Over a period of almost a decade, from 1949 through 1959, Isaiah Berlin turned his attention to the issue of individual liberty in an essay and three lectures that were later collected and published as Four Essays on Liberty. Each essay addressed a specific aspect or problem associated with liberty, such as whether history followed a predetermined course or how much power the state could or should have in a democracy. Collectively, the pieces form a coherent presentation of Berlin’s thoughts and observations on this topic.
Four Essays on Liberty is especially concerned with how the twentieth century treats the concept and practice of individual liberty. The opening essay, “Political Ideas in the Twentieth Century,” was published in the journal Foreign Affairs in 1949. World War II had recently ended, and the Cold War had just begun. The horrors of the totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and militaristic Japan were still vivid, and the brutal repression of Stalinist Russia was becoming better known. In such a setting, the civil and political rights of individuals were seen to be extremely fragile and the concept of liberty in need of review and reinforcement.