Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Essays on Various Ideas

The Power of Ideas

Sir Isaiah Berlin, OM (6 June 1909 – 5 November 1997) was a philosopher and historian of ideas, regarded as one of the leading liberal thinkers of the twentieth century. He excelled as an essayist, lecturer and conversationalist; and as a brilliant speaker who delivered, rapidly and spontaneously, richly allusive and coherently structured material, whether for a lecture series at Oxford University or as a broadcaster on the BBC Third Programme, usually without a script.
Isaiah Berlin wrote of one of his intellectual heroes, John Stuart Mill (in the fifth of his essays on liberty, in 1959), that "what he came to value most was neither rationality nor contentment, but diversity, versatility, fullness of life - the unaccountable leap of individual genius, the spontaneity and uniqueness of a man, a group, a civilisation. What he hated and feared was narrowness, uniformity, the crippling effect of persecution, the crushing of individuals by the weight of authority or of custom or of public opinion." It was that "fullness of life" that Berlin prized, which you can hear pulsing through his prose.

In 2000 Henry Hardy edited a collection of his shorter essays called The Power of Ideas from the following quotation:

Over a hundred years ago, the German poet Heine warned the French not to underestimate the power of ideas: philosophical concepts nurtured in the stillness of a professor's study could destroy a civilisation. (Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty, 1958)

This collection demonstrates both the power and the breadth of Berlin's thought with essays covering topics in the nature and history of philosophy, Russian intellectual history, political philosophy, Zionism, and the history of ideas. Power is indeed present to both analyze and understand human thought and history. Berlin shares his admiration for the enlightenment while analyzing the meaning of those ideas. It is a book that will lead you to other books, both by Sir Isaiah himself and others. It may spur an interest in the literature of nineteenth century Russia, or encourage you to read Karl Marx's Das Kapital to find out why John Maynard Keynes did not like it. Berlin's writing style is elegant and always readable, even when the most difficult ideas are being discussed. Most of all the essays included in this collection demonstrate the strength of classical liberal thought and the fundamental humaneness of the mind of Sir Isaiah Berlin. I came to this collection with an appreciation for Berlin's thought that was only confirmed and augmented by my reading of this book.

The Power of Ideas by Isaiah Berlin. Henry Hardy, ed. Princeton University Press, 2002.


Lisa said...

His concept sounds like its genesis may be in Aristotle's Eudaemonia. I was watching a DVD lecture on the Aesthetic age last night and I heard a number of excerpts from essays by Matthew Arnold (which made me want to read him). Now you've made me want to also read Berlin. As always -- this is my best stop of the day.

Damon said...


An expansive, penetrating scholar, and a fine writer.

The large gaps in my knowledge would be even larger without Berlin's help.

James said...

Reading Berlin's essays is both encouraging and humbling. With his lucid prose he explores ideas while he impresses one with his mind.