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Four Essays on Liberty Hardcover – 1 Aug 1979

4.3 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews

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Hardcover, 1 Aug 1979
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Product details

  • Hardcover: 280 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; New edition edition (Aug. 1979)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0192158619
  • ISBN-13: 978-0192158611
  • Product Dimensions: 23.2 x 16.7 x 2.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 3,428,724 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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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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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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It was ok
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars 9 reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Review 22 Nov. 2013
By Roger - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Excellent review of philosophical underpinnings of liberty as we have come to know it in this country, as our Founding Fathers saw it..
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars difficult philosophical reading -- but very concise classical 'liberal' point-of-view 25 Oct. 2010
By Jeffrey L. Blackwell - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Sample of Berlin at rhetorical heights -- If you like this you will like this book ---- "One belief, more than any other, is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals -- justice or progress or the happiness of future generations, or the sacred mission of emancipation of a nation or race or class, or even liberty itself, which demands the sacrifice of individuals for the freedom of society. This is the belief that somewhere, in the past or in the future, in divine revelation or in the mind of an individual thinker, in the pronouncements of history or science, or in the simple heart of an uncorrupted good man, there is a final solution. This ancient faith rests on the conviction that all the positive values in which men have believed must, in the end, be compatible, and perhaps even entail one another. "Nature binds truth, happiness, and virtue together as by an indissoluble chain," said one of the best men who ever lived, and spoke in similar terms of liberty, equality, and justice. But is this true? It is a commonplace that neither political equality nor efficient organization nor social justice is compatible with more than a modicum of individual liberty, and certainly not with unrestricted laissez-faire; that justice and generosity, public and private loyalties, the demands of genius and the claims of society, can conflict violently with each other.

This is a book that reads easier if pre-read in condensed version (Cliff notes)

Note: For those who wish to pursue this type of issue in more detail --
1) J S Mill & the Utilitarians' 'greatest good / happiness / pleasure for greatest number' proposed a view more sympathetic to 'positive liberties' as freedom of opportunity. (in my opinion) Berlin's championing of negative liberty is probably a response to his time in history - a time when human rights abuses of totalitarian regimes, based upon Nazism & communism, were perpetrated in the name of 'the super-race' or 'the people' or 'classless societies.'

2) Mill & Utilitarians profoundly influenced American pragmatists,i.e., W James, J Dewey etc. American public education, as we know it today, is based upon Dewey's practical reform of curricula. This is an empirical science-based, practice-based, common-sense kind of curricula that Dewey believed befitted a democracy -- as opposed to antiquated, irrelevant British classical education based upon Greek & Roman classics.
4 of 4 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.
8 of 8 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.
3 of 3 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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