Write a 2-page critical outline

Isaiah Berlin, “TWO CONCEPTS OF LIBERTY,” Four Essays On Liberty, (Oxford,

England: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 118-172.

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If men never disagreed about the ends of life, if our ancestors had remained undisturbed in the

Garden of Eden, the studies to which the Chiche le Chair of Social and Political Theory is

dedicated could scarcely have been conceived. For these studies spring from, and thrive on,

discord. Someone may question this on the ground that even in a society of saintly anarchists,

where no conflicts about ultimate purpose can take place, political problems, for example

constitutional or legislative issues, might still ar ise. But this objection rests on a mistake. Where

ends are agreed, the only questions left are th ose of means, and these are not political but

technical, that is to say, capable of being settled by experts or machines like arguments between

engineers or doctors. That is why those who put their faith in some immense, world-transforming

phenomenon, like the final triumph of reason or th e proletarian revolution, must believe that all

political and moral problems can thereby be turned into technological ones. That is the meaning

of Saint-Simon’s famous phrase about `re placing the government of persons by the

administration of things’, and the Marxist propheci es about the withering away of the state and

the beginning of the true histor y of humanity. This outlook is called utopian by those for whom

speculation about this condition of perfect social harmony is the play of idle fancy. Nevertheless,

a visitor from Mars to any British–or American– university today might perhaps be forgiven if

he sustained the impression that its members lived in something very like this innocent and

idyllic state, for all the serious attention that is paid to fundamental problems of politics by

professional philosophers.

Yet this is both surprising and dangerous. Surpri sing because there has, perhaps, been no time in

modern history when so large a number of human beings, both in the East and West, have had

their notions, and indeed their lives, so deeply altered, and in some cases violently upset, by

fanatically held social and political doctrines. Dangerous, because when ideas are neglected by

those who ought to attend to them–t hat is to say, those who have been trained to think critically

about ideas–they sometimes acquire an uncheck ed momentum and an irresistible power over

multitudes of men that may grow too violent to be affected by rational criticism. Over a hundred

years ago, the German poet Heine warned the Fr ench not to underestimate the power of ideas:

philosophical concepts nurtured in the stillness of a professor’s study could destroy a civilization.

He spoke of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason as the sword with which European deism had been

decapitated, and described the works of Rouss eau as the bloodstained weapon which, in the

hands of Robespierre, had destr oyed the old régime; and prophesied that the romantic faith of

Fichte and Schelling would one day be turned, w ith terrible effect, by their fanatical German

followers, against the liberal culture of the West. The facts have not wholly belied this prediction

but if professors can truly wield this fatal power, may it not be that only other professors, or, at

least, other thinkers (and not governments or Congressional committees), can alone disarm


Our philosophers seem oddly unaware of these deva stating effects of their activities. It maybe

that, intoxicated by their magnifi cent achievements in more abstract realms, the best among them

look with disdain upon a field in which radical disc overies are less likely to be made, and talent

for minute analysis is less likely to be rewarded. Yet, despite every effort to separate them,

conducted by a blind scholastic pedantry, politic s has remained indissolubly intertwined with every other form of philosophical inquiry. To neglect the field of political thought, because its

unstable subject matter, with its bl urred edges, is not to be caught by the fixed concepts, abstract

models, and fine instruments suit able to logic or to linguistic analysis–to demand a unity of

method in philosophy, and reject whatever the me thod cannot successfully manage–is merely to

allow oneself to remain at the mercy of primitive and uncriticized political beliefs. It is only a

very vulgar historical materialism that denies th e power of ideas, and says that ideals are mere

material interests in disguise. It may be that, without the pressure of social forces, political ideas

are stillborn: what is certain is that these forces, unless they clothe themselves in ideas, remain

blind and undirected.

This truth has not escaped every Oxford teacher, even in our own day. It is because he has

grasped the importance of political ideas in theory and practice, and has dedicated his life to their

analysis and propagation, that th e first holder of this Chair has made so great an impact upon the

world in which he has lived. The name of Douglas Cole is known wherever men have political or

social issues at heart. His fame extends far be yond the confines of this university and country. A

political thinker of complete independence, honesty, and courage, a writer and speaker of

extraordinary lucidity and el oquence, a poet and a novelist, a uniquely gifted teacher and

animateur de idées, he is, in the first place, a man who ha s given his life to the fearless support

of principles not always popular, and to the uns werving and passionate defence of justice and

truth, often in circumstances of great difficulty and discouragement. These are the qualities for

which this most generous and imaginative Englis h socialist is today chiefly known to the world.

Not the least remarkable, and perhaps the most ch aracteristic, fact about him is that he has

achieved this public position without sacrificing his natural human ity, his spontaneity of feeling,

his inexhaustible personal goodness, and above a ll his deep and scrupulous devotion–a devotion

reinforced by many-sided learning and a fabulous memory –to his vocation as a teacher of

anyone who wishes to learn. It is a source of deep pleasure and pride to me to attempt to put on

record what I, and many others, feel about this great Oxford figure whose moral and intellectual

character is an asset to his count ry and to the cause of justice and human equality everywhere.

It is from him, at least as much as from hi s writings, that many members of my generation at

Oxford have learnt that political theory is a branch of moral philosophy, which starts from the

discovery, or application, of moral notions in the sphere of political relations. I do not mean, as I

think some Idealist philosophers may have believe d, that all historical movements or conflicts

between human beings are reducible to movements or conflicts of ideas or spiritual forces, nor

even that they are effects (or aspects) of them . But I do mean (and I do not think that Professor

Cole would disagree) that to understand such movements or conflicts is, above all, to understand

the ideas or attitudes to life involved in them, which alone make such movements a part of

human history, and not mere natural events. Political words and notions and acts are not

intelligible save in the context of the issues. th at divide the men who use them. Consequently our

own attitudes and activities ar e likely to remain obscure to us, unless we understand the

dominant issues of our own world. The greatest of these is the open war that is being fought

between two systems of ideas which return diffe rent and conflicting answers to what has long

been the central question of politics–the question of obedience and coercion ‘Why should I (or

anyone) obey anyone else?’ `Why should I not live as I like?’ `Must I obey?’ `If I disobey, may I

be coerced ? By whom, and to what degree, and in the name of what, and for the sake of what?’ Upon the answers to the question of the permissible limits of coercion opposed views are held in

the world today, each claiming the allegiance of very large numbers of men. It seems to me,

therefore, that any aspect of this issue is worthy of examination.


To coerce a man is to deprive him of freedom–f reedom from what? Almost every moralist in

human history has praised free dom. Like happiness and goodness, like nature and reality, the

meaning of this term is so porous that there is li ttle interpretation that it seems able to resist. I do

not propose to discuss either the history or the more than two hundred senses of this protean

word recorded by historians of ideas. I propose to examine no more than two of these senses but

those central ones, with a great deal of human hi story behind them, and, I dare say, still to come.

The first of these political senses of freedom or liberty (I shall use both words to mean the same),

which (following much precedent) I shall call the `negative’ sense, is involved in the answer to

the question `What is the area within which th e subject–a person or group of persons–is or

should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons?’ The

second, which I shall call the posit ive sense, is involved in the answer to the question `What, or

who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather

than that?’ The two questions are clearly different , even though the answers to them may overlap.

The notion of `negative’ freedom

I am normally said to be free to the degree to which no man or body of men interferes with my

activity. Political liberty in this sense is simply the area within which a man can act unobstructed

by others. If I am prevented by others from doing what I could otherwise do, I am to that degree

unfree; and if this area is c ontracted by other men beyond a certain minimum, I can be described

as being coerced, or, it may be, enslaved. Coerci on is not, however, a term that covers every

form of inability. If I say that I am unable to jump more than ten feet in the air, or cannot read

because I am blind, or cannot understand the darker pages of Hegel, it would be eccentric to say

that I am to that degree enslaved or coerced. Co ercion implies the deliberate interference of other

human beings within the area in which I could otherwise act. You lack political liberty or

freedom only if you are prevented from attaining a goal by human beings. Mere incapacity to

attain a goal is not lack of political freedom. This is brought out by the use of such modern

expressions as `economic freedom’ and its counterp art, `economic slavery’. It is argued, very

plausibly, that if a man is too poor to afford some thing on which there is no legal ban–a loaf of

bread, a journey round the world, rec ourse to the law courts–he is as little free to have it as he

would be if it were forbidden him by law. If my poverty were, a kind of disease, which prevented

me from buying bread, or paying for the journey round the world or getting my case heard, as

lameness prevents me from running, this inability would not naturally be described as a lack of

freedom, least of all political freedom. It is only because I believe that my inability to get a given

thing is due to the fact that other human beings have made arrangements whereby I am, whereas

others are not, prevented from having enough money with which to pay for it, that I think myself a victim of coercion or slavery. In other words, this use of the term depends on a particular social

and economic theory about the causes of my poverty or weakness. If my lack of material means

is due to my lack of mental or physical capacit y, then I begin to speak of being deprived of

freedom (and not simply about poverty) only if I accept the theory. If, in addition, I believe that

I am being kept in want by a sp ecific arrangement which I consider unjust or unfair, I speak of

economic slavery or oppression. `The nature of things does not madden us, only ill will does’,

said Rousseau. The criterion of oppression is the pa rt that I believe to be played by other human

beings, directly or indirectly, wi th or without the intention of doing so, in frustrating my wishes.

By being free in this sense I mean not being inte rfered with by others. The wider the area of non-

interference the wider my freedom.

This is what the classical English political philo sophers meant when they used this word. They

disagreed about how wide the area could or should be. They supposed that it could not, as things

were, be unlimited, because if it were, it would en tail a state in which all men could boundlessly

interfere with all other men; a nd this kind of `natural’ freedom would lead to social chaos in

which men’s minimum needs would not be satisfied; or else the liberties of the weak would be

suppressed by the strong, Because they percei ved that human purposes and activities do not

automatically harmonize with one another, and b ecause (whatever their official doctrines) they

put high value on other goals, such as justice, or happiness, or culture, or security, or varying

degrees of equality, they were prepared to curtail freedom in the intere sts of other values and,

indeed, of freedom itself. For; without this, it was impossible to create the kind of association

that they thought desirable. Consequently, it is assumed by these thinkers that the area of men’s

free action must be limited by law. But equally it is assumed, especially by such libertarians as

Locke and Mill in England, and Constant and Tocque ville in France, that there ought to exist a

certain minimum area of personal freedom which must on no account be violated; for if it is

overstepped, the individual will find himself in an area too narrow for even that minimum

development of his natural facu lties which alone makes it possi ble to pursue, and even to

conceive, the various ends which men hold good or ri ght or sacred. It follows that a frontier must

be drawn between the area of privat e life and that of public authority. Where it is to be drawn is a

matter of argument, indeed of haggling. Men are largely interdependent, and no man’s activity is

so completely private as never to obstruct the lives of others in anyway. `Freedom for the pike is

death for the minnows’; the liberty of some must depend on the restraint of others. `Freedom for

an Oxford don’, others have been known to add, `is a very different thi ng from freedom for an

Egyptian peasant.’

This proposition derives its force from something that is both true and important, but the phrase

itself remains a piece of political claptrap. It is true that to offer political rights, or safeguards

against intervention by the state, to men who are half naked, illiterate, unde rfed, and diseased is

to mock their condition; they need medical he lp or education before they can understand, or

make use of an increase in thei r freedom. What is freedom to t hose who cannot make use of it?

