Chipping away at liberty

Freedom and its Betrayal - Liberty
June 21, 2002

Peter Watson ponders the meaning of 'masterpiece' in the humanities.

Lunching in the Faculty Club at Harvard University some time ago, I found my host - the economist, Amartya Sen - more than a little put out. At one point he stopped eating and went into a huddle with other distinguished academics in the room - Robert Nozick, the philosopher, and Daniel Bell, the sociologist, among them. The reason for their agitated powwow was an article that had appeared in that morning's New York Times , written by Paul Johnson. Johnson had been asked to write something to mark the recent death of Sir Isaiah Berlin, the Latvian/Russian émigré , Oxford philosopher and historian of ideas. Johnson had responded by arguing along the lines that, however distinguished an academic and however stimulating a conversationalist he was, Berlin could not be regarded as a truly great man because he had never written a masterpiece. Sen, Nozick, Bell and others were appalled at this judgement.

I never did discover what action this eminent trio took, although I think a reply to The New York Times was envisaged, in the form of a letter to the editor. But in any case the episode came back when I received these two books in the mail.

Liberty is a revised and expanded edition of Four Essays on Liberty , first published in 1969 (though delivered as lectures some ten years earlier), which Berlin regarded as his most important book. It was in these essays that Berlin introduced to a wide public his famous "two concepts of liberty". Negative freedom, he said, was "a certain minimum area of personal freedom which on no account must be violated; for if it is overstepped, the individual will find himself in an area too narrow for even that minimum development of his natural faculties which alone makes it possible to pursue, and even to conceive, the various ends which men hold good, or right or sacred. It follows that a frontier must be drawn between the area of private life and that of public authority... Without adequate conditions for the use of freedom, what is the value of freedom?" Berlin argued that this doctrine of negative freedom is relatively modern - it does not occur in antiquity - but that the desire not to be impinged upon, to be left to oneself, "has been a mark of high civilisation".

Positive freedom, on the other hand, concerns all those issues that centre around the desire of the individual "to be his own master". This concept therefore involves issues of government, of reason, of social identity (race, tribe, church) of genuine autonomy. If the only true method of attaining freedom in this sense is the use of critical reason, then all those matters that affect critical reason - history, psychology, science, for example - must come into play. Insofar as man is a social being, what he is, is, to some degree, what others think and feel him to be. It is this, Berlin says - this failure on the part of many to be recognised for what they wish to feel themselves to be - that was "the heart of the great cry" at that time (the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s in particular) on the part of certain nations, classes, professions and races.

These essays have now been added to and issued as Freedom and its Betrayal in the form that, editor Henry Hardy tells us, Berlin himself preferred. In addition to the four essays on liberty, there is a long introduction and a number of other writings, the most notable of which are an essay on "The birth of Greek individualism", a "Letter to George Kennan" and a "Final retrospect". So the book is, if you like, the collected thoughts of Berlin on freedom and as such may be seen as a reply to Johnson: here is the achievement, set out in all its glory. Is it then a masterpiece?

Well, somewhere within these pages there is a masterpiece struggling to get out but overall, I fear, what we have at the moment is a pig's ear made from a silk purse. The essence of the original Four Essays was that Berlin took just as much space as he needed to get across what he had to say, and then stopped. The argument was left to speak for itself, to stand or fall by its intellectual, polemical and logical strength. This was all the more appropriate because Berlin had said, at one point: "Everything is what it is: liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or culture or human happiness or a quiet conscience." By the same token, an essay is what it is: it has its natural length and when the author is done, he is done. There is no need to pad out the central argument with introductions, appendices and the like.

Which is what we have here. It is high-class padding, of course, very high-class padding, but it struck me, reading this book, that the younger Berlin was a better writer than the older one. One can see why Hardy should have begun Liberty with an "Introduction" Berlin wrote, which is in part a reply to critics, and in part bounces off other writings he had encountered since the first appearance of Four Essays and that he thought germane to the theme. But this essay, 52 pages long, is by far the stodgiest in the book, full of long sentences, dense as a babushka 's moustache, fenced off with what must be the greatest flock of semi-colons ever assembled under one roof. I was tempted to invent a new procedure of editorial surgery, the semi-colonoscopy, to remedy the situation. One longs to get to the meat of the book, and any student coming fresh to Berlin's arguments would surely do better to reach for the old paperback and sink his or her teeth into the four essays straightaway rather than wade through what is on offer here.

