Discussion Group Isaiah Berlin “Freedom & Its Betrayal - Intro & Helvetius Barry Magid June 9th 2018

Barry: In any case, these are talks given in 1952, and you can think of them as part of an ongoing question being asked at that time about what went wrong with the 20th century. And the dilemma facing people then was that the things that they had seemed to put their greatest faith in: technology, democracy, progress, or alternatively, the various socialist, Marxist, utopian ideas, all one way or another had come to very bad ends, or had many unintended consequences. The utopian socialism ended up with Stalin. The progressive science had just given us Hiroshima, and nothing was incapable of preventing the rise of nationalism and fascism.

So, in a sense, Berlin is talking at a time when everyone is questioning what were the core assumptions that we have been operating by, what is their history and how do things go wrong? And Berlin is a great defender of liberty, and he looks back at the origins of our contemporary notions of liberty in the Enlightenment, and wants to look at different representative thinkers, and look at the ways their ideas contained within them some of the problems that later emerged.

When we talk about freedom and its betrayal, it's not as if there are these pure promulgators of freedom who are betrayed by some kind of Judas who opposed those ideas. It's much more that the different pictures of freedom itself contain within them their own contradictions, and this was an idea that was in some ways simultaneously worked through by Adorno and Horkheimer and the Frankfurt School. They write of the dialectic of the Enlightenment as another kind of critique of how Enlightenment thinking which starts with a great belief in the rational and progress, devolves into scientism and instrumental thinking and how this again turns on itself. But Berlin goes back to some people we think of as relatively obscure now and we don't read directly. They each in their own way represent a way of thinking that underlies our different conceptions of the good life.

He says that the primary political question of the day was: Why should people obey anyone? What is the foundation or grounds for government and political hierarchy? I think that we might look at some of these people also in terms of the question of the older philosophical questions of how should we live, and what does it mean to organize an ideal society? What we have here is the heady gaze leading up to the French revolution, and this first great overthrow of monarchy, and a replacement of it by some grand experiment.

So, in a sense, in the 18th century, people are really first questioning the whole religious political framework which had been taken for granted for centuries. One way or another, the religious authority of the church and the authority of the kings had been conflated into the idea of the divine right of kings, that there was a natural order to the universe that included not just a physical and biological order, but a social and political order, and that the hierarchy of people and classes was presumed in some sense to be God given.

The English had their first experiment of overthrowing this in the 17th century, and they did this remarkable thing of cutting off the head of King Charles, and they, under Cromwell, had an experiment in revolutionary democracy, but the great landowners and bourgeoise got cold feet, and they opted for increased powers of parliament, but got themselves a new king. They decided they did not like the taste of freedom they had given themselves. Too much was up for grabs all at once. So they adopted a parliamentary democracy, where they had a king, but with some sense of checks from below. But the French, they didn't do anything halfway, and when they cut off their king's head, they had a serious revolution and wanted to start from scratch in creating an ideal society. In many people's opinion that also went horribly wrong, and then what starts out as the pursuit of freedom ends in the terror and order is only restored with the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Student: . . . . .

Barry: Well, they were treated under a certain system of government, under a certain power structure. Everybody who was at the bottom of this power structure clearly was poor and pissed off, and they wanted it changed, but their ideas of how it should change and what should be put into its place were all over the map, and these different thinkers were versions of the map of the territory of their ideas of what was wrong and what should be done differently.

Students: . . . . .

Barry: The American Revolution didn't work out for everybody, but yes, as far as experiments go, it worked better than the French.

What I want to say as an introduction to this essay is that Berlin sets up two canonical figures as bookends to all these people. On the one hand it's Newton and on the other it's Marx. And in a certain sense, he’s looking at how one led to the other. He's looking at how a certain scientific secularized worldview that led to a notion of determinism was carried over into the social sciences and led to the kind of expectation that what Newton did for physics, somebody should be able to do for politics and economics and history, and in a certain sense, Marx became the ultimate person who was put forward as the Newton of economics.

Student: . . . . .