Without adequate conditions for the use of freed om, what is the value of freedom? First things

come first: there are situations, as a nineteenth century Russian radical writer declared, in which

boots are superior to the works of Shakespeare; individual freedom is not everyone’s primary

need. For freedom is not the mere absence of frus tration of whatever kind; this would inflate the

meaning of the word until it meant too much or too little; The Egyptian peasant needs clothes or

medicine before, and more than, personal libert y, but the minimum freedom that he needs today, and the greater degree of freedom that he may need tomorrow, is not some species of freedom

peculiar to him, but identical with that of professors, artists, and millionaires.

What troubles the consciences of Western liberals is not, I think, the belief that the freedom that

men seek differs according to. their social or economic conditions, but that the minority who

possess it have gained it by exploiting, or, at least, av erting their gaze from, the vast majority

who do not. They believe, with good reason, that if individual liberty is an ultimate end for

human beings, none should be deprived of it by others; least of all that some should enjoy it at

the expense of others. Equality of liberty; not to treat others as I should not wish them to treat

me; repayment of my debt to those who alone ha ve made possible my liberty, or prosperity or

enlightenment; justice, in its simplest and most universal sense–these are the foundations of

liberal morality. Liberty is not the only goal of men. I can, like the Russian critic Belinsky, say

that if others are to be depriv ed of it –if my brothers are to remain in poverty, squalor, and

chains– then, I do not want it for myself. I reject it with both hands and infinitely prefer to share

their fate. But nothing is gained by a confusion of terms. To avoi d glaring inequality or wide

spread misery I am ready to sacrifice some, or all, of my freedom: I may do so willingly and

freely: but it is freedom that I am giving up for the sake of justice or equality or the love of my

fellow men. I should be guilt stricken, and rightly s o, if I were not, in some circumstances, ready

to make this sacrifice. But a sacrifice is not an increase in what is being sacrificed; namely

freedom, however great the moral need or the compensation for it. Everything is what it is:

liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or ju stice or culture, or human happiness or a quiet

conscience. If the liberty of myself or my cla ss or nation depends on the misery of a number of

other human beings, the system which promotes this is unjust and immoral. But, if I curtail or

lose my freedom, in order. to lessen the shame of such inequality, and do not thereby materially

increase the individual liberty of others, an absolute loss of liberty occurs. This may be

compensated for by a gain in justi ce or in happiness or in peace, but the loss remains, and it is a

confusion of values to say that although my `liberal’, individual freedom may go by the board,

some other kind of freedom–‘social’ or `economic ‘–is increased. Yet it remains true that the

freedom of some must at times be curtailed to secure the freedom of others. Upon what principle

should this be done ? If freedom is a sacred; untou chable value, there can be no such principle.

One or other, of these conflicting rules or principles must, at any rate in practice, yield: not

always for reasons which can be clearly stated, let alone generalized into rules or universal

maxims. Still, a practical compromise has to be found.

Philosophers with an optimistic view of huma n nature and a belief in the possibility of

harmonizing human interests, such as Locke, Adam Smith and, in some moods, Mill, believed

that social harmony and progress were compatible with reserving a large area for private life

over which neither the state nor any other authority must be allowed to trespass. Hobbes, and

those who agreed with him, especially conservati ve or reactionary thinkers, argued that if men

were to be prevented from destroying one another and making social life a jungle or a

wilderness, greater safeguards must be institute d to keep them in their places; he wished

correspondingly to increase the ar ea of centralized control and decrease that of the individual.

But both sides agreed that some portion of huma n existence must remain independent of the

sphere of social control. To i nvade that preserve, however small, would be despotism. The most

eloquent of all defenders of freed om and privacy, Benjamin Constant, who had not forgotten the

Jacobin dictatorship, declared th at at the very least the liberty of religion, opinion, expression, property, must be guaranteed against arbitrary invasion. Jefferson, Burke, Paine, Mill, compiled

different catalogues of individual liberties, but the argument for keeping authority at bay is

always substantially the same. We must preserve a minimum area of personal freedom if we are

not to `degrade or deny our nature’. We cannot re main absolutely free, and must give up some of

our liberty to preserve the rest. But total self -surrender is self-defeating. What then must the

minimum be? That which a man cannot give up w ith out offending against the essence of his

human nature. What is this essenc e? What are the standards which it entails? This has been, and

perhaps always will be, a matter of infinite debate . But whatever the principle in terms of which

the area of non-interference is to be drawn, whether it is that of natural law or natural rights, or

of utility or the pronouncements of a categorical imper ative, or the sanctity of the social contract,

or any other concept with which men have sought to clarify and justify their convictions, liberty

in this sense means liberty from absence of interference beyond the shifting, but always

recognizable, frontier. `The only freedom which de serves the name is that of pursuing our own

good in our own way’, said the most celebrated of its champions. if this is so, is compulsion ever

justified? Mill had no doubt that it was. Since jus tice demands that all individuals be entitled to a

minimum of freedom, all other individuals were of n ecessity to be restrained, if need be by force,

from depriving anyone of it. Indeed, the whole f unction of law was the prevention of just such

collisions: the state was reduced to what Lassalle contemptuously de scribed as the functions of a

night watchman or traffic policeman.

What made the protection of indivi dual liberty so sacred to Mill? In his famous essay he declares

that, unless men are left to live as they wish `in the path which merely concerns themselves’;

civilization cannot advance; the tr uth will not, for lack of a free market in ideas, come to light;

there will be no scope for spontaneity, originalit y, genius, for mental energy, for moral courage.

Society will be crushed by the weight of `collectiv e mediocrity’. Whatever is rich and diversified

will be crushed by the weight of custom; by me n’s constant tendency to conformity, which

breeds only `withered capacities’, `pinched a nd hidebound’, `cramped and warped’ human beings.

`Pagan self-assertion is as worthy as Christian self-denial.’ `All the errors which a man is likely

to commit against advice and warning are far ou tweighed by the evil of allowing others to

constrain him to what they deem is good.’ The defen ce of liberty consists in the `negative’ goal of

warding off interference . To threaten a man with persecution unless he submits to a life in which

he exercises no choices of his goals; to bloc k before him every door but one, no matter how

noble the prospect upon which it opens, or how be nevolent the motives of those who arrange

this, is to sin against the truth th at he is a man, a being with a life of his own to live. This is

liberty as it has been conceived by liberals in the modern world from the days of Erasmus (some

would say of Occam) to our own. Every plea fo r civil liberties and individual fights, every

protest against exploitation and humiliation, against the encroachment of public authority, or the

mass hypnosis of custom or organized propaganda, springs from th is individualistic, and much

disputed, conception of man.

Three facts about this position may be noted. In th e first place Mill confuses two distinct notions.

One is that all coercion is, in so far as it frus trates human desires, bad as such, although it may

have to be applied to prevent other, greater ev ils; while non-interference, which is the opposite of

coercion, is good as such although it is not the only good. This is the ‘negative’ conception of

liberty in its classical form. The other is that men should seek to discover the truth, or to develop

a certain type of character of which Mill approv ed–critical, original, imaginative, independent, non-conforming to the point of eccentricity, and so on– and that truth can be found, and such

character can be bred, only in c onditions of freedom. Both these are liberal views, but they are

not identical, and the connexion between them is, at best, empirical. No one would argue that

truth or freedom of self-expr ession could flourish where dogm a crushes all thought. But the

evidence of history tends to show (as, indeed, was argued by James Stephen in his formidable

attack on Mill in his Liberty, Equality, Fraternity ) that integrity, love of truth, and fiery

individualism grow at least as often in severe ly disciplined communities among, for example, the

puritan Calvinists of Scotland or New England, or under military discipline, as in more tolerant

or indifferent societies; and if this is so, Mill’ s argument for liberty as a necessary condition for

the growth of human genius falls to the ground. If his two goals proved incompatible, Mill would

be faced with a cruel dilemma, quite apart from the further difficulties created by the

inconsistency of his doctrines with strict utilitar ianism, even in his own humane version of it.

In the second place, the doctrin e is comparatively modern. There seems to be scarcely any

discussion of individual liberty as a conscious political ideal (as oppos ed to its actual existence)

in the ancient world. Condorcet had already remark ed that the notion of individual rights was

absent from the legal conceptions of the Romans and Greeks; this seems to hold equally of the

Jewish, Chinese, and all other ancient civilizat ions that have since come to light. The

domination of this ideal has been the exception rath er 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. The desire not to be im pinged 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. Yet its decline would mark the death of a civilization, of an

entire moral outlook.

The third characteristic of this notion of liberty is of greater importance. It is that liberty in this

sense is not incompatible with some kinds of auto cracy, or at any rate with the absence of self-

government. Liberty in this sense is principally concerned with the area of control, not with its

source. Just as a democracy may, in fact, deprive the individual citizen of a great many liberties

which he might have in some other form of soci ety, so it is perfectly conceivable that a liberal-

minded despot would allow his subjects a large measure of personal freedom. The despot who

leaves his subjects a wide area of liberty may be unjust, or encourage the wildest inequalities,

care little for order, or virtue, or knowledge; but provided he does not curb their liberty, or at

least curbs it less than many othe r régimes, he meets with Mill’s specification. Freedom in this

sense is not, at any rate l ogically, connected with democracy or self-government. Self-

government may, on the whole, provide a better guarantee of the preservation of civil liberties

than other régimes, and has been defended as such by libertarians. But there is no necessary

connexion between individual liberty and democr atic rule. The answer to the question `Who

governs me?’ is logically distinct from the que stion `How far does government interfere with

me?’ It is in this difference that the great contrast between the two concepts of negative and

positive liberty, in the end, consists. For the `positiv e’ sense of liberty comes to light if we try to

answer the question, not `What am I free to do or be?’, but `By whom am I ruled?’ or `Who is to

say what I am, and what I am not, to be or do?’ The connexion between democracy and

individual liberty is a good deal more tenuous than it seemed to many advocates of both. The desire to be governed by myself; or at any rate to participate in the process by which my life is to

be controlled, may be as deep a wish as that of a free area for action, and perhaps historically

older. But it is not a desire for th e same thing. So different is it, in deed, as to have led in the end

to the great clash of ideologies that dominates our world. For it is this–the `positive’ conception

of liberty: not freedom from, but freedom to– to lead one prescribed form of life–which the

adherents of the `negative’ notion represent as being, at times, no better than a specious disguise

for brutal tyranny.


The Notion of Positive Freedom

The `positive’ sense of the word `liberty’ derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be

his own master. I wish my life and decisions to depend on myself, not on external forces of

whatever kind. I wish to be the instrument of my own, not of other men’s acts of will. I wish to

be a subject, not an object; to be moved by r easons, by conscious purposes, which are my own,

not by causes which affect me, as it were, from outside. I wish to be somebody, not nobody; a

doer–deciding, not being decided for, self-directed and not acted upon by external nature or by

other men as if I were a thing, or an animal, or a slave incapable of playin g a human role, that is,

of conceiving goals and policies of my own and r ealizing them. This is at least part of what I

mean when I say that I am rati onal, and that it is my reason th at distinguishes me as a human

being from the rest of the world. I wish, above a ll, to conscious of myself as a thinking, willing,

active being, bearing res ponsibility for my choices and able to explain them by references to my

own ideas and purposes. I feel free to the degree that I believe this to be true, and enslaved to the

degree that I am made to realize that it is not.

The freedom which consists in being one’s own master, and the freedom which consists in not

being prevented from choosing as I do by other men, may, on the face of it, seem concepts at no

great logical distance from each other–no more th an negative and positive ways of saying much

the same thing. Yet the `positive’ and `negative’ notions of freedom historically developed in

divergent directions not always by logically repu table steps, until, in the end, they came into

direct conflict with each other.

