Mr. Churchill

Isaiah Berlin defends Churchill against the charge that his writings are windy and self-aggrandizing

The difference is deep, and accounts for a great deal in the incompatibility of outlook between him and the President of the United States, whom he admired so much and whose great office he held in awe. Something of the fundamental unlikeness between America and Europe, and perhaps between the twentieth century and the nineteenth, seemed to be crystallized in this remarkable interplay. It may perhaps be that the twentieth century is to the nineteenth as the nineteenth was to the eighteenth century. Talleyrand once made the well-known observation that those who had not lived under the ancien régime did not know what true douceur de la vie had been. And indeed, from our distant vantage point, this is clear: the earnest, romantic young men of the early part of the nineteenth century seemed systematically unable to understand or to like the attitude to life of the most civilized representatives of the pre-revolutionary world, particularly in France, where the break was sharpest; the subtlety, the irony, the minute vision, the perception of and concentration upon fine differences in character, in style, the preoccupation with barely perceptible dissimilarities of hue, the extreme sensibility which makes the life of even so "progressive" and forward-looking a man as Diderot so unbridgeably different from the larger and simpler vision of the Romantics, is something which the nineteenth century lacked the historical perspective to understand.

Suppose that Shelley had met and talked with Voltaire, what would he have felt? He would most probably have been profoundly shocked—shocked by the seemingly limited vision, the smallness of the field of awareness, the apparent triviality and finickiness, the almost spinsterish elaboration of Voltaire's malice, the preoccupation with tiny units, the subatomic texture of experience; he would have felt horror or pity before such wanton blindness to the large moral and spiritual issues of his own day—causes whose universal scope and significance painfully agitated the best and most awakened minds; he might have thought him wicked, but even more he would have thought him contemptible, too sharp, too small, too mean, grotesquely and unworthily obscene, prone to titter on the most sacred occasions, in the holiest places.

And Voltaire, in his turn. would very probably have been dreadfully bored, unable to see good cause for so much ethical eloquence; he would have looked with a cold and hostile eye on all this moral excitement: the magnificent Saint-Simonian vision of one world (which so stirred the left-wing young men half a century later), altering in shape and becoming integrated into a neatly organized manmade whole by the application of powerfully concentrated, scientific, technical, and spiritual resources, would to him have seemed a dreary and monotonous desert, too homogeneous, too flavorless, too unreal, apparently unconscious of those small half-concealed but crucial distinctions and incongruities which have individuality and savor to experience, without which there could be no civilized vision, no wit, no conversation, certainly no art deriving from a refined and fastidious culture. The moral vision of the nineteenth century would have seemed to him a dull, blurred, coarse instrument unable to focus those pin points of concentrated light, those short-lived patterns of sound and color, whose infinite variety as they linger or flash past are comedy and tragedy—are the substance of personal relations and of worldly wisdom, of politics, of history, and of art.

The reason for this failure of communication was not a mere change in the point of view, but the kind of vision which divided the two centuries. The microscopic vision of the eighteenth century was succeeded by the macroscopic eve of the nineteenth. The latter saw much more widely, saw in universal or at least in European terms; it saw the contours of great mountain ranges where the eighteenth century discerned, however sharply and perceptively, only the veins and cracks and different shades of but a portion of the mountainside. The object of vision of the eighteenth century was smaller and its eye was closer to the object. The enormous moral issues of the nineteenth century were not within the field of its acutely discriminating gaze: that was the devastating difference which the Great French Revolution had made, and it led to something not necessarily better or worse, uglier or more beautiful, profounder or more shallow, but to a situation which above all was different in kind.

Something not unlike this same chasm divides America from Europe (and the twentieth century from the nineteenth). The American vision is larger and more generous: its thought transcends, despite the parochialism of its means of expression, the barriers of nationality and race and differences of outlook, in a big, sweeping, single view. It notices things rather than persons, and sees the world (those who saw it in this fashion in the nineteenth century were considered Utopian eccentrics) in terms of rich, infinitely moldable raw material, waiting to be constructed and planned in order to satisfy a world-wide human craving for happiness or goodness or wisdom. And therefore to it the differences and conflicts which divide Europeans in so violent a fashion must seem petty, irrational, and sordid, not worthy of self-respecting, morally conscious individuals and nations; ready, in fact, to be swept away in favor of a simpler and grander view of the powers and tasks of modem man.

To Europeans this American attitude, the large vista possible only for those who live on mountain heights or vast and level plains affording an unbroken view, seems curiously flat, without subtlety or color, at times appearing to lack the entire dimension of depth, certainly without that immediate reaction to fine distinctions with which perhaps only those who live in valleys are endowed, and so America, which knows so much, to them seems to understand too little, to miss the central point. This does not, of course, apply to every American or European—there are natural Americans among the natives of Europe and vice versa—but it seems to characterize the most typical representatives of these disparate cultures.


In some respects Mr. Roosevelt half-consciously understood and did not wholly condemn this attitude on the part of Europeans; and even more clearly Mr. Churchill is in many respects in instinctive sympathy with the American view of life. But by and large they do represent different outlooks, and the very high degree to which they were able to understand and admire each other's quality is a tribute to the extraordinary power of imagination and delight in the variety of life on the part of both. Each was to the other not merely an ally, the admired leader of a great people, but a symbol of a tradition and a civilization; from the unity of their differences they hoped for a regeneration of the Western world.

Mr. Roosevelt was intrigued by the Russian Sphinx; Mr. Churchill instinctively recoiled from its alien and to him unattractive attributes. "Mr. Roosevelt, on the whole, thought that he could cajole Russia and even induce her to be assimilated into the great society which would embrace mankind; Mr. Churchill, on the whole, remained skeptical.

Mr. Roosevelt was imaginative, optimistic, Episcopalian, self-confident, cheerful, empirically-minded, fearless, and steeped in the idea of social progress: he believed that with enough energy and spirit anything could be achieved by man; he shrank as much as any English schoolboy from probing underneath the surface, and saw vast affinities between the peoples in the world , out of which a new, freer, and richer order could somehow be built. Mr. Churchill was imaginative and steeped in history, more serious, more intent, more concentrated, more preoccupied, and felt very deeply the eternal differences which would make such a structure difficult of attainment. He believed in institutions and permanent characters of races and classes and types of individuals. His government was organized on clear principles; his personal private office was run in a sharply disciplined manner. His habits, though unusual, were regular. He believed in a natural, a social, almost a metaphysical order which it was neither possible nor desirable to upset.

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