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Isaiah Berlin is regarded by many as one of the greatest historians of ideas of his time. In The Crooked Timber of Humanity, he argues passionately, eloquently, and subtly, that what he calls 'the Great Goods' of human aspiration - liberty, justice, equality - do not cohere and never can. Pluralism and variety of thought are not avoidable compromises, but the glory of civi Isaiah Berlin is regarded by many as one of the greatest historians of ideas of his time. In The Crooked Timber of Humanity, he argues passionately, eloquently, and subtly, that what he calls 'the Great Goods' of human aspiration - liberty, justice, equality - do not cohere and never can. Pluralism and variety of thought are not avoidable compromises, but the glory of civilisation. In an age of increasing ideological fundamentalism and intolerance we need to listen to Isaiah Berlin more carefully than ever before.


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Isaiah Berlin is regarded by many as one of the greatest historians of ideas of his time. In The Crooked Timber of Humanity, he argues passionately, eloquently, and subtly, that what he calls 'the Great Goods' of human aspiration - liberty, justice, equality - do not cohere and never can. Pluralism and variety of thought are not avoidable compromises, but the glory of civi Isaiah Berlin is regarded by many as one of the greatest historians of ideas of his time. In The Crooked Timber of Humanity, he argues passionately, eloquently, and subtly, that what he calls 'the Great Goods' of human aspiration - liberty, justice, equality - do not cohere and never can. Pluralism and variety of thought are not avoidable compromises, but the glory of civilisation. In an age of increasing ideological fundamentalism and intolerance we need to listen to Isaiah Berlin more carefully than ever before.

