on 18 November 2001
This collection of Berlin's essays contains some of his masterpieces. Unlike many philosophers his writings are always clear, accessible and written with great style. Amongst my favourites in this volume are his essay on Machiavelli,which illustrates his views on the incommensurability and incompatibility of sets of values, and Herder with his counter-enlightenment views on individual cultures which cannot be ranked against one another. In addition to the examination of the ideas of thinkers such as these there are essays on broader concepts and themes, including Berlin's famous essay on the two concepts of liberty, and various sketches of famous people in the twentieth century, such as Churchill, Roosevelt, Akhmatova and Pasternak. This book is one of the weightier tomes (seventeen essays) of Berlin's writing, but I think it gives the widest illustration of Berlin's range of thought and interest.
I bought this having read Berlin's "The Roots of Romanticism", which was the clearest and liveliest exposition of how the 18C romantic movement came into being that I have ever read. Berlin's style is new to me and, well - I am still wondering at just much clearer it is than other writers on the philosophy of ideas. It is true that there is sometimes a certain level of prolixity in the way Berlin explains his thoughts, but this does not work against his explanation, it simply helps to make his style all the more engaging, authentic and authoritative.
In this volume Henry Hardy, as in the "Roots of Romanticism", acts as editor to collate a series of the most popular of Berlin's past essays. You only have to read "The Hedgehog and the Fox" or "The Originality of Machiavelli" to discover just how successfully and entertainingly Berlin manages to explain what many other writers struggle to do. Berlin is clearly not only deeply knowledgeable but also passionate about his topic and you can feel just how much he wants to communicate his knowledge and ideas. These essays are almost "alive" in the sense of the man behind them breathing life into the words.
This book is very highly recommended reading for anyone who feels the need to know how we arrived at where we are today via the classical civilisations, through to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Romanticism and on to today.