Kolakowski's work, at its finest, is an unsurpassed combination of massive erudition, keen insight, graceful exposition and the faculty of infusing interest into even very dry matters dead for centuries. He is still capable of writing like that, as the book before this one, a study of Jansenism, amply demonstrates. Perhaps there are other people who can make a three hundred year old dispute over the proper interpretation of St. Augustine and the concept of sufficient grace gripping, but there surely cannot be many.
Unfortunately, the essays collected in Freedom, Fame, Lying, and Betrayal are not among his best, or even his second-best. The verbal elegance is still there, but the ideas are those of a grouchy man not particularly fair about his dislikes or well-informed about the subjects on which he lays down the law. (Think of ugly furniture, skillfully upholstered in silk.) I was prepared to find that Kolakowski had grown conservative; indeed I was almost hoping for it, for we have a great need of truly intelligent conservatives. Many things in this book disappointed, but what was painful were Kolakowski's lapses into mere errors. In his remarks on randomness and codes (``On the Wheel of Fortune''), for instance, I find no less than three distinct, basic errors in the space of paragraph, one of them, that unbreakable codes exist, tolerably profound and important to his argument. Again, the very first sentence of ``On Betrayal'' --- ``We are all born members of an ethnic community'' --- is plainly false. (In all modesty, I am a counter-example: my grandparents belong to three different ethnic groups, making me a member of none.) A little later on, we read that ``[a] nation, like an individual, is the creation of nature, not a thing of human design'' (p. 70). To say nothing of the ignorance of the history of nationalism this reveals, I am astonished Kolakowski could live in the United States of America for fifteen years and think such a thing. Not only are we a nation which is no more a creation of nature than is the Hoover Dam, lots of us are proud of it.
There are some good ideas in here, scattered about, and even some essays (``On Respect for Nature'' in particular) which I found it good to think against. But quite honestly I haven't come this close to throwing a book across the room in years. It hasn't enough merit to be worth buying, but it's also such a drastic departure from Kolakowski's previous standards that I can only urge people to read his other books; I hope he writes many more, and that this one will prove to have been an aberration.