Four Essays on Liberty The Second Essay

Isaiah Berlin

The Second Essay

Human freedom in a different context is the theme of the second essay, “Historical Inevitability.” Berlin, the biographer of Karl Marx and his ideas, knew very well that certain philosophers and historians believed that they had discerned large patterns in the procession of historical events, and from these patterns, they had deduced the laws that history was obliged to obey. The result was historical inevitability. For the Marxist, it was historically inevitable that once capitalism had reached the point where its internal contradictions were intolerable, the proletariat would spontaneously sweep away the old system, the state would wither away, and the socialist utopia would arrive. Other scholars and other factions had different versions of what was historically inevitable but shared the same underlying belief that they had discovered the laws of history.

This, Berlin writes, is not part of an empirical theory but a metaphysical attitude. Historical inevitability is much better at explaining the facts after they happen than in predicting them before they occur. Moreover, a belief in historical inevitability is not shared by most human beings, who normally act as if they retained the freedom to make choices and decisions unconstrained by abstract historical laws. Berlin is thankful for this because he believes that determinism “is one of the great alibis, pleaded by those who cannot or do not wish to face the fact of human responsibility.”