Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty
Chatto & Windus, London, 2002
The Roots of Romanticism
Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1999
Berlin’s stock is probably drifting down, as is the way of things after an author’s death. This may be why the transcripts of these dozen lectures have been remaindered to the PostScript shop. A contemptuous review in this August’s The Oldie (which may be getting nastier, or I more sensitive) of a volume of Berlin’s Letters may also be indicative – Berlin’s work is all cod-Macaulay, he’s the most celebrated windbag in history, responsible for Stalin’s persecution of Anna Akhmatova and for failing to cop Burgess and Maclean and Anthony Blunt. So he can’t be much good, can he? But oh yes he can.
“Fifty years ago [in 1952 - begins the Editor's Preface to Freedom and Its Betrayal] when the six hour-long lectures in this volume were delivered, they created a broadcasting sensation.”
To anyone who can remember what broadcasting was like fifty years ago, and it was, of course, entirely by the BBC, this is perfectly believable. I never heard them, and a recording of only one survives, but anyone who has heard Berlin’s wonderful spoken delivery, as I have when his later Mellon Lectures, The Roots of Romanticism, given in 1965, were re-broadcast in 1989, recordings of which are accessible, can believe it too. Berlin prepared his lectures with great care, first as complete works, then boiling them down to notes and finally to headings, then delivering them extempore in rapid-fire mode. Whether by design or not his method of composition employs consecutive adjectives, similes, near-synonyms or other modifiers that elaborate and as it were surround each point as it is made, at the same time illuminating it and yet introducing that element of redundancy which helps the reader stay on track while the vehicle containing the subject bounds and bounces exhilaratingly and unstoppably on. Needless to say, this idiosyncratic sort of lecturing, which I hope is apparent in most of my quotations (for a more extended example, see under “Maistre” below) aroused suspicion of showmanship. This was largely allayed by the revised text normally subsequently issued, proving that what had sounded interesting to listen to was just as stimulating to read, though, as Hardy says, “revision can sometimes have a sobering effect on the extempore spoken word”.
As Berlin himself said, “I am by nature a correcter and re-correcter of everything I do,” and he did not like his work to go out in unfinished form. The two series of lectures printed, the first from transcripts, the second, given thirteen years later, from recordings, are exceptions to this procedure, the first being half-superseded and half-forgotten, while the second Berlin hoped to replace with a larger, more ambitious work. Only after Berlin’s death did Hardy feel free to issue them.
Berlin’s BBC producer in 1952, Anna Kallin, assumed, as seemed very reasonable after the success of the broadcasts, which had provoked a considerable correspondence in The Times and resulted in a first leader, when The Times, its letters and its leaders really mattered, that he would be a natural as a Reith Lecturer, when that really mattered. She found to her embarrassment however that her superiors disagreed, though Berlin himself took no offence. It is not likely that, perhaps for copyright reasons, any of the dozen lectures were reprinted in The Listener, the long-defunct BBC weekly, or Hardy would have mentioned the fact.
The six enemies are Helvetius (1715-1771), Rousseau (1712-1778), Fichte (1762-1814), Hegel (1770-1831), Saint-Simon (1760-1825) and Maistre (1753-1821), but the romantic portrait on the cover is of none of these; this conscientious reader had to reach page 127 to find out who it was. Though perhaps a sly joke on the part of Berlin’s editor, the devoted Henry Hardy, the all-too-frequent lack of information on the outside or inside of a book about illustrations on its jacket seems to be almost a convention – and a very irritating one. As for liberty, of these six, two – Helvetius and Maistre – are avowedly hostile, two – Rousseau and Fichte – avowedly its advocates (but what advocates!), while two – Hegel and Saint-Simon – wish to trade it in, in different ways, for security.
Of course, had he but world enough and time, the true interested intellectual such as our Oldie reviewer would read all the works of these authors, for preference in their original languages, German or French, make up his own mind as to their value and assess their impact on their contemporaries and successors. As it is, Berlin, who certainly gives the impression of having done all this, tells us what these thinkers, who seem to be a real bunch of queer fish, have prescribed for keeping society in order.
