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Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty”

This 57-page pamphlet is the text of the lecture Sir Isaiah Berlin (hereafter to be referred to simply as “Mr. Berlin”) gave last fall at Oxford on assuming the Chichele Chair of Social and Political Theory. It is the latest in the series of tracts for the times—others were The Hedgehog and the Fox and Historical Inevitability—with which Mr. Berlin has been demonstrating the case for a skeptical and pluralistic approach and against the faith-full monism which is still strong in our age. It is a necessary and important work, and Mr. Berlin has been performing it with brilliance, wit, and imagination.

The two concepts of liberty—or freedom (he uses the words interchangeably)—are the “negative” and the “positive.” The former, generally professed in the West and to some extent even practised there, deals with the question: “What is the area within which the subject…is or should be left to do or be what he wants to do or be, without interference by other persons?” The latter, universally professed and practiced in the Sino-Soviet East, deals with a very different question: “What, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, one thing rather than another?”

“Negative” freedom is a familiar enough concept, defined by liberal and conservative theorists, from Locke and Hobbes to Mill, Constant, Bentham, and Tocqueville. They have disagreed as to the area to be left to the individual free of society’s control (Hobbes thought damned little) but they all have agreed that something must be left— “To invade that preserve, however small, would be despotism.” “The doctrine is comparatively modern,” Mr. Berlin writes:

There seems to be scarcely any consciousness of individual liberty as a political ideal in the ancient world. … The domination of this ideal has been the exception rather than the rule, even in the recent history of the West. Nor has liberty in this sense often formed a rallying cry for the great masses of mankind. The desire not to be impinged upon, to be left to oneself, has been a mark of high civilization both on the part of individuals and communities. The sense of privacy itself, of the area of personal relationships as something sacred in its own right, derives from a conception of freedom which, for all its religious roots, is scarcely older, in its developed state, than the Renaissance or the Reformation.

“Positive” liberty is both older—Plato’s republic was “free” in this sense and this sense only—and newer; its historical importance begins, I would guess, with the French Revolution. As Mr. Berlin writes, it has much more popular appeal; the masses can be set in motion far more easily by an appeal to free themselves, en masse, from colonialism or the bourgeoisie than by a call to individual freedom. Indeed if, as is almost invariably the case, the victorious underdogs find their new masters as or more restrictive than the old ones, the fact that they are “our own S.O.B.’s” makes a big difference. Philosophically, this kind of liberty rests on the assumption that there is one “real” human nature, with “rational” needs. Every prophet of positive freedom, from Plato to Khrushchev, thinks he knows what this “real” human nature is.

This renders it easy for me to conceive of myself as coercing others for their own sake, in their, not my, interest. I am then claiming that I know what they truly need better than they know it themselves [and they would not resist me if they were as rational and as wise as I. … But I may go on to claim a good deal more than this. I may declare that they are actually aiming at what in their benighted state they consciously resist, because there exists within them an occult entity—their latent rational will, or their “true” purpose—and that this entity, although it is belied by all that they overtly feel and do and say, is their “real” self, of which the poor empirical self in space and time may know nothing or little; and that this inner spirit is the only self that deserves to have its wishes taken into account. Once I take this view I am in a position to ignore the actual wishes of men or societies, to bully, oppress, torture them in the name, or on behalf, of their “real” selves.

Although, or perhaps because, Mr. Berlin’s sympathies are obviously all with the negative concept, he talks mostly about the positive. The first four pages are an occasional prelude that scores neatly off the neglect of “fundamental problems of politics by professional philosophers” and pays what seems to me excessive tribute, even for such an occasion, to his predecessor in the Chichele Chair, one “Douglas Cole,” who I have found to be, after extensive trans-Atlantic research, actually the late G.D.H. Cole, a thinker I have not found inspiriting. There follow nine pages on negative freedom, thirty-six on positive freedom, and a coda of six pages contrasting the two. The trouble with all these pages on positive freedom, ingenious and persuasive as they are, is that I’m not at all sure that, politically, it is a “concept of liberty.” Mr. Berlin shows clearly enough how it applies to the individual who wishes to be his own master and so must learn the limitations that life imposes so that he may become free precisely through his understanding of necessity, that is, his freedom from illusion. But when it comes to groups of men, it is always a question of some of them imposing their notion of necessity on the rest, and we get the situation so well described in the long quotation just above. But is this freedom at all, except for the imposers? Can one conceive of freedom as collective? It seems to me simply a play on words based on a false analogy between the individual and the group, like Hegel’s theory of the “organic” state or the false conception of nations as collective persons, as in the attempt to attribute moral responsibility to them. A people cannot be punished, a people cannot be free, a people doesn’t exist except as an abstract conception; the only realities are the individuals who actually make up “the people”; these can choose to give up some or most of their freedom so that the people they belong to can be “free” from some disliked ruling power, but this is just a loose expression; if the individual gives up more of his own freedom—which for him is the only freedom there is—under the new system, then he is less free than he was before, even though “the people” he belongs to have been “freed.” Mr. Berlin rather sneers at anarchism (“saintly anarchists”) yet I think its insistence on the test of freedom being the effect here and now on the individual is actually quite realistic. And I think, in spite of his excellent intentions, he confutes things a little by including, even for polemical purposes, the notion of positive freedom as a “concept of liberty.”

