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Isaiah Berlin lectures on Liberty and Romanticism

Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty
Isaiah Berlin
Chatto & Windus, London, 2002

The Roots of Romanticism
Isaiah Berlin
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.”

21 comments to Isaiah Berlin lectures on Liberty and Romanticism

  • mike

    I have a copy of the first book (Freedom & Its Betrayal) and yes it is wonderfully written, especially the chapter on Rousseau – as is a chapter in the late Bernard Williams’ last published work (Truth & Truthfulness) in which Rousseau’s attempts to be utterly sincere are shown to be misguided. Rousseau’s life was actually quite pathetic – his intentions were good and he was misunderstood. But the mistakes he made in thinking through those good intentions really are frightening – trying to get not just a value, but the supreme value out of some facts, and you’ve got those facts wrong in the first place as well… phew!

    I feel like commenting some more on this, but I’ll have to re-read bits of that book (and I’m getting tired)..
    Enjoyed the review though.

  • mike

    I haven’t read Foucalt (don’t think I’d get far before feeling ill), but he seems like a modern candidate for a philosopher who was also an enemy of liberty. His ‘unmasking’ of social structures to reveal power interests blah blah is surely behind all the left-wing relativism and equal-opportunities zealotry. All in the name of egalitarianism.

    Would Wittgenstein count as an enemy of liberty??

  • mahagonny

    “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.”

    Sorry to piss on your barbecue but Berlin showed no such attributes. For example, Berlin translates Wirklich (actual – a very technical term in Hegelian vocab) as “reality” and makes the absurd claim that Hegel seeks reconciliation with Prussian authoritarianism. Berlin is an appalling historian of philosophy – however valuable his warnings against totalitarian tendencies.

    Berlin made some important points (ultimately regarding non-existent straw-men) as regards the dangers of authoritarian rule. Fine. But lets not forget that he was a charlatan as regards serious philosophical interpretation of the traditions towards which he was so enraged.

    As regards romanticism, I see Schiller, for example, more as a predecessor of Marx (in that Schiller’s “play” is similar to Marx’s emphasis upon the intrinsic value of creative labour (denied by the rule of capital)). Let’s not contaminate what little is valuable in romanticism with some wet, neutral, liberalism whereby everyone is free to do “what one wants”.

    If one is true to romanticism, then activities which enhance ones sensory apparatus (such as listening to Bach’s Goldberg variations) are intrinsically valuable. Some account has to be given as to their objective “worthiness” outside the whims of the social mass.

    Keep your dirty libertarian hands off good thinkers.

    i.e. get of my land.

  • Mahagonny: What’s your ‘land’? And what ‘dirty libertarian hands’? Feel free to critique and offer a counter argument, not idiotic invectives.

    I had a brush with Berlin’s concepts at Anthony Kenny’s colleage. Did not know you had monopoly on Berlin’s interpretation…. As far as I know, like Karl Popper, he is widely acclaimed for his anti-authoritarian social philosophy and criticism of totalitarian doctrines.

    As far as his criticism of Hegel goes, well, Marx’s sources for his demented ideology (which Berlin studied in his youth) included German philosophers among which Hegel featured prominently. (Determinism runs through romanticism as well as other schools of thought of that era, and Marx built upon that tradition in his dialectical materialism.) In that sense, Berlin finding Hegel’s ‘reconciliation with Prussian authoritarianism’ would not surprise me in the slightest.

  • mahagonny: Be civil or we will ban you from commenting here. Your remarks are not nearly insightful or witty enough for us to indulge your petulance.

  • mike

    mahagonny writes:

    “If one is true to romanticism, then activities which enhance ones sensory apparatus (such as listening to Bach’s Goldberg variations) are intrinsically valuable. Some account has to be given as to their objective “worthiness” outside the whims of the social mass.”

    This account would necessarily be trying to get a value out of a fact then would it not? Well this might sound high-handed but I’m afraid that consigns you to the loony bin, my friend.

