Saturday, March 14, 2009

Cannonball Read #25: Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty, by Isaiah Berlin (ed. Henry Hardy)

At one point while I was reading this, I turned to Tricia and read her one of Berlin's beautiful, long sentences about the nature of liberty and then said, "now, can you imagine anyone listening to that on the radio, much less several hours of it?" Of COURSE you can't...why? Because the Common Man fears words with more than five letters now! That's fucking sad, because let me tell you, this collection of essays is stunning, well presented and clearly rendered. People should be thinking about what it truly means to be free and even more importantly, about what type of freedom they want.

Berlin originally gave these essays as BBC radio addresses in 1952, fairly early in what would be a long and prolific philosophical career. The lectures were a massive hit and really jump started Berlin's career. (Again...can you imagine this happening today? That was only fifty-odd years ago, folks.) In the essays, he explains six modern philosophers' thoughts on the nature of human liberty and then proceeds to rip them apart. He takes on Helvetius, Rousseau, Fichte, Hegel, Saint-Simon and De Maistre, all of whom are mainstays of political thought. I am not woman enough to summarize Berlin's already excellent explications of these men (plus you should read this for yourself), but in each man's thought, Berlin sees repression, rather than expansion, of human liberty. It's a fascinating look at political theory that's normally accepted at face value as a quantum leap forward in social development.

No political theorist or philosopher comes to the plate announcing that they don't care about the best possible solution to the problems faced by humans needing to live near each other. The men Berlin presents were some of the most ardent pursuers of what they believed to be the ultimate in human freedom, putting forth doctrines that they believed would produce an ideal social order. Berlin, however, feels that these ideas constrict actual human liberty, and in some cases do irrevocable damage to freedom. It's fantastic to consider these famous concepts from a different standpoint.

This is part of my experiment that I like to call "I Don't Know Much About Intellectual Conservatism and Feel Like I Should Know More," and frankly, if all intellectual conservatism (read: neo-conservative stumpmen and pundits, you are not invited to this party) is as lucidly presented and beautifully written, I am SO on board for more.

208 pages

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