storming through France, invited by the terrible Bismarck—terrifying Prussian militarists filled with national pride etc. France is a poor, crushed, civilized land, in need of protection from all good men, lest its art & literature are crushed underheel by the terrible invaders.

The Russians in the nineteenth century are crushed serfs, darkly brooding semi-religious Slav mystics who write deep novels, a huge horde of cossacks loyal to the Tsar, who sing beautifully. In our times all this has dramatically altered: crushed population, yes, but technology, tanks, godless materialism, crusade against capitalism, etc. The English are ruthless imperialists lording it over fuzzy wuzzies, looking down their long noses at the rest of the world—& then impoverished, liberal, decent welfare state beneficiaries in need of allies. And so on. All these stereotypes are substitutes for real knowledge—which is never of anything so simple or permanent as a particular generalized image of foreigners—and are stimuli to national self satisfaction & disdain of other nations. It is a prop to nationalism.


Nationalism—which everybody in the nineteenth century thought was ebbing—is the strongest & most dangerous force at large to-day. It is usually the product of a wound inflicted by one nation on the pride or territory of another: if Louis XIV had not attacked & devastated the Germans, & humiliated them for years—the Sun King whose state gave laws to everybody, in politics, warfare, art, philosophy, science—then the Germans would not, perhaps, have become quite so aggressive by, say, the early nineteenth century when they became fiercely nationalistic against Napoleon. If the Russians, similarly, had not been treated as a barbarous mass by the West in the nineteenth century, or the Chinese had not been humiliated by opium wars or general exploitation, neither would have fallen so easily to a doctrine which promised they would inherit the earth after they had, with the help of historic forces which none may stop, crushed all the capitalist unbelievers. If the Indians had not been patronized, etc., etc.

Conquest, enslavement of peoples, imperialism etc are not fed just by greed or desire for glory, but have to justify themselves to themselves by some central idea: French as the only true culture; the white man’s burden; communism: & the stereotypes of others as inferior or wicked. Only knowledge, carefully acquired & not by short cuts, can dispel this: even that won’t dispel human aggressiveness or dislike for the dissimilar (in skin, culture, religion) by itself: still, education in history, anthropology, law (especially if they are “comparative” & not just of one’s own country as they usually are) helps.

  1. 1History of Western Philosophy (Simon and Schuster, 1945), Chapter 23, para. 2. 
  2. 2 For example, in Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 135. 
  3. 3 Berlin may be referring to the passage where Robespierre writes that “en scellant notre ouvrage de notre sang, nous puissions voir au moins briller l’aurore de la félicité universelle” (“by sealing our work with our blood, we may see at least the bright dawn of universal happiness”). Rapport sur les principes de morale politique qui doivent guider la Convention nationale dans l’administration intérieure de la République [Paris, 1794], p. 4. 



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