The Best Books By And About Isaiah Berlin

The Books I Picked & Why

The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays

By Isaiah Berlin

The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays

Why this book?

This is the book for readers who wish to sample Berlin’s kaleidoscopic, multidisciplinary work in a single volume across its whole range. It includes his most celebrated essays in philosophy, political theory, the history of ideas, and twentieth-century portraiture. His two most famous pieces, The Hedgehog and the Fox (on Tolstoy’s view of history) and Two Concepts of Liberty (on ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ political freedom), are here, as are his accounts of his formative meetings with the great Russian poets Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak, his impressions of Churchill and Roosevelt, and his pellucid accounts of romanticism and nationalism. The essays are linked by his ruling preoccupation with understanding human nature in all its irreducibly various guises: what he called, following Kant, ‘the crooked timber of humanity’.


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Russian Thinkers

By Isaiah Berlin

Russian Thinkers

Why this book?

As a Russian Jew and Russian-speaker by birth, a witness of the Russian Revolution, a historian of ideas by vocation, and a consummate prose-writer, Berlin was able to extract the pith of the nineteenth-century Russian intelligentsia and present it in English as no one else has before or since. Belinsky, Herzen, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and others come to life in these ten essays and speak to us and our concerns today in Berlin’s ventriloquistic tours de force.

In particular, Herzen’s passionate denunciation of political extremism plays a central role, and provides a moral underpinning for Berlin’s commitment to liberty. The book is a major contribution to the explanation of Russia to the West, and the reader is left in no doubt about the relevance and power of the ideas that Berlin illuminates.



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Isaiah Berlin: A Life

By Michael Ignatieff

Isaiah Berlin: A Life

Why this book?

Ignatieff’s intensely readable authorised biography of Berlin is based on a decade of recorded conversations with his subject about all aspects of his life, as well as on a study of the massive archive of letters and other papers that Berlin left at his death. As a result it has many of the characteristics of the autobiography that Berlin never wrote, but one filtered through Ignatieff’s shrewd critical intelligence, deployed in the service of the liberal humanist outlook that he shares with his subject.


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Isaiah Berlin: An Interpretation of His Thought

By John Gray

Isaiah Berlin: An Interpretation of His Thought

Why this book?

John Gray’s encounter with Berlin’s ideas, first published in Berlin’s lifetime, remains one of the most intriguing and challenging explorations of the intellectual territories that he inhabited. Gray is not afraid to disagree with Berlin, but makes clear where he goes beyond him to present his own interpretation of the topics by which they are both preoccupied: freedom, pluralism, history, nationalism, Romanticism, the Enlightenment, and liberalism.


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