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«From Helvetius to Hegel: Isaiah Berlin on Romantic Political Theory Dr. Spencer Davis Peru State College It is now a decade since the passing of ...»

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From Helvetius to Hegel:

Isaiah Berlin on

Romantic Political Theory

Dr. Spencer Davis

Peru State College

It is now a decade since the passing of Isaiah Berlin. In these ten years his

industrious editor, Henry Hardy, has collected and published Berlin’s essays and a volume

of letters and prepared for publication three of Berlin’s lecture series. These lecture series

have been published as The Roots of Romanticism, Freedom and Its Betrayal, and Political Ideas in the Romantic Age. Although published last, Political Ideas in the Romantic Age is the first of Berlin’s explorations of Romantic philosophy. It is also the longest manuscript Berlin ever produced. (1) Drawing on his research from the 1930’s and introducing the themes of his later works, it must be considered a key work in the development of his political philosophy.

This work, published in 2006, is based upon lectures Berlin gave at Bryn Mawr College in 1952. After delivering the lectures, Berlin revised and extended the manuscript for publication. But rather than seeing the manuscript through to publication, Berlin drew upon the manuscript for other projects, and the work remained unpublished. Years later Henry Hardy devoted considerable work to the manuscript and completed a “fair copy” of four of the six lectures, including Berlin’s revisions of these chapters, and a prologue Berlin added some time after delivering the lectures. Berlin received the “fair copy” Hardy prepared but remained non-committal. Hardy continued to believe the work should be published, and almost a decade after Berlin’s death, Hardy was able to bring Political Ideas of the Romantic Age into print.

What is the value of this work first published fifty years after it was written?

Certainly Berlin drew on and agreed with respected works in the history of ideas. His view of the philosophes resembles in one important respect that of Carl Becker. Berlin cites Becker’s Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century, and Berlin shares with Becker the conclusion that the political reforms – often radical – advocated by eighteenth century thinkers rested upon traditional, unexamined, and shaky foundations. (p. 62) Berlin’s strongly negative assessment of Rousseau was conventional at the time, and Rousseau’s influence on Kant was already the subject of an important essay by Ernst Cassirer. (2) Berlin’s assessment of the dangerous consequences of German Romantic philosophy was close to the view of A.O. Lovejoy. (3) And there are passages that acknowledge the works of Karl Popper, R.G. Collingwood, and Irving Babbitt. (pp. 4, 13, 127) In several respects Berlin was expressing conventional wisdom. (4) Neither is the work distinguished as a literary achievement. Political Ideas of the Romantic Age has some eloquent passages, but it is not easy reading. Berlin does remarkably little to help his readers. His sentences pile qualification on qualification until the main thought is often lost, and many paragraphs extend over a page, thus compromising the organizing power of paragraphing. Berlin established the chronological limits of his study and then ignored them. He repeatedly referred to “Romantics” when more accurately he probably should have referred to “German Romantic philosophers.” Hardy’s editorial labors did not extend to excising the significant number of repetitive passages.

Berlin shifts his terms, sometimes without warning and without explanation; the natural interpretation would be that the terms he was alternating are synonyms, but that is hard to credit when, for example, the quondam synonyms are “French materialists,” “Encyclopediasts,” “ philosophes” (Ch. 1). Berlin shifts, without adequate warning to his readers, from descriptions of individual thinkers, to intellectual circles, to the wider public and “public mind,” and at times the actual referent is hard to identify. Berlin refers to “the entire rationalist programme of the eighteenth century” but it is not easy to understand whom we should count as the “rationalists” or why a term commonly a classifier in epistemology should be transferred to political theory. (p. 82) What makes Political Ideas in the Romantic Age worth studying is Berlin’s combination of philosophical acuity and boldness in probing the psychological affinity of ideas. Philosophers, and possibly literary scholars, may react in indignation at this suggestion for mixing opposites, but this combination seems at the very least to be the assumption upon which Berlin studied political theory. Berlin accepted Bertrand Russell’s contention that great philosophers defend with elaborate and ingenious reasoning a simple basic belief. (p. 13) Berlin assumed, I think, that for political philosophers that simple core belief was psychological as much as philosophical or that, at this basic level, the two were inseparable. Without the aid of letters, memoirs, and biographies, Berlin’s tracing of intellectual connections and influences among his subjects rested on his personal vision.

