Volume LIII Number 12
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This year is the 150th anniversary of the publication of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859); it is also the fiftieth anniversary of Sir Isaiah Berlin’s magisterial essay “John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life” (1959), delivered as a lecture to mark On Liberty’s centenary, and then published as one of Berlin’s famous Four Essays on Liberty (1969). Moreover—to complete a serendipitous convergence—2009 is also the centenary of Berlin’s birth, in 1909, in Riga, the capital of Latvia, on the far side of a geographical and historical divide that both shaped Berlin’s thought and tested the mettle of the Western democracies informed so critically by the principles of liberty defended so forcefully by Mill and Berlin.
This article offers an appreciation of Berlin’s life and work, particularly during that pivotal period half a century ago when he was Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford, produced his greatest works, and acted as a counter-point to the anti-liberal and frequently totalitarian radicalism of the Sixties. It also explores Mill’s essay and Berlin’s reflections upon it, as two masterpieces in the liberal tradition, the relevance of which seems presently to grow by the day, as people in liberal democracies labour nationally and internationally under governments and against forces determined to impose precisely the type of stultifying uniformity of behaviour, thought, and belief that both Mill and Berlin railed against.
I first read On Liberty in 1970, as a new undergraduate politics student at Monash University, sitting at the base of the Sir Robert Menzies building, or the ‘Ming Wing’, as it was semi-affectionately known. Mill’s argument about the irreducible freedom of the sovereign individual spoke directly to many of the Sixties generation confronting questions of existential concern: e.g., conscription, sexuality, contraception, abortion, feminism, censorship, and drug use. His words could not have been clearer: “the object of this essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control. … That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. … Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign” (On Liberty, Penguin, 1974, p.68-9). Moreover, those who inquired knew that this was a hard-won insight and that Mill had himself undergone a deep personal crisis as a young man, and had later been ostracized over his relationship with Harriet Taylor, who was a married woman with children. Consequently, “the exaltation of the individual, the overweening distrust of conformity, convention, and social pressures of all kinds [expressed in On Liberty], corresponded to the existential reality of his own life”, as Gertrude Himmelfarb observed in her “Introduction” to the Penguin edition (p.20).
On the other hand, there were other set texts to be studied at the time, including The Communist Manifesto, which gave powerful rhetorical force to an alternative, messianic vision of politics that seemed at once to subsume and transcend the freedom Mill endorsed, while also promising that the levers of state power were within grasp of the collective will and that a corrupt system could be swept aside and the world made anew. Such works, along with, for example, Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man (1964) and Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book (1964) at one end, and Karl Popper’s analysis of The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) at the other, defined the continuum along which the virulent debates and demonstrations of the Sixties took place—including on the grassy lawn between the Ming Wing and the Monash Student Union. Regrettably, it very quickly became clear which end of the continuum had the numbers, and that the theories that counted were those of Marx, Mao, and Marcuse, of the sinister type identified by J. L. Talmon, in The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (1970). Such theories recognized “only one plane of existence, the political”, and were messianic in their insistence that there existed “a preordained, harmonious and perfect scheme of things”, to which all history is tending and all political action must be directed (p.2). Consequently, Mill—who insisted that the most vital realm of life lay outside the political—was honoured chiefly to the extent that his unyielding advocacy of free speech was exploited to justify the tolerance shown to the ranting crypto-totalitarians whose messianic obsessions dominated discussion in those days and continue to do so.
The dismissal of Berlin was more immediate. In the Sixties he was a living presence at the height of his powers, but he was a British liberal in Oxford rather than a Continental radical in Paris, and there was nothing messianic about his thought. Indeed, a good deal of it exposed and illuminated the delusional tendencies of the ‘political messianism’ and ‘totalitarian democracy’ that Talmon had recently shown lay at the core of the radical tradition in the West. Consequently, Berlin was depicted, like Talmon and Popper, as a ‘Cold War Warrior’, who was tainted by his associations with Encounter and the Congress of Cultural Freedom, which were condemned as hopelessly reactionary because they received CIA funding. (The fact was simply ignored that Moscow and Peking enjoyed the unquestioning allegiance of student leaders and young academics, were pouring funds into their respective communist parties and their associated front organizations, and were flooding the universities with endless propaganda, including cheap editions of the entire Marxist-Leninist-Maoist canon, and literally billions of the Little Red Book.)
