The Choices of Isaiah Berlin

Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas

by Isaiah Berlin
Viking Press, 394 pp., $16.95

The Idea of Freedom: Essays in Honour of Isaiah Berlin

edited by Alan Ryan
Oxford University Press, 297 pp., $15.95
Johann Herder
Johann Herder; drawing by David Levine


At the center of the thought of the philosopher and historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin is a conception of man as a free and never wholly predictable agent, expressing his interests through diverse values, cultural settings, ways of thinking, acting, feeling. In the previous issue, we described Berlin’s views on the ancestry of this conception in Machiavelli, Vico, and the “Counter-Enlightenment” thinkers. But we left unanswered the important question of Berlin’s view of the political arrangements that should govern men if they indeed conform to this conception.

Berlin’s views on pluralism, the necessity of radical choice, and on human nature interlock in his well-known writings in defense of liberalism, not merely in the essays on nationalism, on Georges Sorel, and on Alexander Herzen in Against the Current, but also and more fully, in his Four Essays on Liberty,1 which is the main subject of The Idea of Freedom, a collection of essays by distinguished scholars in honor of Sir Isaiah’s seventieth birthday.

As Berlin noted long ago, political ideas always rest on a conception of what man is and can be; the philosophical ideas behind liberal doctrine and practice were, along with more arcane matters, a ground of battle between the Enlightenment and the Counter-Enlightenment—the battle between such philosophers as Voltaire and Condorcet, who believed that human nature was fundamentally the same everywhere and open to improvement by science, and those like Herder and Hamann, who emphasized the diversity of cultures and were skeptical of science as applied to social and moral experience and of “progress” in history.

“European liberalism,” he wrote, “wears the appearance of a single coherent movement, little altered during almost three centuries, founded upon relatively simple foundations, laid by Locke or Grotius or even Spinoza; stretching back to Erasmus and Montaigne, the Italian Renaissance, Seneca and the Greeks.”2 The demands for tolerance, freedom of speech and thought and assembly, for a minimum amount of liberty to be granted each individual, for the cultivation of choices available to men (as opposed to the coercion of choice), for the divorce of the content of justice from any specific doctrine of goodness, the Right from the Good—these were the characteristic demands of liberty.

Liberals often also added theories about “natural rights” which were not obviously compatible with the “tentative empiricism,” as Berlin puts it, that usually characterized their views. Rational morality, they thought, would secure universal truths and, when combined with acceptable economic theories, would encourage freedom, happiness, economic growth, and the decline of economic misery.

But, as Berlin continues this narrative, the nineteenth century saw disturbing developments which led thinkers as different as J.S. Mill and Nietzsche to rethink or modify or reject the simple philosophical underpinnings of liberalism inherited from Condorcet and Helvetius. Such developments included unbridled private enterprise, the awesome rise of industrialization, the appearance of unexpected forms of concentrated political and economic power, the…

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