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Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford Paperbacks) [Paperback]

Isaiah Berlin
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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1 Jun 1969 Oxford Paperbacks
The four essays are `Political Ideas in the Twentieth Century'; `Historical Inevitability', which the Economist described as `a magnificent assertion of the reality of human freedom, of the role of free choice in history'; `Two Concepts of Liberty', a ringing manifesto for pluralism and individual freedom; and `John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life'. There is also a long and masterly introduction written specially for this collection, in which the author replies to his critics. This book is intended for students from undergraduate level upwards studying philosopohy, history, politics. Admirers of Isaiah Berlin's writings.


Product details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford Paperbacks; First Edition edition (1 Jun 1969)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0192810340
  • ISBN-13: 978-0192810342
  • Product Dimensions: 19.3 x 13.2 x 2.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 226,082 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
By Luc REYNAERT TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Liberty is a very precious and rare quality of a living condition.

As I. Berlin states, `The periods and societies in which civil liberties were respected, and variety of opinion and faith tolerated, have been very few and far between, oases in the desert of human uniformity, intolerance and oppression.'

I. Berlin explains clearly that liberty has two faces: a positive and a negative one.

Positive liberty is the answer to the question: who controls? Am I my own master?

Negative liberty circumscribes the area wherein a third person can prevent anybody to make a free choice.

On these bases, a free society can be organized, with 1) absolute rights (not absolute powers) and 2) frontiers, defined in terms of rules, within which men should be inviolable.

For the author, freedom is not an end, but a means to create `room for personal ends', for happiness. He rightly criticizes E. Fromm: freedom is the opportunity to act, not action itself.

Philosophically, freedom has been ferociously contested by the determinists, the defenders of `historical inevitability' (Hegel, Marx, Bacon, Fourier, Comte). The author remarks judiciously that if the world is ruled by determinism, nobody is responsible: there is no free will, no morality, and no justice. Individual choice is an illusion. Determinism represents the world as a prison.

A more brutal kind of determinism is presented by those who believe that there is a final answer, a unique goal, a central principle that governs our life. This principle and its executioners provoked barbarous consequences.

Isaiah Berlin's reflections on liberty are profound and still very actual.

Not to be missed.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The nub of Berlin's Thinking 7 Jun 2001
Format:Paperback
The four essays included in this book really get to the nub of Berlin's thinking in a way that is more difficult in his other more intellectual history based writing. His polemic Two Concepts of Liberty is in here which is one of the best contemporary examinations of the ever elusive concept of freedom. The other three essays included can sometimes waffle on points which seem superfluous, yet their themes always return to an examination of freedom. Read this if you want to understand what Berlin really thought, and if you want to understand contemporary political debates about freedom.
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Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  9 reviews
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Serious Vision 15 Jun 2001
By Jeffrey Reed - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Agreed. Berlin's book is not the easiest in the world to read. But, then again, neither is Plato, or John Locke, or even Mill for that matter. He writes in a 19th century style, but one which, I think is beautiful and elegant. This is not a book to be devoured, but to be savored. Each word is carefully crafted. To me, Berlin is like diving into a pool of the english language, and just floating in ideas and language. And the ideas are wonderful. More than any other political philosopher, Berlin has diagnosed the problems, and the dangers, of modern social and political thinking. When he argues that those who advocate limits on liberty, in the name of justice, or equality, or another ideal, are in fact diminishing the amount of liberty in society as a whole it is hard not to agree with him. His analysis of the problems of modern philosophy and political thought is as acute. These are the ideas that I now find most compelling in this book. The essay of the two types of liberty is wonderful, as is the one on Historical Inevitability. But it is the essay on Political Ideas in the 20th Century that has become my favorite over the year, for the simple reason that he was incredibly prophetic. In the 19th century, Berlin argues, conservatives and liberal, even socialists, despite their differences agreed on the fundamental questions of politics; who should rule? What is the basis of authority? Why should I obey? What are the obligations and responsibilities of citizenship? In the 20th century, we no longer even consider the questions to be important, or relevant. All political problems have been reduced to either technical matters, of social or economic engineering, or are treated as psychological disorders, that need theraputic treatment. We accept the lost of liberty because we no longer think of it as important, as a question that needs solving. Problems like poverty, or equality, or a cleaner environment, which are suseptible of technical solutions. Anyone who worried about liberty in the face of all of these problems was, ipso facto, crazy, and a refusal to face reality. Hence, prozac or lithium is the prescribed course of treatment, to remove the source, or at least the feeling, of discontent. It is time to take another look at Berlin, not merely as a defender of liberty, but as an analyst of modern political and social thinking, and the dead ends to which it is leading us.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars for those who hate the 20th century 18 Aug 1997
By cybrgbl@deltanet.com - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Do you dislike 20th century totalitarianism and the putrid odor which determinism and the "modern" social sciences have brought to the world? Do you wonder what ever happened to the spirit of J.S. Mill, James Madison and the other lovers of freedom? Do you hate the condescending attitude of "progressives" who would deign to make decisions from on high for the rest of us? - knowing better than we do, of course. If so, then the incredibly erudite and eloquent Sir Isaiah Berline is for you. Political pluralism need not give up the field to Marxists and determinists rampaging like vandals through the modern research university.

