Tao Te Ching

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The Proper Study of Mankind

By Isaiah Berlin

An anthology of essays describing the unpredictable paths taken by the history of ideas and criticizing many of these harmful-influence philosophies like nationalism, totalitarianism, racism, and religious bigotry. These essays include personal conversations between Berlin and historical figures like Boris Pasternak, Virginia Wolf, and Anna Akhmatova, his analysis of older influences like Socrates, Plato, and Machiavelli; more recent ones like Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. He confronts serious, culture and society-threatening issues with optimism and practical inspiration.

Quotes from The Proper Study of Mankind

“[Moral conflicts are] an intrinsic, irremovable element in human life... These collisions of values are of the essence of what they are and what we are.”

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Themes: Conflict

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“Jews, Christians, Muslims believed that the true answers had been revealed by God to his chosen prophets and saints, and accepted the interpretation of these revealed truths by qualified teachers and the traditions to which they belonged.”

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“Machiavelli made a deep and lasting impression upon, means shook my earlier faith... he thought it possible to restore something like the Roman Republic... but Machiavelli also sets side by side with this the notion of Christian virtues”

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“Machiavelli... undermined my earlier assumption, based on the philosophia perennis, that there could be no conflict between true ends, true answers to the central problems of life.”

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“Pasternak was a poet of genius in all that he did and was... I visited him almost weekly, and came to know him well. I cannot hope to describe the transforming effect of his presence, his voice and gestures.”

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“Plato thought that an elite of sages who arrived at such certainty should be given the power of governing others intellectually less well endowed, in obedience to patterns dictated by the correct solutions to personal and social problems.”

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“Schopenhauer drew a gloomy picture of the impotent human will beating desperately against the rigidly determined laws of the universe... and the consequent desirability of reducing human vulnerability by reducing man himself... that man suffers much because he seeks too much, is foolishly ambitious, and grotesquely overestimates his capacities.”

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Themes: Ambition

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“socialists believed that class solidarity, the fraternity of the exploited, and the prospect of a just and rational society would provide this social cement. But for the majority, the vacuum was filled by the old traditional bonds—language, the soil, historical memories—symbols that proved far more powerful than either socialists or enlightened liberals wished to believe.”

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“Socrates thought that if certainty could be established in our knowledge of the external world by rational methods, the same methods would surely yield equal certainty in the field of human behavior—how to live, what to be.”

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“Some, like Tolstoy, found this in the outlook of simple people, unspoiled by civilization; like Rousseau, he wished to believe that the moral universe of peasants was not unlike that of children, not distorted by the conventions and institution of civilization, which sprang from human vices”

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Themes: Civilization

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“the destruction of traditional hierarchies and orders of social life... deprived great numbers of men of social and emotional security, produced the notorious phenomena of alienation, spiritual homelessness, and growing anomie”

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“The only other person I have met who talked as he [Pasternak] talked was Virginia Woolf, who made one's mind race as he did, and obliterated one's normal vision of reality in the same exhilarating and, at times, terrifying way.”

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Themes: Butterfly

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“The Stoics thought that the attainment of these solutions was in the power of any man who set himself to live according to reason.”

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“To understand Hebrew scripture is not enough... we must transport ourselves into a distant land and an earlier age, and read it as the national poem of the Jews, a pastoral and agricultural people, written in ancient, simple, rustic, poetic, not philosophical or abstract language.”

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Themes: Judaism

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“Tolstoy was the least superficial of men... At once insanely proud and filled with self-hatred, omniscient and doubting everything, cold and violently passionate, contemptuous and self-abasing, tormented and detached, surrounded by an adoring family, by devoted followers, by the admiration of the entire civilized world, and yet almost wholly isolated, he is the most tragic of the great writers”

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