RUSSIAN THINKERS

What should be done? To the question that hung over 19th-century Russia and dogs the world today, Isaiah Berlin would answer, stand firmly uncertain. Russian-born and Oxford-bred, Berlin has almost single-handedly kept alive in the West a sense of the intellectual fervor and moral complexity of pre-Revolutionary Russian thought. In these essays of 30 years, he demonstrates, with the clarity, vividness, and precision he attributes to Tolstoy, that failure of the 1848 revolution in Western Europe forced Russian intellectuals, now isolated and insulated, "to develop a native social and political outlook," harsh, unsentimental, and ultimately uncompromising; that there exists "a great chasm between those who relate everything to a single vision. . . [and] those who pursue many ends" (in "The Hedgehog and the Fox," on Tolstoy's view of history); that Herzen and Bakunin, at one in elevating the ideal of individual liberty, divided irreparably on means, Herzen, "the sworn enemy of all systems" (and Berlin's greatest hero), holding that liberty is an absolute value not to be suppressed for the sake of future happiness or any other "huge abstraction." And, in "The Birth of the Russian Intelligentsia," he credits "the great Russian essayist Belinsky," hardly known in the West, with virtually inventing the kind of social criticism which enjoins art to be responsible to life—in the specifically Russian context, to set men free. Neatly to link Berlin's themes does not do justice, however, to the exceptional richness and suggestiveness of their development. Within a frame of reference that extends from the author of the Book of Job to D.H. Lawrence and Franklin Roosevelt, he exactly places the figures of his Russian protagonists; and each of them he portrays as an individual. Tolstoy "was by nature a fox, but he believed in being a hedgehog," and the conflict emerged in his unresolved (between determinism and free choice) view of history in War and Peace; the gentle, skeptical, tolerant Turgenev created, in Fathers and Children, the "brutal, fanatical, dedicated figure" of the agitator Bazarov; "Does he then symbolize progress?" Turgenev remained ambivalent, "the notoriously unsatisfactory, at times agonizing, position of the modern heirs of the liberal tradition"—to which Berlin wholeheartedly subscribes. An absorbing, arresting group of studies, and as important a book as will be published this year.

Pub Date: April 1, 1978

ISBN: 0141442204

Page Count: 452

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 15, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 1978

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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THE MYTH OF SISYPHUS

AND OTHER ESSAYS

This a book of earlier, philosophical essays concerned with the essential "absurdity" of life and the concept that- to overcome the strong tendency to suicide in every thoughtful man-one must accept life on its own terms with its values of revolt, liberty and passion. A dreary thesis- derived from and distorting the beliefs of the founders of existentialism, Jaspers, Heldegger and Kierkegaard, etc., the point of view seems peculiarly outmoded. It is based on the experience of war and the resistance, liberally laced with Andre Gide's excessive intellectualism. The younger existentialists such as Sartre and Camus, with their gift for the terse novel or intense drama, seem to have omitted from their philosophy all the deep religiosity which permeates the work of the great existentialist thinkers. This contributes to a basic lack of vitality in themselves, in these essays, and ten years after the war Camus seems unaware that the life force has healed old wounds... Largely for avant garde aesthetes and his special coterie.

Pub Date: Sept. 26, 1955

ISBN: 0679733736

Page Count: 228

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Sept. 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1955

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