30 review for The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas

  1. 5 out of 5

    Ted

    It was absurd to desire to take as prisoners the Emperor, kings, and dukes, since the possession of such prisoners would have greatly enhanced the difficulty of the Russian position, as was recognized by the most clear-sighted diplomatists of the time (J. Maistre and others). L. Tolstoy, War and Peace Maistre’s works are regarded as interesting rather than important, the last despairing effort of feudalism and the dark ages to resist the march of progress. He excites the sharpest reactions: scarce It was absurd to desire to take as prisoners the Emperor, kings, and dukes, since the possession of such prisoners would have greatly enhanced the difficulty of the Russian position, as was recognized by the most clear-sighted diplomatists of the time (J. Maistre and others). L. Tolstoy, War and Peace Maistre’s works are regarded as interesting rather than important, the last despairing effort of feudalism and the dark ages to resist the march of progress. He excites the sharpest reactions: scarcely any of his critics can repress their feelings. He is represented by conservatives as a brave but doomed paladin of a lost cause, by liberals as a foolish or odious survival of an older and more heartless generation. Both sides agree that his day is done, his world has no relevance to any contemporary or any future issue. Isaiah Berlin The first quote is from Part XIV, chapter XIX, the second from the longest essay (over 80 pages) in the book here reviewed: ”Joseph de Maistre and the Origins of Fascism”. Maistre’s name is not terribly familiar any more. Given that, here’s a brief quote from his Wiki article.Joseph-Marie, comte de Maistre (1753 – 1821) was a Savoyard philosopher, writer, lawyer, and diplomat. He defended hierarchical societies and a monarchical State in the period immediately following the French Revolution. Maistre was a subject of the King of Piedmont-Sardinia, whom he served as member of the Savoy Senate (1787–1792), ambassador to Russia (1803–1817), and minister of state to the court in Turin (1817–1821).His long sojourn in Russia, during the Napoleonic years, could be assumed as the way he has crept into Tolstoy’s masterpiece; though Berlin points out several similarities of view between Maistre and Tolstoy, the latter of whom he studied in depth (see his The Hedgehog and the Fox). I’m not going to discuss Berlin’s views of these similarities. But I have brought Tolstoy into this expanded review because I want to relate the rather curious way that I came to add these new words. The fact is, when I read the passage from War and Peace above, I immediately underlined Maistre’s name, and drew a long line from it to the bottom of the page, connecting it to a large circled asterisk, with that blob followed by one of these: “!” Not only did I recognize his name from having read Crooked Timber, but I know for certain why I remembered it. Berlin writes that Maistre “looked to the Society of Jesus to act as the elite of Platonic Guardians to save the states of Europe from the fashionable and fatal aberrations of his time. But the central figure in it all, the keystone of the arch on which the whole of society depends, is a far more frightening figure than king or priest or general: it is the Executioner. The most celebrated passage in [Maistre’s] Soirees is devoted to him.” Berlin’s very long quote of this celebrated passage contains the following, which has thankfully never given me a nightmare, but has more than once kept me from sleep for a while.… in a public square covered by a dense, trembling mob. A poisoner, a parricide, a man who has committed sacrilege is tossed to him [the Executioner]: he seizes him, stretches him, ties him to a horizontal cross, he raises his arm; there is a horrible silence; there is no sound but that of bones cracking under the bars, and the shrieks of the victim. He unties him. He puts him on the wheel; the shattered limbs are entangled in the spokes; the head hangs down; the hair stands up, and the mouth gaping open like a furnace from time to time emits only a few bloodstained words to beg for death. He has finished. His heart is beating, but it is with joy: he congratulates himself, he says in his heart ‘Nobody breaks on the wheel as well as I.’ He steps down… He sits down to table, and he eats. Then he goes to bed and sleeps.At the end of his more extensive quote of the passage, Berlin writes,This is not a mere sadistic meditation about crime and punishment, but the expression of a genuine conviction, coherent with all the rest of Maistre’s passionate but lucid thought, that men can only be saved by being hemmed in by the terror of authority. They must be reminded at every instant of their lives of the frightening mystery that lies at the heart of creation; must be purged by perpetual suffering, must be humbled by being made conscious of their stupidity, malice and helplessness at every turn. War, torture, suffering are the inescapable human lot; men must bear them as best they can. Their appointed masters must do the duty laid upon them by their maker (who has made nature a hierarchical order) by the ruthless imposition of the rules – not sparing themselves – and equally ruthless extermination of the enemy. As can be guessed by the title of this essay, Berlin attempts to show that the traditional assessment of Maistre, that “his day is done, his world has no relevance to any contemporary or any future issue”, is inadequate. Maistre may have spoken the language of the past, but the content of what he had to say presaged the future… His doctrine, and still more his attitude of mind, had to wait a century before they came (as come they all too fatally did) into their own. This thesis … clearly needs evidence … This study is an endeavor to provide support for it.… to provide support, that is, for the view that Maistre’s works and thoughts are closely connected to the development of fascism in the twentieth century. This painting by Vogelstein of Maistre, ca. 1810, seems to me to capture something of the darkness in his outlook. Original review This is one of those books that when you are done reading it, you say to yourself "If only I could remember every bit of knowledge & wisdom in that book, my life would be so enriched". Of course you can't. Hopefully I will take the time during the next few years to dip into this book again and try writing an essay or a real review or a summary of some type. If I do, the first of Berlin's essays that I will revisit are "Alleged Relativism in Eighteenth-Century European Thought" and "The Apotheosis of the Romantic Will: The Revolt against the Myth of an Ideal World".

  2. 5 out of 5

    K

    The Crooked Timber of Humanity is not an ode to conformity as some radicals might describe it, but an attempt to show our complexity as human beings. Isaiah Berlin has a reputation for being a magnificent essayist but this book has exceeded my expectations. Basically, you' ll get a good grasp of his value pluralism notion and become more skeptical towards utopian ideologies. Enlightenment was the triumph of reason and logic but the romantics soon showed its flaws, depicting the human condition as The Crooked Timber of Humanity is not an ode to conformity as some radicals might describe it, but an attempt to show our complexity as human beings. Isaiah Berlin has a reputation for being a magnificent essayist but this book has exceeded my expectations. Basically, you' ll get a good grasp of his value pluralism notion and become more skeptical towards utopian ideologies. Enlightenment was the triumph of reason and logic but the romantics soon showed its flaws, depicting the human condition as a warfield where equally valid but contradictory values are in constant conflict towards one another. Soon though, romantic idealism led to the disastrous events of the 20th century, a century with endless bloodshed and suffering. Our tragedy as human beings is, that we're forced to make choices sacrificing our unreflectiveness and absolutism and perhaps one part of ourselves in this process. Ideologies offering redemption, while necessary in order to broaden our horizons, offer little else, since they fail to encapsulate what makes us who we are. Berlin draws from the counter-enlightenment tradition (a term which I think he was the first to coin) but deals all historical movements and ideas with the outmost respect. His essay on Joseph De-Maistre for example, while critical and bitter towards some of his conclusions, remains a wonderfully balanced approach to a controversial figure. It also works as a prelude towards this book's last essay-also wonderful-, which discussed the then evident rise of fascism in Europe. I wish Berlin was still alive, offering his calm and insightful thoughts in today's similar landscape. From the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Jonathan

    "From the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made." -- Immanuel Kant Isaiah Berlin sees human life as necessarily tragic, not because of human depravity in a Christian sense but because of the incompatibility of human goods. Humans will never be able to attain both perfect liberty and perfect equality, for example; they must make a difficult choice between them or seek only a partial measure of each. ("Total liberty for wolves is death to the lambs," in Berlin's famous formulat "From the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made." -- Immanuel Kant Isaiah Berlin sees human life as necessarily tragic, not because of human depravity in a Christian sense but because of the incompatibility of human goods. Humans will never be able to attain both perfect liberty and perfect equality, for example; they must make a difficult choice between them or seek only a partial measure of each. ("Total liberty for wolves is death to the lambs," in Berlin's famous formulation.) The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw terrifying ideologies arise either in denial of this fact (utopianism) or in relativistic perversion of it (nationalism) or both (fascism). Berlin suggests that the best response to the incompatibility of different goods is what he calls pluralism. Unlike relativism, he says, pluralism recognizes common human bonds that make communication -- even debate -- possible among different communities. But pluralism also recognizes that there is no comprehensive solution to human problems, and thus that other people may legitimately pursue different priorities from ours. This solution leaves much to be desired, but it might at least keep us from destroying each other. The collection seems a bit dated now, insofar as these essays were written to address mid-twentieth-century problems. One need not strain one's mind much, however, to imagine applications to the problems posed by political Islam, the "freedom agenda," European unification, or economic globalization. And Berlin's prose is a pleasure to read.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Matthew

    In this compelling examination of the historical roots of modern thinking Isaiah Berlin occupies himself with the clash of ideas between French Enlightenment thinkers on one side and a small group of irrationalist reactionaries on the other. He primarily focuses on Giambattista Vico, Johann Gottfried Herder, Joseph de Maistre and Johann Georg Hamann and discusses how their reaction against the enlightenment concept of universal truth led to the romantic movement and ultimately to fascism. Berlin In this compelling examination of the historical roots of modern thinking Isaiah Berlin occupies himself with the clash of ideas between French Enlightenment thinkers on one side and a small group of irrationalist reactionaries on the other. He primarily focuses on Giambattista Vico, Johann Gottfried Herder, Joseph de Maistre and Johann Georg Hamann and discusses how their reaction against the enlightenment concept of universal truth led to the romantic movement and ultimately to fascism. Berlin's conclusion seems to be in favor of pluralism, rejecting the dangerous idea of man-made utopias as well as the equally damaging moral relativism that led to the nihilistic worship of blood, state and leader; both concepts that resulted in the bloodbaths of the 20th century. He also has some interesting views on the rise of the nation-state as a response to colonialism and the utter failure of Marxist Internationalism. He advocates a middle ground of pluralism and acceptance of differences with the realization that there are certain modals of acceptable behavior that cross cultural divides and make us human.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Daniel Withrow

    Like The Blank Slate, this book was a life-changer for me. Reading it convinced me that radicalism in politics is ultimately self-defeating, and that irreconcilable political opponents not simply can get along, but they must get along (with some rare exceptions, viz. Nazis). Liberalism isn't acceptance of those boneheads over there, but is rather the idea that failing to give them a voice will lead to something a lot worse. Like The Blank Slate, this book was a life-changer for me. Reading it convinced me that radicalism in politics is ultimately self-defeating, and that irreconcilable political opponents not simply can get along, but they must get along (with some rare exceptions, viz. Nazis). Liberalism isn't acceptance of those boneheads over there, but is rather the idea that failing to give them a voice will lead to something a lot worse.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Patrick McCoy