I read recently how in today's "advanced" scholarship Berlin only rehashes "ancient" arguments about free will. Well, if you are one of "those who value liberty for its own sake, believe that to be free to choose, and not to be chosen for, is an inalienable ingredient in what makes human beings human," then you want to make Berlin one of your intellectual supports and companions. Maybe we have more to learn from "ancients" like Berlin (still alive today in 1997) than the "modern scholars" who would dismiss him as out of date.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars It's Deeper Than You Might Suppose! 7 May 2002
By Kevin S. Currie - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
"One belief, more than any other, is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great ideas....This is the belief, that somewhere in the past or in the future, in divine revelation or in the mind of an individual thinker...there is a final solution."
Isaiah Berlin has been somewhat wrongly looked at simply as a historian of ideas. While he is that, this book is fertile with ideas, old, new, original and daring. What start out as four essays on liberty, turn out to reveal an astute world view. The one quoted above is taken from the third essay, his famous "Two Concepts of Liberty." In it he argues that the division between 'freedom from' and 'freedom to' is a subtle intertwine, more delicate than we often suppose. In the end, we must err on the side of 'freedom from' for one important reason; while the abscence of coercion might leave loose ends, by trying to tighten all loose ends, the rope loses all slack. Without the metaphor, by coercing others, we assume that our viewpoint is the only correct one and force others to live uniform to our ideas.
This is the theme that runs through all four essays. The first, "Political Ideas in the Twentieth Century" examines the failure of all the isms then en vogue; communism, fascism, socialism. Same idea. They preached of a graspable absolute truth that in the end, proved not so handleable. The second essay, "Historical Inevitability" tackles the problem at the root; the belief that our actions are determined and that free will is an illusion. Berlin, while not trying to disprove it (try, you can't do it!), exposes it as untenable. Every thought, action, word and concept we evoke is dependant upon belief in human autonomy. This essay is quite long and began to repeat itself a bit. Fight off the urge to skip through it. Very meaty!!
The last essay, "John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life" is something of a recap of the ideas presented in the book. It is Berlins tribute and critique (Mill would've approved) of Mill, his philosophy and his life which unlike most philosophers, was lived in complete accordance with his views.
Great book. The only problems I had were the length of the second essay and Berlin's annoying habit of turning every sentence into a twenty-one lined, 12 comma, infinitive after split infinitive beast. Although his language is beautiful (a la Barzun), this was hard to get used to. HIs thoughts, though, are classic.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Freedom of the wolves has often meant death of the sheep 2 Dec 2006
By Luc REYNAERT - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Liberty is a very precious and rare quality of a living condition.

As I. Berlin states, `The periods and societies in which civil liberties were respected, and variety of opinion and faith tolerated, have been very few and far between, oases in the desert of human uniformity, intolerance and oppression.'

I. Berlin explains clearly that liberty has two faces: a positive and a negative one.

Positive liberty is the answer to the question: who controls? Am I my own master?

Negative liberty circumscribes the area wherein a third person can prevent anybody to make a free choice.

On these bases, a free society can be organized, with 1) absolute rights (not absolute powers) and 2) frontiers, defined in terms of rules, within which men should be inviolable.

For the author, freedom is not an end, but a means to create `room for personal ends', for happiness. He rightly criticizes E. Fromm: freedom is the opportunity to act, not action itself.

Philosophically, freedom has been ferociously contested by the determinists, the defenders of `historical inevitability' (Hegel, Marx, Bacon, Fourier, Comte). The author remarks judiciously that if the world is ruled by determinism, nobody is responsible: there is no free will, no morality, and no justice. Individual choice is an illusion. Determinism represents the world as a prison.

A more brutal kind of determinism is presented by those who believe that there is a final answer, a unique goal, a central principle that governs our life. This principle and its executioners provoked barbarous consequences.

Isaiah Berlin's reflections on liberty are profound and still very actual.

Not to be missed.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Political philosophy at its best 24 Nov 2004
By Shalom Freedman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
The four essays in this work are 1) Political Ideas in the Twentieth Century 2)Historical Inevitability 3) Two Concepts of Liberty 4) John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life."

In the first essay Berlin laments the tendency of twentieth century thinking to deprive the great questions of their significance and substitute for them technical questions alone. In the second Berlin argues that the notion of historical inevitabity is untenable and that our everyday life and historical experience require a kind of liberty . In the third he makes his famous contrast between freedom from, and freedom to, or for. And in the last he explores the political thought of John Stuart Mill one of his great predecessors and through Mill's mirror develops some of his own ideas.

First and above all Berlin stands against the idea that there is a single system or idea an absolute which all Mankind should be coerced into obedience to. Berlin in his thinking points to the plurality of ends and values in life, and the contradictions between various systems of values. He is a liberal philosopher who connects the dignity of Mankind with this liberty from external coercion and oppression.

His writing is profound and yet somehow conversational and flowing .

This work contains the heart of the thought of one of the great political thinkers of our time.
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