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by Bamber Gascoigne

Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997)


English social historian, philosopher, essayist, friend of the Russian authors Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak. According to an anecdote, the Cold War began in 1945, when Berlin visited Akhmatova in Leningrad. This so irritated Stalin that he personally ran the philosopher down on the telephone. Berlin never wrote a single-volume magnum opus but only brilliant essays. In one of his most famous works, The Hedgehog and The Fox (1953), he drew a distinction between those who relate everything to a single, organizing principle, and those whose lives and ends reflect plurality.

"It is seldom, moreover, that there is only one model that determines our thought; men (or cultures) obsessed at their models are rare, and while they may be more coherent at their strongest, they tend to collapse more violently when, in the end, their concepts are blown up by reality - experienced events, 'inner' or 'outer' that get in the way." (from 'Does Political Theory Still Exist?, 1962)

Isaiah Berlin was one of the most formidable defenders of philosophical liberalism and distinguished practitioners of the history of ideas. He took R. G. Collingwood's (1889-1943) idea that the thought of a period or an individual is organized by 'constellations of absolute presuppositions'. Thus philosophical analysis required a historical dimension, but Berlin argued against the Marxist determinist view of history and rejection of free will.

In his youth, Berlin studied Marx, although during World War I and the Revolution he had witnessed the ill omens of a totalitarian ideology struggling for power, and was not enchanted by the promises of the Bolsheviks. "History does not reveal causes; it presents only a blank succession of unexplained events", he said. However, he acknowledged that a historian's approach to his subject cannot be entirely objective or value-free, some degree of moral or psychological evaluation is inevitable. "I do not here wish to say that determinism is necessarily false, only that we neither speak nor think as if it could be true, and that it is difficult, and perhaps beyond our normal powers, to conceive what our picture of the world would be if we seriously believed it..." (from 'Historical Inevitability', 1953) The Russian Revolution was a horrible example of the potential destructiveness of ideas.

Berlin was born in Riga, Latvia, the son of a Jewish timber merchant. Berlin's grandfather on his mother's side was a Hasidic rabbi. Berlin had some religious education but confessed later that as a child he found the Talmud a ''very, very boring book." At the age of 11 Berlin emigrated with his parents to England. A prodigy, he had already read War and Peace.

Berlin was educated at St Paul's School and Corpus Christi College, Oxford. To his father's disappointment, he did not go into the family timber business. From 1932 he taught at Oxford, where he became friends with A. J. Ayer and other leading analytic philosophers. Berlin was the first Jew to be accepted into the college. With Ayer he argued about philosophy, but where Ayer was a radical liberal and had a great appetite for life, Berlin was sexually insecure and unsure of his beliefs. "You're not much of a crusader are you?" Ayer once teased his friend. With Austin, Ayer, and others Berlin was a founding father of Oxford philosophy, but was never wholeheartedly committed to the analysis of ordinary language,  characteristic at Oxford. Disillusioned with Ayer as a philosopher, he said that "he never had an original idea in his life. He was like a mechanic, he fiddled with things and tried to fix them." (A.J. Ayer: A Life by Ben Rogers, 1999)

The author Virginia Woolf, who first met Berlin in 1933, said that he looked like a swarthy Portuguese Jew and talked with the vivacity and assurance of a young Maynard Keynes. In 1934 Berlin visited Palestine. Zionism was to him as important as Communism was to Guy Burgess, his friend, who was a Soviet spy.

After publishing several papers on the rebellion against idealism, he broke away from the general spirit of positivism. With his first book, Karl Marx (1939), Berlin disengaged himself from the fashionable philosophical trends, and started his lifelong examination of such thinkers as Vico, Herzen, Herder, Tolstoy, Machiavelli, and such topics as liberty, determinism, relativism, historicism, nationalism – and his most distinctive doctrine: pluralism. He also translated into English several Russian classic authors, among them Turgenev.

During World War II Berlin served in the British Information Service in New York and later as First Secretary of the British Embassy in Washington. After the war he met in the Soviet Union the film director Sergei Eisenstein, who was in poor spirits after Stalin had condemned his film Ivan the Terrible, and the writers Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova, both also in disfavour by the authorities. Later Berlin gave his account of them in the essay 'Meetings With Russian Writers.' "When we met in Oxford in 1965 Ahkmatova told me that Stalin had been personally enraged by the fact that she had allowed me to visit her: 'So our nun now receives visits from foreign spies,' he is alleged to have remarked, and followed this with obscenities which she could not at first bring herself to repeat to me." (from 'Conversations with Akhmatova and Pasternak' in The Proper Study of Mankind, 1997)

From 1947 to 1958 Berlin wrote and lectured at Oxford, in London, and in several American universities. Joseph Brodsky, the Russian-born poet and essayist, once said that Berlin's English was just like his Russian, only faster, '"courting the speed of light." Rayner. An extrovert by nature, Berlin has also been characterized as a "compulsive chatterer". He hated public speaking and the day-to-day routines of his work, but he loved Oxford and college life. During this period, Berlin turned his attention to the thinkers of the Enlightenment.

