Give Isaiah Berlin this much: He had the good sense to choose Henry Hardy as an editor and literary trustee. Since Berlin’s death in 1997, Hardy has moved at a reasonable pace in releasing Berlin’s unpublished papers, but he has taken great care to do it right.
A case in point is last year’s Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Freedom, a collection of six off-the-cuff 1952 BBC broadcasts on famous (or infamous) antiliberal thinkers from Helvétius to Maistre. Reconstructed from the broadcasts and Berlin’s own meager notes, Hardy has made the crooked path of his late friend’s idiosyncratic rapid-fire delivery (Berlin was known to pronounce epistemological as one syllable) into this straight Sunday stroll of a book. Widely available for the first time, the addresses can now be studied and savored.
Really, “savored” is not too strong a word. Non-book-reviewers, like non-political-science-students, may not realize what a relief it is to crack a book by any political philosopher (or “historian of ideas,” as Berlin preferred) only to learn that he could write in English. The language is vivid—direct, playful, learned; the presentation, ordered and concise. We may owe the limited length of the radio broadcasts for the last blessing.
Measured in terms of depth, the essays in Freedom and Its Betrayal are not on the level of some of Berlin’s other work, such as “The Hedgehog and the Fox” or “Two Concepts of Liberty” (or “The Originality of Machiavelli,” in my view the best thing ever written on the author of The Prince). Faulting them for this, however, would be a bit like judging a priest’s homily to be wanting because it fails to measure up to the Sermon on the Mount.
In fact, a homily might be a good comparison. In these six lectures, Berlin sets out to inform, entertain, and defend the Anglo-Saxon concepts of liberty and pluralism against all comers. In the Preface, he explains that the question he posed in respect to each of his subjects was, “Why should you obey anybody else?” Although all, save one,
claimed they were in favour of [human liberty]—indeed some of them passionately pleaded for it and regarded themselves as the truest champions of what they called true liberty, as opposed to various specious or imperfect brands of it—yet it is a peculiar fact that in the end, their doctrines are inimical to what is normally meant, at any rate, by individual liberty, or political liberty. . . . [N]amely, the right freely to shape one’s life as one wishes, the production of circumstances in which men can develop their natures as variously and richly, and, if need be, as eccentrically, as possible.
Throughout, Berlin crosses pens with his declared foes and with perennial hobgoblins (e.g., Kant, Marx). In the first chapter, he skewers Helvétius for advocating a utilitarianism so rigid that it becomes a tyranny—“a system of sticks and carrots for the human donkey.” Since rights and traditions can become a barrier to the achievement of maximum pleasure, Helvétius proposed to do away with both inconveniences in favor of a system of laws and progressive education that would force men to enjoy themselves.
This tendency to take an ostensibly good thing and elevate it to the One Great Organizing Principle of Society—and, therefore, the One Great Vice—is a common fault that the foxy Berlin finds in most of his hedgehogish opponents. The chapter on Rousseau begins with a quote from Dostoyevsky’s The Devils: “Starting from unlimited freedom, I arrive at unlimited despotism.” Berlin damns Hegel for imagining History as an all-powerful metaphysical force and, after affectionately referring to Saint-Simon as an “inspired lunatic,” upbraids the latter for ignoring human liberty in its true sense in his quest to reorder society along more “scientific” lines.
Freedom and Its Betrayal closes with a chapter on Maistre, who admired the Jacobins because “At least they killed some-body.” A furious and effective critic of all forms of enlightenment, Maistre maintained that any regime founded on its subjects’ ability to reason would falter. The only permanent thing, argued Maistre, is blind obedience to an authority, secular or religious. Though Berlin disagrees sharply with this enemy of progress, he also evinces a certain amount of sympathy for him (reasoning, probably, that Maistre’s is a tyranny that does not try to justify itself).
[Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty, by Isaiah Berlin (Princeton: Princeton University Press) 182 pp., $35.00]