Moreover, Berlin had to be rejected by the left because he was an articulate pluralist at a time when this was ridiculed as a mere apologia for repressive ‘bourgeois democracy’, and all-encompassing totalist systems of ideology such as Marxism-Leninism were de rigueur. Indeed, Berlin’s pluralism was apparent in the first work by him that I recall reading, his famous essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox”, on Tolstoy’s philosophy of history, which I’d been led to by Sergei Bondarchuk’s epic, seven hour film version of War and Peace (1968). It was in this essay that Berlin drew the crucial distinction between monist thinkers who look out upon the world and see One Big Thing to which everything else has to be subordinated; and those pluralists who look out and see the many little things from which flow the unpredictable, unquenchable, and irresistible variety of the world. The former are the totalizing ‘hedgehogs’ (e.g., Plato, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Marx, Nietzsche, Lenin, Gramsci, Hitler, Marcuse, Pol Pot, Foucault … and now Al Gore); while the latter are the pluralist ‘foxes’—(e.g., Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Goethe, Bentham, de Tocqueville, Mill, and Berlin himself). In Berlin’s view, the tragedy of Tolstoy was that he was torn between these two poles—being a fox in his incomparable attention to the details of Russian life, but a hedgehog in his desire to commit himself to an overarching Christian faith—and that it was in this tension that the roots of his genius lay.
Berlin seems to have had this pluralist orientation towards the world all his life, and it formed the basis of his distinct approach to philosophy and the history of ideas. In an analysis of Marxism written in 1964 he observed that political thought has historically consisted of a duel between two great rival conceptions of society:
On one side stand the advocates of pluralism and variety and an open market for ideas, an order of things that involves clashes and the constant need for conciliation, adjustment, balance, an order … maintained by conscious effort. … On the other side are to be found those who believe that this precarious condition is a form of chronic social and personal disease, since health consists in unity, peace, [and] the elimination of the very possibility of disagreement. (Isaiah Berlin, The Sense of Reality, pp.121-2)
As Berlin’s life and work amply demonstrated, he belonged to the former category of thinkers, for whom nothing is more exhilarating than an encounter with a deeply challenging intellectual system. However, this was not the approach of the New Left, which belonged to the second category, desired certainty, denounced ‘deviation’, and demanded strict adherence to the ‘correct line’ above all else. Consequently, they quickly became fixated on the deeply authoritarian pronouncements of neo-Marxists like Louis Althusser, and regarded anything less that total intellectual subservience to bloated tomes like Reading Capital (1970) as signs of bourgeois ideological deformation. And here it is to the credit of the ‘Old Left’ historian E. P. Thompson that he demolished this edifice with relentless thoroughness and élan in “The Poverty of Theory” (1978), but not before it had helped infect history with a theoreticism that remains a corrosive presence to this day.
Berlin was hated by the left for reasons other than his pluralism. For example, it emerged in 1969 that he had effectively blocked the appointment of Isaac Deutscher, the leading Trotskyite intellectual, to a professorship in political studies at Sussex University, and so he found himself denounced as an anti-communist witch-hunter. Subsequently, Perry Anderson, another Trotskyite and the editor of the New Left Review (and the future ayatollah of global Marxism), deplored the failure of Deutscher—”the greatest Marxist historian in the world”—to secure even “the smallest university post”, and attacked Berlin in an influential essay as a “fluent ideologue”, and leading member of the anti-communist and politically reactionary “white migration” from Europe that infected British culture and led its working classes away from their otherwise natural inclination towards socialist revolution (“Components of the National Culture” in Alexander Cockburn and Robin Blackburn (eds.), Student Power, 1969, pp.233ff.).
Even more certain to aggravate the left was Berlin’s outright rejection in “Two Concepts of Liberty”—his Inaugural Lecture as Chichele Professor in 1958 —of socialism’s principal ideological raison d’être: its commitment to what Berlin called ‘positive liberty’, and its consequent dismissal of ‘negative liberty’, represented by Mill in On Liberty. This distinction developed an earlier insight that Berlin had initially phrased in terms of the difference between the liberal and romantic conceptions of freedom, with one flowing from Locke and the other from Rousseau. Advocates of the former want limitations on political power as it impacts on the individual; advocates of the latter want few if any limitations on the powers of the state and, moreover, want these powers placed in their hands so that they can be used to create a New World and a New Man.
