Live and Let Live

Two Faces of Liberalism

John Gray
New Press, 161 pp., $25.00

John Grey
John Grey; drawing by David Levine

Philosophers enjoy simple oppositions. Locked in metaphysical combat, monism battles pluralism, and idealism struggles against materialism: the world is one or the world is many; the world is mental or the mind is material. Political philosophers share this liking, pitting order against liberty, conservatism against progressivism. Reality is complicated, but the philosopher simplifies it, or more usually oversimplifies it. Isaiah Berlin took the title of his famous essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox” from Archilochus—“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”—to warn his readers against the hedgehog’s passion for oversimplifications, but Berlin himself went on to write Two Concepts of Liberty. He subverted the tidy conclusions suggested by the title by writing about many more and much more various topics than that. Nonetheless, most of his readers thought he was saying that the one big thing about freedom was that negative liberty, the right not to be interfered with, was good, and positive liberty—the right, for example, to benefit from state-sponsored programs for self-improvement—could be bad.

John Gray’s Two Faces of Liberalism is squarely in the tradition of Isaiah Berlin’s inaugural lecture. Far from being concerned with two of anything, it is a series of reflections on an unresolved tension that marked Berlin’s writing on politics. On the one side was Berlin’s emphasis on the plurality—indeed the contradictoriness—of human goods. Berlin, famously, argued that not all good things can be had within one life, or within one society, or within one way of life. The military hero displays one set of virtues, the ascetic monk another. To emphasize this is not relativism, nor is it skepticism: the virtues of the military way of life are genuinely virtues, and so are the virtues of the monastic way of life, but they cannot be practiced together, even though a given person may be pulled toward both ways of life. “This,” Gray writes, “is not only because they involve the cultivation of attitudes and dispositions that do not coexist easily in the same person. It is because the virtues of some are the vices of others.” The psychological conflict faced by someone torn between two ways of life rises to the level of tragedy when each of them demands total commitment, and each also demands the suppression of something vital.

The same conflict is visible in politics. Did Athenian democracy depend on the existence of slavery, as Benjamin Constant thought?1 If so, would we rather that there had never been a democratic Athens? Does the relatively tranquil liberal democracy practiced in Britain and the United States create political apathy and a widespread inability to think seriously about public affairs? If so, would we willingly sacrifice peace and the rule of law for the sake of a more bracing intellectual and political life? What ought a liberal to think about such conflicts? These were the questions that Berlin asked,…

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