One way of making this clear is in terms of the independent momentum which the, initially

perhaps quite harmless, metaphor of self-mastery acquired. `I am my own master’; `l am slave to

no man’; but may I not (as Platonist s or Hegelians tend to say) be a slave to nature? Or to my

own `unbridled’ passions? Are thes e not so many species of the identical genus `slave’–some

political or legal, others moral or spiritual ? Have not men had the experience of liberating

themselves from spiritual slavery, Or slavery to nature, and do they not in the course of it

become aware, on the one hand, of a self which dominates; and, on the other, of something in

them which is brought to heel? Th is dominant self is then variously identified with reason, with

my `higher nature’, with the self which calculates and aims at what will satisfy it in the long run,

with my `real’, or `ideal’, or `autonomous self, or with my self `at its best’; which is then

contrasted with irrational impulse, uncontrolled desires, my `lower’ nature, the pursuit of immediate pleasures, my `empirical’ or `heteronomous’ self, swept by every gust of desire and

passion, needing to be rigidly disciplined if it is ever to rise to the full height of its `real’ nature.

Presently the two selves may be re presented as divided by an even larger gap: the real self may

be conceived as something wider than the indivi dual (as the term is normally understood), as a

social `whole’ of which the individual. is an elem ent or aspect: a tribe, a race, a church; a state,

the great society of the living and the dead and th e yet unborn. This entity is then identified as

being the `true’ self which, by imposing its collective, or `organic’, single will upon its

recalcitrant `members’, achieves its own, and th erefore their, `higher’ freedom. The perils of

using organic metaphors to justify the coercion of so me men by others in order to raise them to a

`higher’ level of freedom have of ten been pointed out. But what gi ves such plausibility as it has

to this kind of language is that we recognize that it is possible, a nd at times justifiable, to coerce

men in the name of some goal (let us say, just ice or public health) which they would, if they

were more enlightened, themselves pursue, but do not, because they are blind or ignorant or

corrupt. This renders it easy for me to conceive of myself as coercing others for their own sake,

in their, not my interest. I am then claiming that I know what they truly need better than; they

know it themselves. What, at most, this entails is that they would not resist me if they were

rational and as wise as I and understood their in terests as I do. But I may go on to claim a good

deal more than this. I may declare that they are actually aiming at what in their benighted state

they consciously resist, because there exists with in them an occult entity–their latent rational

will, or their. `true’ purpose– and that this entity, although it is belied by all that they overtly feel

and do and say, is their `real’ self , of which the poor empirical self in space and time may know

nothing or little; and that this inne r spirit is the only self that deserves to have its wishes taken

into account. Once I take this view, I am in a position to ignore the actual wishes of men or

societies, to bully, oppress; torture them in the name, and on beha lf, of their `real’ selves, in the

secure knowledge that whatever is the true go al of man (happiness, performance of duty,

wisdom, a just society, self-fulfilment) must be identical with his freedom–the free choice of his

`true’, albeit often submerge d and inarticulate, self.

This paradox has been often exposed. It is one th ing to say that I know what is good for X, while

he himself does not; and even to ignore his wish es for its– and his–sake ; and a very different

one to say that he has eo ipso chosen it, not indeed consciously, not as he seems in everyday life,

but in his role as a rational self which his em pirical self may not know–the `real’ self which

discerns the good, and cannot help choosing it once it is revealed. This monstrous impersonation,

which consists in equating what X would choose if he were something he is not, or at least not

yet, with what X actually seeks and chooses, is at the heart of all political theories of self-

realization. It is one thing to say that I may be coerced for my own good which I am too blind to

see: this may, on occasion, be for my benefit; indeed it may enlarge the scope of my liberty. It is

another to say that if it is my good, then I am not being coerced, for I have willed it, whether. I

know this or not, and am free (or `truly’ free) even while my poor earthly body and foolish mind

bitterly reject it, and struggle against those who seek however benevolently to impose it, with,

the greatest desperation.

This magical transformation, or sleight of hand (f or which William James so justly mocked the

Hegelians), can no doubt be perpetra ted just as easily with the `negative’ concept of freedom,

where the self that should not be interfered with is no longer the individual w ith his actual wishes

and needs as they are normally conceived, but the `re al’ man within, identified with the pursuit of some ideal purpose not dreamed of by his empirical self. And, as in the case of the `positively’

free self, this entity may be inflated into some su per personal entity–a state, a class, a nation, or

the march of history itself, regarded as a more `re al’ subject of attributes than the empirical self.

But the `positive’ conception of freedom as self -mastery, with its suggestion of a man divided

against himself, has, in fact, and as a matter of history, of doctrine and of practice, lent itself

more easily to this splitting of personality into two: the transcendent, dominant controller, and

the empirical bundle of desires and passions to be disciplined and brought to heel. It is this

historical fact that has been influential. This demonstrates (if demonstration of so obvious a truth

is needed), that conceptions of freedom directly derive from views of what constitutes a self, a

person, a man. Enough manipulation with the definition , of man, and freedom can be made to

mean whatever the manipulator wishes. Recent histor y has made it only too clear that the issue is

not merely academic.

The consequences of distinguishing between tw o selves will become even clearer if one

considers the two major forms which the desire to be self-directed–directed by one’s `true’ self–

has historically taken: the first, that of seif-abnegation in or der to attain independence; the

second, that of self-realization, or total self-identification with a specific principle or ideal in

order to attain the selfsame end.


The Retreat To The Inner Citadel

I am the possessor of reason and will; I conceive ends and I desire to pursue them; but if I am

prevented from attaining them I no longer feel ma ster of the situation. I may be prevented by the

laws of nature, or by accidents, or the activitie s of men, or the effect, often undesigned, of human

institutions. These forces may be too much for me. What am I to do to avoid being crushed by

them? I must liberate myself from desires that I know I can not realize. I wish to be master of my

kingdom, but my frontiers are long and insecure, ther efore I contract them in order to reduce or

eliminate the vulnerable area. I begin by desiri ng happiness, or power, or knowledge, or the

attainment of some specific object. But I canno t command them. I choose to avoid defeat and

waste, and therefore decide to strive for nothing that I cannot be sure to obtain. I determine

myself not to desire what is unattainable. The ty rant threatens me with the destruction of my

property, with imprisonment, with the exile or death of those I love. But if I no longer feel

attached to property, no longer care whether or not I am in prison, if I have killed within myself

my natural affections, then he cannot bend me to his will, for all that is left of myself is no longer

subject to empirical fears or desire s. It is as if I had performed a strategic retreat into an inner

citadel– my reason, my soul, my `noumenal’ se lf–which, do what they may, neither external

blind force, nor human malice, can touch. I have withdrawn into myself; there, and there alone, I

am secure. It is as if I were to say: `I have a wound in my leg. There are two methods of freeing

myself from pain. One is to heal the wound. But if the cure is too difficult or uncertain, there is

another method. I can get rid of the wound by cutting off my leg. If I train myself t want nothing

to which the possession of my leg is indispensable, I shall not feel the lack of it.’ This is the

traditional self-emancipation of as cetics and quietists, of stoics or Buddhist sages, men of various religions or of none, who have fled the world, and escaped the yoke of society or public opinion,

by some process of deliberate self-transformation that enables them to care no longer for any of

its values, to remain, isolated a nd independent, on its edges, no l onger vulnerable to its weapons.

All political isolationism, all ec onomic autarky, every form of autonomy, has in it some element

of this attitude. I eliminate the obstacles in my path by abandoning the path; I retreat into my

own sect, my own planned economy, my own delib erately insulated territory, where no voices

from outside need be listened to, and no external forces can have effect. This is a form of the

search for security; but it has also been calle d the search for personal or national freedom or


From this doctrine, as it applies to individuals, it is no very great distance to the conceptions of

those who, like Kant, identify fr eedom not indeed with the elimination of desires, but with

resistance to them, and control over them. I id entify myself with the controller and escape the

slavery of the controlled. I am free because, and in so far as , I am autonomous. I obey laws, but I

have imposed them on, or found them in, my ow n uncoerced self. Freedom is obedience, but

`obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves’, and no man can enslave himself.

Heteronomy is dependence on outside factors, liabili ty to be a plaything of the external world

that I cannot myself fully control, and which pro tanto controls and `enslaves’ me. I am free only

to the degree to which my person is `fettered’ by nothing that obeys forces over which I have no

control; I. cannot control th e laws of nature my free activity must therefore, ex hypothesi, be

lifted above the empirical, worl d of causality. This is not the place in which to discuss the

validity of this ancient and famous doctrine; I on ly wish to remark that the related notions of

freedom as resistance to (or escape from) unrealiz able desire, and as independence of the sphere

of causality, have played a central role in politics no less than in ethics.

For if the essence of men is that they are aut onomous beings– authors of values, of ends in

themselves, the ultimate authority of which consis ts precisely in the fact that they are willed

freely– then nothing is worse than to treat them as if they were not autonomous , but natural

objects, played on by causal influences, creatures at the mercy of ex ternal stimuli, whose choices

can be manipulated by their rulers, whether by threat s of force or offers of rewards. To treat men

in this way is to treat them as if they were not self-determined. `Nobody may compel me to be

happy in his own way’, said Kant. `Paternalism is the greatest despotism imaginable’ This is so

because it is to treat men as if they were not free, but human material for me, the benevolent

reformer, to mould in accordance with my own, not their, freely adopted purpose. This is, of

course, precisely the policy that the early u tilitarians recommended. Helvétius (and Bentham)

believed not in resisting, but in using, men’s tend ency to be slaves to their passions; they wished

to dangle rewards and punishments before men–t he acutest possible form of heteronomy–if by

this means the `slaves’ might be made happier. But to manipulate men, to propel them towards

goals which you–the social reformer–see, but they may not, is to deny their human essence, to

treat them as objects without wills of their own, an d therefore to degrade them. That is why to lie

to men, or to deceive them, that is, to use th em as means for my, not their own, independently

conceived ends, even if it is for their own benefit, is, in effect, to treat them as sub-human, to

behave as if their ends are less ultimate and sacr ed than my own. In the name of what can lever

be justified in forcing men to do what they have not willed or consented to? Only in the name of

some value higher than themselves. But if; as Ka nt held, all values are made so by the free acts

of men, and called values only so fa r as they are this, there is no value higher than the individual. Therefore to do this is to coerce men in the name of something less ultimate than themselves–to

bend them to my will, or to someone else’s particular craving for (his or their) happiness or

expediency or security or convenience. I am aiming at something desired (from whatever motive,

no matter how noble) by me or my group, to which I am using other men as means. But this is a

contradiction of what I know men to be, namely e nds in themselves. All forms of tampering with

human beings, getting at them, shaping them ag ainst their will to your own pattern, all thought

control and conditioning, is, theref ore, a denial of that in men which makes them men and their

values ultimate.

Kant’s free individual is a tran scendent being, beyond the realm of natural causality. But in its

empirical form–in which the notion of man is that of ordinary life–this doctrine was the heart of

liberal humanism, both moral and political, that was deeply influenced both by Kant and by

Rousseau in the eighteenth century. In its a priori version it is a form of secularized Protestant

individualism, in which the place of God is ta ken by the conception of the rational life, and the

place of the individual soul which strains towa rds union with Him is replaced by the conception

of the individual endowed with reason, straining to be governed by reason and reason alone, and

to depend upon nothing that might deflect or delude him by engaging his irrational nature.