When Berlin visited Russia with his wife in 1956, he met Boris Pasternak at his dacha in the village of Peredelkino. Akhmatova declined to meet him; to her disappointment he had got married "in the most ordinary, banal fashion." Pasternak gave him the typescript of his novel Dr Zhivago. Well aware about the consequences of its appearance in the West, Berlin first tried to persuade his old friend from "flirting with martyrdom" but eventually helped him to have the manuscript smuggled out of the country.

Between the years 1957 and 1967 Berlin held the prestigious Chichele Chair in Social and Political Theory at at All Souls College, Oxford. In his inaugural lecture at Oxford, Berlin attempted clearly to distinguish "negative" and "positive" liberty. He contrasted the ideas of such thinkers as J.S. Mill, Herzen, and others, who made minimal assumptions about the ultimate nature and needs of the subject, with Hegel and German Idealism, and their "despotic vision" and dogmatic assumptions about the essence of the subject.

Like Karl Popper, he became widely acclaimed for his anti-authoritarian social philosophy and criticism of totalitarian doctrines, but his ideas had a limited resonance among university philosophers of his time. Berlin's most important contributions in social and political theory include the essays Historical Inevitability (1954) and Two Concepts of Liberty (1958). Berlin's indifference to socio-economic causation, and emphasis on the ideas, beliefs and intentions of individuals, prompted E.H. Carr to attack on him in the Trevelyan Lectures at Cambridge in 1961.

While serving as a member of the academic advisory board of the University of Sussex in the 1960s, Berlin barred the appointment Isaac Deutscher, a Marxist historian and writer of a three-volume biography of Leon Trotsky, to a position in Soviet studies at the university. Berlin suggested that he was not qualified for the job and considered him worthy only of a Chair in Marxism. Berlin said that Deutscher was "the only man whose presence in the same academic community as myself I should find morally intolerable."

Among many other academic distinctions, Berlin was from 1966 a professor at the City University of New York. During the period which led up to the foundation of the State of Israel, he was a close friend of Chaim Weizmann (1874-1952), the first president of Israel. Berlin led a bachelor's life until 1956, when he married Aline de Gunzbourg at Hampstead Synagogue; she was an aristocratic Frenchwoman, who had three sons from previous marriages. They moved into Headington House, where Berlin lived for the rest of his life. "I don't mind death," he once said, "But I find dying a nuisance. I object to it." Students have told that he conducted tutorials from his bed, "the covers scattered with books, papers, cups of tea and biscuits." (Isaiah Berlin: A Life by Michael Ignatieff, 1998, p. 5) Berlin died in 1997 in Oxford of a heart attack following a long illness at the age of 88.

In The Hedgehog and The Fox Berlin focused on the tension between monist and pluralist visions of the world and history, and drew the line between different authors and philosophers. As the Greek poet Archilochus said: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." The Hedgehog needs only one principle, that directs its life. Typical examples are Plato, Dante, Pascal, Nietzsche and Proust. The Fox, pluralist, travels many roads, according to the idea that there can be different, equally valid but mutually incompatible concepts of how to live. The roads do not have much connection, as is seen in the works of Aristotle, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Moliére, Goethe and Balzac. In Tolstoy, whose view of history inspired Berlin to write the essay, he saw a fox who believed in being a hedgehog. Berlin's central dichotomy of monists and pluralists and his interest in such Counter-Enlightenment figures as Vico, was later interpreted as an attack on the values of Enlightenment. He was also accused of ultra-individualism.

In his essays on Machiavelli, Montesquieu and Hamann in Against the Current  (1979), Berlin stated that these thinkers replaced the doctrine that all reality forms a rational whole with a radical pluralism, from which sprang such -isms as irrationalism, nationalism, fascism, populism, existentialism, and, above all, some of the central values of liberalism. Berlin stated in Four Essays on Liberty (1969) that liberty is in essence the casting off of chains. "Negative liberty" allows men the freedom to act diversely and '"positive liberty" limits some freedoms to achieve a higher good. Berlin once stated: "Total liberty can be dreadful, total equality can be equally frightful." All those doctrines which define liberty as self-realization and then prescribe what this is, end up by defending liberty's opposite. To the perennial human problems there are no final answers. "Liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or human happiness or a quiet conscience." Liberal governments should recognize that all political values must end up in conflict, and all conflicts require negotiation.