Despite Mr. Berlin’s lucid, often eloquent prose, I must admit that I found his treatise hard going. I am a creature which needs constant infusions of the oxygen of the concrete to sustain life in the rarefied atmosphere of abstract reasoning. My mind tends to wander. There are many telling quotations,* but there is very little historical data, and I think this is a defect in writing about political questions. I found the footnotes often more readable than the text as with another important and (for me) even more difficult current work, Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition—because they are more specific. One is able to get through Marx and Engels, despite their Hegelian flights, because they are constantly giving one examples—”This is what we mean.” For instance, Mr. Berlin writes: “It is clear that [individual liberty] has little to hope for from the rule of majorities; democracy as such is logically uncommitted to it.” Would not this excellent point be vivified with the refreshing dew of illustration—a reference, perhaps, to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has become the chief defender of our civil liberties, insisting on equal rights for Negroes against the Southern majority and also resisting (often) the efforts of our democratically-elected legislative and executive branches to deprive political dissidents of their civil rights?

Nor is it just a matter of a crutch for the non-philosophically-minded reader. I suggest it is also a help to the author, who otherwise may glide from one abstraction to another, whereas if he were in the habit of supporting his generalizations with specific instances, these rough, awkward fragments of reality might check the smooth descent into error. Thus Mr. Berlin writes of the positive concept: “Liberty, so far from being incompatible with authority, becomes virtually identical with it. This is the thought and language of all the declarations of the rights of man in the 18th century.” But if he had felt obliged to justify, with examples, the second sentence, might he not have remembered not only Rousseau but also Jefferson? Jefferson, who in drafting the Declaration of Independence, specified “the pursuit of happiness” among man’s “inalienable rights,” adding that “To secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” and even spelling out the revolutionary “Right of the People to alter or abolish” any government they feel has become “destructive of those ends.” He might also have remembered the “Bill of Rights” that Jefferson helped add to the Constitution—the first ten amendments, which protect the area of individual freedom against the authority of the State.

Another stylistic difficulty with this treatise is that, perhaps because it was delivered as a lecture, it is essentially rhetoric—rhetoric on an extremely high level, rhetoric often with bite and wit, but still—rhetoric. This is related to the previous point, because rhetoric tends to be abstract, since an audience would become restive under too much documentation. It also means that what carries an audience along easily makes hard reading because a lot of extra words are used (like the reassuring gestures of a speaker) and because repetition is not only permissible but necessary. The lecturer must frequently mark time while his audience catches up with his thought. (My experience, at least, is that something written to be read by the eye goes much too fast for a listening audience; the ear is slow and emotional, while the eye is quick and intellectual.)

Mr. Berlin concludes his argument:

One belief, more than any other, is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals. … This is the belief that somewhere, in the past or in the future, in divine revelation or in the mind of an individual thinker, in the pronouncements of history or science, or in the simple heart of an uncorrupted good man, there is a final solution. …

To preserve our absolute categories or ideals at the expense of human lives offends equally against the principles of science and of history; it is an attitude found in equal measure on the right and left wings in our days, and is not reconcilable with the principles accepted by those who respect the facts. …

It may be that the ideal of freedom to live as one wishes—and the pluralism of values connected with it—is only the late fruit of our declining capitalist civilisation. … But no skeptical conclusions seem to me to follow. Principles are not less sacred because their duration cannot be guaranteed. Indeed, the very desire for guarantees that our values are eternal and secure in some objective heaven is perhaps only a craving for the certainties of childhood or the absolute values of our primitive past. “To realise the relative validity of one’s convictions,” said an admirable writer of our time, “and yet stand for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes a civilised man from a barbarian.” To demand more than this is perhaps a deep and incurable metaphysical need; but to allow it to guide one’s practice is a symptom of an equally deep, and far more dangerous, moral and political immaturity.

The merits and defects of Two Concepts of Liberty come out clearly in this eloquent, all too eloquent peroration. He is right, one thinks, but perhaps at too great a length. He is right, but one would like to know why he thinks the positive concept is “found in equal measure on the right and left wings in our days,” and what exactly he means by “right’” and “left”; if he means what I mean, I disagree about “equal measure,” but of course I don’t know if he does mean what I mean. He is right, but there is a smooth imprecision about many of his formulations that makes them sound better than they read. He is right (rhetoric is catching) but who is that “admirable writer of our time“? Still, the important thing is—he is right.

*As, Comte’s, “If we do not allow free-thinking in chemistry and biology, why should we allow it in morals and politics?”—a classic formulation of the modern fallacy of trying to bring under scientific control fields that are intrinsically not adapted to this operation. Or Bentham’s blunt, “Every law is an infraction of liberty.” Also his: “Is not liberty to do evil, liberty? If not, what is it? Do we not say that it is necessary to take liberty from idiots and bad men, because they abuse it?” Indeed, Bentham comes out a much more acute—and sympathetic—thinker than I had realised.

Dwight MacDonald (1906-1982) was an influential editor and critic and the author ofMasscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain. This review originally appeared inEncounter, April 1959.

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Dwight MacDonald (1906-1982) was an influential U.S. editor and arts critic, and a political radical.

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