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Modernising the two ideas of liberty part 1

By George Weigel - posted Wednesday, 15 May 2002

On October 31, 1958, Isaiah Berlin gave his inaugural lecture as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford. Entitled "Two Concepts of Liberty," it was, according to Berlin’s authorized biographer, "the most influential lecture he ever delivered." Indeed, one can argue that "Two Concepts of Liberty" was one of the most important political essays of the twentieth century, for it clarified an important element in the forty-five-year-long contest between the imperfect democracies of the West and the pluperfect tyranny of the Soviet Union.

Moreover, Berlin’s essay defended the liberal democratic project in such a way as to reinforce the liberal anti-communist consensus that historians still associate with men like President Harry Truman, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, and Senators Hubert H. Humphrey and Henry M. Jackson. As things turned out, that consensus held just long enough that, deepened intellectually and reinforced politically by conservative and neo-conservative thinkers and political leaders in the 1970s and 1980s, freedom’s cause finally won out over Marxist-Leninist totalitarianism.

A wide-ranging historian of ideas who had grown up in Riga and Petrograd, Isaiah Berlin had seen first-hand the human and political effects of passionately held ideas. He knew in his bones that ideas are not intellectuals’ toys: ideas have consequences, for good and for ill, in what even intellectuals sometimes call the "real world." In "Two Concepts of Liberty," Berlin mounted an extended defense of what he understood to be the liberal idea of freedom against its principal modern political competitors, fascism and communism. At the same time, he raised an alarm against what he regarded as the tendency in social-democratic theory to weaken individual freedom in the name of other social goods. As the title of his lecture signals, Berlin’s basic intellectual move was to distinguish between "negative liberty" and "positive liberty," and then to defend the former as the only concept of liberty that could be actualized in the "real world" of inevitably conflicting interests, diverse concepts of the good, and competing human projects.


"Negative liberty" for Isaiah Berlin is freedom from: freedom from interference in personal matters, which implies the circumscription of state power within a strong legal framework. As biographer Michael Ignatieff summarizes Berlin’s argument, the primary purpose of a liberal political community is to create the public circumstances in which men and women are left alone "to do what they want, provided that their actions [do] not interfere with the liberty of others." "Positive liberty," on the other hand, is freedom to: freedom to realize some greater good in history.

At the heart of the fascist and communist projects, Berlin warned, was a determination to use political power to liberate human beings, whether they liked it or not, for the realization of some higher historical end. That determination, he argued, inevitably leads to repression.

Isaiah Berlin was not a libertarian. Rather, the man who had first worked at the intersection of ideas and power during his World War II service at the British Embassy in Washington was a Russo-English exponent of classic American New Deal liberalism: a liberal who believed that government had the obligation to help ensure the economic, social, and educational conditions under which people could truly exercise their liberty. Berlin broke with the social-democratic left, though, in insisting that liberty, equality, and justice were, are, and always will be in tension. To adopt an example from Ignatieff: a progressive income tax may arguably be just; according to Berlin, however, it was absurd to argue that such a tax did not constitute an infringement on someone’s liberty for the benefit of someone else’s.

Isaiah Berlin was never willing (or perhaps able) to sort out the tensions or define the boundaries between liberty and justice. Still, his insistence that politics is not therapy, his resolute refusal to deny the reality of conflicts among social goods, and his insistence that utopian politics inevitably become coercive politics (and, in the modern world, extraordinarily brutal coercive politics) were all important ideas to defend, in Europe and America, against the coercive utopians of the twentieth century.

In this specific sense, Isaiah Berlin was a champion of pluralism in an age in which too many other political theorists had cast their lot with monisms of one sort or another — monisms, otherwise known as totalitarianisms, of a most lethal kind. A robust pluralism, Berlin suggested, was both an expression of liberty rightly lived and the surest guarantee of political liberty.

So high marks to Isaiah Berlin for identifying the perversion of liberty that was at the root of the totalitarian project, and for defending a concept of liberty-as-noninterference that, in setting legal limits to coercive state power, has deep resonances in the American political tradition.


Forty-three years after "Two Concepts of Liberty," though, one has to ask whether Berlin’s analysis of the problem of freedom reaches the crux of the matter today.

In a thoughtful assessment of Isaiah Berlin’s achievement, Norman Podhoretz has argued that, despite its important contribution in its time, Berlin’s essay is at bottom intellectually unsatisfying: it does not propose a principled, but only a pragmatic, defense of pluralism, and it fails to grapple satisfactorily with a problem that Berlin notes but never seriously addresses—the problem of moral relativism. For while Berlin correctly recognized, in Podhoretz’s words, "the spinelessness that can develop from the rejection of any absolutes and the correlative failure to develop rock-bottom convictions," his liberal skepticism about the possibility of philosophically defensible "rock-bottom convictions" could not provide an antidote to "spinelessness".

The response to the events of September 11, 2001, in at least some of the higher altitudes of the intellectual class in both the United States and Europe, illustrates with almost painful clarity the truth of Podhoretz’s critique of Berlin on this point. To that diagnosis I would add another disease to which relativism is susceptible, especially when it encounters the afterburn of New Left thought and politics in the United States: the absolutizing of moral relativism, and indeed its erection as a kind of constitutionally mandated national political creed.

In the final analysis, though, Isaiah Berlin’s "two concepts" are unsatisfactory because Berlin does not drive the analysis deeply enough, historically or philosophically. His "two concepts of liberty" are both children of the Enlightenment, and in his essay there is virtually no reckoning with the possibility that pre-Enlightenment thinkers might have some important things to teach us about freedom. Berlin himself concedes that "conceptions of freedom directly derive from what constitutes a self, a person, a man," and goes on to argue that, given "enough manipulation of this definition of man . . . freedom can be made to mean whatever the manipulator wishes".

But this is to dodge the crucial question, which is precisely the question of the truth about man—the truth about the human person—on which any defense of human freedom with real traction must ultimately rest. Isaiah Berlin’s philosophical anthropology, his concept of the human person even as Homo politicus, is exceedingly thin. The net result is to reduce freedom to a matter of one human faculty—the will—alone.

And here, I suggest, is a clue that can lead to a deeper analysis of the problem of freedom today. For the identification of freedom with the will is not, contrary to much conventional wisdom, an Enlightenment innovation. It is the product of a great intellectual chasm that opened up in the High Middle Ages. The nature of that fissure can be depicted in what we might call a tale of two monks—appropriately enough for our purposes tonight, because the logo of the Ethics and Public Policy Center features a woodcut of a monk at work in his scriptorium. Permit me to take you back, then, to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when two men of genius had two very different ideas about freedom — ideas that would prove to have immense human consequences.

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This is part one of an extract from the inaugural William E. Simon Lecture given to the 25th Anniversary of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Part two tells the tale of two Monks, and part three proposes a modernised view of the Two concepts of Liberty. The whole paper can be downloaded here.

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About the Author

George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the John M. Olin Chair in Religion and American Democracy and heads the Catholic Studies project.

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