Bernard Marx A Hero In His Dreams Philosophy Essay

How many of us would like to be a game changer in a world leading to nowhe

In Two Concepts of Liberty, Berlin sets about establishing a clear concept of liberty. He begins by articulating what he perceives to be the fundamental difference between the way in which people understand liberty – namely the distinction between negative and positive liberty. The negative view of liberty, according to Berlin (2006), necessitates freedom from ‘interference by other persons’ (p. 369). The positive view, on the other hand, necessitates freedom to be ‘self-directed’ and ‘one’s own master’ (ibid., p. 397).

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Berlin’s intention was not simply to describe the two types of liberty; he stresses the dangers of the positive view, simultaneously claiming that negative liberty is ‘truer and more humane’ (ibid., p. 384). In this essay, I will critically asses Berlin’s account of negative freedom, with reference to existing contributions in the literature. Ultimately, I will argue that creating a distinction between the two types of liberty can be useful, but that Berlin is wrong to claim that the negative view is ‘truer’.

The negative view of liberty, then, concerns freedom fromexternal constraints; ‘if I am prevented by others from doing what I could otherwise do, I am to that degree unfree’ (Berlin, 2006, ibid., p. 369). Whereas the positive view concerns self-mastery: ‘I wish to be a subject, not an object; to be moved by reasons, by conscious purposes, which are my own’ (ibid., p. 373). The distinction that Berlin makes is initially valuable as, in his own words, the concept of freedom ‘is so porous that there is little interpretation that it seems able to resist’ (ibid., p. 369). While most political philosophers would agree on the desirability of freedom, ideas about the correct definition are much less unanimous.

Berlin’s aversion to positive liberty largely stems from his belief that there are too many competing human values and goals for them to be objectively prioritised – an idea referred to as ‘Moral Pluralism’ (Galston, 2011, p. 154). As Berlin himself puts it, ‘To assume that all values can be graded on one scale . . . seems to me to falsify our knowledge that men are free agents’ (ibid., p. 384). This is essentially what leads him to doubt those who claim to be capable of advocating on behalf of other people’s freedom. When put into practice, Berlin argues, citizens of a state which is free according to the positive view, would be governed by ‘such laws as they would themselves have enacted had they been asked what, as rational beings, they demanded’; but who exactly, he asks, would decide exactly what rational beings ought to desire? (ibid., p. 379). Instead, Berlin holds that individuals are only really free when they are protected from external constraints and left to make choices without interference.

Berlin does, however, accept that ‘liberty is not the only goal of man’ (ibid., p. 371) and, thus, acknowledges that there are certain situations in which freedom must be foregone in the interest of other values. Nevertheless, he is concerned that some advocates of positive liberty take this as an opportunity to falsely equate other values with freedom. In Berlin’s own words, ‘Everything is what it is: liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or culture, or human happiness’ (ibid.). This appears to be one of Berlin’s most significant justifications for claiming that the negative view is the ‘truer’ of the two conceptions of liberty. For Berlin, liberty can only be liberty in the negative sense and it ceases to be liberty when other values are included in the definition.

MacCallum (1967) criticises Berlin’s two ideas of liberty, arguing that ‘the distinction between them has never been made sufficiently clear’ (p. 312). In response to Berlin, MacCallum offers an alternative interpretation of liberty, in which freedom can be explained by a single ‘triadic relation’; between ‘agents’, ‘constraints’, and the ‘actions or conditions’ which agents are either free or not free to realise (ibid., p. 314). Unlike Berlin, he deliberately neglects to narrowly define what constitutes a constraint, in order to illustrate that every claim about liberty inevitably leads to a tension between negative and positive libertyRather than making a normative claim about the relative strengths of negative and positive liberty, MacCallum’s single concept of freedom more accurately reflects the ongoing debate between advocates of each type of liberty. In other words, there will always be disagreement over how his triadic relation is interpreted, just as there will always be disagreement over what can acceptably be considered a constraint on freedom. For instance, advocates of Berlin’s negative view argue that the constraint must be external, while advocates of the positive view argue that internal, psychological issues can also impinge on freedom. Therefore, by recognising that Berlin’s distinction is unnecessary, and that no one type of freedom can be ‘truer’ than another, MacCallum constructs an account which more accurately reflects historical discourse.

