A new Book of Isaiah
David Herman admires an editor’s devotion, skill and style. Plus a strong pair of satires In Search of Isaiah Berlin
I. B. Tauris, £20
Reviewed by David Herman
HENRY HARDY originally wanted to call this book, “The Genius and the Pedant”. The Genius, of course, was Isaiah Berlin, one of the great Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, an acclaimed political philosopher and historian of ideas, famous for his work on liberalism and pluralism.
But Berlin was much more than an academic philosopher. His radio lectures and TV appearances made him a household name from the 1950s on, and he was a famous conversationalist who seems to have met everyone who was anyone from Churchill and Kennedy to Freud and Virginia Woolf.
And the Pedant? Henry Hardy’s label for himself is unfair. He is a brilliant literary editor who single-handedly transformed Berlin’s reputation.
Maurice Bowra famously said of Berlin, “like Our Lord and Socrates, he does not publish much.” Hardy changed this. As he describes in this book, he took the many radio broadcasts, lectures, unpublished manuscripts, letters and essays scattered around numerous academic journals and edited them into a series of books that confirmed Berlin’s reputation as a major post-war thinker.
In Search of Isaiah Berlin is a book in two parts. The second, shorter part is about Berlin’s ideas. It “relates our philosophical exchanges about pluralism, religious belief and human nature.” The main part of the book is a hugely enjoyable and accessible Minds over matters: Isaiah Berlin (right) with Amos Oz in 1994 bringing philosophy and literature to bear upon life
account of the relationship between the two men. They could not have been less alike. When they met at Wolfson College, Oxford, in the 1970s, Sir Isaiah Berlin was at the height of his reputation — President of Wolfson, after a decade as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford; appointed to the Order of Merit; and President of the British Academy. Hardy was a young postgraduate, “an editor with a strong liability to obsessive pedantry”, very English, not Jewish.
But, despite the differences, the two became increasingly close and Hardy
was to devote his career to bringing order to Berlin’s papers. In particular, this book is about Hardy’s work as an editor. First, he had to find all the papers and letters, shape them into relevant volumes (“Russian Thinkers”, “Concepts and Categories”, “Personal Impressions”) then track down the footnotes and references.
Berlin was surprisingly uninterested in footnotes. He was interested in big ideas — Two Concepts of Liberty, Historical Inevitability, The Roots of Romanticism.
Hardy brings what he calls “the editorial story” to life. Above all, however, he
brings Sir Isaiah to life. Hardy’s account of Berlin’s reluctance to publish some of his great essays, and his indifference to footnotes, is fascinating.
And then there is the warmth and generosity of the man. When Hardy had tracked down one particularly elusive reference, Berlin wrote back: “Bravissimo! Marvellous Scherlockismus!” This humorous, warm and generous tribute brings the history of ideas to life.
David Herman is a senior JC reviewer. Henry Hardy will be talking about Isaiah Berlin at Jewish Book Week on March 3 Tower,