Four Essays on Liberty

by Isaiah Berlin

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Over a period of almost a decade, from 1949 through 1959, Isaiah Berlin turned his attention to the issue of individual liberty in an essay and three lectures that were later collected and published as Four Essays on Liberty. Each essay addressed a specific aspect or problem associated with liberty, such as whether history followed a predetermined course or how much power the state could or should have in a democracy. Collectively, the pieces form a coherent presentation of Berlin’s thoughts and observations on this topic.

Four Essays on Liberty is especially concerned with how the twentieth century treats the concept and practice of individual liberty. The opening essay, “Political Ideas in the Twentieth Century,” was published in the journal Foreign Affairs in 1949. World War II had recently ended, and the Cold War had just begun. The horrors of the totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and militaristic Japan were still vivid, and the brutal repression of Stalinist Russia was becoming better known. In such a setting, the civil and political rights of individuals were seen to be extremely fragile and the concept of liberty in need of review and reinforcement.

Berlin’s Impact on Philosophy

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Four Essays on Liberty is perhaps the quintessential Berlin work: not a sustained, full-length book, but a collection of essays focused on a few specific topics and approaching them from divergent directions that in the end find coherence and unity. As individual works, the parts of Four Essays on Liberty had caused considerable discussion, even controversy, among serious writers and thinkers. Berlin prepared a long and carefully written introduction for Four Essays on Liberty that addressed the points that had been raised. This was only one more stage of a philosophical dialogue that ran throughout Berlin’s life and career.

Two major ideas emerged from Four Essays on Liberty that have had profound and lasting impact on political philosophy. The first idea was the concept of “negative” and “positive” liberty—briefly, how much one can escape control contrasted with how much one can control others. Although this distinction has become commonplace since the publication of Berlin’s essay, he was the first major political thinker systematically and eloquently to articulate the distinction and its importance, and his discussion of this topic has been hailed as one of the major contributions of his career.

The second major idea, which was even more central to Berlin’s entire philosophy, was the view that human beings, whether as individuals or as members of a society, pursue goals that cannot be viewed as forming a unified whole. Goals equally valid for their particular groups often contradict one another. There is no single, universal truth that is valid for every society, in all places, and at any time (the concept of monism). Berlin demonstrated in terms of classical empiricism that monism is not a valid theory to explain human behavior and human history.

Four Essays on Liberty placed these two ideas on the philosophical record, where they have remained essential elements in the continuing development of political science. Their enduring impact has been to underscore the need for tolerance and generosity in debates on political goals and activities and to inject a healthy dose of skepticism about the reality of ultimate, universal truths for which individual human beings and their liberties must be sacrificed. After these two points were clearly stated by Berlin, they have come to form a part of any serious discussion of political philosophy or the rights and liberties of the individual in society.


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Additional Reading

Berlin, Isaiah, and Ramin Jahanbegloo. Conversations with Isaiah Berlin . New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons,...

(This entire section contains 327 words.)

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1992. In a question-and-answer format, Isaiah Berlin discusses a wide range of topics, including his personal history, intellectual development, and opinions on philosophy and philosophers. Berlin’s responses to questions on such topics as “two kinds of liberty” are direct and lucid, and the biographical sections, especially those dealing with Berlin’s life as a young boy in Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, are fascinating.

Galipeau, Claude. Isaiah Berlin’s Liberalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. A thoughtful consideration of Berlin’s version of liberalism and how it differs from and yet is linked to the traditions of classical liberalism. Galipeau is especially good at placing Berlin’s thought in relationship to modern world politics, the excesses of which were often in direct, if not brutal, conflict with his more humane and humanitarian stance.

Gray, John. Isaiah Berlin. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996. A thoughtful examination of Berlin’s belief in the existence of values that while different are equally important. The central thesis of the book is that Berlin’s work is based on a principle that might be called “value-pluralism,” meaning that ultimate human values are objective but diverse and may often conflict.

Margalit, Edna, and Avishai Margalit, eds. Isaiah Berlin: A Celebration. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1991. This collection draws together essays that touch on the wide range of Berlin’s interests, from opera to political science to philosophy. Although a number of the pieces included here are valuable, the essay by celebrated legal scholar Ronald Dworkin on “Two Concepts of Liberty” is especially illuminating for those wishing to understand the full impact of Four Essays on Liberty.

Ryan, Alan, ed. The Idea of Freedom: Essays in Honor of Isaiah Berlin. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979. A useful collection of essays that shed light on Berlin’s philosophy of history and his views on the history of philosophy.


Critical Essays