Barry: These thinkers, in one way or another, all adopted the fantasy of a Newton for politics. And so what I'd like to read first here is a section from the introduction. It's on page 6 of this book.

"But all these men were overtopped by Newton, whose eminence was unique in the annals of mankind. Among all the men of his age the radiation of his name and achievement really was the greatest. He was praised by the poets, he was praised by the prose writers. He was regarded almost as a semi-divine being. He was so regarded because people thought that at last the whole of physical nature had been adequately and completely explained. This was because Newton had triumphantly managed to express in very few, very simple and very easily communicable formulae laws from which every movement and every position of every particle of matter in the universe could in principle be deduced. Everything which had previously been explained by other means, sometimes theologically, sometimes in terms of obscure metaphysics, at last seemed bathed in the light of the new science. Everything was interconnected, everything was harmonious, everything could be deduced from everything else. The laws in terms of which this could be done were, again, very few and easily acquired by anyone who chose to take the trouble to learn them. One needed for this no special faculty, no theological insight, no metaphysical gifts, merely the power of clear reasoning and of impartial observation, and of verifying observations by means of specially arranged experiment wherever this was possible.

“In the sphere of politics, in the sphere of morals, no such coordinating principle, no such authority, could apparently be found. If it was asked why I should obey the ruler or rulers of the State, why anyone should ever obey anyone else, the answers were altogether too many and too various. Because, as some said, this was the word of God, vouchsafed in a sacred text of supernatural origin; or perhaps by direct revelation to men whose authority in these matters is recognised through the medium of a Church; or perhaps given by direct revelation to the individual himself. Or because God had himself ordained the great pyramid of the world -- that is what someone like Filmer said in the seventeenth century, for example, or the great French bishop Bossuet. The king must be obeyed because this is the order of the world, commanded by God, and perceived by both reason and faith, and the commands of God are absolute, and to ask for the source of their authority is itself impious. Because, said others, the command to obey the ruler is issued by the ruler, or by his agents. The law is what the ruler wills, and because he wills it, whatever his motive, it may not be examined at all. That is the theory of absolute monarchy.”

Student: . . . . .

Barry: I think his biography is, as you said, much more complicated than we imagine, but again the dilemma is that his discoveries in one realm became the basis of a metaphor for how to think about things in another realm and that becomes the great achievement. Berlin elsewhere says there are basically three kinds of problems in the world. We can arrange them in three heaps, he says. The first kinds of problems are mathematical and logical problems and they are like a problem in chess. The problems are solvable entirely in terms of what’s internal to the definition of the terms. If we know algebra or mathematics or the rules of chess or logic, the problem is the rules of those things. We can figure it out in terms of what are the axioms of that system. We don’t need anything from the outside to solve the problem.

The second kind of problems are empirical problems where you solve them by going out and discovering some kind of new information that you didn’t have before. If you want to try to figure out how the heart works or how blood is pumped you have to do experiments and examine the body to understand the physiology of things and it’s not something that can simply be deduced from an armchair. You have to actually poke around inside the body and see how the damn thing works. It’s an empirical kind of science. You have to learn about it. The third kind of problems are the ones he calls philosophical problems where the problems are problems by virtue of the concepts that we use to organize our experience so that when we examine something philosophically we’re not looking for new information and we’re not simply rearranging the pieces on the chessboard. We’re asking what are the concepts or metaphors we’re using to frame the problem in the first place.

With Newton, what happens is we get this powerful metaphor taken from physics that says everything has a terminal cause and predictable effect given your understanding of the underlying laws of nature and this became the basis of a kind of background unquestioned metaphorical way of thinking about things so that for a while it became the assumption that naturally what we’re trying to do is extend that into as many spheres as possible. Newton’s way of looking at things is absolutely true, then everything that happens has to be compatible with that, and we want to get our so-called soft sciences of things, like psychology and history, in line with the hard sciences because they are demonstrably foundational.

Student . . . . .

