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The Crooked Timber of Humanity

4.1 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0691058382
ISBN-10: 0691058385
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com 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 Publishers Weekly

A great adventurer in the history of ideas, eminent Russian-born Oxford historian Berlin ferrets out the roots of the prejudice, intolerance, fanaticism and lust for domination that blight the modern world. He is leery of disruptive nationalisms that presume a nation's unique mission and intrinsic superiority--and that often foster racial and ethnic hatreds. He persuasively interprets 18th-century French reactionary thinker Joseph de Maistre as a harbinger of fascism. The Romantic movement's dismissal of the very notion of objective truth, its glorification of defiance and martyrdom, are, to Berlin, a disturbing legacy. While nodding to cultural pluralism, he insists that "we inhabit one common moral world." In tracing the pedigree of such novel ideals as tolerance, liberty and social equality from the Enlightenment onward, these erudite, engaging essays throw our century of massive violence into sharp perspective. History Book Club selection.
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (February 2, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691058385
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691058382
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 4.9 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #217,296 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
The late Isaiah Berlin was one of the foremost liberal thinkers of the 20th century, a man and scholar who developed and promoted some of the most powerful arguments for individual liberty and liberal societies while, at the same time, wrote some of the most powerful essays in the history of ideas, particularly with respect to Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment thinkers, political philosophers, and ideologues of various persuasions. Some of his essays have become legendary: the essays on liberty, on Karl Marx and Disraeli, on Tolstoy. He left behind a significant body of work, most of which has been edited by Henry Hardy (if you read all of his essays, you will find they overlap quite a bit, but that is the product of an engaging thinker who preferred conversation to writing). "The Crooked Timber of Humanity" is among his finest collection of essays.
If there is any theme to this anthology, it is that human societies are like "crooked timbers"; trying to bend them is unnatural and only results in disastrous consequences. The attempts to bend them--essentially experiments in social engineering--marked the 20th century, from Lenin's Russia to Hitler's Germany to Pol Pot's Cambodia. These experiments had deep roots in modern political thinking, extending back into the nineteenth century. They manifested themselves in illiberal, totalitarian regimes in the 20th century and took an untold number of lives.
But "The Crooked Timber of Humanity" is not a study in history, although it comes from the mind of a man who lived across the span of the century he was writing about. It is a history of ideas and, in particular, of the belief that the interests, motivations, and goals of people can be, and are, the same at all times and in all places.
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Format: Paperback
Martin Gardner has an excellent review of this book in his collection of essays, _The Night is Large_, and I can add little to what he says.
The opening essay is a short, partly autobiographical account of how Berlin came to embrace his distinctive pluralism. It provides the clearest, most concise explanation I have seen to date of why Marxism and its ilk are wrong. His essay on de Maistre is longer than its subject deserves, but not uninteresting.
All of Berlin's essays display his encyclopedic knowledge and shrewd judgment. It is said that he was one of the fastest talkers on record; he writes with equal volubility, packing into each sentence a book's worth of history and theory. These essays are not for the neophyte or the casual reader -- the forthcoming _Power of Ideas_ (March 2000) promises to be more accessible -- nevertheless, they are virtuoso examples of the much praised but little practiced art of sympathetic critical interpretation.
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An interesting collection of Isaiah Berlin essays. The best of them, on the Catholic arch-reactionary Joseph de Maistre, exhibit Berlin's best qualities. The de Maistre essay is a very informative exploration of an important figure largely unknown to most readers, delivered with Berlin's lucid prose, and demonstrating how this apparently obscure thinker is relevant to our times. This essay also displays one of Berlin's weaknesses. The title is Joseph de Maistre and the Origins of Fascism, but Berlin never really demonstrates a connection between de Maistre and the great fascist movements in Germany and Italy. Berlin excelled as an explorer of interesting intellectual history and expositor of important themes like the importance of pluralism, but was neither a systematic philosopher nor definitive scholar.
Some of the other essays in this book are quite good, I particularly like European Unity and its Vissicitudes, and the quality of writing is superb. Most of these essays overlap considerably in theme and content, and reading them is somewhat repetitive.
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I read this book ca. 1990 when it was recommended by a historian friend. I thought I'd reviewed it earlier but apparently didn't. What stuck with me was Berlin's discussion of what we see as 'problems'. The next step to identifying a problem is to look for a solution. Berlin considers that there may be 'problems', situations we identify as problems, that have no solution. I'm going to re-read the book. That's my recommendation to the reader. I was motivated to think of Berlin again after seeing parts 1 and 2 of Stoppard's 'Coast of Utopia' about Russian idealists of the mid 19th century. That play is worth seeing if you have the chance. Berlin is quoted in the play description, he wrote about the Russian idealists and idealism of that era and also about Marx. That era produced failed revolution and then stronger counter-reaction from the right. Germany got the iron fist of Bismarck, e.g. The Egyptian Spring of our era got the Egyptian army and the Muslim Brotherhood. The play made me think again of a conundrum: why does left idealism tend to come out of the privileged (including educated) classes, and why do the suppressed or relatively underducated classes tend to be so reactionary? Privileged people grow up in a safety net, they feel safe taking risks. They come from a class that holds power and can imagine creating change, they can imagine 'solving problems' Those from the weaker classes have never experienced power in their own hands, or the hands of their families, and can little imagine the power to create change. They are more realistic in believing that nothing is likely to be changed in their favor, and worry about losing what little they have. I.e., they are risk averse, they can more easily fear losing everything. John Berger also wrote about this.Read more ›
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