In his more developed formulation, Berlin followed Mill in arguing that negative liberty leaves individuals free to do as they see fit with their persons and their lives, provided that their actions don’t interfere with the same liberty enjoyed by others: “By being free in this sense I mean not being interfered with by others. The wider the area of non-interference the wider my freedom” (“Two Concepts of Liberty”, p.123). Positive liberty, on the other hand, involves wielding the state apparatus to allegedly ‘liberate’ people in myriad ways, even from burdens unbeknownst to them: “I may be coerced for my own good which I am too blind to see [and] if it is my good, then I am not being coerced, for I have willed it, whether I know this or not, and am free (or ‘truly’ free) even when my poor earthly body and foolish mind bitterly reject it” (p.134). Consequently, wielders of positive liberty see themselves as possessing a mandate to ‘empower’ people through various laws, charters, restrictions, income transfers, grants, and cultural, social and educational programs, to free them from alleged limitation(s) inherent either in themselves or in their social circumstances; and to enable them thereby to realize some repressed, occluded, or hidden potential they are said to possess, but from which they have been ‘alienated’ by some social or political mechanism, be it capitalism, racism, sexism, Orientalism, etc.
At the core of this issue is Berlin’s insistence that while liberalism must recognize the complexity of human nature, this does not entail a belief in a hierarchy of inner selves to which people themselves are blind, or that this alleged blindness mandates radical political intervention in peoples’ lives “by those revolutionaries or social engineers who understand [peoples’] objective needs better than they do themselves”, a view that Berlin condemns as “one of the most powerful and dangerous arguments in the entire history of human thought” (qu. Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life, 2000, p.202). Despite its dangers this has proven to be an extremely seductive notion, which derives from the perennial Romantic undercurrent of Western culture that Berlin analysed carefully in various works, including his 1965 A. W. Mellon Lectures that were later published as The Roots of Romanticism (1999).
While Berlin accepted that humans may be inherently divided beings, required always to choose between reason and emotion, duty and desire, private and public demands, and irreconcilable political values, he emphasized that they nevertheless possessed free will and the capacity to choose, and that they themselves—not the state or some external agency—were best placed to achieve some resolution of such conflicts within themselves. Indeed, this premise lay at the core of his liberalism: “Berlin made human dividedness … the very rationale for a liberal polity. A free society was a good society because it accepted the conflict among human goods and maintained, through its democratic institutions, the forum in which this conflict could be managed safely” (Ignatieff, p.203).
Ultimately, for Berlin it was a matter of recognizing the inherent limitations of political activity, working always as it must with what he liked to call (quoting Kant) “the crooked timber of humanity”:
Human beings are what they are, and a liberal politics deals only with what human beings say they want. Their preferences can be argued with and persuasion is possible, but coercion—in the name of what they might prefer, if they could only see it more clearly—is always illegitimate. The revealed preferences of ordinary men and women must be the limit and also the arbiter of all practical politics. (Ignatieff, p.226)
Moreover, Berlin made it quite clear that the state interference in people’s lives and circumstances required by positive liberty cannot be justified in terms of some calculus of ‘higher goods’:
Everything is what it is: liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or culture, or human happiness or a quiet conscience [and] it is a confusion of values to say that although my ‘liberal’ individual freedom may go by the board, some other kind of freedom—social or economic—is increased [by state intervention]. (qu. Ignatieff, p.228)
According to Berlin’s argument, once fundamental freedoms, rights, and responsibilities are constitutionally in place, people are allowed to lead their own lives, making their own choices as they see fit, and politics is kept at the level of the practical and the pragmatic and insulated from the messianic idea that politics can deliver heaven on earth, then there is comparatively little for the state to do. But of course this made his position anathema to the new class of professional political operatives that emerged in the latter half of the 20th century and finds its raison d’être in the provision of an ever-increasing range of political panaceas to an electorate composed of insular groups encouraged to see themselves as victimized, deprived, alienated, repressed, and endangered in all sorts of ways that only the state can allegedly rectify (or even identify!). Consequently, it was attacked at the time as “an apologia for voter apathy” (Ignatieff, p.230) by those who think the ends of life revolve around the endless pursuit of political solutions to imputed or imaginary problems.
And it is, of course, this type of messianic thinking that drives the current campaign to have the Australian people corralled within a system of finite and specified ‘human rights’ defined and enshrined for all time by contemporary political activists, moral police, sectarian advocates, and overseen by a self-important elite of judicial guardians, all anxious to impose their own obsessions on the people of Australia. Such people seem to echo the authoritarianism of Thomas Carlyle, who fulminated at hearing of Mill’s views on the inviolability of the individual: “As if it were a sin to control or coerce into better methods human swine in any way … Ach Gott in Himmel!” (qu., “John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life”, p.191).
