1 March, 2003Issue 2.2HistoryPhilosophyPolitics & Society

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Philosophers and Freedom

Joshua Cherniss

Isaiah Berlin
Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty
Henry Hardy, ed.
Pimlico, 2003
256 pages

It is difficult to imagine intellectual virtuosity applied to serious ideas of the past winning widespread public attention in today’s world. Yet fifty years ago, when a foreign-born and stage-shy Oxford academic gave a series of lectures on late eighteenth and early nineteenth century European political philosophers over BBC radio, his talks met with exactly that.

The forty-three-year-old speaker picked his way through long sentences in a tense voice, his clipped syllables running together. The authors he discussed were all long dead, and few were well known. With the Cold War underway, however, the topic was timely: he trained his sights on the ways in which philosophers, in trying to defend visions of human freedom, had developed doctrines that justified tyranny. And his style was a perfect mixture of intellectual engagement, sly irony, and dramatic evocation. Under his urbane but intense gaze, the centuries dropped away, and complicated thoughts resolved themselves into striking patterns. The series won a large, avid audience and occasioned a leader along with a flurry of letters in the Times. It was a sensation.

The academic was Isaiah Berlin; and the lectures, under the title Freedom and its Betrayal, have just been published by Berlin’s tireless editor, Henry Hardy. Much of the credit for Berlin’s continued influence belongs to Hardy, who has worked something of a wonder.

In resurrecting neglected works that Berlin himself was too modest or too distracted to publish, preparing these writings for publication by laboriously tracking down Berlin’s references and correcting Berlin’s many free and often inaccurate quotations, he has allowed Berlin’s voice—unfettered, insistent, lucid, humane—to continue speaking, with his rare intellectual passion and rhetorical brilliance, to the perennial problems of people struggling against the threats of oppression in ever-changing conditions. The publication of these lectures, then, is a welcome occasion. Not merely Cold War period pieces, they remain challenging, successful works of popular persuasion.

Berlin emphasized that those devoted to human liberty must be wary of too great a passion for certainty, order, regulation, and harmony at the expense of diversity, spontaneity, and eccentricity. He also reminded us that to be careful advocates of freedom, we must learn from the melancholy spectacle of liberty’s betrayal by those who claim to defend it, in addition to countering the disquieting insights of those who overtly struggle against it. This lesson made Berlin’s thought politically and morally profound not only in his own time, but also today. When men and women are imprisoned in the name of defending liberty; when dogma and hysteria are justified in the name of emancipation; and when fanatics murder innocents and are hailed as ‘freedom fighters’—then Berlin’s political analyses speak to us powerfully and urgently.

For all his interest in the application of ideas to contemporary conflicts, Berlin structured these lectures as a work of history, discussing shifts in European political thought through examinations of six influential thinkers. He starts with the eighteenth century French philosopher Helvetius, who believed that the goal of human life was enlightened, harmless pleasure and who dreamed of emancipation through rational education and governance under the direction of a civilized minority.

This vision was rejected by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose attacks on the sophisticated hypocrisy of his time and whose farsighted advocacy of participatory democracy and civic virtue transformed European thought on the eve of the nineteenth century. The German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte also began as an apostle of liberation and individualism but became an ardent exponent of nationalism and authoritarianism.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the author of the most influential and difficult philosophical master-system of the nineteenth century, sought to understand human freedom by discerning the overarching course of history and, Berlin suggests, ended up subjugating human beings to impersonal historical laws. The Comte de Saint-Simon was an eccentric visionary whose own view of historical progress led him to see the salvation of society in the rule of technical experts: he dreamt of replacing the rule of men with the ‘administration of things’. Finally, Joseph de Maistre frankly declared that freedom and enlightenment were dangerous, politics consisted of bloody conflict, and social life rested on terror, superstition, and oppression: the public hangman was the author of order, and the public scaffold was the foundation of society.

As an intellectual historian, Berlin was never free from reproach. His accounts of individual philosophers lack the close attention to textual detail, the lucid evaluation of logical argument, and the analysis of political, social, intellectual, cultural and linguistic contexts which have transformed the study of political thought. His portrayal of philosophical development too often reads like a morality play. He paints pictures which are dramatic, colorful, simplistic, and at times contrived.

The most problematic portions of this book, in this regard, are those that address the most complicated and powerful thinkers—Rousseau and Hegel. This is both because of the numerous studies of these thinkers which came after Berlin’s lectures, and because the work of Rousseau and Hegel is simply too complex to be jammed into Berlin’s narrative of the betrayal of freedom.

