The Chronicle Review

Isaiah Berlin, Beyond the Wit

Steve Pyke

Isaiah Berlin in 1990
November 08, 2009

Isaiah Berlin—renowned liberal theorist, historian of ideas, Oxford don, cultural gadfly—was one of the great raconteurs of his generation. According to Robert Darnton, a professor of history at Harvard University, Berlin holding forth resembled "a trapeze artist, soaring through every imaginable subject, spinning, flipping, hanging by his heels." But Berlin, who died in 1997, worried about his reputation for rhetorical brilliance. Was he merely a clever talker, a frivolous wit? His letters, many of them collected in Enlightening: Letters 1946-1960, published by Chatto & Windus, an imprint of Random House, in Britain in July (and appearing in America in December), reveal a man at times consumed by self-doubt: "I generally think that everything I do is superficial, worthless, glaringly shallow, and could not take in an idiot child," Berlin wrote to his friend Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in 1952.

Berlin was a punctilious and prolific correspondent. Like the first volume of his letters, Flourishing: Letters 1928-1946, published in 2004, Enlightening is a hefty tome—845 pages including the index. "I romanticize every place I come to," Berlin wrote in 1949. "I find: Moscow, Oxford, Ditchley, Harvard, Washington: Each is a kind of legendary world framed within its own conventions in which the characters, suffused with unnatural brightness, perform with terrific responsiveness." His many correspondents included the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter; Katharine and Philip Graham, publishers of The Washington Post; the diplomat George Kennan; the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann; and the literary critic Edmund Wilson.

Enlightening is co-edited by Henry Hardy, a fellow at Wolfson College at Oxford (where Berlin served as the founding president) and Jennifer Holmes, a researcher and genealogist. Hardy, 60, is the editorial impresario of the Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust. For more than 30 years, he has devoted himself to collecting, editing, and publishing Berlin's letters and essays, many of which languished in obscure scholarly journals or Festschriften, or remained unpublished. To date, Hardy has served as midwife to the publication of 16 volumes of Berlin's writings.

"Henry Hardy has done a tremendous service," says Avishai Margalit, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, N.J. "Isaiah was known as a nonwriter, but it turns out that the naysayers were wrong. He wrote in all sorts of obscure places, and gave talks no one knew about. This collection of material is important." Richard Wolin, a professor of history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, adds: "Without Hardy, we would only have a precious few books by Berlin." It is hard to overestimate Hardy's role in transforming Berlin's reputation from that of "a mere salon virtuoso"—in the words of Michael Ignatieff, Berlin's biographer and now leader of the Liberal Party in Canada—to one of a decisive 20th-century political thinker.

More than a decade after Berlin's death, his ideas remain resonant. In an increasingly globalized and multicultural world, his clear-eyed analysis of pluralism and competing values is finding new audiences. "Some of the Great Goods cannot live together. That is a conceptual truth. We are doomed to choose, and every choice may entail an irreparable loss," Berlin wrote. And among scholars of liberalism, says Helena Rosenblatt, a professor of European intellectual history at the Graduate Center, Berlin's writings are "extremely influential." His work continues to appear posthumously in The New York Review of Books and The New Republic; several books about Berlin have been published, including John Gray's Isaiah Berlin (Princeton University Press, 1996) and George Crowder's Isaiah Berlin: Liberty and Pluralism (Polity, 2004); and most of Berlin's writings have been translated throughout Europe and China.

Berlin, it seems, is having a moment. In the past year, there has been a cascade of conferences and symposia marking the centenary of his birth. Scholars and other assorted Berlinophiles have convened in Barcelona, Jerusalem, London, Madrid, New York, Oxford, Potsdam, Riga (Berlin's birthplace), and Toronto. In September, Martha Nussbaum, Alan Ryan, Amartya Sen, and Michael Walzer, among others, gathered at Harvard to discuss Berlin's ideas on pluralism and liberalism (in particular his modest definition of negative liberty as the individual's right to do as he pleases, provided that his actions do not infringe upon the liberty of others). Later this month, Eafit University, in Medellín, Colombia, will hold a seminar on Berlin, as will the University of Seville. And in May, Boydell Press published The Book of Isaiah: Personal Impressions of Isaiah Berlin, a collection of remembrances of Berlin edited by Hardy. The crush of attention has been so intense that some Berlin aficionados are showing signs of fatigue. Asked to comment, Ian Buruma, a professor of journalism and human rights at Bard College, declined. "I'm a bit 'Isaiahed out' for the time being," he said.

In 1952, Berlin delivered six extemporaneous, hourlong lectures on BBC radio. The talks examined figures like the 18th-century French philosopher Claude-Adrien Helvétius and the conservative French writer Joseph de Maistre. Hundreds of thousands of people tuned in. The broadcasts were regarded as a triumph. Berlin was catapulted into the elite ranks of intellectual celebrity. But much of the praise was barbed. Michael Oakeshott, a prominent English philosopher, acidly declared Berlin "a Paganini of ideas." T.S. Eliot congratulated Berlin for his "torrential eloquence." Both remarks underscore the central knock on Berlin: He wasn't a writer. "Like Our Lord and Socrates, he does not publish much," joked Maurice Bowra, a colleague and friend of Berlin's at Oxford.

Hardy, who in 1974 was a postgraduate philosophy student at Wolfson, approached Berlin and proposed collecting his far-flung writings in a series of new books. Berlin agreed, but not immediately and not with any enthusiasm. "He was worried that people would consider them sweepings from the cutting-room floor that don't amount to very much," Hardy said in a recent interview. Hardy began compiling a bibliography of Berlin's work. "He no longer remembered what he had written," says Hardy, adding that Berlin had not kept records of his publications.