Berlin had also been the target of another attack from the left by the quasi-Marxist historian, E. H. Carr, whose fourteen-volume History of Soviet Russia (1950-1978) dominated the study of Soviet history in the Sixties. Carr launched his attack in his 1961 Trevelyan Lectures at Cambridge, which were broadcast and widely disseminated, and published as What is History? (1961). This became a standard reference for history courses in the rapidly expanding university systems in Britain and Australia in the Sixties, where it promulgated Carr’s view that “the belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy” (p.12), and opened the way to postmodernist subjectivism in history writing. In his attack on Berlin’s essay on “Historical Inevitability” (1953), Carr rejected Berlin’s claim that history was largely indeterminate and shaped by accident, chance, and the decisions and behaviour of individuals acting in accordance with free will, whose decisions could therefore in principle be understood, and who could be held morally responsible for their actions. Instead, Carr insisted on a rigorously deterministic view of history, which must be seen in terms of objective causes and forces that propel the world forward along pre-ordained paths, making moral judgments pointless, and elevating, for example, the paranoid depredations of Stalin to the realm of historical necessity.
Berlin responded in a series of letters to The Listener and to Carr himself, and in his “Introduction” to his Four Essays on Liberty, where he argued that the Marxist emphasis on economic determinism not only led to quite abstract and tenuous notions of causation, it also ignored the central role played by ideas, beliefs, and the intentional acts of individual historical agents. Moreover, the claims of historical materialism to scientific status and moral objectivity were bogus, and Carr’s depiction of the Bolshevik victory and the subsequent Stalinist rampage through Russian history as ‘progressive’ was fatuous—they were depicted so not because of any genuine advances they had achieved but merely because they had prevailed in a war to the death with their opponents, some of whom may have led Russia down a far more constructive path. Consequently, Carr remained a “late positivist” and “un grand simplificateur, untroubled by the problems and difficulties which have bedeviled the subject since Herder and Hegel, Marx and Max Weber … a master of short ways and final answers to the great unanswered questions” (p.xxvii).
While Berlin’s adherence to pluralism, individualism, indeterminism, free will, and the notion of negative liberty guaranteed that he was anathema to the left, it also revealed an openness to ideas that equipped him well for a series of intellectual encounters with the Counter-Enlightenment, Nationalism, Romanticism, Liberalism, and Russian radicalism, to which he turned in what became the most productive period of his life, as he explored closely the works of a wide range of thinkers, many of whom hovered on the margins of the history of ideas and might have faded almost entirely from view if not for the close attention that Berlin paid to them. And it was here, it transpired, that Berlin’s genius ultimately lay.
The question of where Berlin’s genius lay was a very live issue for him, especially as he came to doubt his own capacity or desire to continue working at the elite level of academic philosophy. In that realm his friends, colleagues, and peers included A.J. Ayer, G.E. Moore, J.L. Austin, and Stuart Hampshire, and together they formed “a magic circle of brilliant philosophy dons” eager to debate such issues as whether Gregor Samsa from Kafka’s Metamorphosis was a man with the body of a cockroach, or a cockroach with the memories and consciousness of a man. Such occasions were “no polite shadow-fencing”, Berlin recalled, “but war to the death—my death, that is” (qu., Ignatieff, pp.81-6). Eventually, two encounters shaped Berlin’s self-understanding and propelled him away from philosophy and into the history of ideas.
The first was in 1940 when Berlin gave a paper on “Other Minds” to the Moral Sciences Club in Cambridge and was confronted in question time by an impatient and very assertive Ludwig Wittgenstein, supported by acolytes mimicking their hero’s ostentatiously casual dress. There was, of course, nothing casual about Wittgenstein’s ostentatious hour-long intervention, which went to the heart of Berlin’s position and left it with barely a pulse, so that “their encounter marked the symbolic, if not the actual, end of Isaiah’s active philosophical career” (p.95). The second encounter was in 1944 with the Harvard mathematical logician, Harry Sheffer, who launched a scathing attack on logical positivism and its scientific pretensions and argued that any real scientific progress was simply inconceivable in fields like epistemology or ethics, and could only legitimately be pursued in strictly deductive areas like mathematics or logic, or in fields of strictly empirical inquiry, such as experimental psychology. These claims were similar to arguments that Berlin himself had made in his paper on “Verification” in 1939, and during an interminable transatlantic flight towards the end of the war, Berlin carefully reviewed Sheffer’s arguments and his own misgivings, and “when he landed the next morning, rumpled and bleary, he had decided to leave philosophy for the history of ideas” (p.131).
