Negative and Positive Liberty: A Short History

The distinction between negative and positive liberty was famously discussed by Isaiah Berlin in his 1958 lecture ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’. The essay is very widely quoted which is very odd in some respects since it is not a very good paper. It is readable introduction to the distinction in very vague terms. It refers to a distinction between freedom from restraint and freedom to improve the self. The essay vaguely gestures at Eighteenth Century origins without explaining them. The essay has a very polemical purposes, delivered as it was 13 years after the end of World War Two and 5 years after the death of Stalin. Berlin emphasises the value of negative liberty in distinguishing liberal democracy from Fascist and Marxist-Leninist totalitarianism, while leaving some room for the idea of liberty as the pursuit of human perfection.

There’s a lot more going on, here is a list with so elements of a discussion.

Seventeenth Century.
Hobbes
defines liberty as freedom from physical restraint. The political regime is irrelevant. Ancient ideas of political liberty are an illusion. A regime based on monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy all rest on obedience to sovereign authority.

Eighteenth Century
Montesquieu
distinguishes between Ancient Republicanism and modern Monarchy.
Republicanism is Democratic, resting on the Principle of Virtue Or
Republicanism is Aristocratic, resting on the Principle of Moderation
Monarchy rests on the principle of Honour, which is refers to Ambition.
Monarchy offers freedom absent in Despotism which rests on the principle of fear.
In all regimes Montesquieu is concerned with liberty. Ancient Republicanism gives liberty on the basis of following a character of Virtue or Moderation, linking the right to political freedom with perfection of the self. Monarchy gives liberty through honour, the principle of competitive self-interest detached from political rights.
Kant
Morality refers to positive duties/freedom and negative duties/freedom. There are negative duties limit us from harming ourselves or others. There are positive duties which encourage us to be concerned with the gaols, and ends, of others.
Negative freedom in Kant is freedom from harming the self.
Positive freedom is the freedom to perfect the self from impurity, positive freedom is willing the good of all, the perfection of humanity as a whole.
Constant Liberty of the Ancients and the Moderns Hunboldt Negative Welfare and Positive Welfare
Humboldt: in the Ancient world, the state protected the negative welfare of the population, which refers to protecting its security.
In the Ancient world, the state protected the positive welfare of the people by acting to improve their souls.
In the modern world, state power is more dangerous because the possibilities of control and interference are much greater. In the Ancient world, dependence on the state was limited by the individual’s struggle with nature to survive and struggle with neighbouring states as as a soldier. Positive welfare in the modern world means the state bureaucracy interfering with the economy and providing social welfare for the poor. These measures result in a constant increase in the size of the state, and in a growing dependence of individuals on the state.

Hegel
Morality and Ethical Community
In the freedom of private morality and conscience the individual is free from external constraint but has no external constraint on its consciousness and actions which are dangerously self-centred.
In the freedom of ethical community, the individual finds it is free through the family, civil society and the state, which all create the conditions for the individual to enjoy freedom though family relations, the economic corporations of civil society, the way in which the state establishes law.
In the Ancient world, the individual sees itself in the state and community of its limited social world. Following Montesquieu, Hegel suggests that in the Ancient world the state is identical with the community. In the modern world, the state is distinct from the complex structure of the community, which contains a complex civil society.
For Hegel, the complexity of the modern world gives more space for individual freedom, while establishing a a state which is the condition of modern liberty under laws.

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