On the importance of negative freedoms…

There’s a bunch of good reviews in this week’s Spectator. This one is on one of Oxford’s finest thinkers of recent times, Isaiah Berlin. The book is a compendium of his essays, and which traces the important lines of his thinking. The reviewer, Raymond Carr, notes that the decidedly pluralist Berlin’s bête noire was Rousseau: “a ‘militant lowbrow’ equipped with ‘the fanatical cunning of a maniac’”. Yet, Berlin clearly saw the practical limits of pluralism. As Carr concludes towards the end, “what underlies Berlin’s view of liberalism is ‘its awareness of the limitations and tragedy that haunt human life’”.Carr writes:

Rousseau starts with a noble defence of individual freedom. His problem is to reconcile this with the fact that men live in societies. He argues that men have actual wills (our desires) and ‘real wills’ (representing what we would loosely call our conscience). This should correspond with the ‘general will’ of societies or states. If men fail to achieve this, they must be ‘forced to be free’.

Berlin describes this as a ‘monstrous paradox’, calling it, ‘one of the most powerful and most dangerous arguments in the entire history of human thought’. Indeed he notes that “It would justify all forms of totalitarianism and must end in the gulag and the gas chamber”.

He continues:

Berlin’s two concepts of freedom are extensively examined in this book. For him true freedom is a negative concept: it means and only means freedom from constraint by other men. It has an absolute value superior to justice, equality or the happiness of the utilitarian. Contrasting with this is positive freedom, which essentially is finding self-fulfilment in identifying oneself with some higher purpose; for example, the historical process as conceived by Hegel or as defined in our Book of Common Prayer, ‘Oh God… in whose service is perfect freedom’. A slave may find fulfilment and happiness in serving his master, but he is not a free man.

Berlin never abandons his defence of negative freedom as set out in this book, but in his later work his emphasis shifts to the defence of pluralism, a much more fascinating subject and one which appealed to his relish for diversity and eccentricity. Men make values, they do not exist without us, and the values they choose may clash like tectonic plates. One may choose justice, another may choose equality or happiness, and so on. In one of his finest essays, on Machiavelli, he argues that you can be a Christian valuing humility or a Roman citizen proud of your city. You cannot be both. Berlin’s solution of conflict is trading off, say, a bit of justice for a bit of equality. But such a compromise may be impossible — as in the conflict between the Unionist North and Confederate South. The only ‘solution’ was a bloody civil war and the triumph of the Unionists.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty