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.
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