Despite the apparent persuasiveness of MacCallum’s account, Christman (2005) claims that the triadic conception of liberty is not necessarily a fatal blow to Berlin’s distinction between negative and positive liberty. In Christman’s own words, MacCallum’s work ‘does not actually dissolve the distinction, it merely locates it in a different place’ and demonstrates that ‘we should think about freedom as one overarching conceptual schema allowing for several different conceptions’ (p. 81). Berlin’s two distinctions could conceivably remain within this different understanding of freedom. Regardless, Berlin’s distinction is still useful as a way to describe the way in which liberty is contested and as a way of recognising the enduring differences in the arguments. MacCallum (1967) rightly claims that the question is not which interpretation ‘is the only, the “truest,” or the “most worthwhile” freedom’ (p. 312), but this does not mean that Berlin’s distinction is not still useful for examining arguments about how liberty should be conceptualised.

Therefore, it seems that there is at least some use in preserving distinctions between the different interpretations of freedom. I will now attempt to demonstrate that Berlin was wrong to describe negative liberty as the ‘truer’ form. Taylor (2006) highlights a fundamental flaw in Berlin’s position by supplementing the distinction between negative and positive liberty with some important detail.  Firstly, he notes that negative ideas of liberty are usually an ‘opportunity-concept’ – in that freedom concerns ‘what we can do’ and not whether ‘we do anything to exercise these options’ (p. 388). Secondly, he notes that positive theories must be an ‘exercise-concept’ – in that ‘we can’t say that someone is free, on a self-realisation view, if he is totally unrealised’ (ibid.). In other words, according to the positive view, simply having the opportunity to be free is not enough; one must then carry out the action of being free. With this distinction, Taylor cleverly isolates the problem with Berlin’s preference for negative liberty. For Berlin, freedom constitutes being free from external interference and being able to do as one desires, but, as Taylor highlights, acting on desires does not necessarily reflect self-mastery, or self-realisation (ibid., 392). Indeed, people have bad desires, which can even lead them to act in a way they know to be ‘bad or despicable’ (ibid.). Therefore, Berlin’s idea that internal struggles, or desires, cannot alone be a basis for unfreedom, is difficult to defend.

Berlin is clearly wrong, then, to neglect the role of self-realisation in the pursuit of freedom. I also agree with Taylor (2006) that Berlin presents an ‘absurd caricature’ (p. 387) of positive liberty by claiming that it risks justifying totalitarianism. Berlin’s (2006) assertion here is that, according to the positive view, ‘Liberty, so far from being incompatible with authority, becomes virtually identical with it’ (p. 380). Berlin lived and wrote during a period of history which saw ideas of positive freedom exploited to justify horrific atrocities – such as the Holocaust during World War II – and this clearly had a profound impact on his work. Thus, is it easy to understand why Berlin might be distrusting of positive liberty and it is also undeniably important to learn from our history, but he is still not justified in associating proponents of positive freedom with totalitarian regimes, based on abhorrent actions that have been carried out merely under the guise of positive freedom. In fact, I believe that, far from trying to force others to adopt their ideas, advocates of the positive view simply aspire to help others attain self-mastery, so they are better equipped to benefit from negative liberty.

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Thus, Berlin’s two concepts are not at odds with one another, rather positive liberty goes further and argues that the attainment of freedom must incorporate the idea of self-realisation. As such, I do not agree that negative liberty is the ‘truer’ form because, alone, it is clearly insufficient.

To conclude, despite MacCallum’s objections, there is clearly a use in distinguishing between the different arguments for how we should conceptualise freedom. Berlin was incorrect, however, as Christman and Taylor suggest, to claim that negative liberty is the ‘truer’ form: alone, it is insufficient, as the attainment of freedom also requires self-realisation, which necessitates freedom from internal constraints.




