Bren­dan Mclaugh­lin on Isa­iah Ber­lin

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - BREN­DAN MCLAUGH­LIN Af­firm­ing: Let­ters 1975–1997 by Isa­iah Ber­lin Edited by Henry Hardy and Mark Pot­tle Chatto & Win­dus £40 Oldie price £34 (+p&p). Call 01326 555 762 to order

AF­FIRM­ING is the fourth and last vol­ume of Isa­iah Ber­lin’s let­ters. Pre­vi­ous vol­umes, Flour­ish­ing, En­light­en­ing and Build­ing, con­cern his early years from 1928 on: his time in Rus­sia and Amer­ica; fas­cism and Marx­ism; the Sec­ond World War and its af­ter­math; the Cold War and Zion­ism; and his com­plex and in­ter­est­ing aca­demic and po­lit­i­cal life. This vol­ume con­tin­ues dis­cus­sions from the first three, re-stat­ing or re­vis­ing many of his opin­ions and at­ti­tudes on a mul­ti­plic­ity of sub­jects. Like many in­tel­lec­tual refugees, Ber­lin favoured a wide range of themes and sources, and paid lit­tle re­gard to for­mal logic; he never claimed to be a scholar. He is all the more in­ter­est­ing for this.

Notwith­stand­ing his ex­ten­sive list of pub­li­ca­tions, Ber­lin was hap­pier as a talker than a writer. He hated the idea of keep­ing a diary or writ­ing an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, and only re­luc­tantly con­sented to hav­ing an ac­count of his life pub­lished on con­di­tion that it was writ­ten by Michael Ig­nati­eff, who knew him in­ti­mately and shared his poly­glot in­tel­lec­tu­al­ity and love of the his­tory of ideas. Had it not been for the ad­mirable Henry Hardy (him­self a fre­quent cor­re­spon­dent with Ber­lin in his later years) and his col­leagues, we should lack much of the im­por­tant work now avail­able – Socrates with­out Plato or Xenophon.

Ber­lin was madly un­tidy and his pa­pers, like his thoughts, were not in any par­tic­u­lar order. In con­ver­sa­tion, an ap­par­ently un­con­nected set of ideas be­came an amal­gam in the course of talk­ing about them. In his let­ters, there is the same will­ing­ness to con­sider a large num­ber of dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to a prob­lem and throw light on it but not end up with a dog­matic con­clu­sion. As he wrote to Fred­er­ick Rosen: ‘Val­ues some­times con­flict, com­pro­mises have to be made, trade-offs are needed.’

He was un­em­bar­rassed by the di­ver­sity of creeds and the­o­ries, with a Ho­ra­tian de­ter­mi­na­tion not to be dom­i­nated by any sin­gle Weltan­schau­ung. Plu­ral­ism was cen­tral to his think­ing, es­pe­cially in eth­i­cal or po­lit­i­cal con­texts. This is il­lus­trated in a 1992 let­ter to Mor­ris Abram: ‘I do see that there is a clash of val­ues in so­ci­ety, as there al­ways is say be­tween lib­erty and equal­ity: com­plete lib­erty means that the wolves are free to eat the sheep, the strong de­stroy the weak; equal­ity means cur­tail­ment of lib­erty, some­times quite se­vere.’

With thor­ough, de­tailed and in­for­ma­tive foot­notes and a su­perb ‘Bi­b­li­o­graph­i­cal Glos­sary’ de­scrib­ing the drama­tis per­sonae, Af­firm­ing is an ex­cel­lent source for the un­der­stand­ing of Ber­lin’s thought in its var­i­ous con­texts.

But the let­ters also show Ber­lin’s ca­pac­ity for friend­ship, his sym­pa­thetic un­der­stand­ing of char­ac­ters and view­points, both of his cor­re­spon­dents and the his­tor­i­cal fig­ures he ad­mires – Vico, Tur­genev, Wil­liam James (his model philoso­pher) and a very large num­ber of foxes and hedge­hogs.

Ber­lin was sharply per­spi­ca­cious and the ob­ser­va­tions and vignettes he pro­duces are telling. Tam Da­lyell was ‘pre­pos­ter­ous but lov­able’; Fred­die Ayer ‘ter­rific im­pact – no ideas of his own’; and Churchill ‘ag­gres­sive and coarse .... but cer­tainly the largest hu­man be­ing I have ever met, com­posed of fewer pieces, as it were, than most of us’.

When Vir­ginia Woolf met Ber­lin in 1933 she said that he talked with the vi­vac­ity and as­sur­ance of the young May­nard Keynes, and the let­ters are dot­ted with en­coun­ters with im­pressed women. Greta Garbo was, it seems, fas­ci­nated, and Diana Cooper found that he had the loveli­est eyes.

In his clos­ing years he kept up the flow of cor­re­spon­dence, mainly by dic­ta­tion. Many of the let­ters are poignant, af­fec­tion­ate and charm­ing to read, mainly to old friends and, as might be ex­pected, let­ters of con­do­lence, con­tain­ing both gen­er­ous ex­pres­sions of Ber­lin’s re­gard, and in­for­ma­tive in record­ing the his­tory of long friend­ships.

On 5th De­cem­ber 1997, after months of a throat mal­func­tion, he was taken to the Acland Hospi­tal to have a tube in­serted; his throat had seized up. Some­one said ‘Grin and bear it, Isa­iah.’ ‘I’m bear­ing it,’ he replied, ‘but I’m not grin­ning.’ He died the same day, of heart fail­ure. Hardy re­ports that his last words (to the nurse) were ‘And where do you come from?’

I found the let­ters in­trigu­ing. At the risk of sole­cism, Ich bin ein Ber­liner.

Isa­iah Ber­lin in the Six­ties

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