Barry: In our own time we got in the grip of the metaphor of the computer of the mind and so that metaphor was so compelling that people just assumed that the mind must be a representational and computational machine that we could in some way or another replicate. And it was assumed that this was simply a matter of brute technology, of finally figuring out how to generate enough computations in a computer that would replicate what the brain was doing because the brain must itself be a computer. It’s only with great difficulty that we tear ourselves away from the idea that what the brain is doing is computing. It was for so long considered a settled matter of fact, that it wasn’t even called into question and making we’re making the wrong analogy here.

Student . . . . .

Barry: What happened is that finally some people got some data that made them pay attention to what certain philosophers had been saying for a long time. You can look at what Dreyfus was writing about in the 60s about why AI wasn’t going to work. People brought in all sorts of philosophical objections that the cognitive science people refused to look at because they had the answer: it was a computer, period. What I want to argue is that we get in the grip of the metaphor.

So Berlin wants to say that Newton is the purveyor of the great metaphor of physics. These different thinkers in one way or another are going to try to extend from science into history and politics. The idea in a way is to give a whole new foundation to the political order. What we call the Enlightenment is the sweeping away of the theological underpinnings of society and the sweeping away of monarchy as an unexamined given in the realm of politics and this happens because people are beginning to think that we can use reason and science to understand the order of the universe and society in a way that doesn’t rely on the Bible or history to say how things are supposed to be. This was an enormously liberating idea. It gets you out from under the thumb of the Church and out from under the thumb of the king and says you have the right to think for yourselves and try to devise how society should be organized, for the first time anybody is doing this, or the first time in a very long time, since Greece, anyway.

Student . . . .

Barry: Newton sweeps away plurality or pluralism. Berlin is the great champion of pluralism. What he is saying is that one of the great faults of these thinkers is what he calls onism -- one size fits all, a way of life for everybody. One of the unexamined assumptions here is that there is such a thing as one good society for everybody, everywhere, in all times, in all places. When we think about physics we don’t think about, well, this is a pretty good physics experiment for the twentieth century, but obviously we didn’t need this physics in the nineteenth century and we don’t need it in China. Physics was ahistorical, timeless and universal. The fantasy was that there was going to be some social equivalent of this that is timeless.

Now this might seem like a completely crazy idea that there would be a timeless right way to live and he’d probably have to be as crazy as someone like Dogen to believe that. We are part of the tradition that has a book that says there really is a timeless right way to live that is the expression of Buddha nature. He doesn’t just say zazen is the expression of enlightenment. He says this whole monastic form of life is that. It’s like our Bible, it’s like our Deuteronomy with all the rules of daily conduct, and I think we have to use something like what we read in Berlin to realize the extent to which the lineage practice contains within it these assumptions that purport to be timeless, purport to be completely accultural, that when you look at koans, the Mumon koan commentary says that when you penetrate Mu you will see through the eyes of the patriarch, your eyebrows will be entangled with theirs, your vision will be identical with theirs, and there’s a whole sense that the lineage means that my realization is the realization of Renzai, it is the realization of Shakyamuni.

Student . . . . .

Barry: There’s some way in which it is almost at the level of physical sensation, of shining the light, that somehow this is going to be true for all people no matter where they are, in any kind of circumstance. This is just a metaphor, and when we think about it there is nothing else that we would ascribe that to any other cultural realm. It’s really analogous to physics which really is like saying the law of thermodynamics or enertia is the same now as for Buddha. And in fact a lot of Buddhism is that kind of natural theology where it wants to ground a kind of religious insight into the way the world is, where we have an understanding of how the whole world works based on ideas of impermanence and interdependence, that is true in all places for all time and there is therefore a certain kind of psychological reality and insight that is going to be true for all places and for all times. That’s really the underlying assumption. I think that a big part of what happens in western Buddhism is saying that that assumption is just that -- it’s an assumption -- and we can’t find any way to really justify that in any other way when we think about things.

Student . . . . .

Barry: I think Berlin wants to come around eventually to the idea that there are lots of explanations as opposed to none or one, but some of these are incompatible with each other and there’s no place to stand between them. But the picture he presents here with Newton is that we’ve left an age of religious certainty and we immediately replaced it with scientific certainty. And we could not do without certainty so it’s the beginning of scientism where science is going to provide the order and certainty that religion provided. We’re not going to have revelation any more.

