Paradise Lost

Everyone interested in the history of ideas owes a great debt not only to Sir Isaiah Berlin himself but also to his editor, Henry Hardy. It was Hardy who brought together a great many important scattered writings of Berlin’s—hitherto scattered, sometimes in obscure places—and published them in the four-volume series collectively entitled Selected Essays (1978–1981). The present collection is essentially the fifth volume in the same series. (In the opening line of his preface, the editor describes it as “in effect the fifth of four volumes” and, though this may seem an odd formulation, we can see what he means.)

The title, as the editor tells us, is taken “from Isaiah Berlin’s preferred rendering of his favorite quotation from Kant.” The quotation, which is reproduced after the title page of the present collection runs:

Aus so krummem Holze, als woraus der Mensch gemacht ist, kann nichts ganz Gerades gezimmert werden.1

(Out of timber so crooked as that from which man is made nothing entirely straight can be built.)

According to the editor, Berlin

has always ascribed this translation to R.G. Collingwood, but it turns out that he has not left Collingwood’s version untouched. The quotation does not appear in Collingwood’s published writings, but among his unpublished papers there is a lecture on the philosophy of history, dating from 1929, in which the following rendering appears: “Out of the cross-grained timber of human nature nothing quite straight can be made.”

The editor adds that Collingwood orginally wrote “crooked” but later crossed it out and put in “cross-grained” instead. Berlin put “crooked” back, quite rightly. Krumm is the ordinary German word for “crooked.” To subsitute the fancy and opaque word “cross-grained” is a good example of the emollient tendency in English language versions of German thought. Berlin is by no means an abrasive writer, but he is no friend either to the emollient and the euphemistic. So “crooked” it is.

The Crooked Timber consists of eight essays. The first four are closely interrelated, and so are the last four. The two sets of essays are also interrelated, but less closely than each set is, internally. In the first part of this review, I propose to identify the main themes of The Crooked Timber—taking the two sets of essays in order—reserving most of my comment for the second part.


The first four essays are “The Pursuit of the Ideal” (1988), “The Decline of Utopian Ideals in the West” (1978), “Giambattista Vico and Cultural History” (1983), and “Alleged Relativism in Eighteenth-Century European Thought” (1980). The common theme of this set of essays is Utopia. The title and the full quotation from Kant suggest an anti-Utopian position, and this is not misleading. Yet, characteristically, Isaiah Berlin’s work does not abound in this sense. He has, in his youth, been attracted to Utopian idealism, and there is still a shade of wistfulness in his rejection of this.

In the first essay, “The Pursuit of the Ideal,” there is a…

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