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The Crooked Timber of Humanity (1990)
Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0691058385, Paperback)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
(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 14 Apr 2011 14:24:52 -0400)
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