Autonomy, not heteronomy: to act and not to be acted upon. The notion of slavery to the

passions is–for those who think in these terms–more than a metaphor. To rid myself of fear, or

love, or the desire to conform is to liberate myself from. the despotism of something which I

cannot control. Sophocles, whom Plato reports as saying that old age alone has liberated him

from the passion of love– the yoke of a cruel mast er–is reporting. an experience as real as that

of liberation from a human tyrant or slave ow ner. The psychological experience of observing

myself yielding to some `lower’ impulse, ac ting from a motive that I dislike, or of doing

something which at the very moment of doing I ma y detest, and reflecting later that I was `not

myself’, or `not in control of myself’, when I did it, belongs to this way of thinking and speaking.

I identify myself with my critic al and rational moments. The consequences of my acts cannot

matter, for they are not in my control; only my motives are. This is the creed of the solitary

thinker who has defied the world and emancipated himself from the chains of men and things. In

this form, the doctrine may seem primarily an ethical creed, and scarcely political at all;

nevertheless, its political implications are clea r, and it enters into the tradition of liberal

individualism at least as deeply as the `negative’ concept of freedom.

It is perhaps worth remarking that in its individualistic form the concept of the rational sage who

has escaped into the inner fortress of his true self seems to arise when the external world has

proved exceptionally arid, cruel, or unjust. `He is truly free’, said Rousseau; `who desires what he

can perform, and does what he desires.’ In a wo rld where a man seeking happiness or justice or

freedom (in whatever sense) can do little, beca use he finds too many avenues of action blocked

to him, the temptation to withdraw into himself ma y become irresistible. It may have been so in

Greece, where the Stoic ideal cannot be wholly un connected with the fall of the independent

democracies before centralized Macedonian autocracy. It was so in Rome, for analogous reasons,

after the end of the Republic. It arose in Germ any in the seventeenth century, during the period

of the deepest national degradation of the German states that followed the Thirty Years War,

when the character of public life, particularly in the small principalities, forced those who prized

the dignity of human life, not for the first or last time, into a kind of inner emigration. The

doctrine that maintains that what I cannot have I must teach myself not to desire; that a desire eliminated, or successfully resisted, is as good as a desire satisfied, is a sublime, but, it seems to

me, unmistakable, form of the doctrine of sour grapes: what I cannot be sure of, I cannot truly


This makes it c[ear why the definition of negative liberty as the ability to do what one wishes–

which is, in effect, the definition adopted by Mill–w ill not do. If I find that I am able to do little

or nothing of what I wish, I need only contract or extinguish my wishes, and I am made free. If

the tyrant (or `hidden persuade r’) manages to condition his subj ects (or customers) into losing

their original wishes and embrace (`internalize’) th e form of life he has invented for them, he

will, on this definition, have succeeded in liberating them. He will, no doubt, have made them

feel free as Epictetus feels free r than his master (and the prover bial good man is said to feel

happy on the rack). But what he has created is the very antithesis of political freedom.

Ascetic self-denial may be a source of integrit y or serenity and. spiritual strength, but it is

difficult to see how it can be called an enlargement of liberty. If I save myself from an adversary

by retreating indoors and locking every entrance and exit, I may remain freer than if I had been

captured by him, but am I freer than if I had defeat ed or captured him? If I go too far, contract

myself into too small a space, I shall suffocate. a nd die. The logical culmination of the process of

destroying everything through which I can possibly be wounded is suicide. While I exist in the

natural world, I can never be wholly secure. To tal liberation in this sense (as Schopenhauer

correctly perceived) is conferred only by death.

I find myself in a world in which I meet with obstacles to my will. Thos e who are wedded to the

`negative’ concept of freedom may perhaps be forg iven if they think that self-abnegation is not

the only method of overcoming obstacles; that it is also possible to do so by removing them: in

the case of non-human objects, by physical action; in the case of human resistance, by force or

persuasion, as when I induce somebody to make room for me in his carriage, or conquer a

country which threatens the inte rests of my own. Such acts may be unjust, they may involve

violence, cruelty, the enslavement of others, but it can scarcely be denied. that thereby the agent

is able in the most literal sens e to increase his own freedom. It is an irony of history that this

truth is repudiated by some of those who, practise it most forcibly, men who, even while they

conquer power and freedom of action, reject the `negative’ concept of it in favour of its `positive’

counterpart. Their view rules over’ half our wo rld; let us see upon what metaphysical foundation

it rests.



The only true method of attain ing freedom, we are told, is by the use of critical reason,

understanding of what is necessary and what is contingent. If I am a schoolboy, all but the

simplest truths of mathematics obtrude themselves as obstacles to the free functioning of my

mind, as theorems whose necessity I do not unders tand; they are pronounced to be true by some

external authority, and present. themselves to me as foreign bodies which I am expected mechanically to absorb into my system. But when I understand the functions of the symbols, the

axioms, the formation and transformation rules–t he logic whereby the conclusions are obtained–

and grasp that these things cannot be otherwise, because they appear to follow from `the laws

that govern the processes of my own reason, then mathematical truths no longer obtrude.

themselves as external entities forced upon me which l must receive whether I want it or not, but

as something which I now freely will in the cour se of the natural functioning of my own rational

activity. For the mathematician, the proof of these th eorems is part of the free exercise of his

natural reasoning capacity. For th e musician, after he has assimilated the pattern of the

composer’s score, and has made the composer’s ends his own, the playing of the music is not

obedience to external laws; a compulsion and a barri er to liberty; but a free unimpeded exercise.

The player is not bound to the scor e as an ox to the plough, or a factory worker to the machine.

He has absorbed the score into his own sy stem, has by understanding it, identified it with

himself, has changed it from an impediment to free activity into an element in that activity itself.

What applies to music or mathematics must, we ar e told, in principle apply to all other obstacles

which present themselves as so many lumps of external stuff blocking free self development.

That is the programme of enlightened rationa lism from Spinoza to the latest (at times

unconscious) disciples of Hegel Sapere aude. What you know, that of which you understand the

necessity–the rational necessity–you cannot, while remaining rational, want to be otherwise. For

to want something to be other th an what it must be is, given the premisses–the necessities that

govern the world –to be pro tanto either ignorant or irrational. Passions, prejudices, fears,

neuroses, spring from ignorance, and take the form of myths and illusions. To be ruled by myths,

whether they spring from; the vivid imaginations of unscrupulous charlatans who deceive us in

order to exploit us, or from ps ychological or sociological causes, is a form of heteronomy, of

being dominated by outside factors in a direction not necessarily willed by the agent. The

scientific determinists of the eighteenth century supposed that the study of the sciences of nature,

and the creation of sciences of society on the same model, would make the operation of such

causes transparently clear, and t hus enable individuals to recogni ze their own part in the working

of a rational world, frustrati ng only when misunderstood. Know ledge liberates, as Epicurus

taught long ago, by automatically elimina ting irrational fears and desires.

Herder, Hegel, and Marx substituted their own v italistic models of social life for the older,

mechanical ones, but believed, no less than their opponents, that to understand the world is to be

freed. They merely differed from them in stressin g the part played by change and growth in what

made human beings human. Social life could not be understood by an analogy drawn from

mathematics or physics. One must also understa nd history, that is, the peculiar laws of

continuous growth, whether by `dia lectical’ conflict or otherwise, that govern individuals and

groups, in their interplay with each other and with nature. Not to grasp this is, according to these

thinkers, to fall into a particular kind of error, namely the belief th at human nature is static, that

its essential properties ar e the same everywhere and at all ti mes, that it is governed by unvarying

natural laws, whether they are conceived in theological or materialistic terms, which entails the

fallacious corollary that a wise lawgiver can, in principle, create a perfectly harmonious society

at any time by appropriate education and legi slation, because rational men, in all ages and

countries, must always demand the same unalteri ng satisfactions of the same unaltering basic

needs. Hegel believed that his contemporaries (and indeed all his pr edecessors) misunderstood

the nature of institutions because they did not understand the laws– the rationally intelligible

laws, since they spring from the operation of reason–that create and alter institutions and transform human character and human action. Marx and his disciples maintained that the path of

human beings was obstructed not only by natura l forces, or the imperfections of their own

character, but, even more, by the workings of their own social inst itutions, which they had

originally created (not always consciously) for certain purposes , but whose functioning they

systematically came to misconceive, and which thereupon became obstacles in their creators’

progress. He offered social and economic hypothese s to account for the inevitability of such

misunderstanding, in particular of the illusi on that such man made arrangements were

independent forces, as inescapable. as the laws of nature. As instances of such pseudo-objective

forces, he pointed to the laws of supply and de mand, or of the institution of property, or of the

eternal division of society into rich and poor, or owners and workers, as so many unaltering

human categories. Not until we had reached a stage at which the spells of these illusions could be

broken, that is, until enough men reached a social stage that alone enabled them to understand

that these laws and institutions were themselves the work of human minds and hands, historically

needed in their day; and later mistaken for inex orable, objective powers, could the old world be

destroyed, and more adequate and liberating social machinery substituted. We are enslaved by

despots–institutions or beliefs or neuroses –which can be removed only by being analysed and

understood. We are imprisoned by evil spirits which we have ourselves– albeit not consciously–

created, and can exorcize them only by becoming conscious and acting appropriately: indeed, for

Marx understanding is appropriate action. I am free if, and only if, I plan my life in accordance

with my own will; plans entail rules; a rule do es not oppress me or enslave me if I impose it on

myself consciously, or accept it freely, having un derstood it, whether it was invented by me or

by others, provided that it is rati onal, that is to say, conforms to the necessities of things. To

understand why things must be as they must be is to will them to be so. Knowledge liberates not

by offering us more open possibilities amongst whic h we can make our choice, but by preserving

us from the frustration of attempting the impossibl e. To want necessary laws to be other than

they are is to be prey to an ir rational. desire–a desire that what must be X should also be not X.

To go further, and believe these laws to be other than what they necessarily are, is to be insane.

That is the metaphysical heart of rationalism. Th e notion of liberty contained in it is not the

`negative’ conception of a field (ideally) without obstacles, a vacuum in which nothing obstructs

me, but the notion of self-direction or self-con trol. I can do what I will with my own. I am a

rational being; whatever I can demonstrate to my self as being necessary, as incapable of being

otherwise in a rational society–tha t is, in a society directed by rational minds; towards goals such

as a rational being would have–I cannot, being rati onal, wish to sweep out of my way. I

assimilate it into my substance as I do the laws of logic, of mathematics, of physics, the rules of

art, the principles that govern everything of which I understand, and therefore will, the rational

purpose, by which I can never be thwarted, since I cannot want it to be other than it is.

