In his classic essay “Does Political Theory Still Exist?” Isaiah Berlin observed that
save to those who understand and even feel what a philosophical question is, how it differs from an empirical or formal question…, the answers—in this case the main political doctrines of the West—may well seem intellectual fancies, detached philosophical speculations and constructions without much relation to acts or events.
Only those who can to some degree re-enact within themselves the states of mind of men tormented by questions to which those theories claim to be solutions, or at any rate the states of mind of those who may accept the solutions uncritically but would, without them, fall into a state of insecurity and anxiety—only these are capable of grasping what part philosophical views, and especially political doctrines, have played in history, at any rate in the West.
Berlin was himself a master of intellectual reenactment. In his writings on politics his guiding assumption was that its fundamental concepts—liberty, equality, authority, war, rights, citizenship, toleration, community—could not be grasped if treated in merely formal relation to one another, that truly to understand them as concepts we had to experience what they refer to, either directly in political life or indirectly in history and biography. Though I cannot experience an irrational number I can understand its concept. But if I try to comprehend the meaning of political concepts without having a deep sense of the conditions under which they become actual for human beings—the rise and fall of states, abuses of authority, the loss of self-determination, the indignities of privation and slavery, wars of religion, the birth of a redemptive ideology—I will necessarily have an impoverished understanding of them. What Berlin admired in his intellectual hero Herder was a virtue he himself possessed to a high degree: Einfühlung, the sympathetic ability to place oneself within the perspective of an alien culture or period or intellectual system. In reading him we learn that this anthropological virtue is also a philosophical one.
Berlin’s commitment to Einfühlung is what makes his writings so hard to classify. Academic political philosophers have at times expressed frustration with having to cut through the underbrush of his digressions on figures in the history of ideas they deem obscure, and vainly search for a sentence that begins, “In the following paper I shall argue that….” Intellectual historians lodge a different complaint, that his history of ideas is impressionistic and lacking in material context. To readers like these Berlin will remain little more than an Oxford curiosity, a gentlemanly essayist and portraitist but not a productive thinker.
As we learn from Michael Ignatieff’s absorbing biography, Isaiah Berlin: A Life, Berlin often leveled this same charge against himself. It is a pity he never made a more explicit defense of his intellectual labors, the sort implied in the sentences I quoted above. For the case could be made that serious reflection about the fundamental political questions of our age could only begin after we have traversed the territory that Berlin’s writings illuminate. To understand the concept of equality, for example, it helps to understand how in the past it has inspired loyalty and sacrifice in men, but also fanaticism and cruelty. When political concepts become the objects of passionate attachment, relations among them—liberty and equality, rights and authority—appear differently from the way they do in the antiseptic light of the seminar room. What passes for political philosophy or political theory in the university today is almost wholly lacking in the psychological and historical insight Berlin tried to give his readers. Debate centers on Rube Goldberg–inspired theories of justice, sentimental and ahistorical briefs for “community” or “virtue,” tortured, artless investigations into “otherness” inspired by American identity politics and opaque French structuralism, or formal models of “rational choice” drawn from economic science. This chatter contributes virtually nothing to understanding the central political questions of our age.
When reading Isaiah Berlin we breathe an altogether different air, and not simply because he was a superior writer. With him we know we are inside the psychological and historical clockwork that turns the hands of modern political life. Berlin’s essays about Russian thinkers, for example, take us deep within nineteenth-century minds struggling intellectually with the forces of modernization, cosmopolitanism, and the hegemony of the West, revealing the phenomenon of “Occidentalism” long before this useful term was coined.1 Those essays, taken with his more systematic writings on the concept of nationalism, are more valuable than shelves of recent scholarship on this problem because they go to the psychological heart of the matter. Similar lessons can be drawn from Berlin’s scattered writings on the roots of Romanticism, fragments of an unwritten book on the subject. He understood the Romantic mindset and admired much about it (its capacity for toleration, its recognition of feeling), yet he also distrusted its cult of authenticity, which has had a pernicious impact on modern politics. It has shaped nationalism throughout the world, and forever colored the way we think and talk about the concepts of liberty and equality at home. Berlin gave Romanticism its due in order to escape its seductive attraction, and we would do well to follow his example.
We have a new opportunity to do so thanks to Henry Hardy, one of Berlin’s literary trustees who has been systematically putting out his uncollected essays and lectures in recent years. There has been grousing in certain academic quarters about this enterprise on the grounds that the material now coming to light is not of the first quality and often repeats what Berlin said elsewhere in more finished form, which is why he was reluctant to bring these scattered writings to press. Hardy has responded that this new material does not supplant the older, and that as Berlin’s own thought becomes an object of study it is helpful to see him shaping his views in their first form. This is a convincing argument, but there are others, too.
