on 7 June 2001
The four essays included in this book really get to the nub of Berlin's thinking in a way that is more difficult in his other more intellectual history based writing. His polemic Two Concepts of Liberty is in here which is one of the best contemporary examinations of the ever elusive concept of freedom. The other three essays included can sometimes waffle on points which seem superfluous, yet their themes always return to an examination of freedom. Read this if you want to understand what Berlin really thought, and if you want to understand contemporary political debates about freedom.
Liberty is a very precious and rare quality of a living condition.
As I. Berlin states, `The periods and societies in which civil liberties were respected, and variety of opinion and faith tolerated, have been very few and far between, oases in the desert of human uniformity, intolerance and oppression.'
I. Berlin explains clearly that liberty has two faces: a positive and a negative one.
Positive liberty is the answer to the question: who controls? Am I my own master?
Negative liberty circumscribes the area wherein a third person can prevent anybody to make a free choice.
On these bases, a free society can be organized, with 1) absolute rights (not absolute powers) and 2) frontiers, defined in terms of rules, within which men should be inviolable.
For the author, freedom is not an end, but a means to create `room for personal ends', for happiness. He rightly criticizes E. Fromm: freedom is the opportunity to act, not action itself.
Philosophically, freedom has been ferociously contested by the determinists, the defenders of `historical inevitability' (Hegel, Marx, Bacon, Fourier, Comte). The author remarks judiciously that if the world is ruled by determinism, nobody is responsible: there is no free will, no morality, and no justice. Individual choice is an illusion. Determinism represents the world as a prison.
A more brutal kind of determinism is presented by those who believe that there is a final answer, a unique goal, a central principle that governs our life. This principle and its executioners provoked barbarous consequences.
Isaiah Berlin's reflections on liberty are profound and still very actual.
Not to be missed.