Brendan Mclaughlin on Isaiah Berlin
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