Nonetheless, Berlin’s account of Rousseau provides a powerfully convincing and lucid account of the rationale behind the paradoxes of The Social Contract. Berlin puts his finger on the pulse of Rousseau’s thought in emphasizing his abhorrence of human division and his belief—which Rousseau himself identified in his Confessions as the root of his thought—that the source of all evil lies in conflicts of interest between human beings.

Although Berlin here fails to do justice to the sophistication of Hegel’s system, he does convincingly tease out some of the more disturbing implications of Hegel’s thought and in so doing offers an early version of Berlin’s critique of the tyrannical historical master-narratives of the nineteenth century, which he would further develop in his essays on the philosophy of history and his affectionate portraits of the nineteenth century Russian revolutionary, Herzen.

Indeed, the chapters on Hegel and Rousseau are valuable in revealing the origins of many of Berlin’s later, well-known positions: we are able to watch Berlin working these out through his efforts to make sense of the thinkers whose presences haunted his later work.

These chapters tell us some important things about Rousseau and Hegel; they tell us much more about Berlin and about his very real virtues as a historian. Nor, in judging Berlin’s work, should we forget just how much today’s renaissance in the study of the history of political thought owes to his early, lonely efforts; his BBC lectures, for example, transfixed and inspired a boy named John Burrow, one of today’s most accomplished intellectual historians. While there may be scholars with more precise readings of texts and contexts than Berlin’s, few match his breadth of vision, depth of perception, and infectious enthusiasm.

Berlin’s sympathy for lonely, independent and eccentric figures is one of his most appealing traits, and one of his greatest accomplishments was to revive interest in obscure and neglected thinkers. He did this with Maistre in a long, masterful essay (published in The Crooked Timber of Humanity); the chapter on Maistre here is far shorter and less thorough, but it is nonetheless a direct and vivid introduction.

However, the account of Fichte in Freedom and its Betrayal is by far his fullest discussion of this German Romantic, although Berlin often mentions him elsewhere. The Fichte chapter succeeds marvelously in showing step-by-step how Fichte moved from advocating radical individual emancipation and self-determination to celebrating a mystical conception of collective selfhood in which individuals were wholly subsumed by and utterly oppressed in the name of the Nation, the People, the Race.

Yet the most successful chapter of all is that on Saint-Simon, which reveals that, far from being a dispenser of well-worn commonplaces, Berlin was in fact a deeply prescient and adventurous scholar. Saint-Simon, though a colorful, vain, picaresque, and compassionate aristocrat, has long been an obscure figure, off the well-trodden path of canonical political thought. Yet he was a profoundly important figure in nineteenth century thought. Saint-Simon shaped not only socialism, but also sociology (through his pupil August Comte). The development of ever more bureaucratic government owed much to his vision of a society managed by a cadre of enlightened experts—as did the increased prestige of big business. Even the development of liberalism (J.S. Mill was deeply, if equivocally, influenced by Saint-Simon) owed something to him.

The chapter on Saint-Simon, like the rest of Freedom and its Betrayal, highlights why Berlin turned to the history of ideas and why he approached it as he did. For Berlin (by contrast with figures such as Marx), the important thing was not to change the world, but to understand it. Too many had tried to change the world without understanding it, and the results were all too apparent. Hence Berlin’s focus on beginnings and transitions in intellectual history. This also helps explain his attraction to originality as such, and his tendency to focus on precursors, visionaries, and mavericks who, though marginal and misunderstood in their own time, subsequently laid the ground for the world in which we live. It is this quality that makes Berlin’s work so interesting and accessible, even to those not professionally concerned with intellectual history.

While Berlin’s lectures were shaped by a particular time and situation, he responded by looking at issues that were not merely transitory: the origins and development of certain influential, seductive ideas and, most importantly, the perennial struggle between the thirst for liberty and the hunger for certainty and absolutism which threaten that liberty.

These essays continue to stand as a powerful defense of liberty, and a warning against the passions of fanatics and fundamentalists of all creeds across the centuries. In doing so, they testify to the fact, often overlooked by our hyper-specialized academy, that the errors of an original and generous intellect can be more fruitful than exactitude unnourished by imaginative insight.

Joshua Cherniss is currently working on a DPhil thesis concerned with the intellectual and political context of Berlin’s thought.