A new article on Isaiah Berlin’s concepts of positive and negative liberty, and their impact on the author’s journey into discovering how to attain greater freedom – by Joe Roberts.
“To know one’s chains is the first step to freedom, which may never come if one loves or ignores them.”
The above is a quotation which, for me, sparked a great deal of inner discourse, upon first reading it in Isaiah Berlin’s essay on freedom. Isaiah Berlin (1909–97) was a philosopher, historian of ideas, social and political theorist, educator and essayist. He founded and was the first president of Wolfson College at the University of Oxford.
I read the quotation at a time when I had recently been diagnosed with depression and it felt like it had particular relevance to me. These chains of depression had been with me, I think, from my mid-teens – for over 10 years – and therefore I had lived unbeknownst of them for a long time. The prospect of snapping off these burdens, and enjoying the warm, mind-cleansing milk of freedom was something that appealed to me. But would this really be the case? Would I, with a greater knowledge of my chains, really attain a greater level of freedom? I liked this idea, and set my mind the task of finding out.
The questions above represented a vague starting point, and before understanding how I could achieve such an unshackling, I decided I needed to be clear in my mind what freedom meant to me, and how I wanted to approach it.
Isaiah Berlin breaks freedom down into two concepts, negative and positive liberty. Negative liberty is defined as an ‘opportunity concept’ based on the interference one receives from external sources. One’s level of negative liberty is dependent on the absence of constraints from societal structures. Positive liberty is an ‘exercise concept’, defined as having power and resources to fulfil one’s own potential. If were to use an example of an able bodied prisoner clad in chains, I would say that person has positive liberty in that they are themselves able to walk. However, the chains are a restriction to their negative liberty, from which their opportunities to walk are limited.
Using Isaiah Berlin’s two concepts of liberty, I felt that my negative freedom is not much altered by finding out more of what goes on inside my head; my outside interferences are the same. My positive freedom though – I felt surely this had changed? Knowing this chain to exercising my potential, I can use my internal resources to take better advantage of the negative freedoms my life offers. By acknowledging my chain, I now have greater ‘free from’, albeit with the same ‘free to’.
The implication of the above is that I can, through greater knowledge, increase my personal freedom. But thinking this through, is knowledge not relative? One cannot attain complete knowledge. And therefore by implication, one cannot fully understand one’s chains, and these too must be relative. And indeed, if knowledge were not relative, and if one knew everything about their chains – this would surely constitute a reduction in freedom, would it not? I, through ignorance, maintain the ability to cling to distant fantasies such as running the Sahara and publishing my first novel. Am I not, in a way, freer in ignorance of my incapacities?
Perhaps here I am confusing freedom with fulfilment. But if absolute freedom means absolute knowledge of how I will live, love and die, then I think I’ll take my freedom about three quarters full, with the rest topped up with my fears, hopes and dreams. This is what drives my emotions, and it is from my emotional responses that I get my fulfilment.
I have little doubt that finding out more about my depression has bettered my life. I am undergoing treatment, and am very rarely the irritable, antisocial individual that characterised my darker days. Most of all, I don’t hate myself. When I did, I couldn’t allow myself the negative freedoms on offer; I didn’t deserve them, wasn’t worthy of them. Now I think that I, like everybody deserves to at least try and be happy, and that in itself feels like a wonderful personal freedom.
So where I am landing is this: I love knowledge, it improves my life and I want it to keep giving. I wouldn’t trade my hyperactive, troublesome brain for a more ignorant one, with simpler outlooks and greater beliefs in opportunity (despite wishing for this at certain points). But as I continue to take these steps towards freedom, there might just come a point where I decide enough is enough. I don’t need to know all the things that are above me, the ticking time bombs inside me, and to count down the days until my final demise. Rather, once I get close to such a degree of knowledge, I would rather curl up, dress my chains in flowers, and love them for being just the way they are