November 26, 2020

A few years ago, at my discussion group, we read Isaiah Berlin’s essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” (1958):

Berlin divides liberty into negative and positive.

The Stanford Encyclopedia defines negative liberty as “the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints.” It is freedom from interference or coercion. Though it has some roots in Greek philosophy (Otanes? Chrysippus?), Berlin believes it became widespread only relatively recently, in the 17th Century. It is associated with civic disengagement (and, for Chrysippus, with freedom from desire).

Positive liberty is the “possibility of acting — or the fact of acting — in such a way as to take control of one’s life and realize one’s fundamental purposes.” In other words, it is the freedom to do what one wants to do. This is the Aristotelian notion of liberty, which is civic in that it requires engagement with and involvement in society.1 It may involve acting in accordance with one’s highest desires or aspirations. In short, it’s something like self-mastery or self-actualization.

The essay has stuck with me, and I’ve occasionally thought about this distinction since then. In my recent fast, in particular, I noticed that freedom from distraction allowed for freedom to engage in activities more intentionally. In particular, by reducing the noise of everyday life, it seemed to put me more in touch with intuition, and it seemed to free me to focus on what was in front of me.

Just how different are the two types of liberty? What is their relationship? Berlin seems certain that they are distinct, at least politically. In some cases they may even be opposites — extreme pursuit of negative liberty might involve leaving society entirely, whereas extreme pursuit of positive liberty might lead one to sacrifice one’s life for society.

Is the distinction useful in the life of an individual?

Answering for myself, I suspect that negative freedom might be a necessary — but not sufficient — condition for positive freedom. Having free time, freedom from coercion, and freedom from distractions all seem elements to a life lived intentionally. On the other hand, certain of the Stoics (like Epictetus, who was born a slave) might argue that one’s freedom should be independent of circumstances, some of which are always out of one’s control.

Since the fast, I’ve been trying to think about which aspects of the experience made it seem so freeing, and which were more trouble than they were worth.

I’m starting to suspect that it may be more to do with screenlessness than it is to do with silence, with food, or with meditation. I noticed the disruptive role of screens in my earlier retreat as well, but I think it warrants further consideration.

  1. I think the Epicureans believed that political engagement caused unhappiness, and therefore advocated against it; that would put them on the side of negative liberty (but please correct me if I’m wrong).

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter, follow me on Mastodon, or see more here.