  • Berlin, I. (2006) ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, in R. E. Goodin and P. Pettit (eds.), Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Anthology, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 369-386.
  • Christman, J. (2005) ‘Saving Positive Freedom’, Political Theory, 33 (1), 79-88.
  • Galston, W. (2011) ‘Moral Pluralism and Liberal Democracy: Isiah Berlin’s Heterodox Liberalism’, in C. H. Zuckert (ed.), Political Philosophy in the Twentieth Century: Authors and Arguments, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 154-169.
  • MacCallum, G. C. (1967) ‘Negative and Positive Freedom’, The Philosophical Review, 76 (3), 312-334.
  • Taylor, C. (2006) ‘What’s Wrong with Negative Liberty?’, in R. E. Goodin and P. Pettit (eds.), Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Anthology, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 387-397.


Cite This Work

re but a place lacking ethics and morals, where god is forgotten and mankind is led in the wrong direction? This society created by Aldous Huxley in his novel “Brave New World” is not exactly favourable. The reader is disgusted at the morals and lifestyle of this society. Then, as Bernard enters the story, a glimmer of hope is seen. Bernard appears to be the voice of reason. He seems to see the problems of his world. Because he is different, Bernard is the source of considerable speculation and suspicion. Even Bernard’s surname recalls Karl Marx, the nineteenth-century German author best known for writing “Das Kapital”, a monumental critique of capitalist society. But it is soon seen that unlike his famous namesake, Bernard’s discontent stems from his frustrated desire to fit into his own society, rather than from a systematic or philosophical criticism of it.

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When we first meet Bernard we see him as a rebel, a protestor, “an individual.” He wants to stand up for his rights, to battle against the order of things. We later learn that Bernard questions the conformity of life in the World State and the values it teaches, but that his dissatisfaction seems to stem from his not being accepted. Up until his visit to the Reservation and the introduction of John, Bernard Marx is the central figure of the novel. Bernard’s first appearance in the novel is highly ironic. Just as the Director finishes his explanation of how the World State has successfully eliminated lovesickness and everything that goes along with frustrated desire, Huxley gives us our first glimpse into a character’s private thoughts, and that character is lovesick, jealous, and fiercely angry at his sexual rivals and the new world. Thus, while Bernard is not exactly heroic he is still interesting to the reader because he is human. He wants things that he can’t have. When he returns from the Reservation with John and Linda, he becomes celebrity, the girls who formerly ignored him become attentive, important personages in the World State curry his favour, and Bernard is happy and enthusiastic about his life in the World State.

“‘And I had six girls last week,’ he confided to Helmholtz Watson. ‘One on Monday, two on Tuesday, and two more on Friday, and one on Saturday. And if I’d had the time or the inclination, there were at least a dozen more who were only too anxious…”‘

The quote used by Bernard completely shows his willingness to use pleasure and fame of the new world he had earlier resented. John and Linda for his own gain further helps to portray him as someone who will do anything to gain social standing. Huxley indicates that Bernard’s protest is not intellectual or moral, but personal and social; he willingly accepts life in the World State when he is accepted. When John refuses to become a tool in Bernard’s attempt to remain popular, Bernard’s success collapses instantaneously. By continuing to criticize the World State while revelling in its “pleasant vices,” Bernard reveals himself to be a hypocrite. John and Helmholtz are sympathetic to him because they agree that the World State needs criticizing and because they recognize that Bernard is trapped in a body to which his conditioning has not suited him, but they have no respect for him.

