The Crooked Timber of Humanity Essay - Critical Essays

Isaiah Berlin

The Crooked Timber of Humanity

Half of these essays had been excluded from Berlin’s AGAINST THE CURRENT (1980), which analyzed both the intellectual program of the Enlightenment and contradictory, antirational reactions to it. The title of the present volume is derived from the German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s declaration, in a 1784 essay, that “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made”—an admonition, as Berlin interprets it, against dogmatism and perfectionism.

In the first selection, “The Pursuit of an Ideal,” Berlin threads strands of his intellectual autobiography. When a student at Oxford, his main influence had been that of Platonic idealism, which asserted that true and universal answers could be discovered to all mankind’s questions and problems. Later, Berlin was affected by Niccolo Machiavelli’s anti-Christian stress on the need for self-assertion and ruthlessness; by Giambattista Vico’s doctrine of cultural pluralism, with every society having its unique sense of itself; and by Johann Gottfried Herder’s stress on nationalism, with every society insisting on its own community and moral gravity. He concludes that Platonic utopianism is no longer a feasible ideal, preferring a pluralistic equilibrium that avoids absolutism of any kind.

The central and longest commentary in this book is “Joseph De Maistre and the Origins of Fascism.” Maistre was a fiercely right-wing enemy of the French Enlightenment who opposed rationalism, individualism, liberalism, and secularism. He preached the incurable corrupt nature of man, which should be harshly disciplined and governed by coercive guardians headed by an authoritarian pope. Maistre, Berlin concludes, reveals desolating truths about human nature rejected in his own late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but all too frequently embraced in ours, particularly by fascist regimes.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. April 27, 1991, V, p. 3.

The Christian Science Monitor. August 26, 1991, p. 13.

London Review of Books. XII, December 20, 1990, p. 3.

Los Angeles Times. April 10, 1991, p. E2.

The New Republic. CCIV, April 29, 1991, p. 31.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVIII, April 25, 1991, p. 52.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, March 24, 1991, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, January 25, 1991, p. 41.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 5, 1990, p. 1053.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, March 31, 1991, p. 4.