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My last but one blog post speculated that we may be suffering from an imbalanced conception of liberty.  My argument was that we conceive freedom almost entirely in terms of freedom from others and not enough in terms of freedom from ourselves (meaning our own unrefined desires).

My last but one blog post speculated that we may be suffering from an imbalanced conception of liberty.  My argument was that we conceive freedom almost entirely in terms of freedom from others and not enough in terms of freedom from ourselves (meaning our own unrefined desires).

Warming to this theme, I thought I'd revisit some of the great literature that deals with notions of freedom.  And where better to start than with Isaiah Berlin's Two Concepts of Liberty - a long essay that is regularly cited as one of the most influential pieces of British post-war political philosophy.  I have to admit I haven't read it since I was an undergraduate back in the days when the Cold War was still raging and Berlin's forthright assault on the totalitarian consequences of what he described as 'positive' liberty resonated with the geo-politics of the time.

What leapt out at me though was the section entitled The Retreat to the Inner Citadel. As far as I am aware this is not a particularly well-known part of the essay. Indeed, in David Miller's well-regarded anthology, The Liberty Reader, this section is omitted. 

In this part of the essay, Berlin develops the argument that what he calls the "self-emancipation of ascetics and quietists, of stoics or Buddhist sages, men of various religions or of none" is not a genuine form of freedom. His argument is summed up in a forceful paragraph:

Ascetic self-denial may be a source of integrity or serenity and spiritual strength, but it is difficult to see how it can be called an enlargement of liberty. If I save myself from an adversary by retreating indoors and locking every entrance and exit, I may remain freer than if I had been captured by him, but am I freer than if I had defeated or captured him? If I go too far, contract myself into too small a space, I shall suffocate and die. The logical culmination of the process of destroying everything through which I can possibly be wounded is suicide. While I exist in the natural world, I can never be wholly secure. Total liberation in this sense (as Schopenhauer correctly perceived) is conferred only by death.

 Berlin's attitude seems to confirm the argument I made in the earlier post but with added vigour. It is not simply that his essay places a very strong emphasis on notions of liberty that relate directly to freedom from the state and other social relationships at the expense of notions of freedom from the self, he actually rejects the notion of freedom from ourselves as worthy of classification as a type of freedom at all.

The sad thing is his strong objection to this "self-emancipation'" seems to be based entirely on a caricature of the reasoning of those stoics, buddhists and religious sorts.  For Berlin, their reason for seeking emancipation from desire is as a way of escaping the unpleasant rigours of the real world.  He claims that their logic is simply that if I cease to care about the outside world then that outside world can no longer hurt me. Hence the metaphor he uses in the extract above about retreating from an adversary.

This is really a pretty shallow reading of centuries' worth of religious and other philosophical thought.  For example, it does not seem to have occurred to Berlin that maybe these individuals choose self-denial because they genuinely seek freedom from a feature of human life that they regard as tyrannical and dehumanising as an over-bearing state or institution, not because they are in some way running away from a confrontation with that state or institution.

Sadly Berlin seems in this part of the essay to have succumbed to that Enlightenment arrogance which assumes that little sensible was said by anyone prior to the Sixteenth Century save a few ancient Greeks.

So my facetious title for this blog post arises from the hypotheses that Berlin may be representative of a strand of thinking and culture that very rightly values the huge benefits offered to humankind by securing liberty from ideologues, statists and all those who enforce social convention but undervalues the importance of securing freedom from our own most base desires.  The result, as I argued before, could well be that self-regarding, acquisitive outlook which has contributed to our current set of crises ranging from banking to riots.

However, maybe Berlin is an isolated example and I will discover a subtler and more balanced approach elsewhere.  No doubt, I'll continue to bore on the subject for quite some time as I work my way through other great theorists of freedom.

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