    I’ve been intrigued by Isaiah Berlin ever since I found out that he was the author of the seminal essay on Tolstoy, “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” His collection of later essays, The Crooked Timber of History, was equally compelling. The first two essays, “The Pursuit of the Ideal” and “The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West,” were interesting in the discussion of the inevitable failure of utopian movements like communism and fascism due to the fact that ideals differ from culture to culture. Thi I’ve been intrigued by Isaiah Berlin ever since I found out that he was the author of the seminal essay on Tolstoy, “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” His collection of later essays, The Crooked Timber of History, was equally compelling. The first two essays, “The Pursuit of the Ideal” and “The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West,” were interesting in the discussion of the inevitable failure of utopian movements like communism and fascism due to the fact that ideals differ from culture to culture. This concept of cultural pluralism dominates the discourse in his essay, “Giambattista and Cultural History,” in which he calls Vico the true father of the modern concept of culture and cultural pluralism. The rest of the essays are equally thought provoking and compelling: “Alleged Relativism in Eighteen-Century European Thought,” Joseph de Mainstre and the Origins of Fascism,” “European Unity and its Vicissitudes,” “The Apotheosis of the Romantic Will,” and “The Bent Twig.” More often than not philosophical texts can be quite dry and hard to follow, however, I found Berlin’s style challenging but accessible.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Louis

    4/5 There are a couple of chapters in here that repeat the same theory or point multiple times. But that aside, Berlin writes (or speaks) with clarity and precision over vast epochs of intellectual history. German Romanticism, Nationalism and of course the essay which this collection is most known for, Joseph De Maistre. De Maistre was an elegant, intelligent, prophetic and bone-chilling thinker who predicted the Russian Revolution and developed a view of the world that was closely replicated amo 4/5 There are a couple of chapters in here that repeat the same theory or point multiple times. But that aside, Berlin writes (or speaks) with clarity and precision over vast epochs of intellectual history. German Romanticism, Nationalism and of course the essay which this collection is most known for, Joseph De Maistre. De Maistre was an elegant, intelligent, prophetic and bone-chilling thinker who predicted the Russian Revolution and developed a view of the world that was closely replicated among the Fascist movements of the 20th century. I'm not going to go in to anymore detail as you would be far better advised to just read Berlin's chapter on him.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Ben Cullimore

    Comprising of what are arguably his most interesting essays, The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas certainly represents a supremely engaging collection of Isaiah Berlin’s best works. Concerned with the dangers posed by utopian thought and the strengths of what he describes as being cultural pluralism, each of the eight essays contained within examine the historical roots of modern thinking and argue against the manmade utopianism that wreaked so much havoc in the twent Comprising of what are arguably his most interesting essays, The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas certainly represents a supremely engaging collection of Isaiah Berlin’s best works. Concerned with the dangers posed by utopian thought and the strengths of what he describes as being cultural pluralism, each of the eight essays contained within examine the historical roots of modern thinking and argue against the manmade utopianism that wreaked so much havoc in the twentieth century. Whilst the theme of pluralism versus utopianism is echoed not only throughout this particular collection of Berlin’s works but continually across his whole academic career, it is within The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas that Berlin is arguably at his most eloquent and convincing. ‘Joseph de Maistre and the Origins of Fascism’ is both figuratively and literally the book’s centrepiece, but ‘Giambattista Vico and Cultural History’, ‘European Union and its Vicissitudes’ and ‘The Apotheosis of the Romantic Will: The Revolt Against the Myth of an Ideal World’ are equally fascinating. However, despite how interesting and engaging a writer Berlin is, the essays contained within this offering aren’t without their faults. His arguments in favour of cultural pluralism are convincing, and he has much of worth to say about the dangers associated with utopianism, but it is when discussing where the roots of utopian thought can be found that his arguments run the risk of being damaged by their simplicity. Berlin has - rightly, in my view - been criticised for his characterisation of Enlightenment thought, and it is within certain elements of his anti-utopian diatribes that one can find unfortunate exaggerations and misreadings, as is also the case with his sometimes one-dimensional examinations of Counter-Enlightenment figures. Nonetheless, Berlin is undoubtedly a fascinating and important thinker, and The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas is a collection of essays that deserves to be repeatedly reexamined.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Shane Avery