Once he had extricated himself from Oxford analytical philosophy, Berlin entered into his “golden period between about 1952 and 1966” (Ignatieff, p.282) when he explored in detail the work of figures like Vico, de Maistre, Hamann, Herder, Belinsky, Herzen, Bakunin, Mill, Tolstoy, Hess, and Sorel. Here he was able to apply his intense awareness that (as Bernard Williams explained) “no abstract or analytical thought exists out of all connection with historical, personal thought; that every thought belongs, not just somewhere, but to someone and is at home in a context of other thoughts” (qu., Ignatieff, p.88). Over the next few decades Berlin immersed himself in this fashion in the deep and often dark currents of modern thought, emerging periodically to offer lectures, articles, and long essays that reveal a comprehensive grasp of the premises, core concepts, structure, logic, and direction of various theories and systems, to which he then gave lucid and compelling expression, often elevating and even surpassing the original material, especially in terms of cogency and rhetorical power.
Examples abound of Berlin’s powers of analysis and exposition of these theorists. Reference has already been made to “The Hedgehog and the Fox”, and his essays on Vico, Herzen, Romanticism, and de Maistre could be cited as exemplary of his approach, but little excels his treatment of Mill’s On Liberty, especially in terms of his relentless penetration into the inner logic of Mill’s argument and the vision of the world that informed it.
Berlin begins his account of John Stuart Mill, like Himmelfarb in her “Introduction” (pp.12ff.), with the frequently cited facts of John’s isolated education at home, under the strict supervision of his father, James Mill, and according to the principles of utilitarianism expounded by his father’s intellectual mentor, Jeremy Bentham. As Mill himself explains in his Autobiography, this meant that he could read Greek by the age of three, was familiar with a range of classical and historical literature before he was eight, and had mastered algebra, Latin, philosophy and economics by 12. He also proof-read and wrote synopses of his father’s books. However, he had been denied access to religion, metaphysics, and much poetry, as it was considered that these would cloud his mind with superstitions and irrational notions. Consequently, as Berlin observes, “by the age of seventeen he was mentally fully formed … clear-headed, candid, highly articulate, intensely serious, and without any trace of fear, vanity, or humour”. Certainly, “his father had no doubt of the value of his experiment. He had succeeded in producing an excellently informed and perfectly rational being. The truth of Bentham’s views on education had been thoroughly vindicated”. It was all “an appalling success” (“John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life”, pp.175-7).
The result was predictable. Although Mill had gained a prominent position in the Utilitarian movement, had been trusted with preparing Bentham’s five-volume Rationale of Judicial Evidence for publication, was working full-time at the East India Office, and was looking towards a meritorious career as a great reformer, it all came crashing down in 1826. At age twenty, Mill plunged into a prolonged depression and a ‘crisis of faith’ in the great utilitarian project that had been made of his life. Characteristically, he sought to get some intellectual grasp on his condition and asked himself a fundamental question, as he recounted in his Autobiography: “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions to which you are looking forward could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And to this, “an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, ‘No!’ At that moment my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down” (The Essential Works of John Stuart Mill, 1961, p.83).
Mill became convinced that his upbringing had made him into a monster of rationality, a desiccated calculating machine, with no capacity for natural and spontaneous feeling or artistic and poetic sensibility. For six months he existed in an apathetic and near-suicidal state of depression that only began to lift as he read the Mémoires d’un pere of Jean-François Marmontel, the French dramatist, historian, writer, and member of the Encyclopediste movement. There he came across Marmontel’s description of how he reacted at the death of his father: “the distressed position of the family, and the sudden inspiration by which he, then a mere boy, felt and made them feel that he would be everything to them—would supply the place of all that they had lost”. At that moment, for Mill, “a vivid conception of the scene and its feelings came over me, and I was moved to tears. From that moment my burden grew lighter. The oppression of the thought that all feeling was dead within me, was gone” (The Essential Mill, p.87).