But I said there was a masterpiece struggling to get out, and that is true. When Johnson criticised Berlin for not writing a great book, he was falling into a conventional cast of mind that says that great books, by definition, comprise a quantum jump in imagination, insight or research. This is to profoundly misjudge Berlin and his achievement.

In his book The Scientific Imagination , the Harvard philosopher of science Gerald Holton (another luminary present in the Faculty Club that day), argues that the imaginative leaps in science are actually smaller than in the arts and humanities, and this partly accounts for their success: each small advance is immediately tested, and can be tested, whereas larger leaps, however mouth-watering, are harder to verify. This, it seems to me, shows the way to view Berlin and may explain why Johnson made the mistake (or the half mistake) that he did.

Berlin was blessed with a large dose of common sense and, because of that, knew it was unlikely that one man could make a single huge advance in such a vast, and well-trodden topic as freedom. Instead, he worried away all his life coming at the subject from different directions. With such large questions as freedom, it is probably the only way. His achievement was to see the many very different ways freedom could be written about.

Michael Ignatieff, in his biography of Berlin, says that he originally intended to call his two concepts of freedom "liberal" and "romantic". Hardy says that when Berlin was preparing his inaugural lecture as Chichele professor of social and political theory at Oxford in 1959, which is where these ideas were first aired, he was not sure whether what he was saying was new or a set of obvious platitudes. Time has been kind to Berlin but the uncertainty that Hardy mentions is of a part with the achievement: Berlin refined ideas of liberty rather than transforming them.

Liberty , for example, contains two longish essays, one on "Historical inevitability" and the other on "The birth of Greek individualism". "Freedom and its betrayal" looks at Helvetius, Fichte, Hegel, Maistre and other writers who were prominent just before and just after the French Revolution. In each case, Berlin has realised the relevance of these subjects in relation to liberty, and draws out appropriate themes.

"Historical inevitability", written in 1953, tackles the question as to whether the advances in science, in particular its successes in predicting events from first principles, could ever be applied to historical processes. If history can be predicted, or even if "trends" can be perceived, where does that leave the role of the free individual? Berlin accepted that some diminution in the scope of free will might follow from this, but remained sceptical, mainly because the social sciences have failed so dismally in their predictive properties. Even the unconscious of Freud and the collective unconscious of Jung have proved hopeless in this regard, despite spawning alleged therapeutic procedures. This essay seems a little dated now, given recent developments in mathematics and science, which show that certain evolutionary stages (such as extinctions) can be predicted mathematically, and that some quantum physical processes operate on a probabilistic basis.

But his assessments of the enemies of liberty show Berlin at his best: forceful without being bombastic, energetic without exaggerating, erudite without showing off. Above all, he did the work. He read these authors from a particular point of view, and brought their sins to our attention, as a warning. (Saint-Simon thought there were only interests, not rights; for Fichte, freedom was submission.) But all the work that Berlin has done would have amounted to little had he not had such generous helpings of common sense. He realised, for instance, that important threats to freedom come not from enemies as much as the fact that not all human beliefs are reconcilable; he was at pains time and again to point out that one person's freedom may conflict with another's. Which is why we need to examine all the minute byways and backways of freedom, to ease our way out of the conflicts that are - by definition - with us at all times.

Chipping away to extend and refine our understanding of liberty was a noble aim. These books may not be masterpieces in the Paul Johnsonian sense but, alongside the achievement, that is irrelevant.

Peter Watson is the author of A Terrible Beauty , an intellectual history of the 20th century.

Freedom and its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty

Author - Isaiah Berlin
Editor - Henry Hardy
ISBN - 0 7011 7297 5
Publisher - Chatto and Windus
Price - £20.00
Pages - 182

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments