The Jewish Chronicle

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

- By Henry Hardy

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,

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