Berlin was not a conventional writer; he worked his essays up from lectures and dictation, finding it easier to express his views orally before getting them into written form. What made his published essays so labyrinthine was the accretion of references and clarifying digressions he felt compelled to add as he considered possible objections or exceptions, an exercise that took him further from his original inspiration as the editing progressed. Richness of reference and allusion was one of the pleasures he gave his readers; directness was not. The material now being published, especially the lectures, may be thin in places but it is direct, giving us a better sense of how Berlin put himself into the minds of those he studied.
The first set of lectures to appear began as the A.W. Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery of Art in 1965 and was published as The Roots of Romanticism in 1999.2 This text is the closest Berlin ever got to putting together his lifework on Romanticism, which weighed as heavily on him as the key to all mythologies weighed on Mr. Casaubon. The most recent lectures to appear were given much earlier in Berlin’s career as BBC radio broadcasts in 1952, under the title Freedom and Its Betrayal. This was at the height of the cold war, a period in which Berlin did much to focus Anglo-American intellectual attention on the complex nature of political liberty and the influential sources of resistance to it. His most renowned contribution to this issue was his 1958 inaugural lecture as Oxford’s Chichele Professor, titled “Two Concepts of Liberty,” which has also recently reappeared in a large volume devoted to his writings on liberty.3 In the earlier lectures we do not get a formal argument about the dual guises of liberty; rather more interestingly we are taken on a tour through the minds of “six enemies of human liberty”: Helvétius, Rousseau, Fichte, Hegel, Saint-Simon, and Joseph de Maistre.
What constitutes an “enemy” of liberty? In 1945 Karl Popper had published two large volumes devoted to this question, The Open Society and Its Enemies, which purported to find a continuous line of anti-liberal thought running from Plato down through Hegel and Marx. In Popper’s view, these philosophers’ attachment to closed and complete systems of thought helped to lay the foundations of to-talitarianism by breeding hostility to “openness” as such—whether the openness of modern experimental science, or the openness of democratic societies. Berlin was somewhat sympathetic to this view, though he did once say that a more useful inquiry might have been made into “The Closed Society and Its Friends.” In a sense, that is what his own lectures are about, and the results are much subtler than what Popper wrote on the subject.
For Berlin the central paradox of modern thinking about liberty is this: that it is often those most attached to freedom as a political value who ended up supporting ideas or measures that reduced its sphere or sought to extinguish it. He begins with Claude-Adrien Helvétius, one of the most important figures in the French Enlight- enment, though his great works De l’esprit (1758) and De l’homme (posthumously published in 1777) are rarely consulted today. Helvétius was an extreme materialist and rationalist who believed that all human ills stemmed from the ignorance spread and perpetuated by self-interested priests and rulers. Like Hobbes, he tried to persuade his contemporaries that man is nothing but a machine registering pleasures and pains, and that were one to learn the mechanics of this machine, and stop thinking of people as possessing souls or unique personalities, one could create a society in which pain was minimized and/or pleasure maximized. And like Bentham, who studied him carefully, Helvétius was genuinely puzzled that human beings were so stiff-necked about relinquishing their liberty into the hands of planners and technicians who could finally render them happy.
Berlin builds a familiar case against Helvétius in order to explain the rise of a thinker like Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Berlin rightly sees Rousseau as the anti-Helvétius, a reactionary who yearned to restore liberty to its rightful place as the highest human aspiration, in the face of modern materialism. Helvétius said liberty meant nothing, so Rousseau countered that liberty was everything—and that was where the trouble started. Through an unwillingness to see liberty as one political value among others, by becoming a fanatic for freedom, Rousseau was forced to adopt an intellectual position that made perfect liberty and complete authority identical. In the Social Contract he posed the problem in this way: “to find a form of association…in which each, while uniting himself with all, yet may still obey only himself alone and remain as free as before.” And, as any schoolchild knows (or used to know), Rousseau claimed such an association could be formed, if it were animated by what he calls the “general will” and individuals were, if necessary, “forced to be free.”
Berlin has nothing novel to say about Rousseau’s solution to this political puzzle and how it may have provided an early justification for later tyrannical acts. His intention is rather to take us on a tour of Rousseau’s mind, to make us feel what it is like to be passionate about liberty—and then, through that passion, to be led beyond good sense to countenance the denial of ordinary freedom in the name of a more authentic version of it. Rousseau did much good, in Berlin’s view, by stressing the fact that “without freedom, without spontaneity, no society is worth having” and seeing that a human being “prefers wild, unruly, spontaneous freedom, provided that it is he himself that is acting; prefers this even to the maximum of happiness.” But in “launching the mythology of the real self,” by imagining us to be thoroughly alienated creatures who could only be restored to authentic existence through some liberating slavery enforced from without, Rousseau also launched a thousand tyrannical ships that only began to founder in recent memory.
This is a harsh judgment that does less than full justice to Rousseau’s thought. But partial justice is sometimes to be preferred in intellectual history if the larger point is correct. In Rousseau Berlin does not see just one thinker, he sees the whole Romantic movement arising, and with it a whole new way of conceiving the political lives of nations. One discovers this first in the thought of Fichte, once a follower of Kant who later broke with his master on matters of philosophical and political doctrine. Like Kant and Rousseau, Fichte took the locus of freedom to be a certain inner state, which the political order was obligated to preserve. But whereas this notion led Kant to argue for individual rights, a constitutional system, and international law, Fichte argued from the fact of absolute freedom of the individual to the absolute freedom of the nation, considered as an individual. If a self has a distinctive spirit, he reasoned, so must a nation; if an individual is fundamentally a creative creature, then so are peoples. With Fichte, Berlin remarks,
we started with the notion of an autonomous person, anxious not to be impinged upon, wishing for a life of absolute freedom, obeying only the inner workings of its own inner consciousness, it its own inner conscience. And now we say: Life is art, life is a molding, life is the creation of something—self-creation—by a so-called “organic” process…. Freedom and morality generally, is self-submission to the super-self—the dynamic cosmos.
Berlin then makes a distinction which would later become central to his thought. This is the distinction between “negative” liberty, understood as a right to act without unreasonable external constraint or interference according to one’s own purposes, and “positive” liberty, understood as a capacity to pursue and perhaps achieve one’s ends, which capacity might demand constraints on oneself or others, or the provision of certain basic conditions for that pursuit. In this early formulation, the negative-positive antithesis is introduced apropos of the difference between the tradition of liberty that grew up in early modern England and Holland, and Romantic freedom as developed in Continental Europe in the nineteenth century:
These are the two notions of liberty which were spread over Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century; to ask which of them is true, and which of them is false, is a shallow and unanswerable question. They represent two views of life of an irreconcilable kind, the liberal and authoritarian, open and closed, and the fact that the word “freedom” has been a genuinely central symbol in both is at once remarkable and sinister.
This wise remark illustrates Berlin’s conviction that liberty is not a dry concept or straightforward aspiration, it is an intractable human problem that allows of no ultimately satisfying solution. Freedom’s sphere can be extended or diminished but it can never be fully extinguished, nor can it become the whole of life. Already in the mid-Fifties we see Berlin grappling with the problem of “pluralism,” the fact, as he saw it, that there is no ultimate hierarchy of political values, that none can be perfected, and that the pursuit of one usually engenders loss of another, a real loss that can never be fully compensated for by gains elsewhere. This is true of different values, such as liberty and equality; it is also true of different conceptions of the same value, as in negative and positive conceptions of liberty. While there are sometimes losses without gains, there are never gains in human affairs without losses.
Fichte’s line of reasoning anticipates many aspects of Hegel’s thought, which Berlin felt obliged to treat in his lectures. This was a mistake, for the Hegel lecture is superficial and on many points simply wrong. Berlin was always much stronger on second-rate thinkers, whose self-delusions he was quick to discover and expose; uncovering problems in the work of a first-rate and fully self-aware thinker requires more patient probing into his philosophical system than Berlin was generally willing to devote. The following chapters on Saint-Simon and Maistre, by contrast, are spirited affairs and take us deep into the core of modern political ideology.
Comte Henri de Saint-Simon, who counted among his ancestors the famous duke of the Mémoires, was one of the strangest and most prophetic visionaries of post-Revolutionary Europe. This is saying a lot, given, as Berlin observes, that in Europe “there never was a period to compare with the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century for the extraordinary density of megalomaniac Messiahs.” Indeed, “if proph-ecy is laid along prophecy and the predictions of Karl Marx are compared to those of Saint-Simon, the balance will turn out to be more than favorable to Saint-Simon.”
What Saint-Simon saw in the Enlightenment and the French Revolution was the birth of a new political-industrial order, which he welcomed with open arms. Whereas Helvétius could only dream of society one day becoming like a well-oiled machine, Saint-Simon had very precise ideas of how history was bringing that transformation about, and how the process could be assisted. In a flood of writings he laid out detailed plans for the organization of industrial conglomerates, the planning of cities, the establishment of financial institutions, labor unions, and welfare programs—in fact he foresaw the creation of just about every major social and economic institution that we live with today.