    A collection of essays from the renown historian Isaiah Berlin, who essentially offers an entirely reasonable and nuanced argument for abandoning Platonic ideals, absolute ethical values, categorical imperatives, and quests for Utopia. Berlin offers a pluralistic, cultural approach to understanding human affairs, not unlike the Italian historian Vico. As humans, we are capable of understanding other humans, and their values, actions, and customs. We can criticise and condemn other cultures, but A collection of essays from the renown historian Isaiah Berlin, who essentially offers an entirely reasonable and nuanced argument for abandoning Platonic ideals, absolute ethical values, categorical imperatives, and quests for Utopia. Berlin offers a pluralistic, cultural approach to understanding human affairs, not unlike the Italian historian Vico. As humans, we are capable of understanding other humans, and their values, actions, and customs. We can criticise and condemn other cultures, but we must not pretend that we are incapable of understanding why different peoples act differently. To Berlin, the search for perfection is a recipe for bloodshed. One culture cannot foist values upon another, for the very reason that one cannot legislate unintended consequences, changing values, and the diversity of equally valid human ends. So it's value pluralism. But aren't there at least a few things which are universal? What are human rights?

  10. 4 out of 5

    Mitch

    A must. Berlin is one of the greatest sages of the previous century. When the misty fad of Foucault, Derrida and company has faded and we are in deep catastrophe and faced with the temptations to radical extremism violence and mad utopianism on the left and rigid reaction on the right Berlin will be needed.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Mark Singer

    A worthy successor to "Against The Current". All of the essays were informative, but the most important (to me) were "Joseph De Maistre and the Origins of Fascism", followed by "The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West", and "The Apotheosis of the Romantic Will: The Revolt against the Myth of an Ideal World". A worthy successor to "Against The Current". All of the essays were informative, but the most important (to me) were "Joseph De Maistre and the Origins of Fascism", followed by "The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West", and "The Apotheosis of the Romantic Will: The Revolt against the Myth of an Ideal World".

  12. 4 out of 5

    m

    I recommend the chapters entitled "Joseph de Maistre and the Origins of Fascism" (available for download at the New York Review of Books' website), "The Apotheosis of the Romantic Will," and "The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West." I recommend the chapters entitled "Joseph de Maistre and the Origins of Fascism" (available for download at the New York Review of Books' website), "The Apotheosis of the Romantic Will," and "The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West."

  13. 5 out of 5

    Elliot

    Some books come to you at the right time and help you articulate your own thinking. After only 30 pages, my brain is on fire. I am awestruck by Berlin's depth, intelligence and synthesis of thought. Some books come to you at the right time and help you articulate your own thinking. After only 30 pages, my brain is on fire. I am awestruck by Berlin's depth, intelligence and synthesis of thought.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Mattsmom

    Absolutely exceptional. I highly recommend this book. Stimulating, thiught provoking and brilliant. Minds get hungry and are fed by this very kind of book.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Fadi

    Very well-written articles. Rich material. Brilliant insights into the history of ideas.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Bradd Saunders