This is the positive doctrine of liberation by reason. Socialized forms of it, widely disparate and

opposed to each other as they are, are at th e heart of many of the nationalist, communist,

authoritarian, and to talitarian creeds of our day. It may, in the course of its evolution, have

wandered far from its rationalist moorings. Neverthe less, it is this freedom that, in democracies

and in dictatorships, is argued about, and fought for, in many pa rts of the earth today. Without

attempting to trace the historical evolution of th is idea, I should like to comment on some of its



The Temple of Sarastro

Those who believed in freedom as rational self-d irection were bound, sooner or later, to consider

how this was to be applied not merely to a mans inner life, but to his relations with other

members of his society. Even the most indi vidualistic among them–and Rousseau, Kant, and

Fichte certainly began as individualists–came at some point to ask themselves whether a rational

life not only for the individual, but also for soci ety, was possible, and if so, how’ it was to be

achieved. I wish to be free to live as my ra tional will (my real self) commands, but so must

others be. How am I to avoid collisions with th eir wills? Where is the frontier that lies between

my (rationally determined) rights and the identical rights of others? For if I am rational, I cannot

deny that what is right for me must, for the same reasons, be right for others who are rational like

me. A rational (or free) state would be a state governed by such laws s all rational men would

freely accept; that is to say, such laws as they would themselves have enacted had they been

asked what, as rational beings, th ey demanded; hence the frontiers would be such as all rational

men would consider to be the right frontiers for rational bein gs. But who, in fact, was to

determine what these frontiers were? Thinkers of this type argued that if moral and political

problems were genuine–as surely they were–they must in principle be soluble; that is to say,

there must exist one and only one true solution to any problem. All truths could in principle be

discovered by any rational thinker, and demonstrat ed so clearly that all other rational men could

not but accept them; indeed, this was already to a large extent the case in the new natural

sciences. On this assumption, the problem of poli tical liberty was soluble by establishing a just

order that would give to each man all the free dom to which a rational being was entitled. My

claim to unfettered freedom can prima facie at times not be reconciled with your equally

unqualified claim; but the rational solution of one problem cannot collide with the equally true

solution of another, for two truths cannot logically be incompatible; therefore a just order must in

principle be discoverable–an or der of which the rules make possible correct solutions to all

possible problems that could arise in it. This id eal, harmonious state of affairs was some times

imagined as a Garden of Eden before the Fall of Man, from which we were expelled, but for

which we were still filled with longing; or as a golden age still before us, in which men, having

become rational, will no longer be `other directed’, nor `alienate’ or frustrate one another. In

existing societies justice and e quality are ideals which still call for some measure of coercion,

because the premature lifting of social controls might lead to the oppression of the weaker and

the stupider by the stronger or abler or more energetic and unscrupulous. But it is only

irrationality on the part of men (according to this doctrine) that leads them to wish to oppress or

exploit or humiliate one another. Rational men will respect the principle of reason in each other,

and lack all desire to fight or dominate one another. The desire to dominate is itself a symptom

of irrationality, and can be expl ained and cured by rational met hods. Spinoza offers one kind of

explanation and remedy, Hegel another, Marx a third. Some of these theories may. perhaps, to

some degree, supplement each other, others are no t combinable. But they all assume that in a

society of perfectly rational beings the lust for domination over men will be’ absent or

ineffective. `The existence of , or craving for, oppression will be the first symptom that the true

solution to the problems of social life has not been reached. This can be put in another way. Freedom is self-mastery, the elimination of obstacles to my will,

whatever these obstacles may be–the resist ance of nature, of my ungoverned passions, of

irrational institutions, of the opposing wills or be haviour of others. Nature I can, at least in

principle, always mould by technical means, a nd shape to my will. But how am I to treat

recalcitrant human beings? I must, if I can, impo se my will on them too, `mould’ them to my

pattern, cast parts for them in my play. But will this not mean that I alone am free, while they are

slaves ? They will be so if my plan has nothing to do with their wishes or values, only with my

own. But if my plan is fully rational, it will allo w for the full development of their `true’ natures,

the realization of their capacities for rational deci sions `for making the best of themselves’–as a

part of the realization of my own `true’ self. All true soluti ons to all genuine problems must be

compatible: more than this, they must fit into a single whole: for this is what is meant by calling

them all rational and the universe harmonious. Each man has his specific character, abilities,

aspirations, ends. If I grasp both what these ends and natures are, and how they all relate to one

another, I can, at least in princi ple, if I have the knowledge and the strength, satisfy them all, so

long as the nature and the purpos es in question are rational. Rationality is knowing things and

people for what they are: I must not use stones to make violins, nor try to make born violin

players play flutes. If the universe is governed by reason, then ther e will be no need for coercion;

a correctly planned life for all will coincide with full freedom–they freedom of rational self-

direction–for all. This will be so if, and only if, the plan is th e true plan–the one unique pattern

which alone fulfils the claims of reason. Its laws will be the rules which reason prescribes: they

will only seem irksome to those whose reason is dormant, who do not understand the true `needs’

of their own `real’ `selves; So long as each pl ayer recognizes and plays the part set him by

reason–the faculty `that’ understa nds his true nature and discerns his true ends–there can be no

conflict. Each. man will be a liberated, self-directed actor in the cosmic drama. Thus Spinoza

tells us that `children, although they are coerced, are not slaves’, because `they obey orders given

in their own interests’, and that `The subject of a true commonw ealth is no slave, because the

common interests must include his own. Similarly, Locke says `Where there is no law there is no

freedom’, because rational laws are directions to a man’s `proper interests’ or `general good’; and

adds that since such laws are what `hedges us from bogs and precipices’ they `ill deserve the

name of confinement’, and speaks of desires to escape from such laws as being irrational, forms

of `licence’, as `brutish’, and so on. Montesqui eu, forgetting his liberal moments, speaks of

political liberty as being not permission to do wh at we want, or even what the law allows, but

only `the power of doing what we ought to will’, which Kant virtually repeats. Burke proclaims

the individual’s `right’ to be restrained in his own interest, because `the presumed consent of

every rational creature is in unison with th e predisposed order of things’. The common

assumption of these thinkers (and of many a scho olman before them and Jacobin and Communist

after them) is that the rational ends of our `true’ natures must coincide, or be made to coincide,

how ever violently our pooty i gnorant, desire ridden, passionate , empirical selves may cry out

against this process. Freedom is not freedom to do what is irrational, or stupid, or wrong. To

force empirical selves into the tight pattern is no tyranny, but libe ration. Rousseau tells me that

if I freely surrender all the parts of my life to society, I create an entity which, because it has

been built by an equality of sacrifice of all it s members, cannot wish to hurt any one of them; in

such a society, we are informed, it can be nobody’s interest to damage anyone else. `In giving

myself to all, I give myself to none’, and get b ack as much as I lose, with enough new force to .

preserve my new gains. Kant te lls us that when `the individual has entirely abandoned his wild,

lawless freedom, to find it again, unimpaired, in a state of dependence according to law’, that alone is true freedom, `for this dependence is the work of my own will acting as a lawgiver’.

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 eighteenth century,

and of all those who look upon society as a design constructed according to the rational laws of

the wise lawgiver, or of nature, or of history, or of the Supreme Being. Bentham, almost alone,

doggedly went on repeating that the business of laws was not to liberate but to restrain: `Every

law is an infraction of liberty’–eve n if such `infraction’ leads to an increase of the sum of liberty.

If the underlying assumptions had been correct –if the method of solving social problems

resembled the way in which solutions to the prob lems of the natural sciences are found, and if

reason were what rationalists said that it was, all this would perhaps follow. In the ideal case,

liberty coincides with law: autonomy with author ity. A law which forbids me to do what I could

not, as a sane being, conceivably wish to do is no t a restraint of my freedom. in the ideal society,

composed of wholly responsible beings, rules, because I should scarcely be conscious of them,

would gradually wither away. Only one soci al movement was bold enough to render this

assumption quite explicit and accep t its consequences–that of the Anarchists. But all forms of

liberalism founded on a rationalist metaphysics are le ss or more watered down versions of this


In due course, the thinkers who bent their energi es to the solution of the problem on these lines

came to be faced with the question of how in practice men were to be made rational in this way.

Clearly they must be educated. For the uneducated are irrational, heteronomous, and need to be

coerced, if only to make life tolera ble for the rational if they are to live in the same society and

not be compelled to withdraw to a desert or some Olympian height. But the uneducated cannot

be expected to understand or co-operate with the purposes of their educators. Education, says

Fichte, must inevitably work in such a way that `you will later recognize the reasons for what I

am doing now’. Children cannot be expected to understand why they are compelled to go to

school; nor the ignorant–that is, for the moment, the majority of mankind–why they are made to

obey the laws that will presently make them ratio nal. `Compulsion is also a kind of education.’

You learn the great virtue of obedience to superior persons . if you cannot understand your own

interests as a rational being; I cannot be expected to consult y ou, or abide by your wishes; in the

course of making you rational. I must, in the e nd, force you to be protected against smallpox,

even though you may not wish it. Even Mill is prep ared to say that I may forcibly prevent a man

from crossing a bridge if there is not time to warn him that it is about to collapse, for I know, or

am justified in assuming, that he cannot wish to fall into the water. Fichte knows what the

uneducated German of his time wishes to be or do better than he can possibly know them for

himself. The sage knows you better than you know yourself, for you are the victim of your

passions, a slave living a heter onomous life, purblind, unable to understand your true goals. You

want to be a human being. It is the aim of the state to satisfy your wish. `Compulsion is justified

by education for future insight.’ The reason within me, if it is to triumph, must eliminate and

suppress my `lower’ instincts, my passions and de sires, which render me a slave; similarly (the

fatal transition from individual to social concepts is almost imperceptible) the higher elements in

society–the better educated, the more rational, those who `posse ss the highest insight of their

time and people’–may exercise compulsion to rati onalize the irrational section of society. For–so

Hegel, Bradley, Bosanquet have often assured us–by obeying the rational man we obey

ourselves: not indeed as we are, sunk in our i gnorance and our passions, weak creatures afflicted by diseases that need a healer, wards who require a guardian, but as we could be if we were

rational; as we could be even now, if only we would listen to the rational element which is, ex

hypothesi , within every human being who deserves the name.

The philosophers of `Objective R eason’, from the tough, rigidly cen tralized, `organic’ state of

Fichte, to the mild and humane liberalism of T. H. Green, certainly supposed themselves to be

fulfilling, and not resisting, the rational demands which, however inchoate, were to be found in

the breast of every sentient being. But I may reject such democratic optimism, and turning away

from the teleological determin ism of the Hegelians towards some more voluntarist philosophy,

conceive the idea of imposing on my society–for its own betterment–a plan of my own, which

in my rational wisdom I have elaborated; and which, unless I act on my own, perhaps against the

permanent wishes of the vast majority of my fe llow citizens, may never come to fruition at all.

Or, abandoning the concept of reason altogether, I may conceive myself as an inspired artist,

who moulds men into patterns in the light of his unique vision, as painters combine colours or

composers sounds; humanity is the raw material upon which I impose my creative will; even

though men suffer and die in the process, they are lifted by it to a height to which they could

never have risen without my coerci ve–but creative– violation of their lives. This is the argument

used by every dictator, inquisitor, and bully who seeks some moral; or even aesthetic,

justification for his conduct. I must do for men (or with them) what they cannot do for

themselves, and I cannot ask their permission or consent, because they are in no condition to

know what is best for them; indeed, what th ey will permit and accept may mean a life of

contemptible mediocrity, or perhaps even their ruin and suicide Let me quote from the true

progenitor of the heroic doctrine, Fichte, once ag ain: `No one has …rights against reason.’ `Man

is afraid of subordinating his subjectivity to the laws of reason. He prefers tradition or

arbitrariness.’ Nevertheless, subordinated he must be. Fichte puts forward the claims of what he

called reason; Napoleon, or Carl yle, or romantic authoritarians may worship other values, and

see in their establishment by force the only path to `true’ freedom.

The same attitude was pointedly expressed by Auguste Comte, who asked `If we do not allow

free thinking in chemistry or biology, why s hould we allow it in morals or politics?’ Why

indeed? If it makes sense to speak of political truths–assertions of social ends which all men,

because they are men, must, once they are disc overed, agree to be such; and if, as Comte

believed, scientific method will in due course reveal them; then what case is there for freedom of

opinion or action–at least as an end in itself and not merely as a stimulating intellectual climate,

either for individuals or for gr oups? Why should any conduct be tole rated that is not authorized

by appropriate experts? Co mte put bluntly what had been imp licit in the rationalist theory of

politics from its ancient Greek beginnings. There ca n, in principle, be only one correct way of

life; the wise lead it spontaneously, that is why they are called wise. The unwise must be dragged

towards it by all the social means in the power of the wise; for why should demonstrable error be

suffered to survive and breed ? The immature and unt utored must be made to say to themselves:

`Only the truth liberates , and the only way in which I can learn the truth is by doing blindly

today, what you, who know it, order me, or coerce me, to do, in the certain knowledge that only

thus will I arrive at your clea r vision, and be free like you.’

