Berlin call himself an historian of ideas, rather than a philosopher. Nevertheless, his way of reporting history throws its own light on these ideas, drawing out the ironies and ambiguities of their evolution. In Six Enemies of Liberty, he examines in loving detail, the peculiarities of the times and the thinking of six key personalities who decisively influenced our ideas of freedom and repression, duty and justice, of our rights and our obligations. Berlin has the wonderful art of making general trends in thought explicit, where these attitudes often were, or often are, the implicit assumptions of those who owned them. He then contrasts them with conflicting attitudes which seemed equally obvious to other people in other circumstances. This draws out the full novelty of the concepts in discussion. Some of the thinkers (Rouseau, Kant..) are familiar to most students of philosophy or history, but we tend to think of them only as bit part players who lent key aspects of our current sense of liberty. Their inclusion in a list of 'traitors' is enough to raise an eybrow, but the book argues carefully and convincingly, that however well intended these men were, their attitudes to freedom then were finaly the opposite of what the West in the 21st century would usually regard as valuable. As an historian, Berlin always frames their ideas in the context of the going debate of their time, bringing out the full passion of their declarations and protests. He also always manages to produce a couple of names that lie off the beaten track - De Maistre was particularly new and interesting for me - to make the whole experience richer and more entertaining. A peculiar magic that Berlin invokes, is to show either how easily men could justify attitudes to freedom which nowadays would be found cruel and outrageous, or on the other side of the coin, how ideas which sound very credible at first, led men to conclusions which seem the very opposite of what their creators declared themselves to be fighting for. As ever, Berlin's immense scholarship, and persuasive eloquence serve to warn us precisely against too much scholarship and eloquence. The big idea is that the almost the last thing the world needs is any more big ideas.
The book contains six essays orignally given as radio lectures, and the direct and straightforward way difficult ideas on philosophy are communicated shines through the beautifully flowing prose. The writing is elegant, immediate and almost casually deep. An excellent introduction to philosophy around the Enlightenment, and a wonderful display of a lively mind at work.