The first book that Hardy edited, Russian Thinkers (Viking Press), appeared in 1978. It included essays on the literary critic Vissarion Belinsky, the socialist writer Alexander Herzen, and the novelist Ivan Turgenev. There was also an essay on Leo Tolstoy, titled "The Hedgehog and the Fox," which put some analytical flesh on the bones of the Greek poet Archilochus's maxim that "the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." Russian Thinkers rekindled interest in Berlin's once-famous division of thinkers into hedgehogs and foxes. It remains one of the philosopher's most-referenced insights. (Russian Thinkers itself enjoyed a revival in 2007 when the playwright Tom Stoppard cited it as a major influence on his three-part epic The Coast of Utopia.)

Russian Thinkers was quickly followed by Concepts and Categories (Hogarth Press, 1978), a collection of philosophical essays; Against the Current (Viking, 1980), essays on the history of ideas; and Personal Impressions (Viking, 1980), Berlin's meditations on famous contemporaries, including Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, and Weizmann. The reviews were glowing. Berlin's skepticism gave way to gratitude. "Such fame at my age!" he wrote Hardy. "Berlin was pleased and grateful," Hardy says, with characteristic understatement.

In 1977, Hardy became an editor at Oxford University Press. He continued to work on Berlin's papers in his free time. "It was a labor of love," he says. Hardy was barely compensated for his efforts. (More precisely, his share of the royalties, in his own words, "didn't amount to a hill of beans." Berlin's share of the royalties went to Wolfson.) In 1988, Berlin asked Hardy if he would become one of his literary trustees. Hardy first wanted to look through the papers Berlin had stored in his attic and cellar. "I was absolutely amazed by what I found," Hardy says. "The sheer quantity was astounding. Berlin never threw anything away. It was very clear straight away that there were a lot of more-or-less finished pieces of writing, most of which had probably been prepared as lectures. But Berlin never actively sought to publish his own work. The material, which covered a huge range of topics, was all extremely interesting."

Hardy said that he wanted to begin work on the manuscripts immediately and not wait until Berlin died. "I knew I would need to ask him many questions." By 1990, enough money had been raised from foundations and wealthy admirers of Berlin to allow Hardy to leave the Oxford press and turn his undivided attention to Berlin's papers. But financing remains a perpetual concern. "The whole undertaking has been very hand-to-mouth," Hardy says. "These books, though widely celebrated, haven't sold in wide numbers. They haven't generated enough money to pay my salary."

Berlin's writings, Hardy quickly realized, lacked scholarly rigor. "Though Berlin believed very much in accuracy, he wasn't particularly good at it himself," Hardy says. "In fact, one could say he was rather bad at it." Berlin admitted as much. "I am not at all surprised that my footnotes are inaccurate," he wrote to Hardy. "I am wildly unscholarly!" Berlin often quoted from memory, and being a skilled prose stylist, he had a tendency to improve quotations, to make them more resonant and impressive. For instance, his distillation of Kant's observation that "out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made" is a vast improvement on Kant's original German: "Out of timber so crooked as that from which man is made nothing entirely straight can be carved."

Hardy has, year after year, painstakingly built a scholarly infrastructure around Berlin's writings. "I feel rather ambivalent about it because getting all of that right doesn't really improve the way the essays read. And sometimes, it can even spoil the essay—because if you insist on getting everything accurate you sometimes get duller versions of quotations," Hardy says. Reviewing The Proper Study of Mankind (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a collection of Berlin's essays published in 1998, Stefan Collini, a professor of intellectual history and English literature at the University of Cambridge, described the book as "slightly bastardized" because Hardy had "done his best to kit them out in full footnoted fig." As a result, Collini wrote, Hardy threatened to turn "what had been personal and stylish into appearing merely conventional and industrious." Hardy says that Berlin dismissed such criticism, assuring him that he had succeeded in turning belles-lettres into scholarship.

So what's it like to dedicate your whole career to another thinker's ideas? "It's a matter of personality," Hardy explains. "I am more comfortable saying, 'Here is what this person thinks, isn't it interesting?' rather than saying, 'Look, this is what I think, isn't it interesting?'" Hardy continues. "I certainly have opinions. I was drawn to Berlin and have stuck with him for so long because I admire him and his ideas. I wouldn't have been happy working for someone just on a professional basis. With Berlin, it's a vocation."

On a warm afternoon in June, a few hundred people crowded into the wood-paneled auditorium at Mishkenot Sha'ananim, a cultural center in Jerusalem, to discuss Berlin's views on Zionism. A Jew and a lifelong Zionist, Berlin had deep personal and intellectual ties to Israel. He believed nationalism is "a basic human need" that encourages the "straightening of bent backs." And Jewish backs, he argued, were in particular need of straightening. But Berlin's was a practical Zionism. He was critical of Israeli leaders, and he himself never settled in Israel, despite entreaties from prominent Israelis. Moreover, Berlin was early to recognize the legitimacy of Palestinian nationalism. In Jerusalem, the conversation continued well into the evening.

Before the event concluded, Hardy—thick in the shoulders, bearded, and dressed in a wrinkled linen suit—was called on to make some remarks. He tentatively mounted the stage. Looking out at the capacity crowd, he described feeling relief that Berlin's writings were now ensconced in the intellectual and academic firmament. Hardy recently reflected on that moment. "There is a tremendous satisfaction in having enabled this man and his ideas to come out into the light of day."