We have wandered indeed from our liberal beginn ings. This argument, employed by Fichte in his

latest phase, and after him by other defenders of authority, from Victorian schoolmasters and colonial administrators to the latest nationalist or communist dictator, is precisely what the Stoic

and Kantian morality protests against most bitterly in the name of the reason of the free

individual following his own inner light. In this way the rationalist argument, with its assumption

of the single true solution, has led by steps which, if not logically valid, are historically and

psychologically intelligible, from an ethical doctrine of individual responsibility and individual

self-perfection to an authoritarian state obedien t to the directives of an élite of Platonic


What can have led to so strange a reversal–the transformation of Kant’s severe individualism

into something close to a pure totalitarian doc trine on the part of thinkers, some of whom

claimed to be his disciples? This question is not of merely historical interest, for not a few

contemporary liberals have gone through the same peculiar evolution. It is true that Kant

insisted, following Rousseau, that a capacity for rational self-direction belonged to all men; that

there could be no experts in moral matters, since morality was a matter not of specialized

knowledge (as the utilitarians and philosophes had maintained), but of the correct use of a

universal human faculty; and consequently that what made men free was not acting in certain

self-improving ways, which they could be coer ced to do, but knowing why they ought to do so,

which nobody could do for, or on behalf of, anyone el se. But even Kant, when he came to deal

with political issues, conceded that no law, pr ovided that it was such that I should, if I were

asked, approve it as a rational being, could possi bly deprive me of any portion of my rational

freedom. With this the door was opened wide to the rule of experts. I cannot consult all men

about all enactments all the time. The government cannot be a continuous plebiscite. Moreover,

some men are not as well attuned to the voice of their own reason as others: some seem

singularly deaf. If I am a legislat or or a ruler, I must assume that if the law I impose is rational

(and I can only consult my own reason) it will au tomatically be approved by all the members of

my society so far as they are rational be ings. For if they disapprove, they must, pro tanto, be

irrational; then they will need to be repre ssed by reason: whether their own or mine cannot

matter, for the pronouncements of reason must be th e same in all minds. I issue my orders, and if

you resist, take it upon myself to repress the ir rational element in you which opposes reason. My

task would be easier if you repressed it in you rself; I try to educate you to do so. But I am

responsible for public welfare, I cannot wait until all men are wholly rational. Kant may protest

that the essence of the subject’s freedom is that he, and he alone, has given himself the order to

obey. But this is a counsel of pe rfection. If you fail to discipline yourself, I must do so for you;

and you cannot complain of lack of freedom, for th e fact that Kant’s rational judge has sent you

to prison is evidence that you have not listened to your own inner reason, that, like a child, a

savage, an idiot, you are not ripe for self-d irection or permanently in capable of it.

If this leads to despotism, albeit by the best or the wisest– to Sarastro’s temple in the Magic

Flute –but still despotism, which turns out to be id entical with freedom, can it be that there is

something amiss in the premisses of the argumen t? that the basic assumptions are themselves

somewhere at fault? Let me state them once more: first, that all men have one true purpose, and

one only, that of rational self-dir ection; second, that the ends of all rational beings must of

necessity fit into a single universal) harmonious pa ttern, which some men may be able to discern

more clearly than others; third, that all conflict, and consequently all tragedy, is due solely to the

clash of reason with the irrati onal or the insufficiently rational–the immature and undeveloped

elements in life–whether individual or communal, and that such clashe s are, in principle, avoidable, and for wholly rational beings impossible; finally, that when all men have been made

rational, they will obey the rational laws of thei r own natures, which are one and the same in

them all, and so be at once wholly law abiding and wholly free. Can it be that Socrates and the

creators of the central Western tradition in ethics and politics who followed him have been

mistaken, for more than two millennia, that virt ue is not knowledge, nor freedom identical with

either? That despite the fact that it rules the lives of more me n than ever before in its long

history, not one of the basic assump tions of this famous view is demonstrable, or, perhaps, even



The Search for Status

`There is yet another historica lly important approach to this topic, which, by confounding liberty

with her sisters, equality and fr aternity, leads to similarly illiberal conclusions. Ever since the

issue was raised towards the end of the eighteenth century, the question of what is meant by `an

individual’ has been asked persistently, and with increasing effect. In so far as I live in society,

everything that I do inevitably affects, and is a ffected by, what others do. Even Mill’s strenuous

effort to mark the distinction between the sphe res of private and social life breaks down under

examination. Virtually all Mill’s critics have pointed out that everything that I do may have

results which will harm other human beings. More over, I am a social being in a deeper sense

than that of interaction with others. For am I not what I am, to some degree, in virtue of what

others think and feel me to be? When I ask my self what I am, and answer: an Englishman, a

Chinese, a merchant, a man of no importance, a millionaire, a convict–I find upon analysis that

to possess these attributes entails being recognized as belongi ng to a particular group or class by

other persons in my society, and th at this recognition is part of the meaning of most of the terms

that denote some of my most personal and permanent characte ristics. I am not disembodied

reason. Nor am I Robinson Crusoe, alone upon his is land. It is not only that my material life

depends upon interaction with other men, or that l am what l am as a result of social forces, but

that some, perhaps all, of my ideas about myself ; in particular my sense of my own moral and

social identity, are intelligible only in terms of the social network in which I am (the metaphor

must not be pressed too far) an element. The lack of freedom about which men or groups

complain amounts, as often as not, to the lack of proper recognition. I may be seeking not for

what Mill would wish me to seek, namely s ecurity from coercion, arbitrary arrest, tyranny,

deprivation of certain op portunities of action, or for room with in which I am legally accountable

to no one for my movements. Equally, I may not be seeking for a rational plan of social life, or

the self-perfection of a dispassionate sage. What I may seek to avoid is simply being ignored, or

patronized or despised, or bei ng taken too much for granted–in short, not being treated as an

individual, having my uniqueness insufficiently recognized, being classed as a member of some

featureless amalgam, a statistical unit without identifiable, specifically human features and

purposes of my own. This is the degradation that I am fighting ag ainst–not equality of legal

rights, nor liberty to do as I wish (although I may want these too), but for a condition in which I

can feel that I am, because I am taken to be, a responsible agent, whose will is taken into

consideration because I am entitled to it, even if I am attacked and persecuted for being what I am or choosing as I do. This is a hankering after status and recognition: `The poorest he that is in

England hath a life to live as the greatest he.’ I desire to be understood and recognized, even if

this means to be unpopular and disliked. And th e only persons who can so recognize me, and

thereby give me the sense of being someone, are the members of the society to which,

historically, morally, econo mically, and. perhaps ethnica lly, I feel that I belong.

My individual

self is not something which I can detach from my relationship with others, or from those

attributes of myself which consist in their attitude towards me. Consequently, when I demand to

be liberated from, let us say, the status of politi cal or social dependence, what I demand is an

alteration of the attitude towards me of those whose opinions and behaviour help to determine

my own image of myself. And what is true of the individual is true of groups, social, political,

economic, religious, that is, of men conscious of needs and purposes which they have as

members of such groups. What oppressed classes or nationalities, as a rule, demand is neither

simply unhampered liberty of action for their members, nor, above everything, equality of social

or economic opportunity, still less assignment of a place in a frictionless, organic state devised

by the rational lawgiver. What they want, as often as not, is simply recognition (of their class or

nation, or colour or race) as an independent source of human activit y, as an entity with a will of

its own, intending to act in accordance with it (whether it is good or legitimate, or not), and not

to be ruled, educated, guided, with however lig ht a hand, as being not quite fully human, and

therefore not quite fully free. This gives a far wider than a purely rationalist sense to Kant’s

`paternalism is the greatest despotism imaginable’. Paternalism is despotic, not because it is more

oppressive than naked, brutal, unenlightened tyranny, nor merely be cause it ignores the

transcendental reason embodied in me, but because it is an insult to my conception of myself as a

human being, determined to make my own life in accordance with my own (not necessarily

rational or benevolent) purposes, and, above all, entitled to be recognized as such by others. For

if I am not so recognized, then I may fail to r ecognize, I may doubt, my own claim to be a fully

independent human being. For what I am is, in la rge part, determined by what I feel and think;

and what I feel and think is determined by the feeling and thought prevailing in the society to

which I belong, of which, in Burke’s sense, I form not an isolable atom, but an ingredient (to use

a perilous but indispensable metaphor) in a social pattern. I may feel unfree in the sense of not

being recognized as a self-governin g individual human being; but I may feel it also as a member

of an unrecognized or insufficien tly respected group: then I wish for the emancipation of my

entire class, or community, or nation, or race, . or profession. So much can I desire this, that I

may, in my bitter longin g for status, prefer to be bullied and misgoverned by some member of

my own race or social class, by whom I am, nevert heless, recognized as a man and a rival–that is

as an equal –to being well a nd tolerantly treated by someone from some higher and remoter

group, who does not recognize me for what I wish to feel myself to be. This is the heart of the

great cry for recognition on the part of both individuals and groups, and in our own day, of

professions and classes, nations and races. Altho ugh I may not get `negative’ liberty at the hands

of the members of my own societ y, yet they are members of my own group; they understand me,

as I understand them; and this understanding create s within me the sense of being somebody in

the world. It is this desire for reciprocal recogni tion that leads the most authoritarian democracies

to be, at times, consciously preferred by its memb ers to the most enlightened oligarchies, or

sometimes causes a member of some newly liber ated Asian or African state to complainless

today, when he is rudely treated by members of his own race or nation, than when he was

governed by some cautious, just, gentle, well m eaning administrator from outside. Unless this

phenomenon is grasped, the ideals and behaviour of entire peoples who, in Mill’s sense of the word, suffer deprivation of elementary human rights, and who, with every appearance of

sincerity, speak of enjoying more freedom than when they possessed a wider measure of these

rights, becomes an unintelligible paradox.

Yet it is not with individual libert y, in either the `negative’ or in the `positive’ senses of the word,

that this desire for status and recognition can easily be iden tified. It is something no less

profoundly needed and passionately fought for by human beings– it is something akin to, but not

itself, freedom; although it entails negative free dom for the entire group, it is more closely

related to solidarity, fraternity, mutual understanding, need for association on equal terms, all of

which are sometimes–but misleadingly–called so cial freedom. Social and political terms are

necessarily vague. The attempt to make the vo cabulary of politics too precise may render it

useless. But it is no service to the truth to l oosen usage beyond necessity. The essence of the

notion of liberty, both in the `pos itive’ and the `negative’ senses, is the holding off of something

or someone–of others who trespass on my field or assert their authority over me, or of

obsessions, fears, neuroses, irrational forces–intruders and despots of one kind or another. The

desire for recognition is a de sire for something different: for union, closer understanding,

integration of interests, a life of common depe ndence and common sacrifice. It is only the

confusion of desire for libe rty with this profound and unive rsal craving for status and

understanding, further confounded by being identified with the notion of social self-direction,

where the self to be liberated is no longer the individual but the `social whole’, that makes it

possible for men, while submitting to the authority of oligarchs or dictators, to claim that this in

some sense liberates them.