Helvetius, who turns out to be the spiritual father of Jeremy Bentham, promulgator of utilitarianism, believed that “education and laws can do anything”, a notion not without its believers today. When the right people (i.e., scientists) had been installed to instil the right education, and his being the age of the benevolent or potentially benevolent despot such a project did not seem impossible, the concept of choice became the obviously meaningless one between the plainly good and the plainly bad, and liberty disappeared along with it. This extraordinary sort of reasoning – which is not entirely extinct – was the result of the success of Newton and others in solving problems in physics, coupled with considerable advances in mathematical theory. All that was needed, it seemed, was to apply the same sort of methods to human problems. And, just as in mathematics or in physics, “all questions have true answers, all true answers are in principle discoverable, and all the answers are in principle compatible, or combinable into one harmonious whole like a jigsaw puzzle.” In sober fact, as Berlin has often pointed out, every human ideal (aka the solution to the world’s problems) has come into collision with every other – liberty with equality just to start with.
Berlin’s epigraph for his lecture on Rousseau is a quotation from one of Dostoevsky’s characters: “Starting from unlimited freedom I arrive at unlimited despotism” and to show how Rousseau manages to do this is one of Berlin’s most elegant descriptions and should be read unspoilt by an advance notice. Similarly, “Fichte was always saying that liberty was the only subject with which he was at all concerned”, but in the process of elaborating the concept, at a time when Prussia was completely under the heel of Napoleon and an individual could do nothing about it, this became a matter for larger units, “society”, and ultimately German nationalism. Hegel rather tends to explain away freedom by likening attempts to change the status quo with trying to change the laws of mathematics – from which it is a short step to wanting to change any laws and something equally ridiculous. Saint-Simon, Marx’s forerunner (and a better prophet, according to Berlin), emphasised fraternity: “love one another,” he said to his disciples on his deathbed, echoing Jesus perhaps (though Berlin does not say so). Liberty, “always disorganising”, he dismissed as having “become a matter of indifference to the lower classes”. “What they want is boots, and this cry [says Berlin] for bread, boots and not a lot of liberty and liberal slogans then becomes the staple refrain of all the hard-boiled left-wing parties up to Lenin and Stalin.” Security and liberty are uneasy bedfellows, and Saint-Simon had no qualms about identifying who knew best how to arrange them – himself. Maistre is Berlin’s last enemy of liberty, the most uncompromisingly authoritarian, and “a very frightening figure to many of his contemporaries”. A paragraph descriptive of how he was seen by them can be given to illustrate Berlin’s lecturing style:
“Maistre is painted, always, as a fanatical monarchist and a still more fanatical supporter of papal authority; proud, bigoted, inflexible, with a strong will and an unbelievable power of rigid reasoning from dogmatic premisses to extreme and unpalatable conclusions; brilliant, embittered, a medieval doctor born out of his time, vainly seeking to arrest the current of history; a distinguished anomaly, formidable, hostile, solitary and ultimately pathetic; at best a tragic patrician figure, defying and denouncing a shifty and vulgar world, into which he had incongrously been born; at worst an unbending self-blinded die-hard pouring curses upon the marvellous new age whose benefits he was too wilful to see, and too callous to feel.”
Now read on!
Consistent with the topic of the lectures, there are few examples of sweetness and light. But a definition of “liberty” by Benjamin Constant (1767-1830) does remind us that during the period (1819 to be precise) there were commonsense views on the subject, as a good in its own right, with no claims that it would lead to heaven, or fears that it would lead to hell, on earth. Unfortunately this is a position impossible to hold with the passionate intensity and determination exhibited by its enemies and their followers, and though he does not admit as much, Berlin, like Constant, can only warn, not inspire. In an informative article in this autumn’s issue of The Salisbury Review, Norman Barry gives a description of Constant’s libertarian philosophy, but who can help but agree with him that Constant was far too optimistic, naive in fact, about the connexion between technological and moral progress. Constant thought that man had learnt from the excesses of the French Revolution not to repeat them. Sad to say, he had not.