While both Bernard and Helmholtz share dissatisfaction with the state of things, Bernard merely whines about it while Helmholtz actually thinks about it intensely, working toward a solution instead of harping on the problem. The most revealing test of character comes when the chips are down. Bernard in front of the controller turned inferior in contrast to John who opposes every aspect of the new world in front of Mustapha Mond, one of the ten world controllers in the story. Instead of showing his discomfort of the new world he kept silent. Both Bernard and John are living out parallel situations in opposite worlds. Both are isolated from their peers because of physical differences (John because he’s white, Bernard because he’s shorter than the other Alphas) and because of dissatisfaction with the status quo. But the way they react to these situations is very different, and that’s where the foil comes in handy; John’s fortitude highlights Bernard’s lack of courage. Looking at Bernard’s reaction to the threat of Iceland it is clearly shown he wasn’t a real rebel. He’s cocky at first, but as soon as he realizes the threat is real, he freaks out. He doesn’t have the courage of his convictions. He shows attitude of a loser as seen from his quote “‘ He pointed accusingly to Helmholtz and the Savage. ‘Oh, please don’t send me to Iceland….”‘ Eventually he even starts crying and wails like a kid.

And as much fun as it would have been for us to figure this out, Huxley tells us:

“He [Bernard] had imagined himself courageously resisting, stoically accepting suffering without a word. Now that it looked as though the threats were really to be fulfilled, Bernard was appalled. Of that imagined stoicism, that theoretical courage, not a trace was left.”

Helmholtz, on the other hand, laughs and remains calm in the face of the very same threat. He’s ready to face the consequences, and the novel rewards him for this – banishment to an island, the Controller explains, is a gift, not a punishment.

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The repulsive nature against the conversation between the assistant predestinator and Henry Foster, reveals much about Bernard Marx. Conditioning has not made him accept life as it is. He is not satisfied with his life and often refuses to take Soma, a drug which produces a feeling of happiness and well-being. Although at this point it seems genuine of Bernard’s revolt against these things it is later found out that he behaves this way only because less attention is paid to him and also cause he is physically inferior to the other Alphas. His own interest in Lenina also provokes him against this conversation. Rumours regarding his physique further make him criticize the new world. Bernard is considered odd not only because he is physically smaller than the other members of the Alpha caste, but also because he likes to spend time by himself, and he does not like to participate in sport activities. (In the World State one should always be with others, always busy, never alone.) When discussing Bernard, reference is often made to the rumour that alcohol was accidentally put in his blood – surrogate – and this supposedly accounts for his oddness. Because individuals are decanted according to specification, any deviation would seem to be the result of some mistake, some chemical imbalance. Though he says no to soma and physical pleasures he ultimately ends up using soma and having sex with Lenina. He ends being amateur and behaving to the terms of the new world, unlike John who represses all his thoughts and feeling and does not give up to the terms of the new world. In a conversation between Helmholtz and Bernard, when Helmholtz is approached by three women to go to a picnic with them and he disapproves, Bernard agrees with Helmholtz with a strong emotion of desire in his heart.

“‘Too awful.’ Bernard hypocritically agreed, wishing, as he spoke the words, that could have as many girls as Helmholtz did, and with as little trouble. He was seized with a sudden need to boast. I’m taking Lenina Crowne to New Mexico with me,’ he said in a tone as casual as he could make it.”‘

As seen from this quote Bernard’s only grudge against the New World is his loneliness, awkwardness and his weak physique and personality. Given a chance he would enjoy the New World to the fullest as he does during his little moment of popularity.

While Bernard Marx is clearly one of the main characters in Brave New World, Huxley does not present him as “the hero” or even give him any heroic qualities except, perhaps, intelligence. In spite of this – or perhaps because of it – Bernard is closer to the reader than any other character except, later on, John, “the Savage.” In some ways it seems that Huxley uses Bernhard as a means to help the reader understand the “New World” society better. John has an outsider’s view -almost everything shocks or disgusts him. Helmholtz Watson, much closer than Bernard to being a typical “hero” is such a forceful character that he always seems to be in control – the reader is invited to admire him rather than feel with him. But Bernard is bright enough to question his society, individual enough to rebel in small ways but – until the last conflict – not brave enough to reject it fully. So one can see Bernard as a kind of hero for a society without heroes – scared, confused and critical – an Everyman with whom the reader can sympathize even while finding him flawed and comical.


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