    The title chosen for this collection of Berlin’s essays is apt. Based on a quote by Immanuel Kant which says, roughly translated, that “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made,” Berlin systematically follows the idea of an imperfect world lived by imperfect beings doing their best to find a perfect way of life and discovering in the end, for one reason or another, that it’s impossible. Like the Fountain of Youth, or the Seven Cities of Cibola, or any other pot at th The title chosen for this collection of Berlin’s essays is apt. Based on a quote by Immanuel Kant which says, roughly translated, that “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made,” Berlin systematically follows the idea of an imperfect world lived by imperfect beings doing their best to find a perfect way of life and discovering in the end, for one reason or another, that it’s impossible. Like the Fountain of Youth, or the Seven Cities of Cibola, or any other pot at the end of the rainbow, the hope that we will all some day arrive at some kind of destination, figure out how to be happy and get along with each other looks as though it will always be a chimera, meaning, despite our best intentions, that the way ahead will always be crooked, surprising, and treacherous. There is no single truth. There is no answer. It’s complicated. This does not mean, according to Berlin, that we have no way of understanding each other. He believes in a set of universal human values that have, to the most part, always existed in all cultures at all times: the need for food and shelter, the desire for a modicum of self-determination, the right to pray to a god of your own choosing, etc. But beyond that people from different times and cultures were and are bound to live according to values we may find confusing and even repugnant, not because these values are not valid but because they are contradictory to our own. This means, we must choose a set of values in which to live but we must also understand that there will be something provisional about them, even if we are willing to die for them if necessary. The Western, Platonic dream of finding the way and the only way to live is a fairy tale. Several of the essays track the kinds of thinking through the course of Western history that led finally to Nazism and other forms of totalitarianism. There are a number of places where Berlin thinks we went wrong. In particular, he lays much of the blame on nineteenth century German romantics living in revolt at having eighteenth French classical philosophy and culture rammed down their throats. The result was a class of German art and thinking where “I” and the trials, wishes, and travails of “I” took precedence over “we,” leading finally to a belief in “my” culture and no other. A way of thinking that brought us to the brink of destruction. As to whether this is finally true, it’s hard to say. Berlin was incredibly articulate as well as erudite, but he himself was a Western man operating from a set of assumptions so ingrained that he, in all likelihood, was unable to see them as assumptions. The whole concept of chance, for example, is not taken into account in these essays. Everything has an inexorable quality to it. The notion of a Butterly Effect and its random, unpredictable way on things was not in his lexicon. This makes his conclusions a little less compelling than they could be to the modern reader. If Wagner hadn’t written his operas the way he did, if Fichte had never existed, would Hitler still have come to power? What would have happened, for example, if Hitler had died in a trench in World War l? Would all of Western history have played out differently than it did? There’s no telling. Still, you can’t help but think that Berlin is right about the big stuff. The world is complicated and answers are elusive, but there is much to be gained in looking for them anyway.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Vinay

    The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Isaiah Berlin A book on the history counter enlightenment theories in the 18 /19th century can be a dull, prodding affair. In the able hands of Berlin it becomes a tour de force. Before I get into the book a bit of hero worship. Isaiah Berlin in more ways than one, has been my ideal(though I do not agree with his political philosophy). He spent his life studying, analysing, thinking without bothering to publish much. He started his essay on Joseph De Maistre in 1960 The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Isaiah Berlin A book on the history counter enlightenment theories in the 18 /19th century can be a dull, prodding affair. In the able hands of Berlin it becomes a tour de force. Before I get into the book a bit of hero worship. Isaiah Berlin in more ways than one, has been my ideal(though I do not agree with his political philosophy). He spent his life studying, analysing, thinking without bothering to publish much. He started his essay on Joseph De Maistre in 1960 and kept working on it, in fits, till 1990. It was still incomplete when he died in 1997 (I draw much comfort from the fact that my procrastination has illustrious predecessors). On the other hand he had read everything. Given he finished War and Peace at the age of 12(even Berlin agrees this was too early) and lived to the age of 88, he was pretty much the human embodiment of erudition This book is a collection of essays that cover counter enlightenment theories and theorists. Giambattista Vico, Fichte, Machiavelli, Hamann, Schelling, Herder make appearances. Berlin also covers the historical and social reasons for the growth of counter enlightenment theories which makes for fascinating reading. The Crown jewel of the book is 100 page essay on Joseph De Maistre. The strength of the essay lies in its deep engagement with the ideas of Maistre. Most liberals dismiss Maistre as a reactionary crank, an atavistic pamphleteer. Berlin is too smart and honest for this. He recognizes in Maistre the seductive charm of certainty, order, freedom from choice and most of all a truer understating of human nature than the proto rationalist gibberish of Condorcet, Bacon and Rousseau. Berlin acknowledges and explains the strength and art of Maistre's argument even as he disagrees with him. There is no hint of condescension or bitterness in his writing. The essay is brilliant in no small measure to the effervescence of Maistre's thought which is captured exquisitely by Berlin. I am reproducing two of my favorite passages from Maistre in the hope more people read this "Saint of Fascism" (Berlin's characterization, not mine) "And who [in this general carnage] exterminates him who will exterminate all others? Himself. It is man who is charged with the slaughter of man. . . The whole earth, perpetually steeped in blood, is nothing but a vast altar upon which all that is living must be sacrificed without end, without measure, without pause, until the consummation of things, until evil is extinct, until the death of death" "Man in general, if reduced to himself, is too wicked to be free" Everyone must read Berlin because no one can read as much as Berlin, think as clearly or write as well.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Yuri Zbitnoff

