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.