    BTW the notion that Hegel’s philosophy was ‘reconciled with Prussian authoritarianism’ makes perfect sense to me seeing as how he was fucking *employed* by the Prussian authorities.

  • mahagonny

    Did not mean to be uncivil nor witty – for than matter.

    “BTW the notion that Hegel’s philosophy was ‘reconciled with Prussian authoritarianism’ makes perfect sense to me seeing as how he was fucking *employed* by the Prussian authorities.”

    Hegel’s politics were more akin to von Humbolts reformism than Prussian authoritarianism – quite liberal for the time. Furthermore, Hegel was ingenious at avoiding the censors but couching radical suggestions within seemingly conservative rhetoric.

    My point about romanticism was that it is incompatible with the sort of neutral, tolerant liberalism that Berlin expouses as it has an account of some activities as being intrinsically more worthwhile than others. Romanticism has a more interesting take on freedom and sponteneity than does Berlins liberalism.

    “As far as I know, like Karl Popper, he is widely acclaimed for his anti-authoritarian social philosophy and criticism of totalitarian doctrines.”

    Not amongst serious Hegel scholars (sympathetic or not) nor amongst those whom work in German philosophy. Popper is worse BTW.
    As I said – this is not to discount their work on totalitarianism and social theory in general.

    As for Marx and Hegel, certainly Hegel was one of Marx’s key influences (alongside French socialism and English political economy). Marx was a great philosopher of freedom so it makes sense.

  • mike

    The chances of any good coming from Marx are a million to one he said, but still… Oh no! Run for your lives everyone – the Marxists are coming!

    “it has an account of some activities as being intrinsically more worthwhile than others. Romanticism has a more interesting take on freedom and sponteneity than does Berlins liberalism.”

    Then perhaps you would care to elaborate?

    [Quoting Adriana]: As far as I know, like Karl Popper, he is widely acclaimed for his anti-authoritarian social philosophy and criticism of totalitarian doctrines.

    “Not amongst serious Hegel scholars (sympathetic or not) nor amongst those whom work in German philosophy. Popper is worse BTW. ”

    So, amongst ‘serious’ Hegel scholars or indeed, ‘those who work in German philosophy’, Popper is not widely acclaimed for his anti-authoritarian social philosophy – is that what your saying?
    But then you say that, even though Popper is ‘worse’, this is ‘not to discount his work on totalitarianism and social theory in general’…

    You’ll pardon me if I don’t quite see where exactly you’re coming from.

  • mahagonny

    Note the distinction between “totalitarian doctrines” – by which I take Adriana to be refering to Berlin’s work on specific (predominantly German) Philosophers to which he attributes totalitarian tendencies – and “totalitarianism” – his discussion of authoritarian political systems. It is the former practice that serious scholars in German philosophy find doggy – often relying on bad translation and tenuous insinuation.

    I meant to respond to your earlier post which accuses me of deriving a value from a fact. The argument, as I put it, was that if we think that X is a worthwhile human pursuit (e.g. educating the senses) and it is a fact that Y (say listening to Bach) contributes to X, then Y is a valuble activity. The value comes from what we consider to be a worthwhile human pursuit not the fact that Y-ing contributes towards it.

    I find Berlin’s neutrality amongst competing conceptions of the good rather empty and think that there is a serious case to be made that some ways of living are just better than others. But I suppose that makes me a totalitarian nutcase.

  • mike

    Regarding my value-fact accusation – it was prompted by the way in which you originally presented the argument (which is different from how you now present it).

    In your orignial version, you did not make clear that you regard the education of the senses as a valuable pursuit in the first place before proceeding to claim for activities that enhance this an ‘intrinsic value’. You might say “I would’ve thought it was obvious” and while I agree that the education of the senses is valuable – the ‘obviousness’ of this is precisely the rub, for without making this explicit it does indeed seem like you’re trying to pull a valuable rabbit out of a hat full of facts. And given your slants to Popper I did not consider such an interpretation surprising.

