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The Crooked Timber of Humanity [Paperback]

By Isaiah Berlin (Author)
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Item Specifications...

Pages   288
Est. Packaging Dimensions:   Length: 8.58" Width: 4.86" Height: 0.7"
Weight:   0.73 lbs.
Binding  Softcover
Release Date   Feb 2, 1998
Publisher   Princeton University Press
ISBN  0691058385  
EAN  9780691058382  

Availability  0 units.

Item Description...

"Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made."--Immanuel Kant

Isaiah Berlin was one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century--an activist of the intellect who marshaled vast erudition and eloquence in defense of the endangered values of individual liberty and moral and political pluralism. In the "Crooked Timber of Humanity" he exposes the links between the ideas of the past and the social and political cataclysms of our present century: between the Platonic belief in absolute Truth and the lure of authoritarianism; between the eighteenth-century reactionary ideologue Joseph de Maistre and twentieth-century fascism; between the romanticism of Schiller and Byron and the militant--and sometimes genocidal--nationalism that convulses the modern world.

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More About Isaiah Berlin

Register your artisan biography and upload your photo! Isaiah Berlin was a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. He was renowned as an essayist and as the author of many books, among them "Karl Marx, Four Essays on Liberty, Russian Thinkers, The Sense of Reality, The Proper Study of Mankind," and, from Princeton, "Concepts and Categories," "Personal Impressions," "The Crooked Timber of Humanity," "The Hedgehog and the Fox," "The Roots of Romanticism," "The Power of Ideas," and "Three Critics of the Enlightenment." Henry Hardy, a Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford, is one of Isaiah Berlin's literary trustees. He has edited several other volumes by Berlin and is currently preparing Berlin's letters and remaining unpublished writings for publication.

Isaiah Berlin was born in 1909 and died in 1997 and has an academic affiliation as follows - All Souls College, Oxford Oxford University Oxford University Oxford U.

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1Books > Subjects > History > Ancient > Early Civilization   [640  similar products]
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Reviews - What do our customers think?
Mixed; 3.5 Stars  May 25, 2008
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.
Some gold, some dross  May 20, 2007
The best essay here is the one on Joseph de Maistre whom Berlin shows convincingly as one of the fathers of modern Fascism. But Berlin generally is too aloof and too "common room" like to be very exciting to read.
This point might be too sharp for you  Apr 10, 2004
There is an index for this collection of essays, but it does not find much to point to about the United States of America, except where particular examples get mixed in with the clutter of events that are described as the context of the rise of nationalism:

"So too, it may be that no minority that has preserved its own cultural tradition or religious or racial characteristics can indefinitely tolerate the prospect of remaining a minority forever, governed by a majority with a different outlook or habits. And this may indeed account for the reaction of wounded pride, or the sense of collective injustice, which animates, for example, Zionism or its mirror-image, the movement of the Palestinian Arabs, or such `ethnic' minorities as Negroes in the United States or Irish Catholics in Ulster, the Nagas in India and the like. Certainly contemporary nationalism seldom comes in its pure, romantic form, as it did in Italy or Poland or Hungary in the early nineteenth century, but is connected far more closely with social and religious and economic grievances. . . ."

A footnote which quotes the organ of the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party for 20 July 1972 shows an awareness of the global side of the picture:

"Between national and international interests not only is there no contradiction, but, on the contrary, there is a full dialectical unity."

By implication, the index identifies the policies of the United States of America with the belief that it can foster countervailing forces

"as a barrier to unbridled chauvinism - seems about as realistic (at least so far as lands outside western Europe are concerned) as Cobden's belief that the development of free trade throughout the world would of itself ensure peace and harmonious co-operation between nations. One is also reminded of Norman Angell's apparently unanswered argument a short while before 1914 that the economic interests of modern capitalistic states alone made large-scale wars impossible."

For me the most interesting part of THE CROOKED TIMBER OF HUMANITY by Isaiah Berlin is in the middle of the book: "Joseph de Maistre and the Origins of Fascism." Written in the twentieth century, it is not surprising that this essay attempts to consider the political ideas which had previously supported an old order as the ideological foundation for the worst enemy of freedom as a realm of modern thought. The Bible serves as an easier reference for me, particularly the books of Kings, in which it is reported, "Ahab also put up a sacred pole and committed other crimes as well, provoking the anger of Yahweh, the God of Israel, more than all the kings of Israel who were his predecessors." (I Kings 16:33). Bad governments can come in many forms, but a prime example of how they operate can be found in I Kings 21:10 :

"Confront him with a couple of scoundrels who will accuse him like this, `You have cursed God and the king.' Then take him outside and stone him to death."

Joseph de Maistre is presented by Isaiah Berlin as a man who was above such suspicions. "Like Charles Maurras and T. S. Eliot, he stood for the trinity of classicism, monarchy and the church. . . . He is a Catholic reacrtionary, a scholar and an aristocrat . . ." And yet "Maistre may have spoken the language of the past, but the content of what he had to say presaged the future."

Maistre was the son of a recently ennobled lawyer; he was considered a jurist, a diplomat, "a philosophical critic and an exceptionally brilliant writer," a negotiator, and a man of affairs. Born in 1753, Joseph de Maistre is described as "the eldest of ten children of the President of the Senate," but we might not be familiar with this Senate because he was born in the dukedom of Savoy, part of the kingdom of Sardinia. Looking for a foundation for his ideas is to seek a form of inversion:

"An action in Maistre's universe is ineffective precisely in proportion as it is directed to the achievement of day-to-day interests, and derives from calculating, utilitarian tendencies which compose the outer surface of human character; and it is effective, memorable, in tune with the universe precisely to the degree to which it springs from unexplained and unexplainable depths, and not from reason, nor from individual will . . . What is best and strongest is often violent, irrational, gratuitous, and therefore necessarily misrepresented, and made to seem absurd, only by being falsely ascribed to intelligible motives. Human action in his sense is justified only when it derives from that tendency in human beings which is directed neither to happiness nor to comfort, nor to self-assertion and self-aggrandizement, but to the fulfillment of an unfathomable divine purpose which men cannot, and should not try to, fathom - and which they deny at their peril. This may often lead to actions involving pain and slaughter, which in terms of the rules of sensible, normal, middle-class morality may well be regarded as arrogant and unjust, but which nevertheless derive from the dark unanalysable center of all authority. This is the poetry of the world, not its prose, the source of all faith and all energy, whereby alone man is free, capable of choice, of creation and destruction, superior to the causally determined, scientifically explicable, mechanical movements of matter, or of natures lower than his, ignorant of good and evil."

Lately I have been advised that I should try working on something a bit more recent than MY VIETNAM WAR JOKE BOOK, but the copyright dates listed in the front of this book, 1959, 1972, 1975, 1978, 1980, 1983, 1988, 1990, must include years in which contemporary readers would consider Vietnam a topic which had been dealt with during years in which they were in kindergarten. I feel the same way, if not more so.

To understand the 20th century, read this book.  Aug 8, 2002
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. This type of philosophical monism holds to a single vision of how societies ought to be arranged; is characterized by an idealism and utopianism that are to be attained at all costs; and is found in a number of modern ideologies such as fascism and nationalism. Berlin's essays cover idealism, utopianism, Vico, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and the views of de Maistre, all of which held to some form of singular, monistic political thinking.

Berlin's answer is reasonable and humane, a pluralstic point of view that holds that human desires and ends are varied, that utopianism in its many forms (Communism and fascism, to cite two) is conceptually incoherenet and unnatural to the experience of being human, and that human experience is multi-dimensional and constantly changing.

This collection of essays exhibit Berlin's pronounced clarity of thought (one of his wonderful trademarks) and illustrative prose (with all those rolling sentences). Berlin once said in an interview that, given his experience of the 20th century, all we should and can expect is a "minimally decent society," one that is free and liberal and open enough to allow human beings to realize their own ends, whatever imperfections such a society might have. The world since the Enlightenment, and in particular the world of the 20th century, has taught that anything else tends to lead to forceful and violent attempts to fashion society according to a specific ideal; as Berlin puts it in this book, to make such an omelette, many eggs have to be broken. He promotes a political philosophy at odds with this type of thinking and, in so doing, has become one of the great voices of liberty.

Of course, as incisive as Berlin was, he was not without controversy; his essay on de Maistre was not well received when it was first written, and, since his death, he has been lauded with every praise that can be heaped on a thinker. Whether or not he deserves all of that praise is a completely separate issue. "The Crooked Timber of Humanity" is a fine collection of essays on political philosophy and a fine sampling of Berlin's way of thinking.

The Man Who Read Too Much  Mar 3, 2000
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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