Much has been written on the fa llacy of regarding social groups as being literally persons or

selves, whose control and discipline of their members is no more than self-discipline, voluntary

self-control which leaves the individual agent fr ee. But even on the `organic’ view, would it be

natural or desirable to call the demand for rec ognition and status a demand for liberty in some

third sense? It is true that the group from which recognition is s ought must itself have a sufficient

measure of `negative’ freedom–f rom control by any outside authority–otherwise recognition by

it will not give the claimant the status he seeks. But is the struggle for higher status, the wish to

escape from an inferior position, to be called a str uggle for liberty? Is it mere pedantry to confine

this word to the main senses discussed above, or are we, as I suspect, in danger of calling any

improvement of his social situation favoured by a human being an increase of his liberty, and

will this not render this term so vague and disten ded as to make it virtually useless? And yet we

cannot simply dismiss this case as a mere confusi on of the notion of freedom with that of status,

or solidarity, or fraternity, or equality, or some combination of these. For the craving for status

is, in certain respects, very close to th e desire to be an independent agent.

We may refuse this goal the title of liberty; ye t it would be a shallow view that assumed that

analogies between individuals and groups, or orga nic metaphors, or several senses of the word

liberty, are mere fallacies, due either to assertio ns of likeness between entities in respects in

which they are unlike, or simple semantic conf usion. What is wanted by those who are prepared

to barter their own and others’ liberty of individual action for th e status of their group, and their

own status within the group, is not simply a surrender of liberty for the sake of security, of some

assured place in a harmonious hierarchy in whic h all men and all classes know their place, and

are prepared to exchange the painful privileg e of choosing–‘the burden of freedom’–for the peace and comfort and relative mindlessness of an authoritarian or totalitarian structure. No

doubt, there are such men and such desires, and no doubt such surrenders of individual liberty

can occur, and, indeed, have ofte n occurred. But it is a profound misunderstanding of the temper

of our times to assume that this is what makes nationalism or Marxism attractive to nations

which have been ruled by alien masters, or to classes whose lives were directed by other classes

in a semi-feudal, or some other hierarchically or ganized, régime. What they seek is more akin to

what Mill called `pagan self-assertion’, but in a co llective, socialized form. Indeed, much of what

he says about his own reasons for desiring liberty–the value that he puts on boldness and non-

conformity, on the assertion of the individual’s ow n values in the face. of the prevailing opinion,

on strong and self reliant personalities free from th e leading strings of the official law givers and

instructors of society–has littl e enough to do with his conception of freedom as non-interference;

but a great deal with the desire of men not to have their personalities set at too low a value,

assumed to be incapable of autonomous; original, `authentic’ beha viour, even if such behaviour

is’ to be met with opprobrium, or social restrictions, or inhibitive legislation. This wish to assert

the `personality’ of my class, or group or nati on; is connected both with the answer to the

question `What is to be the area of authority?’ (for the group must not be interfered with by

outside masters), and, even more closely, with th e answer to the question `Who is to govern us —

govern well or badly, liberally or oppressively–but above all `w ho?’ And such answers as: `by

representatives elected by my ow n and others’ untrammelled choice’, or `all of us gathered

together in regular assemblies’, or `t he best’, or `the wisest’, or `the nation as embodied in these or

those persons or institutions’, ‘ or `the divine leader’, are answers that are logically, and at times

also politically and socially, independent of what extent of `negative’ liberty I demand for my

own or my group’s activities. Provided the an swer to `Who shall govern me?’ is somebody or

something which I can represent as my own’; as something which belongs to me, or to whom I

belong, I can, by using words which convey fraternity and solidarity, as well as some part of the

connotation of the `positive’ sense of the word freedom (which it is difficult to specify more

precisely), describe it as a hybrid form of freedom; at any rate as an ideal which is perhaps more

prominent than any other in the world today, ye t one which no existing term seems precisely to

fit. Those who purchase it at the price of their `negative’, Millian freedom certainly claim to be

`liberated’ by this means, in this confused, but ardently felt, sense. `Whose service is perfect

freedom’ can in this way’ be secularized, and the st ate, or the nation, or the race, or an assembly,

or a dictator, or my family or milieu, or I myself, can be substituted for the Deity, without

thereby rendering the word `f reedom’ wholly meaningless.

No doubt every interpretation of the word liberty, however unusual, must include a minimum of

what I have called `negative’ liberty. There must be an area within which I am not frustrated. No

society literally suppresses all the liberties of its members; a being who is prevented by others

from doing anything at all on his ow n is not a moral agent at all, and could not either legally or

morally be regarded as a human being, even if a physiologist or a biologist, or even a

psychologist, felt inclined to classify him as a man. But the fathers of liberalism–Mill and

Constant–want more than this minimum: th ey demand a maximum degree of non-interference

compatible with the minimum demands of social life. It seems unlikely that this extreme demand

for liberty has ever been made by any but a sma ll minority of highly civilized and self-conscious

human beings. The bulk of humanity has certainly at most times been prepared to sacrifice this to

other goals: security, status, pros perity, power, virtue, rewards in the next world; or justice,

equality, fraternity, and many other values which a ppear wholly, or in part, incompatible with the attainment of the greatest degree of individual liberty, and certainly do not need it as a pre-

condition for their own realization. It is not a demand for Lebensraum for each individual that

has stimulated the rebellions and wars of liberation for which men were ready to die in the past,

or, indeed, in the present. Men who have fought for freedom have commonly fought for the right

to be governed by themselves or their representatives- -sternly governed, if need be, like the

Spartans, with little individual liberty, but in a manner which allowed them to participate, or at

any rate to believe . that they were participa ting, in the legislation and administration of their

collective lives. And men who have made revoluti ons have, as often as `not, meant by liberty no

more than the conquest of power and authority by a given sect of believers in a doctrine, or by a

class, or by some other social group, old or new. Their victories certainly frustrated those whom

they ousted, and sometimes repressed, enslaved, or exterminated vast numbers of human beings.

Yet such revolutionaries have usually felt it necessary to argue that, despite this, they represented

the party of liberty, or `true’ liberty, by claiming universality for their ideal, which the `real

selves’ of even those who resisted them were also alleged to be seeking, although they were held

to have lost the way to the goal, or to have mistaken the goal itself owing to some moral or

spiritual blindness. All this has little to do with Mill’s notion of liberty as limited only by the

danger of doing harm to others. It is the non-reco gnition of this psychological and political fact

(which lurks behind the apparent am biguity of the term `liberty’) that has, perhaps, blinded some

contemporary liberals to the world in which they li ve. Their plea is clear, their cause is just. But

they do not allow for the variety of basic human needs. Nor yet for the ingenuity with which men

can prove to their own satisfacti on that the road to one ideal also leads to its contrary.


Liberty and Sovereignty

The French Revolution, like all grea t revolutions, was at least in its Jacobin form, just such an

eruption of the desire for `positive’ freedom of collective self-direction on the part of a large

body of Frenchmen who felt liberated as a nation, even though the result was, for a good many of

them, a severe restriction of individual freedoms. Rousseau had spoken exulta ntly of the fact that

the laws of liberty might prove to be more aust ere than the yoke of tyranny. Tyranny is service,

to human masters. The law cannot be a tyrant. R ousseau does not mean by liberty the `negative’

freedom of the individual not to be interfered with within a defined area, but the possession by

all, and not merely by some, of the fully qualified memb ers of a society of a share in the public

power which is entitled to interfere with every aspect of every ci tizen’s life. The liberals of the

first half of the nineteenth century correctly foresaw that liberty in this `positive’ sense could

easily destroy too many of the `negat ive’ liberties that they held sacred. They pointed out that the

sovereignty of the people could ea sily destroy that of individuals. Mill explained, patiently and

unanswerably, that government by the people was not, in his sense, necessarily freedom at all.

For those who govern are not necessarily the’ same `people’ as those who are governed, and

democratic self-government is not the government `of each by himself’ but, at best, of `each by

the rest’. Mill and his disciples spoke of the ty ranny of the majority and of the tyranny of `the

prevailing feeling and opinion’, and saw no great difference between that and any other kind of

tyranny which encroaches upon men’s activities be yond the sacred frontiers of private life. No one saw the conflict between the two types of liberty better, or expressed it more clearly, than

Benjamin Constant. He pointed out that the `transference by a successful rising of the un limited

authority, commonly called sovereignty, from one set of hands to another does not increase

liberty, but merely shifts the burden of slaver y. He reasonably asked why a man should deeply

care whether he is crushed by a popular governme nt or by a monarch, or even by a set of

oppressive laws. He saw that the main problem for those who desire `negative’, individual

freedom is not who wields this authority, but how much authority should be placed in any set of

hands. For unlimited authority in anybody’s gras p was bound, he believed, sooner or later, to

destroy somebody. He maintained that usually men pr otested against this or that set of governors

as oppressive, when the real cause of oppression lay in the mere fact of the accumulation of

power. itself, wherever it might happen to be, since liberty was endangered by the mere existence

of absolute authority as such. `It is not the arm th at is unjust’, he wrote, `but the weapon that is

too heavy–some weights are too heavy for th e human hand.’ Democracy may disarm a given

oligarchy, a given privileged indivi dual or set of individuals, but it can still crush individuals as

mercilessly as any previous ruler. In an essay comparing the liberty of the moderns with that of

the ancients he said that an equal right to oppres s–or interfere–is not equivalent to liberty. Nor

does universal consent to loss of liberty, somehow miraculously preserve it merely by being

universal, or by being consent. If I consent to be oppressed, or acquiesce in my condition with

detachment or irony, am I the less op pressed? If I sell myself into slavery, am I the less a slave?

If I commit suicide, am I the less dead because I have taken my own life freely? `Popular

government is a spasmodic tyranny, monarchy a more efficiently centralized despotism.’

Constant saw in Rousseau the most dangerous enemy of individual liberty, because he had

declared that `by giving myself to all I give myself to none’. Constant could not see why, even

though the sovereign is `everybody’, it should not oppr ess one of the `members’ of its indivisible

self, if it so decided. I may, of c ourse, prefer to be deprived of my liberties by an assembly, or a

family, or a class, in which I am a minority. It may give me an opportunity one day of persuading

the others to do for me that to which I fed I am entitled. But to be deprived of my liberty at the

hands of my family or friends or fellow citizens is to be deprived of it just as effectively. Hobbes

was at any rate more candid: he did not pretend that a sovereign does not enslave: he justified

this slavery, but at leas t did not have the effront ery to call it freedom.

Throughout the nineteenth century liberal thinkers maintained that if liberty involved a limit

upon the towers of any man to force me to do wh at I did not, or might not, wish to do, then,

whatever the ideal in the name of which I was coerced, I was not free; that the doctrine of

absolute sovereignty was a tyrannical doctrine in itself. If I wish to preserve my liberty, it is not

enough to say that it must not be violated unless someone or other–the absolute ruler, or the

popular assembly, or the King in Parliament, or th e judges, or some combination of authorities,

or the laws themselves–for the laws may be oppr essive–authorizes its violation. I must establish

a society in which there must be some frontie rs of freedom which nobody should be permitted to

cross. Different names or natures maybe given to the rules that determine these frontiers: they

may be called natural rights, or th e word of God, or Natural Law, or the demands of utility or of

the `permanent interests of man; I may believ e them to be valid a priori, or assert them to be my

own ultimate ends, or the ends of my society or culture. What these rules or commandments will

have in common is that they are accepted so widely, and’ are grounded so deeply in the actual

nature of men as they have developed through hist ory, as to be, by now; an essential part of what

we mean by being a normal human being. Genuine belief in the inviolability of a minimum extent of individual liberty entails some such absolute stand. Fo r it is clear that it has little to

hope–for from the rule of majorities; democracy as such is logically uncommitted to it, and

historically has at times failed to protect it, wh ile remaining faithful to its own principles. Few

governments, it has been observed, have found mu ch difficulty in causing their subjects to

generate any will that the government wanted. `The triumph of despotism is to force the slaves to

declare themselves free.’ It may need no force; the slaves may proclaim their freedom quite

sincerely: but they are none the less slaves. Perhaps the chief value for liberals of political–

‘positive’ –rights, of participating in the government, is as a means for protecting what they hold

to be an ultimate value, namely individual–‘negative’–liberty.