    If Hegel’s philosophy can be interpreted in ways other than or incompatible with a totalitarian doctrine, then I may be interested to hear such an interpretation. As it happens I do not think Nietzsche’s works necessarily have anything to do with totalitarianism and may even be seen as compatible with classical liberalism. So maybe you would care to enlighten me on that score?

    As to competing conceptions of the good – our beliefs about what is good or what is the right way to live necessarily aim at truth, that much I grant you, but whether we can legitimately make factual claims about this one way or the other I very much doubt.

    Your opinion that some ways of life are just better than others is nothing special unless you are prepared to make a corresponding argument. The characters of Berlin’s book in Findlay’s article tried to do this – Rousseau for example – an argument which ‘allegedly’ (as I’m sure you’ll remind me) was the root of much later totalitarian thinking. Given the times in which Berlin (and Popper) were writing, an attitude of neutrality toward the supreme good was perfectly understandable in my view.

  • mahagonny


    I’m not quite sure where to start and, for obvious reasons, I’ll have to be brief and omit much philosophical detail

    The claim that Hegel is totalitarian seems to be based upon a number of misunderstandings. (1) Berlin and his ilk accuse Hegel of capitulation to the status quo (Popper in the “Open Society” refers to Hegel as a “moral and legal positivist”) on the basis of his claim that “what is actual is rational and what is actual is rational”. They take this to mean that society’s institutions have ethical standing simply by virtue of the fact that they exist. Hegel’s claim, instead, is that institutions and practices are “rational” once they have developed in accordance with their essential purpose (their actuality), which is dictated by reason. Furthermore, actual institutions are essentially those maintain and promote human freedom (as Hegel understands it).
    (2) Berlin wants to claim that Hegel has to divide us into “two-selves” – one rational and one contingent. This is (allegedly) totalitarian because he appeals to an authentic self that exists above actual human beings. Hegel’s claim, instead is that what matters is that our actions are genuinely our own and that in following social mores, desire (which often incorporates social mores) or external authority, we are often failing to do so. There are no “two-selves” – just a series of thought experiments which help us think through our actions so that we can be sure that we are acting autonomously.
    (3) It is often claimed that Hegel is anti-individualist because of his emphasis upon the ethical life of the community. Hegel, instead, claims to be an individualist (indeed he grants a sphere of individual property rights and is fairly enthusiastic about the market – in its proper place) but sees the condition of possibility of individual rights and moral subjectivity, for example, as being rooted in the institutions and practices of the “ethical community”. So, unlike classical liberals, he does not take the individual to be a methodological starting point. Nevertheless, he claims that to be a proper individualist one has to give an account of the institutions and practices which best allow us to realise individuality. For Hegel, these conditions consist in the various roles we occupy within the social order (e.g. parent, citizen, participator in the market) which together are conditions for the holistic, rounded individual.

    Hegel is certainly controversial and often a little odd – but not totalitarian.

    On the truth value of different conceptions of the good, I agree with you that Berlin’s neutrality is understandable against the backdrop of both Nazi and Communist brutality. However, in the current political climate – dominated by silly cultural relativists and people who bend over backwards to apologise for Islamic terror – I see it as a little dangerous. I think we need a thicker account of autonomy than Berlin could perhaps allow for in order to extol the many virtues of western liberalism and defend what we hold to be important. I’ll leave it here as I couldn’t even begin to provide a proper account of autonomy in this space and I doubt I could convince die-hard libertarians anyway.

    Finally, on my slating Popper – I actually think he is a seminal philosopher of science. Just a bad historican.

  • mike

    mahagonny: now we’re getting somewhere…

    1) I do not see how this defence works. Merely insisting that institutions become ‘”rational’ once they have developed in accordance with their essential purpose” seems to beg questions about purpose – and thus the charge of moral positivism seems unanswered, despite your vague claim that this purpose is to “maintain and promote human freedom (as Hegel understands it)”. There is room for an infinity of interpretation here because there is no substance.

