Now I am rested and free to read and write philosophy, having been wholly absorbed in my preparation for my journalism exams, I hope my attempts to talk about the Prophet Isaiah are not too late and the Awkward Squad who visit here are disposed to chewing over what liberty is.
Turning to Berlin's essays on Liberty it seems obvious he was an exceptionally worthy philosopher; a man clearly worried about worldly issues despite his abstract discipline; a man conscious the thoughts of a professor in his study could wreak havoc in later years having been semi-digested by the Robespierres, the Napoleons, the Hitlers and the Stalins. He begins his famous "Two Concepts of Liberty" chastising the assembled academics who listened to this stirring lecture and his later readers by stating if a Martian were to visit a British or American University they would be forgiven for thinking the people lived in Utopia "for all the serious attention that is paid to fundamental problems of politics by professional philosophers". Somehow this worry, twinned with a consciousness that the great writings of Rousseau, Marx and many others could be the foundation for such destruction, propels the essay and much of what Berlin wrote.
Given the essay is ostensibly about negative and positive liberty it comes as a shock to the reader how little the first kind of liberty is discussed. A stirring quote from J.S. Mill, a famous defender of this liberty, defines it thus: “The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way.” This, despite some academic mumbling and analysis which claims Mill’s utilitarianism is possibly incompatible with his libertarianism, seems largely to be a cornerstone for the tolerant pluralism that Berlin offers in the essay’s conclusion.
Having given a light impressionist picture of negative liberty, the chase moves to positive liberty, that altogether more abstract beast, which Berlin perceives as motivation for the totalitarian regimes haunting his writing. Essentially positive liberty is a variant of Kantian rationalism, the idea that man should act rationally, suppressing desire in favour of what the rational will dictates, and this and only this, is to be truly free. According to Berlin’s potted history of this potentially tyrannical idea it took on a menacing aspect in the hands of Fichte, who is the subject of the following brilliant animadversion:
“’No one has rights against reason.’ ’Man is afraid of subordinating his subjectivity to the laws of reason. He prefers tradition or arbitrariness.’ Nevertheless, subordinated he must be. Fichte put forward the claims of what he called reason; Napoleon, or Carlyle, or romantic authoritarians may worship other values, and see in their establishment by force the only path to ‘true” freedom.”
Dotting through intellectual history Berlin charts a historical map setting out how catastrophic positive liberty can be. Whether he is trustworthy guide to other thinkers is open to question, but there is no doubt his brilliant prose fires a blast against any philosopher or person who thinks that the failings of our fellow man can be eradicated by force and that the perfect state can be arrived at by terror.
So positive liberty is a dangerous idea, not necessarily a false one, for Berlin also thinks it animates “the most powerful and just public movements of our time, and that not to recognise this is to misunderstand the most vital facts and ideas of our age. But equally it seems to me that the belief that some single formula can in principle be found whereby all diverse ends of men can harmoniously be realised is demonstrably false.”
Berlin’s critique is of the system building of philosophers. The idea that the right way of acting for all can be discovered by introspection is treated with scepticism, and instead a richer understanding of the needs of others is advocated. Let yourself be driven by conviction, but don’t expect others to share your convictions. Allow people the freedom to get on with their lives even though your strong convictions might make you believe you can engineer the inner souls of others for the better. This delusion will only lead to tragedy. Simultaneously the philosopher or thinking person cannot retreat from the world, but the temptation to dictate to others what they should think should be avoided.