On occasion he relied on social causes, such as the wounded national pride of Germans, or Rousseau’s petit bourgeois resentments, but he resorted to social causes only on occasion and never gave up the belief in the power of great individuals (pp. 95-96, 106). And complicating the picture was Berlin’s sense of the diverse, unpredictable combinations of explicit ideas, unexamined assumptions, and unexpected consequences. One thing is certain, for Berlin the relations among a thinker’s political ideas were often more psychological than logical.





A second theme of Berlin’s was the frequency with which thinkers of the period perverted language as the means to prove their theories. Among Berlin’s examples of this perversion of language are the following. The Romantic philosophers conflated the two distinct meanings of “realize” (realizing the truth of a proposition, and realizing a goal) so as to make the intellectual realization of the need to submit to the laws of universal development into the realization of freedom. (p. 97) Schelling meant by “understanding” the opposite of what it meant in natural science. (pp. 195ff.). Rousseau pioneered the use of oxymoron as profundity by speaking of forcing persons to be free (pp. 112, 116, 124, n.1), and he treated obvious metaphors, such as the general will, as though they were “metaphysical entities.” (p. 131). Whether the philosophy of other periods equally relies on verbal trickery Berlin does not say, but he documents its significance in Romantic philosophy. The moral must be that the perversion of common usage is dangerous.

Berlin claimed his work broke new ground in one respect by its emphasis on the “transformation of values” presented in Romantic philosophy. (p. 10) By “transformation of values” Berlin meant the Romantic claim that moral values are not discovered within the natural order and hence objective but imposed, willed, created. Berlin termed this sense that ethics, like works of art, are personal creations the most significant change in consciousness since “the ending of the Middle ages, perhaps since the rise of Christianity.” From the Romantic era to the present time, advocates of ethical objectivity arrayed against believers in the willed creation of value. Berlin declared, somewhat melodramatically, this “the time has come” to assess that fundamental divide he had discovered. (p.11) As Berlin describes in turn Rousseau, Kant, Herder, and Hegel, it becomes clear that each had a distinct sense of what the creation of values meant, differences more distinct that Berlin allows.

Berlin’s Prologue begins forcefully – the political ideas of the period 1760-1830, while leading to or reacting against the French Revolution “form the basic intellectual capital on which, with few additions, we live to this day.” (p.1) Nationalists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries use – perhaps unknowingly – the language of Rousseau;

“fascists and communists, imperialists and totalitarians, liberals, republicans and constitutional monarchists too, to this day” use the language of Burke or Hegel; social scientists and national planners follow Saint-Simon; enemies of democracy repeat de Maistre; existentialists repeat Fichte and Schelling. (p.2) Presently the French Revolution disappears from its central role and is replaced by the Enlightenment with its contradictory parties - French materialists, Encyclopedists, economists, utilitarians - followed by their opponents who constitute the Counter-Enlightenment. (pp. 3-6) Then Berlin introduces a third organizing theme, the momentous shift from conceiving of political norms as part of the fabric of the natural, material world to conceiving of political norms as ideals invented and imposed upon, not drawn from or found in, the natural world. As the Prologue develops it becomes clear that Berlin recognized no sharp distinction between ethical and political theory and that his interest is in rival visions of human nature rather than in political ideas about mechanisms of suffrage, legislation or inheritance.

Given the chronological boundaries Berlin set, one could expect him to begin his survey with the thinkers of the mid-eighteenth century, or perhaps their predecessors, but his first chapter ranges over the whole of Western political theory, beginning with the Greeks. This survey is intended to demonstrate that all Western philosophers before the Romantic era assumed first, that moral and political truths were part of the empirical world and – potentially – four-square with the laws of natural science; second, that all truths were consistent; and third that human nature – the subject of moral and political theory – was unchanging. The thinkers of the Enlightenment, except for Hume and Kant in some degree, assumed these propositions. The danger, according to Berlin, was that these beliefs led to, provided the building blocks for, scientism – the proposition that science explained the past and explained what should be done in the future. (p. 75) Helvetius is the philosopher Berlin focuses on as the representative Enlightenment figure, and he is portrayed as an advocate of social engineering. Berlin is thus creating a Hobson’s choice between two forms of enforced conformity – the social engineering of the Enlightenment and the self-enforced conformity of the Romantics. (p. 53) This rapid descent into social engineering was the first flaw in Enlightenment political theory; the second flaw was the confused notion of nature. For Helvetius and Holbach, and presumably many more Enlightenment figures, the concept of nature bridged the gap between fact and value. (pp. 62, 71, 75-78) Nature was regarded as a source of lessons or laws, even a teacher, by thinkers, including Helvetius, who officially believed nature was simply a field organized by the laws of physics. In this inconsistency the philosophes were not hypocrites but typically human in refusing to examine a useful hypothesis.

Chapter One ends with a moral – the philosophes’ hope that science applied to social problems would lead to liberation turned into the seemingly similar but dangerously different idea that scientific experts should direct – by legislation and education – the unscientific masses, thus legitimating the rule of an elite that imposes its values on and destroying the liberty of the majority. The remaining chapters show how, in different ways, other theories that promise freedom are also actually recipes for unfreedom. These other philosophies of unfreedom are versions of Romanticism.

Rousseau is the central figure in Chapter Two. From Rousseau’s fevered and embittered mind came the dangerous notion that persons could be forced to be free. Of course tyrants and fanatics were only too happy to hear this; Rousseau was, in Berlin’s words, “the master” of Saint Just and Robespierre. (p. 142) Rousseau proposed that man is free when doing the right thing (obeying the moral law). This is Rousseau’s attempt to reconcile liberty and order and preserve absolute personal liberty. But Rousseau expects the pure-hearted villager to have a deeper sense of the moral law than the city-dweller.

Despite his very critical approach to Rousseau, Berlin doesn’t observe that this change introduces moral disagreements and the need for politics, but it must be so.

Following the section on Rousseau comes a section on the “real will” (which is to say, an unreal, fictitious will). This is a piece of psychology by Berlin describing the steps by which philosophers convince themselves that persons who do not want x or y actually at a deeper, more real, but invisible level do want x or y and in their own real interest should be forced to do x or y. The connection of this section to Rousseau presumably is this – Rousseau showed how the individual reasoned this way about his own situation, now others will do it for you. If a person can force himself to be free, others can too.

According to Berlin, this dangerous reasoning rationalizes despotism and was used by Hegel and Marx. (p. 124) Kant and the German Romantics adopted from Rousseau the dangerous notion of the two selves, the empirical and the real selves (p. 140) Kant’s doctrine of the two selves was his contribution to the “romantic doctrine of man” and allied with it was Kant’s concept of duty, the moral demand for self-sacrifice. Berlin considered Kant’s concept of duty much more valuable than the doctrine of two selves because Kantian duty provides a better explanation of self-sacrifice than the utilitarian claim that self-sacrifice is a disguised type of personal happiness. (pp. 148-49) This vindication of duty was one of Kant’s contributions to European culture; the other was his doctrine of autonomy, the worth of every person as creator of value. (pp. 150-51) In developing the doctrine of autonomy Kant was again deeply influenced by Rousseau. (p. 153). This sense of the equal moral value of every person, pioneered by Rousseau and developed by Kant, is the basis of nineteenth century democratic theory. (p. 154) One of Berlin’ most eloquent passages follows, arguing for the importance of Rousseau and Kant and denying the importance of the humanitarian and utilitarian thinkers as advocates or sources of the democratic ideal. Thus Rousseau’s works had diametrically opposite uses.



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