While Himmelfarb (p.14) notes the apparent psychoanalytical implications of this event, Berlin glosses over it and attends entirely to its effects on Mill: “It took the form of a revolt, slow, concealed, reluctant, but profound and irresistible, against the view of life inculcated by his father and the Benthamites”, and while Mill continued to stand with them “against dogmatism, transcendentalism, obscurantism [and] all that resisted the march of reason, analysis, and empirical science”, his ultimate allegiance shifted from their simple and calculable utilitarian version of happiness to a far richer vision: “for what he came to value most was neither rationality nor contentment, but diversity, versatility, fullness of life—the unaccountable leap of individual genius, the spontaneity and uniqueness of a man, a group, a civilization”, and it was this, Berlin insists, that “Mill seems to me to have cared about most of all” (“John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life”, pp.176-8). And it was this, of course, that Berlin himself also cared about most of all—creating a virtually seamless continuity between Mill’s thought and Berlin’s exposition of it.
This is apparent when Berlin explores possible objections to Mill’s conception that the ends of life extend beyond the simple pursuit of happiness, to the promotion and protection of the intellectual fecundity, spontaneity, and diversity of humanity. For example, James Mill and Bentham made the maximization of happiness the sole criteria for their utilitarian calculus of how society should be ordered, and advocated wide-ranging legislative reform and education as the means to achieve this. However, Berlin points out that if a drug were available that guaranteed a state of happiness for everyone, then “their premises would have bound them to accept this as a panacea for all that they thought evil”, while John Stuart Mill, “as he made plain both by his life and by his writings, would have rejected with both hands any such solution … as degrading the nature of man [who he defined] as a being capable of choice … the seeker of ends, and not merely of means” to the pre-ordained and paramount goal of happiness (p.178). Moreover, in seeking their own ends, “the richer the lives of men become; the larger the field of interplay between individuals, the greater the opportunities of the new and the unexpected … the more paths open before each individual, and the wider will be his freedom of action and thought” (p.178). There can be no doubt that the passion and intensity with which Berlin puts Mill’s case reflects his own commitments.
Elsewhere, Berlin discusses Mill’s views on toleration, and how “he believed that to hold an opinion deeply is to throw our feelings into it”, even if this generates feelings of animosity towards those who disagree (p.184). Nevertheless, toleration is required, for otherwise, “the conditions for rational criticism, rational condemnation, are destroyed”, and ultimately: “We may argue, attack, reject, condemn with passion and hatred. But we may not suppress or stifle: for that is to destroy the bad and the good, and is tantamount to collective moral and intellectual suicide” (p.184). Scepticism, indifference, and cynicism may emerge but “even these attitudes are less harmful than intolerance, or an imposed orthodoxy which kills rational discussion. This is Mill’s faith. It obtained its classical formulation in the tract on liberty” (p.184). It is Berlin’s faith too—indeed, his raison d’être—and found no better expression than in his essay on Mill’s tract.
This convergence of views is present also when Berlin explores why people may wish to curtail the liberties of others. He looks at two familiar explanations that Mill entertained: (a) people wish simply to impose their will on others; and (b) people desire conformity of thought and for other people to think as they do; but he notes that Mill dismisses these (despite their prevalence in all modern organizations and political life) because they ultimately dissolve into irrationality and are therefore beyond any rational assessment. Instead, he focuses on the philosophically more interesting possibility that people seek to suppress the liberties of others because they believe that there is one and only one true answer to the question of how people should live, that this is known, that therefore “all deviation from it is error which imperils human salvation”, and that consequently such deviation is pernicious even to the point of justifying the extermination of “those who lead away from the truth, whatever their character or intentions” (p.185).
Berlin recalls some examples that Mill invoked to illustrate this lethal fanaticism, which, of course, was prevalent when both were writing and remains so today, not least in the demonization of those who insist on maintaining a sceptical stance on various areas of public concern in the face, for example, of the increasingly hysterical and apocalyptic claims being made about climate change (although not (yet) to the point of requiring the extermination of critics). However, Mill also points out how successful such repression has been in the past, even when posterity reveals that the ‘correct’ view that was so ruthlessly defended turned out to be wrong, and the ‘deviant thinkers’ turned out to be right. Indeed, “it is a piece of idle sentimentality [to presume] that truth, merely as truth, has any inherent power denied to error”, and here Mill recalls dozens of cases from history that show that “the dictum that truth always triumphs over persecution is [merely] a pleasant falsehood … which all experience refutes. … History teems with instances of truth put down by persecution”. People, it appears, are at least as zealous for falsity as for truth, and the latter has no special way of “prevailing against the dungeon and the stake” (On Liberty, pp.89-90). Nevertheless, those possessed of intellect or insight must persist with vigour against obscurantism because “there is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true, because … it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation”, as we unfortunately see today in such areas as alleged global warming (p.79).