    2) The question of ‘two selves’ is interesting in that it is quite easy to see how this could be used to complement a totalitarian doctrine (“… if only you knew what you’re *true* interests are etc etc…”) and yet at the same time it does seem to echo questions on the nature of integrity (a la Bernard Williams). I realise brevity forbids detail but I would question the way you put this; specifically what you say about thought experiments which … “help us think through our actions so that we can be sure that we are acting autonomously”. It is the terms ‘sure’ and ‘autonomously’ which get to me here; what is meant by ‘autonomous’? And our being ‘sure’ about this seems to assume a strange position in theory of knowledge, certainly one at odds with indeterminate truth – it is this in particular that sounds really alarming and not at all at odds with a totalitarian doctrine.

    3) It has seemed to me that the ‘individualism’ of people like Berlin, Popper, Hayek etc is presented in conclusion rather than as a starting point, in the sense that negative arguments about monstrosities which are less likely to happen or be less bad under a ‘classical liberal’ system are used to advocate individualism over and above any positive arguments for it (though there may be these too). It does appear that you suppose Hegel to be using some positive notion of ‘individuality’ (i.e. over and above Berlin’s ‘neutral liberalism’) when you say “…Nevertheless, he claims that to be a proper individualist one has to give an account of the institutions and practices which best allow us to realise individuality..” As noted above in point 2) about an apparent deterministic position on what *really* counts as acting ‘autonomously’, it is precisely because of this sort of seemingly positive notion about what really counts as ‘individuality’ that is alarming. That’s not to say this automatically makes Hegel a totalitarian – I can well imagine social democratic politicians, for instance, thinking along these lines. Social democrats however, take a moral understanding of democracy further than the liberal understanding of it as a technical efficiency in the changing of State personnel. Classic liberals look on individual rights (esp. property rights) and the rule of law as mechanisms for securing the liberty of individuals against the State, whereas social democrats regard these things as mere technical efficiencies. And so here is the clash. A ‘neutral liberalism’ fits very well with the notion of communities of free association and is thus compatible with classical liberalism, whereas the social democrats (in common with totalitarians – although there is quite some distance between them) actually *require* some positive understanding of individualism and liberty to justify the democratic majority’s interference with the lives of individuals. I suspect therefore, that, assuming all you say of Hegel is accurate, his position is at best compatible with a ‘strong’ social democrat (e.g. Gordon Brown) and yet not actually incompatible with a totalitarian doctrine.
    I do not think your arguments are sufficient and so as to your appeal that Hegel was not a totalitarian I remain to be convinced otherwise. There is also the small matter that the guy was actually employed by the Prussian State as philosopher-in-chief or whatever.

    As to defending ourselves against ‘silly relativism in the face of Islamic terror’ I am tempted to agree. I am one of those interested in the ‘freedom=power’ thesis, which is why I regard Nietzsche’s work as compatible with classical liberalism – his contempt for pity and insistence on pride and devotion to one’s own goals for example.
    However, I still think that the neutral liberalism of Berlin and the negative arguments for democracy and free-markets are far from an inspiration-free zone; their strength lies not in what they adovcate but in what they defy.