For further reading: In Search of Isaiah Berlin: A Literary Adventure by Henry Hardy (2018); The Cambridge Companion to Isaiah Berlin, edited by Joshua L. Cherniss and Steven B. Smith (2018); Isaiah Berlin and the Enlightenment, edited by Laurence Brockliss and Ritchie Robertson (2016); Isaac and Isaiah: The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic by David Caute (2013); The Legacy of Isaiah Berlin, ed. by Mark Lilla et al. (2001); Isaiah Berlin: A Life by Michael Ignatieff (1998); Isaiah Berlin by John Gray (1996); Isaiah Berlin's Liberalism by Claude J. Galipeau (1994); Conversations With Isaiah Berlin by Isaiah Berlin, Ramin Jahanbegloo (1992); Isaiah Berlin, ed. by Edna and Avishai Margalit (1991); On the Thought of Isaiah Berlin by Avishai Margalit et al (1990); Critical Appraisal of Sir Isaiah Berlin's Political Philosophy by Robert Kocis (1989); Personal Impressions, ed. by Henry Hardy (1981); The Idea of Freedom, ed. by Alan Ryan (1979); 'Berlin and the liberal tradition' by M. Cohen, in Philosophical Quarterly 10 (1960) "His voice is astonishingly rapid and, for the uninitiated, nearly incomprehensible. Joseph Brodsky once said that his English was just like his Russian, only faster, `courting the speed of light'. He seems to bubble and rattle like a samover on the boil. Virginia Woolf, who first met him at a dinner in New College in November 1933, said that he looked like a swarthy Portuguese Jew and talked with the vivacity and assurance of a young Maynard Keynes." (Michael Ignatieff in Isaiah Berlin, 1998)

Selected works:

  • Karl Marx: His Life and Environment, 1939
    - Karl Marx: elämäkerta (suom. Juhani Jaskari, 1968)
  • The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History, 1953
    - Siili ja kettu: tutkielma Tolstoin historianfilosofiasta (suom. Hanna Tarkka, 2004)
  • Historical Inevitability, 1955
  • The Age of Enlightenment, 1956
  • Montesquieu, 1956
  • Two Concepts of Liberty: An Inaugural Lecture Delivered Before the University of Oxford, on 31 October 1958, 1958
  • Chaim Weizmann, 1958
  • The Life and Opinions of Moses Hess, 1959
  • Mr. Churchill in 1940, 1964
  • Four Essays on Liberty, 1969
  • Fathers and Children: The Romanes Lecture Delivered in the Sheldonian Theatre 12 November 1970, 1972
  • Zionist Politics in Wartime Washington: A Fragment of Personal Reminiscence, 1972  
  • The Divorce Between the Sciences and the Humanities, 1974
  • Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas, 1976
  • Russian Thinkers, 1978 (ed. by Henry Hardy and Aileen Kelly)
  • Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays, 1978 (edited by Henry Hardy; with an introd. by Bernard Williams)
  • Selected Writings, 1978 (edited by Henry Hardy)
  • Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, 1979 (edited and with a bibliography by Henry Hardy; with an introd. by Roger Hausheer)
  • Personal Impressions, 1980 (edited by Henry Hardy; with an introd. by Noel Annan)
  • A Month in the Country: A Comedy in Five Acts / Ivan Turgenev, 1981 (translated and introduced by Isaiah Berlin)
  • First Love / Ivan Turgenev, 1982 (translated from the Russian by Isaiah Berlin and introduced by Lord David Cecil)
  • A Sire at Sea  / Ivan Turgenev, 1882 (translated from the French and introduced by Isaiah Berlin)
  • The Crooked Timber of History: Chapters in the History of Ideas, 1990 (edited by Henry Hardy)
  • The Magus of the North: J.G. Hamann and the Origins of Modern Irrationalism, 1993 (edited by Henry Hardy)
  • The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and Their History, 1996 (edited by Henry Hardy; with an introduction by Patrick Gardiner)
  • The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays, 1997 (edited by Henry Hardy and Roger Hausheer; with a foreword by Noel Annan)
  • The Roots of Romanticism, 1999 (edited by Henry Hardy)
  • The First and the Last, 1999 (introduced by Henry Hardy)
  • Three Critics of the Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder, 2000 (edited by Henry Hardy)
  • Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty, 2002  (edited by Henry Hardy)
  • Liberty: Incorporating Four Essays on Liberty, 2002 (edited by Henry Hardy; with an essay on Berlin and his critics by Ian Harris)
  • Flourishing: Letters 1928-1946, 2004 (edited by Henry Hardy)
  • The Soviet Mind: Russian Culture Under Communism, 2004 (edited by Henry Hardy; foreword by Strobe Talbott; glossary by Helen Rappaport)
  • Political Ideas in the Romantic Age: Their Rise and Influence on Modern Thought, 2006  (edited by Henry Hardy)
  • Unfinished Dialogue / Isaiah Berlin and Beata Polanowska-Sygulska, 2006 (foreword by Henry Hardy)
  • Enlightening: Letters 1946-1960, 2009 (edited by Henry Hardy and Jennifer Holmes)
  • Building: Letters 1960-1975, 2013 (edited by Henry Hardy and Jennifer Holmes)
  • Affirming: Letters 1975-1997, 2015 (edited by Henry Hardy and Mark Pottle; with the assistance of Nicholas Hall)

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