    If you’re interested in a contemporary philosopher who is able to put thousands of years into clear perspective, I would certainly place Sir Isaiah Berlin at or near the top of the list. Mr. Berlin’s vaunted reputation as an advocate for classical liberal principles and a first rate thought historian is entirely well deserved as The Crooked Timber of Humanity amply demonstrates.  full review here: The Crooked Timber of Humanity - http://wp.me/p6lj8t-iv If you’re interested in a contemporary philosopher who is able to put thousands of years into clear perspective, I would certainly place Sir Isaiah Berlin at or near the top of the list. Mr. Berlin’s vaunted reputation as an advocate for classical liberal principles and a first rate thought historian is entirely well deserved as The Crooked Timber of Humanity amply demonstrates.  full review here: The Crooked Timber of Humanity - http://wp.me/p6lj8t-iv

  19. 4 out of 5

    Tony

    It seemed a good time to read even a dated defense of liberal democracy, although a fine intellectual work will always seem to be timely. Berlin is European-focused and here wrestles repeatedly with the question of how the first half of the twentieth century went so wrong, and yet the essays are not so narrowly confined, drawing on an impressively broad familiarity with past and contemporary thinkers. In the end, the work conveys a humane voice speaking on behalf of humanism.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Ryan

    A very interesting group of essays. It is both a history of philosophical ideas as well as new philosophy for the modern era. A society based on Reason can be stifling. Romantic thoughts of individualism sit latent. Even though you may love the technological innovations that society provides, you easily still feel like a cog in a wheel that doesn't suit you. You may look to Nationalism to satisfy your needs. At least that way you feel like you're adding a personal touch through your culture. A very interesting group of essays. It is both a history of philosophical ideas as well as new philosophy for the modern era. A society based on Reason can be stifling. Romantic thoughts of individualism sit latent. Even though you may love the technological innovations that society provides, you easily still feel like a cog in a wheel that doesn't suit you. You may look to Nationalism to satisfy your needs. At least that way you feel like you're adding a personal touch through your culture.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Raphael

    It is a very well written book, as usual with Isaiah Berlin, but a bit repetitive at times since several essays rehash the same themes and thinkers and they have also been treated in other books and essays by Berlin. I thought the best essay in this collection was "the bent twig" on the rise of nationalism, with some fantastic pages around p270. That was vintage Berlin. It is a very well written book, as usual with Isaiah Berlin, but a bit repetitive at times since several essays rehash the same themes and thinkers and they have also been treated in other books and essays by Berlin. I thought the best essay in this collection was "the bent twig" on the rise of nationalism, with some fantastic pages around p270. That was vintage Berlin.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Jorg

    Of course, Berlin's essays are an absolute pleasure and fun to read. But more than that, here is one of the best defenses of political pluralism and classical liberalism committed to paper, as well as a devastating attack on authoritarianism, fascism and other absolutist and utopian political monsters. Of course, Berlin's essays are an absolute pleasure and fun to read. But more than that, here is one of the best defenses of political pluralism and classical liberalism committed to paper, as well as a devastating attack on authoritarianism, fascism and other absolutist and utopian political monsters.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Paige McLoughlin