On the other hand, there were areas where Berlin found lacunae in Mill’s argument. For example, he lamented that Mill had been denied the benefit of the massive advances in psychology that had been achieved since his time. More importantly, Berlin noted that Mill’s fierce advocacy of the rights of the individual before the leviathan of society tended to blind him to the central role that must be played in any liberal society by the forces of social cohesion and integration that bind disparate multitudes together. Instead, “he took human solidarity for granted, perhaps altogether too much for granted. He did not fear the isolation of individuals or groups, the factors that make for the alienation and disintegration of individuals and societies. He was [too] preoccupied with the opposite evils of socialization and uniformity” (p.183). Consequently Mill failed adequately to recognize how vital it is to achieve the integration of such groups, and that at the very least they must be brought to recognize and respect the values of liberal democracy that made their own acceptance into such a society possible in the first place. In addition, Mill lacked the “prophetic gift” possessed in different ways by some of his contemporaries, including Tocqueville, Marx, Burckhardt, and Nietzsche, and consequently he had no vision “of what the twentieth century would bring, neither of the political and social consequences of industrialization, nor of the discovery of the strength of irrational and unconscious factors in human behaviour, nor of the terrifying techniques to which this knowledge has led and is leading” (p.183).
Towards the end of his essay, Berlin invoked the image of the ‘inner citadel’, the intellectual redoubt to which one withdraws in battle and for which one must be prepared to fight to the last. He cites an observation by Bertrand Russell—Mill’s ungracious godson—that “the deepest convictions of philosophers are seldom contained in their formal arguments: fundamental beliefs, comprehensive views of life, are like citadels which must be guarded against the enemy”. Around this core may be arrayed many complex and sophisticated arguments, which act as a series of defensive perimeters, but “the vision of life for the sake of which the war is being waged, will, as a rule, turn out to be relatively simple and unsophisticated” (pp.200-1).
What is this vision of the ends of life that lies at the core of Mill’s thought? It is clear that it has to do with the inviolability of the individual and the primacy of pluralism, as we have seen. But there is a greater richness to this vision, which Berlin shares, enhances, and directs us to in his own essay. This invokes spontaneity, uniqueness, diversity, versatility, fullness of life and the unaccountable leaps of individual genius, along with a broader vision of the driving force of a liberal civilization—the capacity to both liberate and marshal all these forces—and here Berlin draws attention to the “assumption which, whether he knew it or not, Mill all too obviously made, that human knowledge was in principle never complete, and always fallible; that there was no single, universally visible, truth; that each man, each nation, each civilization might take its own road towards its own goal, not necessarily harmonious with those of others; that men are altered, and the truths in which they believe are altered, by new experiences and their own actions”, in what Mill saw as heroic and endless “experiments in living” (p.188). In Berlin’s view, it is because Mill has this view of “human lives as subject to perpetual incompleteness, self-transformation, and novelty[,] does not demand or predict ideal conditions for the final solution of human problems [and] assumes that finality is impossible”, that his vision of liberty is alive today, whereas the ideas of his father, Bentham, Comte, Spencer, and other system-builders of his age who aspired to construct settled social systems on the basis of inviolable principles, “remain half-forgotten hulks in the river of nineteenth century thought” (p.189).
Ultimately, there was a great and productive convergence between the views of Mill and Berlin on liberty and the ends of life—a fertile meeting of minds that has enriched beyond measure the liberal philosophical tradition to which they both belong. Consequently, it is not surprising that a century after On Liberty’s publication, and in the middle of the Cold War, Berlin should have found himself in the inner citadel of his own endlessly inquiring mind, expounding and defending in “John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life” the essential values and arguments that Mill had proposed and he himself had so fruitfully and powerfully developed, or that admirers can now look back at that time, across fifty years of relentless hostility to those ideas, with both gratitude for what Mill and Berlin achieved and a fuller comprehension of the rich promise of the liberal vision.
The Quadrant Book of Poetry: 2001 - 2010
edited by Les Murray