“Whenever anyone embarks on a generalisation on the subject of romanticism” remarks Berlin, on the opening page of The Roots of Romanticism “… in Wordworth and Coleridge, let us say, as against Racine and Pope, somebody will always be found who will produce countervailing evidence from the writings of Homer, Kalidasa, pre-Muslim Arabian epics, medieval Spanish verse – and finally Racine and Pope themselves.” In a sense, before the turn of the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries, there may have been romantics and romanticism, but they didn’t know it, or what it was. Berlin strikes out on his own line: before this time, the courage, constancy and persistence of persons held to be deeply in error in, generally, their religious beliefs evoked no sympathy and little respect – witness, say, Lancelot Andrewes’ attitude to and treatment of a Puritan locked up in a filthy gaol. But now “What people admired was wholeheartedness, sincerity, pureness of soul, the ability and readiness to dedicate yourself to your ideal, no matter what it was. No matter what it was: that is the important thing.” Carlyle was a text-book example of this. Thus: “The importance of Muhammad is his character and not his beliefs.” In fact, “Carlyle . . . does not begin to suppose that the Koran contains anything which he, Carlyle, could be expected to believe.” Indeed, for better or worse, when some institution – the Catholic Church or the Ancien Regime – “has lasted its time . . . something equally powerful, equally earnest, equally sincere, equally deep, equally earth-shaking must take its place.” This might well be the case, but a value-judgement? Not his department.
The effect of opening this door wide to let in anyone who felt strongly about anything was that an extremely mixed and contradictory bunch poured through. They had nothing in common; one eminent critic despaired of reducing them to order, another shrugged off the attempt: “The whole pother . . . amounts to nothing that need trouble a healthy man,” both attitudes Berlin deems “excessively defeatist”. Having set out the problem in his first lecture, he spends the remaining five investigating historically how the Age of Reason was followed and supplanted by the Age of Romanticism, “the greatest transformation of Western consciousness, certainly in our time.”
The tenets of the Enlightenment were that, using the tools of logic and reason, the world was ultimately knowable, understandable and the ways it operated similarly consistent with each other and that this applied to human nature and behaviour. And reformable? A tall order certainly, and an enormous task unable to be comprehended by most minds, perhaps, but what else “would produce equally splendid and lasting results in the world of morals, politics, aesthetics, and in the rest of the chaotic world of human opinion, where people appeared to struggle with each other, and murder each other and destroy each other, and humiliate each other, in the name of incompatible principles. This appeared to be a perfectly reasonable hope, and it appeared to be a very worthy human ideal. At any rate this is certainly the ideal of the Enlightenment.” This hope, this ideal was to be shattered by the Romantics.
It all began in Germany, Berlin claims. This was, of course, not yet a country, and barely an idea. As a result of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) it had been left depopulated and disunited, its culture was provincial compared with that of France, towards which its intellectuals felt a deep inferiority mixed with intense resentment – even Frederick the Great, its most successful monarch, despised the German language – and its musical superiority unnoticed and unackowledged. (There is an interesting footnote on Berlin’s correspondence provoked by a protest on his treatment of Bach). Because of their general political helplessness, artists, poets, dramatists, musicians and clergy had retreated into “an intense inner life”, “a very grand form of sour grapes”. Since the external culture was rational, they would be irrational; since it was irreligious, they would be pietists and since French intellectuals were well-born, theirs were of humble origins. These are sweeping statements, made more so in summary, and the reader must examine Berlin’s evidence and arguments himself to see how well they stand up.
Berlin parades a number of examples in his third lecture, The True Fathers of Romanticism. First, “the obscure figure of Georg Hamann [1730-1788] . . . the first person to declare war upon the Enlightenment in the most open, violent and complete fashion”, in some respects very similar to our own William Blake (1757-1827). Then there was Goethe, whose Sorrows of Young Werther is supposed to have made suicide fashionable for lovesick young men, but Goethe lived long enough (1749-1832) to declare, “Romanticism is disease, classicism is health,” and perhaps if others – Shelley, Byron and Keats – had lived as long they might also have felt the same way (like Wordsworth?). Definitely there is Herder (1744-1783), “one of those not very many thinkers in the world who really do absolutely adore things for being what they are . . . not for being something else . . . the originator of all those antiquarians who want natives to remain as native as possible, who like arts and crafts, who detest standardisation – everyone who likes the quaint . . . the father, the ancestor, of all those travellers, all those amateurs, who go round ferreting out all kinds of forgotten forms of life, delighting in everything that is peculiar, everything that is odd, everything that is native, everything that is untouched.” It cannot be often that Berlin fails to find le mot juste – “something – I do not quite know what name to give it – much more like populism”, but the word he failed to find in 1967 had not yet been invented – multiculturalism, perhaps the worm in the bud of Western Civilization.
