Liberty: Incorporating Four Essays on Liberty

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A Year in Reading: John Banville

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Over the year I have been imbibing sip by happy sip Isaiah Berlin’s Liberty, edited by Henry Hardy, a “revised and expanded” edition from 2002 of the classic 1969 Four Essays on Liberty. Berlin is regarded somewhat patronizingly by academic philosophers for his forays into the worlds of power politics—he was an important British representative in Washington and Moscow during the war—but to a layman’s eye he is all that a real philosopher should be: broad-minded, incisive and accommodating, with an acute historical sensibility and possessed of a marvelously lucid and elegant prose style.

These four long essays are remarkable for their sanity and clear-sightedness. He defines liberty—or freedom, since he used the terms interchangeably—as “the ability to choose, because you wish so to choose, uncoerced, unbullied, not swallowed up in some vast system,” and the chief target of his critique is the Enlightenment notion of the perfectibility of man, a mad dream to which hundreds of millions of lives have been sacrificed, and from which fundamentalists of many hues still refuse to wake. Berlin’s greatness rests in his recognition of, and insistence on, the simple fact that civilized life is possible only if we acknowledge that there is no one and incontrovertible view of how human affairs should be conducted.

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