Friday, October 10, 2008

We just behave as though people were free, and therefore responsible. It is an article of faith, not of logic

Thoughts, Books, and Philosophy The Critical Synopses of J.H. Bowden Home About Freedom and Its Betrayal Isaiah Berlin, Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005) Further reading: David Stove, On Enlightenment This entry was posted on October 5, 2008 at 4:46 pm and is filed under philosophy, politics. Tagged: . 5:04 PM

Freedom and Its Betrayal presented six portraits of thinkers, five progressives and one conservative, who opposed human liberty. Berlin skillfully identified each philosopher’s central vision of life, that is, life as it should be. The selected progressives– Helvetius, Rousseau, Fichte, Hegel, and Saint-Simon, each begin by championing human liberty, only to end with a principle or system opposing it. The token conservative, Maistre, consistently opposed liberty.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) believed that liberty is the recognition of necessity. Like the Oracle from The Matrix, we’ve already made the choice; we only need to understand why we made it. Hegel’s philosophy resembles the music of Beethoven– an organic, self-animating totality, a living system of developing intensity uncontrollably driving toward a ringing, predetermined end. Hegel believed understanding something involved knowing its ultimate purpose, its uniting completion. History itself is a story of human creation, human imagination, human wills, and human intentions. Describing all of this in terms of mind-independent particles on an x-y-z grid was unintelligible to Hegel– we cannot even understand a flower in this manner, for function is important. Hegel’s reality at basis resembles what humans do and feel, for his universe itself is the self-development of the world spirit. If one doesn’t grasp the pattern, one doesn’t understand. Development proceeds by the dialectic; I dare not call it a mechanism. This progressive cosmos develops by a dynamism of clashing forces. Conflict is the symptom of health, evolution, growth, the flowing of life. Since the pattern is more fundamental than the individual, it follows that the Absolute’s march through the universe takes place through the vehicle of the state. The wish to be is the wish to be rational, and what is rational is what triumphs– the collective. This has led critics, including Berlin, to assert that Hegel worshiped power, and power alone.

Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) saw himself as the messiah of the new, progressive age. Berlin portrayed Saint-Simon’s mind as a choatic mind buzzing with confusion and chaos, brilliance alternating with nonsense. Saint-Simon wanted to liberate mankind by forging a world federation resembling something akin to Star Trek. Unlike like the utilitarians, Saint-Simon’s imagination did not take abstract and relational forms, but worked through the concrete and the situational in the spirit of the later pragmatists. Saint-Simon introduced a technological interpretation of human history; the superstructure of our culture is determined by the technological possibilities of the economic base. He was also responsible for introducing the idea of defining social entities in terms of a civilization’s means of production. Saint-Simon’s world allowed the best to reach the top based on merit, and it also, through Councils of Newton, would construct a centralized industrial plan benefiting everyone, including society’s lowest members. Saint-Simon had the mind of an engineer– nothing is stable, nothing is absolute, everything evolves, and the innovative is always the best. Saint-Simon, like modern progressives, was also an elitist; he honestly stated that good government excludes self-government. The masses can never know this, so activists for change must also build a double morality, a set of rules for radicals.

Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821), the Voltaire of conservatism, literally preached darkness and mystery. Maistre found only bloodshed and suffering in human history, not peace and harmony. Order can only be achieved by the threat of pain, via punishment or war. Maistre looked directly at man, and found no noble savages, only savages everywhere, creatures innately vicious, wicked, and cowardly. Central to Maistre’s pessimistic philosophy is the idea that rationalist notions do not work. Whatever is irrational survives; whatever is rational perishes. With the experience of the French Revolution, Maistre found it absolutely imprudent to destroy diversity in the name of equality. If man is constituted by instinct, superstition, and prejudice– the beliefs and habits of the centuries tested by experience– one opens the gates of hell by purifying man, or even attempting to liberate him. The irrational mist of contingent mysteries that constitute Maistre’s universe cannot be integrated into any natural purpose. Man must return to obedience and subjection; authority and power are intimations of the divine. Criticism, questioning, and science were all signs of malice. The same spirit of Maistre’s stoic and relativist philosophy flowed through the mindset of the 19th century Russian Tsars.


Isiah Berlin was not in the first league of philosophers. He was not sufficiently inventive or dogmatic...These essays are a perfect introduction to Berlin and his life-long preoccupation: the "problem" of the Enlightenment...

In Liberty (Oxford, £12.99), a newly reprinted and augmented version of his 1969 Four Essays on Liberty, he agonises on another piece of Enlightenment fall-out. If man is a part of nature, then his thoughts and actions are "determined". In which case, what can liberty consist in? Berlin lamely says that lots of people who insist that man is determined (eg the Marxists) go on to exhort people to this or that (revolution, say) as though they were free to choose. He could more simply have said: we just behave as though people were free, and therefore responsible. It is an article of faith, not of logic. By Richard D North The perils of idealism Monday, 29 July 2002 Home > Arts & Entertainment > Books > Reviews > Freedom and Its Betrayal: six enemies of human liberty, by Isaiah Berlin

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