Student . . . .

Barry: There are two kinds of issues there. One is whether science itself has some things in it that we have to take on faith. The second issue is sociological, that says, science has moved into the niche vacated by religion where it now becomes the foundational metaphor and explanatory system. Everything has to get referred back to that the way everything else used to get referred back to the Bible. It occupies the place of religion. The great danger here is that of certainty, the absoluteness of your answer which in some sense replicates religious fundamentalism.

Let’s read a little bit on the first

Helvetius . . . or Helvetii . . . I was trying to find the correct pronunciation. He was a Frenchman with a Latinized name. I’m not going to try to tell you how to say it.

Student . . . . .

Barry: Yes, it’s a Latin version but because he was living in France it seems like they may have pronounced it Helvetii, but after today you’ll never hear it pronounced again so. . . .

Helvetii is trying to do for politics what Newton did. Here on page 12 it says:

“His lifelong aim was the search for a single principle which was to define the basis of morality and really answer the questions about how society should be founded and how man should live and where he should go and what he should do, with the same degree of scientific authority that Newton had displayed in the realm of physics. And Helvetius thought he had found it, and therefore supposed himself to be the founder of a great new science, whereby he could put in order, at long last, this vast moral and political chaos. He thought himself, in short, to be the Newton of politics. . . . [To quote Condorcet ]: ‘As mathematics and physics perfect the arts of supplying our simple needs, is it not part of the same order of nature that progress in the moral and political sciences should exercise the same effect on the motives which rule our actions and feelings?’”

He thinks he has found the equivalent answer and he explains it in a little parable here, one paragraph long. He says: Imagine the dialogue between God and man, which is sort of ironic because he doesn’t believe in God, but what he is doing is setting up this little parable of the orange and the fish and putting it in the old language of man and God. On page 13

“[Helvetius] makes God say to man: ‘I endow thee with sensibility. It by this alone that thou, blind tool of my wishes, incapable of plumbing my aims, thou must, without knowing, fulfil my purposes. Over thee I set pleasure and pain; the one and the other will watch over thy thoughts and acts, excite thy aversions, friendships, tender sentiments, joys, set on fire thy desires, fears, hopes, reveal to thee truths, plunge thee in error, and after causing thee to generate a million various absurd systems of morals and legislation, will one day disclose to thee the simple principles of the development on which depend the order and happiness of the moral world.’”

And Berlin comments, “What is this but the first clear formulation of the principle of utilitarianism? According to this principle, the only thing which men wish is pleasure, and the only things which men wish to avoid are pains. The pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain are the only motives which in fact act upon men, as gravitation and other physical principles are said to act on inanimate bodies. At last we have discovered the central principle.”

In another sense what you have here is now a radical humanism being proposed that the lynchpin or the spring of society is going to be found in human psychology. It’s not found in any order of the universe.

Student . . . . .

Barry: Pavlov has this kind of basic utilitarian idea in which you can use pain and pleasure for conditioning except here we’ve got folks who want to do it on a grand scale, not just working with dogs. But I think what is both positive and negative about this is the radical psychologizing of morality. It used to be that what was moral was something that was divinely given and was intended to shape and organize human life according to a higher notion of the good. Most of the time when people from Plato on talk about morality, they talk about it in terms of some higher goods, that they’re going to be motivations, some of which are going to be better than others, on moral or ethical grounds. One way or another we want to say that charity is better than greed. We want to set up some hierarchy of valuing courage over theft, but the idea is that there was some great notion of what good often capitalized on what being good meant. It might have something to do with what was most divine in human nature and what was most base, and trying to support the divine or most human compared to what was most animal or most base in us. This kind of morality was a process of separating the good and the bad and somebody was explaining to us which was which. Because left to our own devices, we were making a mess of things.

Student . . . . .

