The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays

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Isaiah Berlin was one of the leading thinkers of our time and one of its finest writers. The Proper Study of Mankind brings together his most celebrated writing: here the reader will find Berlin's famous essay on Tolstoy, "The Hedgehog and the Fox"; his penetrating portraits of contemporaries from Pasternak and Akhmatova to Churchill and Roosevelt; his essays on liberty and his exposition of pluralism; his defense of philosophy and history against assimilation to scientific method; and his brilliant studies of such intellectual originals as Machiavelli, Vico, and Herder.

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"Only barbarians are not curious about where they come from, how they came to be where they are, where they appear to be going, whether they wish to go there, and if so, why, and if not, why not." So wrote Isaiah Berlin in "The Pursuit of the Ideal," the semiautobiographical essay that commences The Proper Study of Mankind, the intellectual equivalent of a "greatest hits" collection. Born in Riga, Latvia, in 1909, Berlin left the Soviet Union for England 12 years later. After being educated at St. Paul's and Oxford, he would go on to become one of the 20th century's most vigorous--and eclectic--political philosophers until his death in 1997.

The Proper Study of Mankind shows the full range of Berlin's work and the breadth of his interests. In "The Originality of Machiavelli," after summing up what others have thought of the author of The Prince, Berlin launches into his own thoughtful analysis, concluding that Machiavelli's most significant contribution to philosophy was "his de facto recognition that ends equally ultimate, equally sacred, may contradict each other, that entire systems of value may come into collision without possibility of rational arbitration, and that this happens not merely in exceptional circumstances, as a result of abnormality or accident or error ... but ... as part of the normal human situation." This concept of pluralism is the undercurrent that flows through much of Berlin's writing on the history of ideas, whether he addresses opposition to the French Enlightenment or considers Tolstoy's theory of history. Other treats to be found in this collection include the autobiographical "Conversations with Akhmatova and Pasternak" and what might be considered "intellectual profiles" of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. This book is highly recommended for any reader interested in modern philosophy; one can only hope that it will inspire some to delve into more of Berlin's work. --Ron Hogan

About the Author:

Isaiah Berlin (1909-97) was born in Riga, Latvia, and immigrated to England in 1921. At Oxford, he was a Fellow of New College and of All Souls, and founding president of Wolfson College.

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