  • mahagonny

    One final stab – as the issues raised here seem unanswerable in such a short space.
    Let me try and express my self more clearly.
    (1)The positivism objection would work only if it were true that Hegel either (a) saw moral value existing in institutions by virtue of their existence or (b) saw institutions has having value solely because they happen to have emerged at (what Hegel identifies to be) the pinnacle of historical development. If this were true, it would be easy to make the leap that Berlin and Popper do into claiming that Hegel is merely an apologist for the Prussian status quo – and has no means to criticise the institutions within which he lived.
    However, Hegel does have ample means to make such criticism in that “actuality” is distinguished from “existence”. “Actuality” refers to a practice or institution which has flourished in accordance with its “essence” or a general condition in which reason is transformed into tangible institutional forms. “Existence” refers to what merely exists. Admittedly, this metaphysical terminology seems startling. What Hegel is developing, however, is a kind of immanent critique, whereby we criticize institutions and practices on the basis of principles or aims that they conspicuously endorse. Hegel is rejecting the Kantian sort of approach to morality, whereby we formulate moral maxims in the abstract – outside the flesh and blood practices of individuals. What is important is that institutions “measure up” to what they purport to achieve or represent (their “essence”). I will not develop the substance of Hegel’s approach further at this point. The only point I wanted to make here was that the attribution of positivism does not hold.
    (2)On the “two-selves” claim – I should have made it clearer that this is Berlin’s attribution to Hegel – and no such metaphysical claim is made in Hegel himself regarding an “authentic self”. My claim was that Berlin is wrong on this point – for what matters for Hegel is only that our actions are our own. I agree that the use of the word “sure” is overly strong. I think, for Hegel, it is a condition of being free that one does ones best to deliberate and reflect upon ones ideas and purposes. So there is a fairly strong connection posited here between freedom and rationality which liberals may find alarming.
    However, unlike Rousseau, there is no way one can be coerced to be free or rational – as Hegel claims “If I am being coerced [gezwungen], then I do not have myself in this activity; it is not [my] subjective will”. What matters most to Hegel is that people voluntarily attach value and significance to their commitments and are not forced into them.
    (3) On individuality – I see you accept that having a positive notion of individuality does not, in itself, make one a totalitarian. Having a positive notion of autonomy/freedom etc does not, to me, seem to threaten totalitarianism unless there is an absence of constitutional checks and balances and basic rights structures which would hold state or majoritarian coercion in place. Moreover, there is no reason why rights legislation could not be normatively rooted in a particular positive notion of the individual. Politically, I’m not sure that Hegel would have anything in common with Gordon Brown – more, perhaps, one-nation Tories. He placed a large amount of emphasis on individual property rights, was very pro-market (so long as it did not come to colonise every aspect of human life) and saw the nuclear family as a fundamental pillar of moral life.
    Finally, on Hegel’s involvement with the Prussian authorities – I’m not sure how much to read into this. As I said earlier, Hegel, from a position of authority raised a number of radical suggestions on political reform, religion and philosophy, which were often cunningly disguised as to escape the censors. we all have to work for someone.

  • mike

    A final stab? C’mon, you know you enjoy it and condensing into short space exercises the mind…

    1) Had I know of this distinction between ‘actuality’ and existence I would not have taken the former for meaning the latter. So Hegel’s method of critique is to compare the essence, or purported aims, principles etc of an institution with the ‘actuality’ of that institution – or how these are put into practice. That’s ordinary enough.

    2) Re: Berlin’s claim of Hegel’s ‘two selves’; no sorry I should have made it clear that I understood you the first time. Would you say on the free-will question that Hegel was more prepared to identify freedom with reason or with voluntariness? It seems it could be either or some curious mixture from what you say – or are you unsure?

    3) Yes constitutional checks should usually sort things out. The point was merely that a positive understanding of the good is a necessary (not sufficient) condition for any totalitarian doctrine. Taken in the context of the earlier discussion around totalitarianism, talk of positive notions of the good do have certain connotations.

    The comparison with Gordon Brown actually has more to do with the fact that when he does allow himself to be interviewed by journalists he is known to talk about the emergence and decline of political ideas in a way redolent of Hegel’s thesis-antithesis-synthesis slogan.

    Well then Sir, may I congratulate you on having demolished a prejudice! Judgement will remain reserved until such time as I read Hegel, but I am less closed-off to it now than I was. Cannot speak for any of the other Samizdata commentators who may be reading though….

  • mahagonny

    One more then.

    On (2) both M.B. Foster (in The Political Philosophies of Plato and Hegel) and Patrick Riley (in Will and Political Legitimacy) have made the same point, regarding the confusion between Hegel’s rationalism and his voluntarism. Both see Hegel’s rationalism as a betrayal of his commitment to the modern voluntarist tradition and a return to Plato.
    It’s a difficult question. All that I can say is that (against ancient rationalism) Hegel does not see that acting rationally involves bringing oneself into line with the rational order of the cosmos. In other words, it does not require that we conform to some end given by the nature of the world – out there above and beyond us. Instead, Hegel’s view is the Kantian one (at least in an important respect and despite his many criticisms of Kant) that freedom means the overcoming of natural contingency – as self-determination.