In his lecture The Restrained Romantics Berlin picks what must seem three odd examples: Kant (1724-1804), Schiller (1759-1805) and Fichte (1762-1814), the last familiar to us as one of his enemies of liberty. “Kant hated romanticism. He detested every form of extravagance, fantasy, what he called Schwarmerei, any form of exaggeration, mysticism, vagueness, confusion. Nevertheless . . .” and Berlin goes on to explain Kant’s contribution to the movement, a desire, which he believed to be entirely a rational one, to give the human will full freedom. “The dramatist, poet and historian Friedrich Schiller is as intoxicated by the idea of will, liberty, autonomy, man on his own as Kant was. . . . He constantly speaks of spiritual freedom, freedom of reason, the kingdom of freedom, our free self, inner freedom, freedom of mind, moral freedom, the free intelligence – a very favourite phrase – holy freedom, the impregnable citadel of freedom; and there are expressions in which instead of the word freedom’ he uses the word independence’.” His plays are full of heroes – and heroines – who perform irrational and wicked acts – it is the intense passionate activity that is important; its immorality is relevant only for the difficulties it makes. According to Fichte, “man is a kind of continuous action – not even an actor. . . . A man who does not create, a man who simply accepts what life or nature offers him, is dead.” We have come some distance from the passivity and torpor from which the Romantic movement is supposed to have started.
“Fichte ends as a rabid German patriot and nationalist”, Berlin states, using him as a bridge from the previous lecture into the next, Unbridled Romanticism, in which he plays a full part. Again, Berlin chooses an odd trio as exemplars, following the critic August Wilhelm Schlegel (1767-1845) who wrote “most authoritatively [that] . . .the three factors which most profoundly influenced the entire movement, not only aesthetically but also morally and politically, were, in this order, Fichte’s theory of knowledge, the French Revolution and Goethe’s famous novel Wilhelm Meister.” This lecture is easier to read and enjoy than to summarise its message. Fichte, to whom he has already given a great deal of attention, Berlin cannot regard favourably. The French Revolution began as a project of the Enlightenment but “was a failure, in the sense that after it, fairly conspicuously, the majority of Frenchmen were not free, not equal, and not particularly fraternal.” Its “unintended consequences . . . fed the streams of all kinds of theodices: the Marxist theodicy, the Hegelian theodicy, Spengler’s theodicy, Toynbee’s theodicy, and a great many other theological writings of our time.” As for Wilhelm Meister, “The romantics admired this . . . because it was an account of the self-formation of a man of genius . . . presumably the creative autobiography of Goethe an an artist.” And it is unlikely that Goethe was pleased about this.
In his final lecture The Lasting Effects Berlin attempts “to say, however rash it may seem, what the heart of romanticism appears to [him] to be”. It is a long and complex explanation, impossible to summarise; anyone can understand his wish to work further on the subject. And the effects? Yes – it did lead to Fascism: Communism, on the other hand, would be a long blind alley, like the French Revolution, leading from the Enlightenment. But Berlin finds a more cheerful outcome, so that one emerges into the sunlight with his last three paragraphs, of which I quote the last in full:
“The result of romanticism, then, is liberalism, toleration, decency and the appreciation of the imperfections of life; some degree of increased rational self-understanding. This was very far from the intention of the romantics. But at the same time – and to this extent the romantic doctrine is true – they are the persons who most strongly emphasised the unpredictability of all human activities. They were hoist with their own petard. Aiming at one thing, they produced, fortunately for us all, almost the exact opposite.”