Saint-Simon believed in progress, and like Helvétius thought that progress could only come about if individual freedoms took a back seat to the plans of a technological, industrial, political, and even cultural elite. But he also claimed that his schemes were inspired by a love of liberty, understood as the historical process of giving man collective (rather than individual) self-mastery and freeing society from slavery to the forces of chance, nature, and ignorance. Saint-Simon also had intricate views about how this process would take place. As he saw it, history moved in alternating phases, with periods of creative destruction followed by eras of consolidation, and during the latter periods religion played an important role in shoring up the gains of revolution and reconciling individuals psychologically to the new order. He therefore imagined the creation of new, modern religions that would work with political authority rather than against it, and would legitimize its exercise. The Saint-Simonian idea of freedom could, as Berlin says, take “mild and humane forms in the case of, for example, the American New Deal, or the post-war socialist State in England.” But it could also take “violent, ruthless, brutal, fanatical forms in the case of directively planned Fascist and Communist societies.”
Berlin concluded his radio series with a lecture on Joseph de Maistre, the dark genius of the French Counter- Revolution who was no friend of freedom under any definition. This lecture served as a sketch for a much longer, and extremely forceful, essay devoted to Maistre that Berlin later published in The Crooked Timber of Humanity,4and readers interested in Maistre will probably want to turn to that essay first. In the present volume Maistre represents the return of the repressed: after a half-century in which thinkers spoke of nothing but freedom and defended authoritarian political schemes as authentically liberating ones, Maistre ridiculed the idea of liberty and sang the praises of absolute authority, the crueler and bloodier the better. Maistre, a minor Savoyard aristocrat, despised the French Revolution and spent the Napoleonic period as an ambassador in St. Petersburg, where he filled his free hours writing rhetorically brilliant, seductive tracts against everything the modern age had given birth to.
What man craves, what man needs, is not freedom, Maistre declared, it is authority: he only feels alive and human when he knows what his duties are and is made to fulfill them. Man may say he wants peace, but look around you: without the hangman, society itself would collapse in a violent war of all against all; therefore the hangman deserves our respect, even love. What is life but a parade of death, a relentless letting of blood as species fights species and brother kills brother? “The whole earth, perpetually steeped in blood, is nothing but a vast altar, upon which all that is living must be sacrificed without end, without measure, without pause, until the consummation of things, until evil is extinct, until the death of death.” The fascist cult of death had its first prophet in Maistre.
Berlin is at the limits of his own capacity for Einfühlung when writing about Maistre, and one senses the tension of fascination and repulsion in his treatment of this odd yet important figure. But even here he is able to understand how, after a century of Enlightenment ended with Terror and despotism, readers who once clamored for liberty might have found themselves attracted to Maistre—and, by implication, how fascism too could have appealed to so many Europeans after the Great War and Great Depression:
At the end of positivist, optimistic periods of human construction, in which men rise up and say they are about to cure the world’s ills by some economic or social solution, which then does not work, there is always a penchant for reaction on the part of ordinary people, satiated by so much false optimism, so much pragmatism, so much positive idealism, which become discredited by the sheer pricking of the bubble, by the fact that all the slogans turn out to be meaningless and weak when the wolf really comes to the door. Always, after this, people want to look at the seamy side of things, and in our day the more terrifying sides of psychoanalysis, the more brutal and violent aspects of Marxism, are due to this human craving for the seamy side—something more astringent, more real, more genuine, meeting people’s needs in some more effective fashion than the rosy, over-mechanical, over-schematized faiths of the past. This is what Maistre provides for his own generation, too. Men cannot live by the ideals he opposed, and Maistre’s contribution is a violent antidote to the over-blown, over-optimistic and altogether too superficial social doctrines of the eighteenth century. Maistre earns our gratitude as a prophet of the most violent, the most destructive forces which have threatened and still threaten the liberty and the ideals of normal human beings.
The term “gratitude” seems ill-chosen. It is hard to imagine anyone, especially Isaiah Berlin, feeling grateful that Joseph de Maistre was able to render cruelty and absolute political authority intellectually respectable and psychologically attractive. Still, it is easy to imagine Berlin being grateful for the window Maistre’s work provides into how the human mind handles political concepts, especially in periods of political crisis, and what we can expect when a single political value—be it liberty, equality, or authority—is no longer seen in relation to others but becomes the object of single-minded passion. This set of lectures may not be the most polished volume in Berlin’s oeuvre, and we may look elsewhere for more definitive treatments of the themes he broaches here. But in a remarkably narrow compass it takes us deep into the crisis of modern political ideas and makes us experience all the contradictions and complexities of our situation. If this is not political philosophy, or at least a preparation for it, I don’t know what is.
April 25, 2002
See the article “Occidentalism” by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit, The New York Review, January 17, 2002. ↩
Edited by Henry Hardy (Princeton University Press). ↩
Isaiah Berlin, Liberty, edited by Henry Hardy (Oxford University Press, 2002). ↩
Edited by Henry Hardy (Princeton University Press, 1998). ↩