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Political Ideas in the Romantic Age
by Isaiah Berlin
Their Rise and Influence on Modern Philosophy.
Notes on the book by Isaiah Berlin associated with his Mary Flexner lectures at Bryn Mawr, Spring 1952.
".. the ur-text or 'torso', as Berlin called it, from which a great deal of his subsequent work was derived .."
An introduction to the book, and its place in Berlin's work, by Joshua L. Cherniss.
Editor's Preface
".. the ur-text or 'torso', as Berlin called it, from which a great deal of his subsequent work was derived .."
The book is the 'torso' of a book, never completed, intended to accompany the Flexner Lectures which Berlin gave at Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, in the spring of 1952. It is the longest continuous text he ever wrote, at over 100 thousand words, his subsequent work being primarily in the form of essays. This editor's preface is the story of how the work came to be written and published.
The Subject of the Lectures
In a letter to the President of Bryn Mawr Berlin writes:
"What I should like to talk about is the different fundamental approaches to social and political problems, e.g.
  • the Utilitarian;
  • that of the Enlightenment (rational and sentimental) from the Encyclopaedia to the French Revolution;
  • the Authoritarian-Reactionary (Maistre and his allies);
  • the Romantic;
  • the technocratic-scientific (Saint-Simon and his followers); and perhaps
  • the Marxist"
In these we find stated, with greater vigour and clarity, the principles which lie behind contemporary political debate.
Isaiah Berlin's Political Ideas
An introduction to the book, and its place in Berlin's work, by Joshua L. Cherniss.

Interesting in placing this work relative to Berlin's other books, this being an early work covering ground over which Berlin passed many times. The material here is only partly specific to this book and serves also as a more general account of Berlin's work.

The Influence of Political Thought and Berlin's Sense of Place
Berlin said in 1958:
"there has, perhaps, been no time in modern history when so large a number of human beings [...] have had their notions, and indeed their lives so deeply altered, and in some cases violently upset, by fanatically held social and political doctrines."
Berlin conceived his own role as that of understanding the influence of such men, exposing their errors, and of providing a clearer and truer understanding of reality.
Political Philosophy and History
"[E]ach poltical philosophy responds to the needs of its own times and is fully intelligible only in terms of all the relevant factors of its age, and intelligible to us only to the degree to which (and it is a far larger one than some modern relativists wish to persuade us that it is) we have experience in common with previous generations."
Theories arising in different historical contexts are incommensurable.
The Significance of The Period of Interest

The period in question is that around the French Revolution, roughly centred on the turn of the nineteenth century. This is the period according to Berlin in which the terms of contemporary political discourse were established, in which the concepts, language, images and metaphors were generated. Berlin claims here (but had seemed previously to deny) that the issues debated were "literally identical" with those of his time (then the 1950s).

To the influence of the Enlightenment are traced both liberalism and communism. Rousseau, seen both as an adherent and a passionate critic of the Enlightenment, breaking with its materialism and scientism, but not with its rationalism or its belief in the compatibility of liberty and order, was the intellectual progenitor of individualism, authoritarianism, nationalism and freedom-fighters.

Conceptions of Liberty

Though not explicitly focused on liberty, it is central to Berlin's account. The central question of political philosophy, he writes here, is that of liberty and obedience (why should anyone obey anyone else?).

Politics as a Descriptive Science
The Idea of Freedom
Two Concepts of Freedom, Romantic and Liberal
The Romantic Will

This is notes on a look forward to pp. 193-?? in search of an account of Berlin's conception of Romanticism.

The discussion here is about what Berlin calls the positive notion of liberty, which is something to do with not merely being subject to no contraint (the negative concept of liberty) but also as involving the imposition by the subject of his will upon his environment. From the mere conception of this extended notion of liberty he moves to the idea that the value of an individual consists in the degree to which he is capable of imposing his will. This Berlin identifies as a key new idea in European thought at the time.

Berlin's story does seem to me confused here, for he glides from one idea to the next completely different (if connected) idea, as if he was still talking about the same thing.

Where we end up is with this change which Berlin locates in the 19th century. Prior to this change heroism is laudable only if it is exercised in a just cause. After this change, heroism becomes laudable in itself and unconditionally irrespective of whether anyone other than the hero concurs with the cause:

"The new romantic hero of the nineteenth century is someone - anyone - who is sufficiently disinterested, pure-hearted, incorruptible to be able to lay down his life for the sake of his inner ideal."

This "heroism" comes in many forms, for example, the artist as hero, devoted to the realisation of his inner vision. (Here the "laying down of life" is transmuted into a more moderate devotion of life.) Berlin seem to me to have two distinct things in here of which it seems to me the most central and consistent one is the change from absolute values to personal values. A new absolute value seems to be suggested, that we judge people by how well their actions conform to their own inner vision, i.e. their own value system, rather than by how they measure up against our own or against some supposedly absolute system of values. I think we are here at least on the brink if not over it, of incoherence.

The other element which is the idea that there is some kind of heroic self sacrifice involved, the extremity of which varies (some heroes it seems must sacrifice their lives, Beethoven and perhaps other artists need only sacrifice social niceties.)

The March of History
Appendix: Subjective versus Objective Ethics

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