    I don't know if ideas lead history and are ideas merely rationalizations of power. I am not a full-on materialist I think ideas matter but at the same time they often really seem like rationalizations of people in power. I dunno. We will see what I think a year or two from now. I don't know if ideas lead history and are ideas merely rationalizations of power. I am not a full-on materialist I think ideas matter but at the same time they often really seem like rationalizations of people in power. I dunno. We will see what I think a year or two from now.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Cheyanne Welch

    Probably brilliant, but a difficult read.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Alaric Seah

    Devastatingly scary.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Shelley

    The author has relevant commentary on fascism and authoritarianism but these essays have redundant points and much that is off-track. Needed a better editor. But I like his perspective.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Reader Variety

    Berlin's theme is that we can't take things like liberty, justice and humanity for granted. We need a constant focus on ethical thought, moral inquiry and political philosophy (ethical thought applied to society) to retain our humanity. Even if an absolute can't be reached in our aspirations, we can prioritize avoiding the extremes of suffering and work from there. Berlin's theme is that we can't take things like liberty, justice and humanity for granted. We need a constant focus on ethical thought, moral inquiry and political philosophy (ethical thought applied to society) to retain our humanity. Even if an absolute can't be reached in our aspirations, we can prioritize avoiding the extremes of suffering and work from there.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Gyoza

    In this series of eight essays, Isaiah Berlin recounts the intellectual dispute that took place in the late 18th to early 19th century that gave rise to the Romantic movement, and how ideas from both sides of the debate combined and recombined in the heads of various thinkers over the years so as to produce the fascist and socialist movements of the twentieth century. One side of the dispute consists of those who believed in universal, objective truth, scientific rationalism, a common human natu In this series of eight essays, Isaiah Berlin recounts the intellectual dispute that took place in the late 18th to early 19th century that gave rise to the Romantic movement, and how ideas from both sides of the debate combined and recombined in the heads of various thinkers over the years so as to produce the fascist and socialist movements of the twentieth century. One side of the dispute consists of those who believed in universal, objective truth, scientific rationalism, a common human nature, the possibility of an earthly utopia, and the non-contradiction of values. On the other side were those who believed in various degrees of relativism, the value of local traditions, even those that could not be traced to any rational basis, the possibility of different hierarchies of value that could contradict each other, and that human societies are ultimately founded on an irrational factors. The second essay, called Alleged Relativism in Eighteenth Century Thought is particularly valuable because it explains how pluralism is different from relativism, and how pluralist thinkers of the eighteenth century (like Vico and Herder) are sometimes mistaken for relativists. I read that one twice. Included among the essays is an exposition of the life and thought of Joseph de Maistre, who is often mistaken for a conservative Catholic reactionary, but whose ideas contradicted those of Church and those of other conservatives, such as Edmund Burke, on important points, and whose dark, illiberal, eerily modern outlook presages twentieth century totalitarian movements. Berlin recaps much of the content of this essay in this lecture. The last two essays in the series, The Apotheosis of the Romantic Will and The Bent Twig are about how in the Romantic movement, the will, particularly in art, began to displace objective truth and nature, and how appreciation for local customs, thought to be the least enduring part of the Romantic movement, morphed into the nationalist movements of the late 19th and 20th centuries, from the desires of small ethnic or linguistic minorities to become independent states, or the sense of entitlement of large states to take over regions in other states inhabited by people of the same race or language. I learned a lot reading this! Great read if you're interested in the art, literature, and thought of the Romantic era, how ways of thinking we now take for granted originated, and in the causes of some of the most important events in twentieth century history.

  29. 5 out of 5

    !Tæmbuŝu

    KOBOBOOKS Reviewed by The Guardian (23 Jul 2013) KOBOBOOKS Reviewed by The Guardian (23 Jul 2013)

  30. 5 out of 5

    Ashby Manson

    Brilliant posthumous collection of essays from a profoundly civilized advocate of tolerant and open societies. "Joseph De Maistre and the Origins of Fascism" was a tour de force. I'd say more, but I loaned out my copy a couple of decades ago and it hasn't been returned. Brilliant posthumous collection of essays from a profoundly civilized advocate of tolerant and open societies. "Joseph De Maistre and the Origins of Fascism" was a tour de force. I'd say more, but I loaned out my copy a couple of decades ago and it hasn't been returned.

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