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

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - 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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