Barry: Christ is a revelation of pure goodness. He’s saying things like “charity and meekness are better than things like happiness and wealth and success.” He was creating a radically non-commonsensical hierarchy of values.

Student . . . . .

Barry: It’s ethics, but it’s not one based on pleasure and pain. It’s not one based on eudainomia, it’s not one based on your individual personal flourishing. It’s based on salvation, based on your following commandments and in many ways subjugating your desire from pleasure, not giving way to it.

Student . . . . .

Barry: Every one of these guys here sees himself as the best and the brightest and is going to tell you how we should run things.

Student . . . . .

Barry: The idea, as you said with Pavlov, is that we can set up institutions for conditioning, and Helvetii is a great believer in education. He wants to get ahold of children and organize them with a carrot and a stick in a way that will make them good, happy citizens. But it’s a very top-down kind of process.

Student . . . . .

Barry: And so he says, “How is the good, new society to be organized? Certainly it cannot be a democracy, for people are often stupid and often vicious, and we know if we are guided by public opinion we shall seldom get anything done, because men have dwelt in darkness too long to be able to know what to do when they suddenly find themselves in the light of day.” This is on page 20.

Student . . . . .

Barry: This is Berlin’s great criticism here: He’s saying what we have here is a guy who wants to get rid of the old and present hierarchies of church and state and replace them with something that he’s claiming is both scientific and geared toward your happiness. The only problem is that he wants to be in charge of it.

Student . . . . .

Barry: Let me read one other paragraph, pages 22-23: “One thing is clear: in the kind of universe that Helvetius depicts there is little or no room for individual liberty. In his world men may become happy, but the notion of liberty eventually disappears. It disappears because liberty to do evil disappears, since everyone has now been conditioned to only do what is good. We have become like animals trained to seek only that which is useful to us.” This becomes a brave new world.

Student . . . . .

Barry: Here are some of the other assumptions that get overridden by this picture, page 23. The specialists are given supreme power because they understand how to run things, but the second, “. . . all ultimate ends are compatible with each other. They cannot clash. This proposition has often been refuted by human experience. For example, liberty, which is an ultimate purpose of some, has at times been found to be incompatible with equality which is an ultimate goal for others. It is difficult to see why honour should always and automatically be compatible with patriotism. The great tragedies -- those written by the Greek dramatists -- are largely concerned with the fatal collision of values which cannot be reconciled.

Precisely this was denied in the eighteenth century because the most widespread belief of that age looked on nature as harmonious, and to say that nature was a harmony must mean to say that nothing real or valuable in it can conflict with anything else that is real and valuable. In fact this belief rests on a false analogy from logic and geometry. Just as in logic and in geometry, no true proposition can be incompatible with any other true proposition, so no value in the moral universe, if the moral universe is in harmony of which there is a science, can conflict with any other value, and Condorcet can say with great firmness that ‘nature binds by an unbreakable chain truth, happiness and virtue.’”

This idea that nature is harmonious and harmony means values cannot clash again is something deeply ingrained in Buddhism. As Buddhists we live in this harmonious world in which the real ultimate answers can’t clash with each other. It’s really all supposed to fit together. Berlin is really talking about a different kind of world, a world that has room for tragedy, and irreconcilable conflicts, and values that are equally true but incompatible. One of his favorite expressions is that liberty for the wolves is death to the lambs. That there is always going to be a conflict between values and natures, the nature of lambs and wolves. And the fantasy of harmony quickly becomes a program of tyranny.

I think that he would find something of that in the monasteries. Whatever virtues are being cultivated in the monastery, liberty is not high on the list. And that may be perfectly reasonable in a training setting concerning the amount of time. But if you think that the monastery is a model for the idea of society and when Zen teachers came to America and established monasteries, they also established communities and thought that the enlightened teachers who set up the monasteries also came to organize a Zen community on enlightened grounds because who better would know two people should live their lives than a Zen master. Pluralism got lost and certainly liberty was not high on the list of virtues to be cultivated.

I think we have to end with that now. I think the point of this is not to see how different somebody like Helvetii is from us but how much alike they were. Thank you all.

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