Freedom and Its Betrayal

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty, Isaiah Berlin discusses six European intellectuals whose ideas were ultimately subverting of individual liberty and led, instead, to twentieth century totalitarianism. Berlin died in 1997 and these essays were edited by Henry Hardy from a series of radio lectures by Berlin broadcast on the BBC in 1952.

Berlin, who was a fellow at Oxford University’s All Souls College, was a noted scholar of the history of ideas and defender of liberalism, notably the liberalism of John Locke, John Stuart Mill, and America’s Declaration of Independence. Berlin differentiates between negative liberalism and positive liberalism. The former emphasized the freedom of the individual from external forces which threaten one’s rights and liberties. Positive liberty, which Berlin found anathema, posited that the state or elites must lead the populace to correct beliefs and proper behavior. Berlin, in the tradition of Locke and Mill, distrusts system builders. He argues that Helvetius’s utilitarianism with its philosophy of the greatest good for the greatest number (prefiguring Bentham), Rousseau’s concept of the General Will and his demand that men should be forced to be free, and Saint-Simon’s reliance on technological elites to rule his socialist utopia are as dangerous to individual freedom as the conservative Hegel’s dialectical worship of the nation state and de Maistre’s loathing of the optimistic view of human reason and his advocacy of the divine right of kings. All lead, Berlin argues, to the gulags of communism and the holocausts of fascism.

One does not have to agree with all of Berlin’s interpretations in order to be impressed with his critique of his chosen six and their castles in the sky. Freedom and Its Betrayal is challenging but worth reading.