But if democracies can, without ce asing to be democratic, suppress freedom, at least as liberals

have used the word; what would make a society truly free? For Constant, Mill, Tocqueville, and

the liberal tradition to which they belong, no societ y is free unless it is governed by at any rate

two interrelated principles first, that no power, but only rights, can be regarded as absolute, so

that all men, whatever power governs them, have an absolute right to refuse to behave

inhumanly; and, second, that ther e are frontiers, not artificially drawn, within which men should

be inviolable, these frontiers being defined in terms of rules so long and widely accepted that

their observance has entered into the very, concep tion of what it is to be a normal human being,

and, therefore, also of what it is to act inhuman ly or insanely; rules of which it would be absurd

to say, for example, that they could be abrogate d by some formal procedure on the part of some

court or sovereign body. When I speak of a man as be ing normal, a part of what I mean is that he

could not break these rules easily, with out a qualm of revulsion. It is such rules as these that are

broken when a man is. declared guilty without trial, or punished under a retroactive law; when

children are ordered to denounce their parents, frie nds to betray one another, soldiers to use

methods of barbarism; when men are tortured or murdered, or minorities are massacred because

they irritate a majority or a tyrant. Such acts, even if they are made legal by the sovereign, cause

horror even in these days, and this springs from the recognition of the moral validity–

irrespective of the laws–of some absolute barrie rs to the imposition of one man’s will on another.

The freedom of a society, or a class or a group, in this sense of freedom, is measured by the

strength of these barriers, and the number and importance of the paths which they keep open for

their members–if not for all, for at any rate a great number of them.

This is almost at the opposite pole from the pur poses of those who believe in liberty in the

`positive’–self-directive–sense. The former want to curb authority as such. The latter want it

placed in their own hands. That is a cardinal issu e. These are not two different interpretations of

a single concept, but two profoundly divergent and irreconcilable attitudes to the ends of life. It

is as well to recognize this, ev en if in practice it is often necessary to strike a compromise

between them. For each of them makes absolute claims. These claims cannot both be fully

satisfied. But it is a profound lack of social a nd moral understanding not to recognize that the

satisfaction that each of them seeks is an ultima te value which, both historically and morally, has

an equal right to be classed among the deepest interests of mankind.

VIII The One and the Many

One belief, more than any other, is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the

great historical ideals–justice or progress or the happiness of futu re generations, or the sacred

mission or emancipation of a nation or race or class, or even liberty itself which demands the

sacrifice of individuals for the fr eedom of society. This is the belie f 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. This ancient faith rests on the co nviction that all the positive values in which

men have believed must, in the end, be compatible , and perhaps even entail one another. `Nature

binds truth, happiness, and virtue together as by an indissoluble chain’, said on of the best men

who ever lived, and spoke in similar terms of liberty, equality, and justice. But is this true? It is a

commonplace that neither political equality nor efficient organization nor social justice is

compatible with more than a modicum of indivi dual liberty, and certainly not with unrestricted

laissez-faire ; that justice and generosity, public and priv ate loyalties, the demands of genius and

the claims of society, can conflict violently with each ether. And it is no great way from that to

the generalization that not all good things are compatible, still less all the ideals of mankind; But

somewhere, we shall be told; and in some way, it must be possible for all these values to live

together, for unless this is so, the universe is not a cosmos, not a harmony; unless this is so,

conflicts of values may be an intrinsic, irrem ovable element in human life. To admit that the

fulfilment of some of our ideals may in principle make the fulfilment of others impossible is to

say that the notion of total human fulfilment is a formal contradiction, a metaphysical chimaera.

For every rationalist metaphysician, from Plato to the last disciples of Hegel or Marx, this

abandonment of the notion of a final harmony in wh ich all riddles are solved, all contradictions

reconciled, is a piece of crude empiricism, abdica tion before brute facts, intolerable bankruptcy

of reason before things as they are, failure to explain and to justify, to reduce everything to a

system, which `reason’ indignantly rejects. But if we are not armed with an a priori guarantee of

the proposition that a total harmony of true values is somewhere to be found–perhaps in some

ideal realm the characteristics of which we can, in our finite state, not so much as conceive–we

must fall back on the ordinary resources of empirical observation and ordinary human

knowledge. And these certainly give us no warra nt for supposing (or even understanding what

would be meant by saying) that all good things, or all bad things for that matter, are reconcilable

with each other. The world that we encounter in ordinary experience is one in which we are

faced with choices between ends equally ultimate, and claims equally absolute, the realization of

some of which must inevitably involve the sacrific e of others. Indeed, it is because this is their

situation that men place such immense value upo n the freedom to choose; for if they had

assurance that in some perfect state, realizab le by men on earth, no ends pursued by them would

ever be in conflict, the necessity and agony of choice would disappear, and with it the central

importance of the freedom to choose. Any method of bringing this final state nearer would then

seem fully justified, no matter how much freedom were sacrificed to forward its advance. It is, I

have no doubt, some such dogmatic certainty that has been responsible for the deep, serene,

unshakeable conviction in the minds of some of the most merciless tyrants and persecutors in

history that what they did was fully justified by its purpose. I do not say that the ideal of self-

perfection–whether for individual s or nations or churches or classes–is to be condemned in

itself, or that the language which was used in its defence was in all cases the result of a confused

or fraudulent use of words, or of moral or intellec tual perversity. Indeed, I have tried to show that it is the notion of freedom in its `positive’ sense that is at the heart of the demands for national or

social self-direction which animate the most powerful and morally just public movements of our

time, and that not to recognize this is to misunde rstand the most vital facts and ideas of our age.

But equally it seems to me that the belief that some single formula can in principle be found

whereby all the diverse e nds of men can be harmoniously realized is demonstrably false. If, as I

believe, the ends of men are many, and not all of them are in principle compatible with each

other, then the possibility of conflict–and of tragedy–can never wholly be eliminated from

human life, either personal or social. The necess ity of choosing between absolute claims is then

an inescapable characteristic of the human cond ition. This gives its value to freedom as Acton

had conceived of it–as an end in itself and not as a temporary need, arising out of our confused

notions and irrational. and diso rdered lives, a predicament whic h a panacea could one day put


I do not wish to say that individual freedom is, even in the most liberal societies, the sole, or

even the dominant, criterion of social action. We compel children to be educated, and we forbid

public executions. These are certainly curbs to freedom. We justify them on the ground that

ignorance, or a barbarian upbringi ng, or cruel pleasures and excitements are worse for us than

the amount of restraint needed to repress them. This judgment in turn depends on how we

determine good and evil, that is to say, on our moral, religious, intellectual, economic, and

aesthetic values; which are, in their turn, bound up with our conception of man, and of the basic

demands of his nature. In other words, our so lution of such problems is based on our vision, by

which we are consciously or unconsciously guided, of what constitutes a fulfilled human life, as

contrasted with Mill’s `cramped and warped’, `p inched and hidebound’ natures. To protest against

the laws governing censorship or personal morals as intolerable infringements of personal liberty

presupposes a belief that the activ ities which such laws forbid are fundamental needs of men as

men, in a good (or, indeed, any) society. To defend such laws is to. hold that these needs are not

essential, or that they cannot be satisfied without sacrificing other values which come higher–

satisfy deeper needs–than individual freedom, dete rmined by some standard that is not merely

subjective; a standard for which so me objective status–empirical or a priori–is claimed.

The extent of a man’s, or a people’s, liberty to choose to live as they desire must be weighed

against the claims of many other va lues, of which equality, or justice, or happiness, or security,

or public order are perhaps the most obvious examples. For this reason, it cannot be unlimited.

We are rightly reminded by R. H. Tawney that the liberty of the strong, whether their strength is

physical or economic, must be restrained. This maxim claims respect, not as a consequence of

some a priori rule, whereby the respect for the liberty of one man logically entails respect for the

liberty of others like him; but simply because re spect for the principles of justice, or shame at

gross inequality of treatment, is as basic in men as the desire for liberty. That we cannot have

everything is a necessary, not a contingent, truth. Burke’s plea for the constant need to

compensate, to reconcile, to balance; Mill’s plea for novel `experiments in living’ with their

permanent possibility of error, the knowledge that it is not mere ly in practice but in principle

impossible to reach clear cut and certain answer s, even in an ideal world of wholly good and

rational men and wholly clear ideas–may madden those who seek for final solutions and single,

all embracing systems, guaranteed to be eternal. Nevertheless, it is a conclusion that cannot be

escaped by those who, with Kant, have learnt the truth that out of the crooked timber of

humanity no straight thing was ever made. 30 

There is little need to stress the fact that m onism, and faith in a single criterion, has always

proved a deep source of satisfaction both to th e intellect and to the emotions. Whether the

standard of judgment derives from the vision of some future perfection; as in the minds of the

philosophes in the eighteenth century and their tec hnocratic successors in our own day, or is

rooted in the past– la terre et 1es morts–as maintained by German historicists or French

theocrats, or neo-Conservatives in Englis h speaking countries, it is bound, provided it is

inflexible enough, to encounter some unforeseen and unforeseeable human development, which

it will not fit; and will then be used to justify the a priori barbarities of Procrustes–the

vivisection of actual societies into some fixed pattern dictated by our fallible standing of a

largely imaginary past or a wholly imaginary fu ture. To preserve our absolute categories or

ideals at the expense of human liv es 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 accept ed by those who respect the facts.

Pluralism, with the measure of `negative’ liberty that it entails, seems to me a truer and more

humane ideal than the goals of t hose who seek in the great, disciplined, authoritarian structures

the ideal of `positive’ self mast ery by classes, or peoples, or th e whole of mankind. It is truer,

because it does, at least, r ecognize the fact that human goa ls are many, not all of them

commensurable, and in perpetual rivalry with one another. To assume that all values can be

graded on one scale, so that it is a mere matte r of inspection to determine the highest, seems to

me to falsify our knowledge that men are free agen ts, to represent moral decision as an operation

which a slide rule could, in principle, perform. To say that in some ultimate, all reconciling, yet

realizable synthesis, duty is interest, or individual freedom is pure democracy or an authoritarian

state, is to throw a metaphysical blanket over eith er self-deceit or deliberate hypocrisy. It is more

humane because it does not (as the system builders do) deprive men, in the name of some

remote, or incoherent, ideal, of much that they have found to be indispensable to their life as

unpredictably self-transforming human beings. In the end, men choose between ultimate values;

they choose as they do, because their life and thought are determined by fundamental moral

categories and concepts that are, at any rate over large stretches of time and, space, a part of their

being and thought and sense of their own identity; part of what makes them human.

It may be that the ideal of freed om to choose ends without claiming eternal validity for them, and

the pluralism of values connected with this, is only the late fruit of our declining capitalist

civilization: an ideal which remote ages and primitive societies have not recognized, and one

which posterity will regard with curiosity, even sympathy, but litt le comprehension. This may be

so; but no sceptical conclusions seem to me to follow. Principles are not less sacred because their

duration cannot be guaranteed. Indeed, the very desi re 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 r ealise the relative validity of one’s convictions’,

said an admirable writer of our time, `and yet stan d for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes

a civilised man from a barbarian.’ To demand more than this is perhaps a deep and in curable

metaphysical need; but to allow it to determine one’s practice is a symptom of an equally deep,

and more dangerous, moral and political immaturity.

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