The Crooked Timber of Humanity

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9780006862215: The Crooked Timber of Humanity

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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Review:

The Crooked Timber of Humanity contains eight of Isaiah Berlin's deservedly influential essays in the history of ideas, all dealing with political thought in the 18th and 19th centuries. One of the essays, "Joseph de Maistre and the Origins of Fascism," is published here for the first time; this reevaluation of the Savoyard counterrevolutionary occupies almost a quarter of the book, and not a word is wasted.

Although written separately, these essays exhibit a common concern with what Berlin calls pluralism, the idea that there can be different, equally valid but mutually incompatible, conceptions of how to live. Whatever their disagreements, traditional writers on politics have implicitly assumed that there is one best way to live, whether it was in the static utopias of More and Harrington or in the dynamic dramas of Hegel and Marx. But in the 18th century, Vico and Herder embraced pluralism, thus inaugurating the historicist turn in political thought. Berlin adeptly pursues pluralism and its repercussions through history, connecting it to the decline of utopian ideas, the origins of fascism and nationalism, the rise of the discipline of cultural history, and much else.

As always, Berlin's prose is graceful and powerful, but what truly makes The Crooked Timber of Humanity exhilarating to read is the depth and power of his intellect. Berlin credits Vico with realizing that "to exercise their proper function, historians require the capacity for imaginative insight, without which the bones of the past remain dry and lifeless." It is a capacity that Berlin himself amply displays here. --Glenn Branch

From the Inside Flap:

With great eloquence and erudition, our most eminent living philosopher traces the connections between the ideas of the past and the political and social cataclysms of our time.

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Berlin, Isaiah
Published by Borzoi Book (1991)
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Isaiah Berlin
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ISBN 10: 0006862217 ISBN 13: 9780006862215
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