The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas Paperback – 7 Nov 1991
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"A beautifully patterned tapestry of philosophical thought.... A history of ideas that possesses all the drama of a novel, all the immediacy of headline news."--The New York Times
"The perfect guide through the complex radical changes that have swept Western societies.... A brilliant, convincing work ... humane, compassionate, important."--San Francisco Chronicle
"Overwhelming intelligence ... [Berlin's] mind is captivating.... His reflections ... strike at the heart of our most parroted beliefs."--Washington Post Book World
"As a historian of ideas, [Berlin] has no equal; and what he has to say is expressed in prose of exceptional lucidity and grace."--Anthony Storr, Independent on Sunday
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
'Berlin's supreme gift is his capacity to enter the minds of the thinkers who have ushered in the great sea changes of the Western mind. His is a notable achievement, and this book sustains it' Raymond Carr, Spectator --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.See all Product Description
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Top Customer Reviews
I must say that it is not the easiest reading on earth, it gave me a hard time understanding the complex meanings behind deep ideas and complicated language.
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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 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.
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.
To me, the book can be summed up by paraphrasing Berlin: we have been living in a world equidistant between the Enlightenment's glorification of Reason and Romanticism's glorification of the Will. On one hand, cultural relativism (any kind of relativism, really) is still a dirty word to many and, as John Gray never tires of pointing out, academe never fails to think up new context-neutral justifications for liberalism as the best way of life. On the other hand, our view of the arts - glorifying the lone, passionate, artist - is profoundly influenced by Romantic ideals and...well...folks like Gray also gain solid academic hearings.
So, this book is about the push and pull between these two ideas of Enlightenment and Romanticism, and how too much of the one leads to tyranny but each keeping the other in check leads to a balance (not by resolving, but prolonging, the tension). We also hear some good defenses of value pluralism and especially the idea that there exists no cogent reason to suppose that ultimate values CANNOT conflict and be equally valuable. Why assume, as the Enlightenment faithful had, that adhering to one value (liberty, romantic love) does not entail a loss of another (security, independence). We are, after all, human in a human thoughtworld where I have different interests, likes, predilections, etc, than you. Why suppose that this lends itself to a world where values will not ultimately conflict?
Two qualms: first, stylistically, the book is repetitive. We hear about the 'three supposed truths' (that there is an objective thing called Truth, that reason can access it, and that Truths do not conflict) in three different essays and several times one catches Berlin repeating phrases from previous essays.
Second, Berlin's differentiation between value pluralism and relativism ("Alleged Relativism in Eighteenth-Century European Thought") is not satisfactory. Berlin tells us that relativism is the idea that values and value-systems are person/culture-relative, and that pluralism is the idea that values may be objective but conflicting. The problem is that when he admits that a key aspect of pluralism is the idea that there is no objective, true-for-all way to order human values, that makes the value systems...relative. Berlin also suggests that pluralism is not 'anything goes' as relativism is, because it recognizes that certain values are 'beyond the pale' in the sense that (sane) humans could not subscribe to them. But who makes that call, and isn't it a bit circular? After all, can't I easily dismiss your values as beyond the pale by calling you "insane" and defining "insane" as "anyone who subscribes to values that are, to me, "beyond the pale"? And who is the final authority in an argument between you and I over whether your values are "beyond the pale"? Clearly, you will say they are not, and I will say they are. Appealing to 'human nature' does not help the matter, as Berlin thinks it does, because there is simply no prototype for what 'human' is other than one made of averages.
Anyhow, I give this book four stars because, disagreements aside, Berlin is a great writer with insight, sympathy, and great descriptive power. Anyone wanting to understand the interplay between Enlightenment and Romantic ideals should not miss this.