In these troubling times, I find relief in reading historical works that explain how we got into the mess we’re in. I’m a huge fan of Isaiah Berlin, a polymath who wrote about philosophy and history and politics with clarity and wit. Freedom And Its Betrayal is a collection of Berlin’s radio lectures on the BBC in 1952. In these brief lectures, Berlin shows how the ideas of key thinkers influence the politics and events of today.

My favorite lecture is on an historical figure I was unfamiliar with: Claude-Adrien Helvetius (1715-1776). Helvetius was a man of extreme positions. He believed most people were stupid so he advised the Government on the proper approach to Education. “[Educators] must not waste time on history because history is nothing but the talk of crimes and follies of mankind. It may have certain lessons to teach us–one may teach history if it is only to show why it is that humanity, as a result of being ruled by knaves, as a result of being duped too much by its earlier rulers, has not done as well as it might.” (p. 18)

Isaiah Berlin proceeds to expose the anti-liberty aspects of the thoughts and writings of Rousseau who thought that “Man was born free and yet everywhere he is in chains.” Liberty needs rules and a Government to enforce them. Rousseau believed freedom could just happen “naturally.” Oops!

Fichte and Hegel believed History was the key factor in Life. Their writing focused on the patterns that create Historical movements and unleash the power of Ideas. Saint-Simon introduced Economics as the key factor in History. It was Saint-Simon that created the various income classes that Karl Marx would later use in his Communism writings. Maistre asserted the Divine Right of Kings and urged the elites that ran France to keep power away from the people.

If you’re interested in politics and history, Freedom And It’s Betrayal makes for wonderful reading. GRADE: A
Table of Contents
Foreword by Enrique Krauze xi
Editor’s Preface xxiii
Introduction 1
Helvétius 11
Rousseau 28
Fichte 53
Hegel 80
Saint-Simon 113
Maistre 142
Appendix to the Second Edition
‘Two Concepts of Liberty’: Early Texts 169
References 269
Index 293


  1. Deb

    More and more these days I think of a quote attributed to Julius Caesar (although I doubt he said it): There are always more fools than wise men in any society—and the majority is always bound to have the upper-hand.”

  2. Jeff Meyerson

    I’m going to pass on this one. Too many books I want to read, no need to get more depressed about where we’re headed.

    1. george Post author

      Jeff, the news about Elizabeth Warren surging in Iowa brought some smiles to some faces in this house. Patrick took the train from NYC to Washington, D.C. yesterday.

      1. george Post author

        Jeff, the Wall Street Journal claims if Elizabeth Warren is the Democratic Candidate she’ll lose 47 states. Another McGovern moment, perhaps…

      2. Todd Mason

        But, then, George, the JOURNAL is very eager to Not have Warren nor Sanders nor anyone to the left of Biden or Klobuchar in the running; Delaney would be Their Democrat. McGovern had a Biden/H. Clinton-level of incompetence in his ’72 national campaign, and atop that an unfortunate inability most of the time to not deliver his speeches in a sing-song manner that didn’t inspire confidence. Nixon, of course, was also a fairly adept paranoid politician; Trump in comparison is a blitherer, and Warren is rather better at campaigning (and, I suspect, at campaign structure) than McGovern ever chose to be.

        It would help if we quit pretending that the markets were an indicator of economic health for the nation rather than for speculators. I suspect that Trump and his chief manipulators such as McConnell might well have made enough enemies, and certainly a Democrat who actually demonstrates interest in something beyond saving the banking system as it currently serves itself will be a much stronger contender than what the neoliberals in the party have been offering since the Dukakis campaign. But can the neolibs resist the temptation to undermine anyone not of their camp?

      3. george Post author

        Todd, as James Carville famously said, “It’s the Economy, stupid.” The Wall Street Journal and their readers take that to heart. Elizabeth Warren (and to a lesser extent, Bernie) scares them to death because changes to the economic system to promote a more equitable distribution of wealth would take money away from them.

  3. Todd Mason

    I’m not sure Government, particularly with a big G, is ever the necessary guarantor of liberty…usually quite the opposite. Mutual aid and respect are a Lot more likely to lead to a free society. That sort of comity is almost always the missing element. Oops, indeed.

    I usually like the Berlin essays I’ve read. Should probably check into this collection.

    1. george Post author

      Todd, Isaiah Berlin always writes with wisdom and historical perspective. He rubbed elbows with the political elites of England and Europe. He knows what he’s talking about. You would enjoy Berlin’s other excellent essays.

  4. Todd Mason

    Hegel also had both the anarchist Proudhon and the socialist Marx as students, somewhat unsurprisingly given the identifying element of Hegel’s thought you cite…though three more diverse political thinkers would be difficult to corral, given Hegel’s monarchist tendencies.

    1. george Post author

      Todd, Hegel had an enormous effect on Karl Marx. I keep reading Hegel, but his tortuous prose requires plenty of concentration and focus to decipher.

  5. Patti Abbott

    I admire your reading choices. I cannot even turn on the news. I am pretty convinced only Joe Biden can win and I am not happy with that.

      1. Todd Mason

        I suspect the Ukraine situation will only help Biden, unfortunately. But Biden, I trust, will do his usual best to sink Biden’s campaign.

        I have no idea why so many want to (or even don’t want to but do) believe this dull-witted, clumsy backroom manipulator, who has never won an election outside Delaware on his own, truly Trump-Lite, is somehow the only creature who can manage to outpoll Trump. When (even) Clinton managed to outpoll the Sociopath in Chief, but ran such an amazingly inept campaign that she managed to lose through winning, with a little help from Comey and such, but most her campaign’s ineptitude.

      2. Todd Mason

        Even Radio Sputnik et al. didn’t tip the balance to the same degree. A few fewer afternoons dialing for dollars and a few more statements that demonstrated an understanding on her part of the lives of the typical Democratic voter probably would’ve driven in few more 70K voters in “key” states.

      3. george Post author

        Todd, don’t forget the effect of Third Parties on the 2016 Election. The votes for Jill Stein tipped the results in a couple states.

      4. Todd Mason

        Nope…not so much. Certainly not so much as the Democrats who stayed home or who were kept out…suppressed by either the Republican government chicanery or Democratic Party alienation/ineptitude.

      5. george Post author

        Todd, McConnell and the Senate Republicans are consumed with getting re-elected. But Trump’s antics may pull some of them down to defeat.

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