Four Essays On Liberty Summary

The first four pages are an occasional prelude that scores neatly off the neglect of “fundamental problems of politics by professional philosophers” and pays what seems to me excessive tribute, even for such an occasion, to his predecessor in the Chichele Chair, one “Douglas Cole,” who I have found to be, after extensive trans-Atlantic research, actually the late G. Berlin shows clearly enough how it applies to the individual who wishes to be his own master and so must learn the limitations that life imposes so that he may become free precisely through his understanding of necessity, that is, his freedom from illusion.

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The lecturer must frequently mark time while his audience catches up with his thought.

(My experience, at least, is that something written to be read by the eye goes much too fast for a listening audience; the ear is slow and emotional, while the eye is quick and intellectual.) Mr. Principles are not less sacred because their duration cannot be guaranteed.

Berlin concludes his argument: One belief, more than any other, is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals. This is the belief that somewhere, in the past or in the future, in divine revelation or in the mind of an individual thinker, in the pronouncements of history or science, or in the simple heart of an uncorrupted good man, there is a final solution. To preserve our absolute categories or ideals at the expense of human lives offends equally against the principles of science and of history; it is an attitude found in equal measure on the right and left wings in our days, and is not reconcilable with the principles accepted by those who respect the facts. It may be that the ideal of freedom to live as one wishes—and the pluralism of values connected with it—is only the late fruit of our declining capitalist civilisation. Indeed, the very desire for guarantees that our values are eternal and secure in some objective heaven is perhaps only a craving for the certainties of childhood or the absolute values of our primitive past.

“To realise the relative validity of one’s convictions,” said an admirable writer of our time, “and yet stand for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes a civilised man from a barbarian.” To demand more than this is perhaps a deep and incurable metaphysical need; but to allow it to guide one’s practice is a symptom of an equally deep, and far more dangerous, moral and political immaturity.

I suggest it is also a help to the author, who otherwise may glide from one abstraction to another, whereas if he were in the habit of supporting his generalizations with specific instances, these rough, awkward fragments of reality might check the smooth descent into error. Berlin writes of the positive concept: “Liberty, so far from being incompatible with authority, becomes virtually identical with it.

This is the thought and language of all the declarations of the rights of man in the 18th century.” But if he had felt obliged to justify, with examples, the second sentence, might he not have remembered not only Rousseau but also Jefferson?Berlin writes: There seems to be scarcely any consciousness of individual liberty as a political ideal in the ancient world. The domination of this ideal has been the exception rather than the rule, even in the recent history of the West.Nor has liberty in this sense often formed a rallying cry for the great masses of mankind.This 57-page pamphlet is the text of the lecture Sir Isaiah Berlin (hereafter to be referred to simply as “Mr.Berlin”) gave last fall at Oxford on assuming the Chichele Chair of Social and Political Theory.Berlin writes: “It is clear that [individual liberty] has little to hope for from the rule of majorities; democracy as such is logically uncommitted to it.” Would not this excellent point be vivified with the refreshing dew of illustration—a reference, perhaps, to the U. Supreme Court, which has become the chief defender of our civil liberties, insisting on equal rights for Negroes against the Southern majority and also resisting (often) the efforts of our democratically-elected legislative and executive branches to deprive political dissidents of their civil rights?Nor is it just a matter of a crutch for the non-philosophically-minded reader.The desire not to be impinged upon, to be left to oneself, has been a mark of high civilization both on the part of individuals and communities.The sense of privacy itself, of the area of personal relationships as something sacred in its own right, derives from a conception of freedom which, for all its religious roots, is scarcely older, in its developed state, than the Renaissance or the Reformation.Berlin’s lucid, often eloquent prose, I must admit that I found his treatise hard going.I am a creature which needs constant infusions of the oxygen of the concrete to sustain life in the rarefied atmosphere of abstract reasoning. There are many telling quotations,* but there is very little historical data, and I think this is a defect in writing about political questions.


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