The May 13th issue of The Chronicle Review had a very interesting piece titled “Two Spirits of Liberty.” The article discussed two very, very different personalities: firebrand author and social critic Christopher Hitchens, and the liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin. It begins with the excoriation Hitchens made of Berlin after his death, arguing that Berlin was “simultaneously pompous and dishonest in the face of a long moral crisis where his views and his connections could have made a difference.” The author of the essay, Timothy Garton Ash, uses this evaluation to introduce a contrast of his own, the contrast between “two spirits of liberty”–the spirit of courage [Hitchens] and the spirit of tolerance [Berlin].
In Ash’s view, Hitchens was “outspoken, outrageous, never afraid to offend, impressively undeterred by Islamist death threats….brave, and utterly consistent in his defense of free speech.” However, he also was “almost never prepared to admit that he had been wrong.” By contrast, Berlin was “not notable for his courage,” yet he was “one of the most eloquent, consistent defenders of a liberalism which creates and defends the space in which people…can battle it out in freedom…Berlin personified…an extraordinary gift for empathy, that ability to get inside very different heads and hearts which is a distinguishing mark of the liberal imagination.”
Ash’s point, as you might imagine, is that both spirits are necessary–even though they often despise each other! Ash writes, “A world composed entirely of Hitchenses would tend to intolerance. It would be a permanent, if often amusing, shouting match….A world composed entirely of Berlins would tend to relativism and excessive tolerance for the sworn enemies of tolerance.” [Ash also argues that the tension between these two “spirits” predates both men by centuries, and offers the 16th century example of Luther and Erasmus as a case in point.]
I found the essay really interesting and quite on target. All of us, I think, favor one spirit or the other in our own public voices, and we rarely manifest both in equal measure. [Although Ash argues that Vaclav Havel came pretty close to that equilibrium.] Each has its gifts and liabilities, of course, but again, the overarching point is that “freedom needs both.” The challenge, I suppose, is in being able to be honest with oneself about one’s own weaknesses while also being able to see the value in another “spirit” very different from one’s own. Can you have Luther without Erasmus, or Erasmus without Luther? Maybe–but I think they are better together.