    This means that he also departs from the modern voluntarist tradition in that he does not think that the “rational will” can be identified with indeterminate choice or spontaneity. To do so would be to fail to take seriously the notion that what matters is that our actions are self-legislated and not dictated by desire, social mores or external authority. We may reach the same conclusions as those dictated to us – but it matters that we have done so.

    I personally find his claims rather troubling here in that there is little recognition of the value of free play and sensuous creativity. I think Hegel makes a serious point – that in following natural desire we are often acting on the basis of externally originating mores and, hence, reflection and deliberation are required. Furthermore, unlike Kant, Hegel takes seriously the question of motivation. It is important for Hegel that in marriage, for example, we are motivated by love or that in work we are motivated by self-satisfaction – not by the dictate of duty for duties sake. However, the nature of such motivation itself has to be rationally reflected upon if Hegel is to consider an agent free.

    It still all seems a bit too austere for me – and I’m sure there is something to be said for romanticism’s emphasis on “play” or J.S. Mill’s “experimentation” – at least as a compliment to rational deliberation.

    Does this make me sound like Berlin – you ask? Well, aside from my criticisms of his account of Hegel, above, and his take on romanticism, I don’t think that Berlin takes seriously enough the question of the nature of the society which could sustain such a thick account of individual potential for self-development. We could, however, discuss this for decades.

  • mahagonny

    “Cannot speak for any of the other Samizdata commentators who may be reading though….”
    I’m sure after my initial Claret driven outburst, many will have switched off long ago.

  • Findlay Dunachie

    Glad to see that Berlin still gets an occasional mention in the mike-mahagonny ding dong!

  • limberwulf

    Actually, I am quite enjoying the debate, and have added all of the philosophers mentioned to my study list, if they were not already there. Multiplicity of perspectives is almost always a positive thing.

  • mike

    limberwulf: glad to hear it – i’ve been far too busy today to be on-line much, but i think the free-will question is more interesting than any other arguments we might bring to bear on whether Hegeln was totalitarian or not. Voluntariness, rationalism, desire, ‘free’ will… it’s all fascinating stuff, but getting a bit past my bedtime now ni’m afraid…

  • The perceptive and interesting review that has prompted such excitement has been drawn to my attention by a colleague who writes ‘who says blogs are good for nothing … [?]’. Quite so!

    In the course of the review one or two strange things are said, and perhaps I may briefly clear them up. I should warn anyone whose interest is in the substance of Berlin’s ideas that I do not touch on this in what follows.

    ‘Only after Berlin’s death did Hardy feel free to issue’ the two series of lectures under review: more exactly, only after his death was I at liberty to publish them. Berlin was unwilling to see them published unrevised in his lifetime, and stuck to his guns even though I urged him to relent.

    Anna Kallin is said to have invited Berlin to give the Reith Lectures after the success of the broadcasts. In fact this offer was made (and withdrawn) before the broadcasts, as is made clear in my preface.

    As to whether any of the lectures were published in the Listener, the answer is no, as can be discovered from (for instance) the bibliography of Berlin’s writings included in The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library(Link), whose URL is given in the book. But the reason was nothing to do with copyright: it was that the lectures were understandably considered too long by the editor of that esteemed organ.

    Most puzzlingly of all, there is a tirade about lack of information on the cover about the subject of the cover illustration, Félicien David. In fact the use of the portrait of David is explained fully on the jacket of the hardback (back flap), and on the back cover of the paperback there is a reference to the page (127) on which all is made clear. Why I must be accused of a ‘sly joke’ here escapes me. Perhaps your reviewer has been on the claret, like mahagonny?

    Henry Hardy

  • Mandrill

    Do you have to have a lot of disposable income to join this debate?