- The Washington Times - Friday, February 26, 2010


By Isaiah Berlin

Edited by Henry Hardy and Jennifer Holmes

Trafalgar Square, $50,

845 pages, illustrated


More than a decade since Sir Isaiah Berlin died at age 88 in Oxford, loaded with honors and distinctions academic and other, debate still rages in intellectual circles as to just where he stands as a thinker. Was he a brilliant and original contributor to the field of political philosophy or a mere synthesizer of what he had gleaned from recondite figures in past centuries?

Worse still, at least in the view of the academy, was he - horror of horrors - a mere popularizer, adept at scintillating but essentially vacuous exposition of ideas? But one thing about him was beyond dispute: He was one of the greatest talkers - lecturer, broadcaster, raconteur - who has ever lived. And this despite a breakneck speed of delivery and a thick Russian accent that made only a fraction of his spoken jewels intelligible to most listeners.

In this new volume of letters, superbly edited and annotated, readers have an extraordinary opportunity to taste just what that conversation was like, thanks to Berlin’s discovery of the dictaphone as a way of coping with the many demands on his time.

Thus these extraordinary letters, transcribed with great difficulty and care, by those attuned in every sense to their author and accustomed to his ways, replicate to an extraordinary degree that torrential conversation with its preternatural mix of gossip, philosophy and politics. Indeed, so effective was this device in capturing all that Berlin had to say that this substantial volume represents less than a quarter of his letters during the 14 years it covers.

But in Berlin’s case, quality really did equal quantity, and these letters, addressed as they are to the creme de la creme of his correspondents, put us in the wonderful position of being in Berlin’s confidence, as he vouchsafes us everything from an inside look at academic politics to his view of a range of political and intellectual controversies, all salted with a piquant sprinkling of irresistible gossip. Which puts us, quite frankly, in a position that few, if any, of us would have found ourselves with the man himself, who was, to put it plainly, a snob of the first order.

In fact, to say that he was a social climber seems grossly inadequate: From an extraordinarily early age and despite an improbable background for such achievement, he was more astronautical than aeronautical in his capacity to outsoar even the most stratospheric heights of academic, political and just plain high society.

One correspondent, Clarissa Churchill, described an early encounter with Berlin when she was a student at Oxford. A historian and disciple was in the midst of a serious and substantive discussion with him but was quickly dismissed in favor of a delightful gossip with the young lady. He could not have known that a mere decade and a half later she would be the wife of a prime minister, but she was Winston’s Churchill’s niece.

Despite an appearance that was not only untidy but generally unprepossessing, Berlin was an unlikely but surprisingly successful Lothario, romancing a string of women whom many might have thought way out of his league. In the mid-1950s, as we learn in a series of letters in which he confides this juicy story, an affair with the wife of an Oxford colleague turned into a wrenching contretemps that ended with their marrying.

And this was not just any faculty wife. She not only shared his Russian-Jewish background but was also a bona fide French aristocrat and immensely rich to boot, transporting him from his longtime bachelor college digs to a grand house outside Oxford complete with valuable antiques and objets d’art where he was to live for the rest of his life.

It is clear from many letters in this collection just how passionate and full this late-blooming relationship was for Berlin and for his wife, Aline, to whom this volume is dedicated. And this, plus his many letters to his parents, to whom he was devoted, and his revelation in several letters of the extent of his devastation after his father’s death, reveals a softer, more intimate and human side to him than one might expect.

Berlin’s critics - and it is inevitable that someone as phenomenally successful in and out of academe as he was should have attracted detractors galore - often have pointed to his slipperiness on many public issues, and these letters provide some choice examples. None more so than his startlingly different judgments on the all-consuming issue of Britain’s 1956 Suez crisis in two consecutive letters. To his friend Clarissa (now Eden) in 10 Downing St., he writes:

“I should like to offer the Prime Minister all my admiration and sympathy. His action seems to me very brave very patriotic and - I shd have thought - absolutely just. … [I]t seems to me that Anthony (if I may call him that) has behaved with great moral splendour. … [H]is courage, honesty and strength of will, in circumstances which put these qualities to a most appalling test, have been such that he will, I believe turn out to have saved England.”

While to his stepson studying at Harvard, he sings a very different tune:

“That the British Government has committed a blunder cannot seriously be doubted.”

And then, most significantly:

“I have kept very silent and signed no letters or counter letters, appeared on no platforms or counter-platforms.”

In a nation - and most especially a university like Oxford - roiled with passions on both sides, what Berlin did and didn’t say or do is significant, to say the least.

Similarly, critics of his view of communism have sometimes complained that his academic habits of taking the long view of history and of ideas made him seem wishy-washy about this ideology. So it is interesting to read his verdict after a trip to the Soviet Union in 1956 that “the governing body of the USSR is the most terrifying body of toughs I’ve ever seen.”

And this from a man with vivid childhood memories of witnessing the revolutions of 1917 in Petrograd, as well as their aftermath in the succeeding couple of years. But it is also sobering to see his level of discomfort at anything he has written being enlisted for “Cold War Propaganda.”

Whether Berlin was in fact an original thinker or merely a popularizer and synthesizer of ideas by the likes of Hegel, Herder or De Maistre, there can be no doubt that his encapsulations of important concepts like the difference between positive and negative liberties and his identification of a counter-Enlightenment represented huge contributions to the intellectual thinking of his time. Berlin lived another 37 years after this volume ends, loquacious to the end, so we can look forward to many more marvelous and revelatory letters like these.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide