An admired and generous teacher, a splendid conversationalist and a great though fragmentary historian, Sir Isaiah Berlin is as well known, as well honored in America as he is in England. He has been one of the foremost members of that transatlantic society of intellectuals, artists, and politicians which existed briefly just before and after World War II. Thus, the publication of his collected essays is an event not simply because they give us the thoughts of a good and learned man but because they give us, to an extraordinary degree, the man himself.
This is particularly true of the essays in this volume, dealing as they do with the history of ideas. These essays are all connected with the larger historical works and ideas which have been the focus of Sir Isaiah's continuing attention. The prose style is leisurely and textured, the subject constantly varied, yet the problems and the insights consistently the same. In one way or another each of these essays raises the question of responsible freedom vs. the ideas and institutions which stand in the way of the realization of that freedom. As a consequence, history is, for Sir Isaiah, a literature of engagement.
His method is one with his task. He is not a social-scientist. He does not seek historical regularity and prediction and is uninterested in them when he finds them in his materials. For him, history is the discovery of novelty, particularity. And the exploration of choice. He believes that great, abstract , deterministic historical systems are not simply bad history but that they dehumanize the men who are caught up in their mechanisms.
Psychological, economic, and social analysis are all left to one side while Sir Isaiah takes the makers of modernism at their words and examines their ideas. This is a book free of ad hominem arguments clothed in the rags of the "scientific method." He prefers to cast history in terms of minds at thought because men and not abstract postulates or dehumanized processes make history. Consequently, 10 of the 13 essays in this collection deal with the thought of particular men.
These essays also have a unifying theme -- the exploration of the "counter Enlightenment," that great attack upon the abstract certitude and uniform simplicity of Enlightenment thought. Some of the figures, such as Machiavelli, Vico, and Montesquieu were precursors, some of them inventors, of modernity. Others still work out its implications in terms of culture and politics. Sir Isaiah deals with all of them with understanding, sympathy, and ill-concealed identification. His essay on Machiavelli is the best single essay on this great Florentine. His essay on Moses Hess, the inventor of Zionism, is a fascinating exploration of the consequences of estrangement and at the same time a revealing insigt into the tensions which animate Sir Isaiah himself.
These essays ought to be read individually over a fairly long stretch of time because they demand reflection and require both temporal and intellectual spaciousness. Roger hausheer's long introduction is illuminating and the bibliographic check list to Sir Isaiah's publications by Henry Hardy is extremely useful.
Splendid as these essays are, however, one comes away from reading them with some disturbing afterthoughts. Religion, even when it plays a central role, as in the case of Hamann's revolutionary thought, is gingerly avoided as a topic. To say that Sir Isaiah is afraid of religion would be uncharitable; nor does he ever give us the dark side of this frantic quest for freedom an particularity. One would not know from these essays that the vilest deeds of the contemporary age have been inspired by the theories he adumbrates.
Finally, is the gulf between the general and the particular, the unique and the universal, the ordered and the free, as deep and as meaningful as Sir Isaiah and his rogues's gallery of modernists make it out to be? Goethe, who was a modernist, asserted, "Even the most particular when it realizes itself always appears as the image and likeness of the most general."