Berlin discerns three great crises in Western political thought, each challenging one of its three primary tenets. The three tenets are (1) that questions about correct human actions are answerable, whether the answers are yet known or not; (2) that the answers to those questions, insofar as they are true, cannot contradict each other; and (3) that human beings have a distinctive character, which is essentially social. Each of these tenets has been attacked, the first by the German Romantics of the late eighteenth century, the second by Machiavelli in sixteenth-century Florence, and the third by the Epicureans and Stoics in the late fourth-century BCE. Berlin’s extended examination of this third case demonstrates both how firmly established was the idea that human beings found meaning only in relation to others in the polis and how great and sudden was the transition toward focus on the individual fostered by the Cynics, Epicureans, and Stoics. The suddenness and irruptive nature of this transition cannot be satisfactorily understood as a reflection of political changes alone, but its deeper roots are obscured by the dominance of Plato, Aristotle, and others who subscribed to the polis-centered point of view and regarded possible precursors of the transition as their philosophical opponents.
Isaiah Berlin; A Turning-Point in Political Thought. Common Knowledge 1 April 2019; 25 (1-3): 292–320. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/0961754X-7299390
Download citation file: