Who was Isaiah Berlin?
He was an émigré Russian Jew who came to Britain at the age of eleven, leaving the Soviet Union because of the after-effects of the Russian Revolution. He was one of numerous émigrés from both Nazism and Communism in the UK who had a great influence on our culture: they’ve often been written about. He achieved a key position right at the heart of the British establishment, which he somehow underlined by always wearing a three-piece suit. But he denied that he was English: he said he was, and remained, a Russian Jew. He went to Oxford, and Oxford became his spiritual home – his intellectual home – for the whole of his life. He was there right through from being an undergraduate until he died, apart from a period during the war when he served the British government in America – in New York and Washington – commenting on American political affairs. He went to America a lot afterwards as a visiting professor, but never took up a full-time post there.
What was your first encounter with him?
I first met him because I applied to Wolfson College, a graduate students’ college, in Oxford in 1971. I had been an undergraduate in Oxford, and after a year off doing other things I wanted to return to do graduate work in philosophy. I did try to get into Merton College, but failed. I’m very grateful to Merton, because had I not failed there I wouldn’t have applied to Wolfson. I was interviewed at Wolfson in January 1972. It wasn’t yet in its new buildings – the buildings which it occupies now, which Berlin was influential in commissioning – but occupied two separate houses in the Banbury Road. I arrived for the interview and was immediately very struck by the man who was in charge of the proceedings – Isaiah Berlin. I didn’t know about him before, but he was intensely alive and talked about ideas in a fascinating way. From that moment on I was hooked.
“He thought that his work was not particularly good, not particularly important, and I don’t think that was an affectation: he really did believe that.”
You mention him talking – he’s renowned as a talker. And even his writing – a lot of the things we know as his writings – are actually transcriptions from talks.
Yes. He did write some things by hand when he was a younger man: in particular, his biography of Marx was originally drafted by hand (the manuscript survives), although later drafts were dictated. But by the end of his life, and indeed quite early on in his life, comparatively speaking, he was dictating not only his academic work but also his letters. So you can hear the spoken voice very much. And one of the remarkable things about his dictation was that he was capable of dictating almost perfect prose from a standing start and without preparation. Most people when they dictate make false starts and utter ungrammatical constructions, and all sorts of rewriting has to take place – if only to make the thing work as ordinary English prose. It wasn’t so for Berlin. As you can tell by reading his letters, they just come straight off the Dictaphone in finished form, and it’s very rare for a sentence not to wind to its conclusion.
But that did lead to a lot of unpublished material that was delivered at particular events and then, as it were, has had an afterlife in books.
Yes. I don’t think that the fact that his essays were dictated has got anything in particular to do with the fact that they were left unpublished by him, he just wasn’t someone who had the instinct to publish. He thought that his work was not particularly good, not particularly important, and I don’t think that was an affectation: he really did believe that. Some of the essays which he left unpublished would have been drafted by hand, and some of them would have been dictated. He just didn’t have that urge to publish which has become ingrained in modern academics by sheer career demands – that kind of career impetus didn’t exist in those days. There were many dons in his period who published little or nothing and it did no harm to their careers. He was one of them.
In your involvement with Berlin, you’ve become a kind of midwife for his previously unpublished work as well as somebody who has refined the footnotes and academic apparatus around the essays he had actually published.
Yes, I’ve done both. ‘Intellectual midwife’ is a good description, it’s one I’ve often applied to myself. The publication of unpublished works came about in the following way. In 1988 Isaiah was concocting a new version of his will and he wanted to appoint me as one of three or four literary executors who would have to deal with his papers once he died. I said to him at that point, ‘I’m delighted to do this but I do want to see what it is that I’d have to deal with. Can I come and look through your papers now so that I can see what there is and also ask you any questions about them that occur to me, which I couldn’t put to you once you are dead?’ He said that I could do that. So I spent several days in his home, starting in the attic and literally ending in the cellar. The result really knocked me sideways. There was an astonishing amount of paper. For a start, he’d clearly never thrown anything away. And, in amongst all these papers, there was a very large number of completed or virtually completed works which seemed to me just as good and just as interesting as some of the things he’d published. The selection of what had been published was more to do with who’d put pressure on him at what point, or which undertakings he’d entered into when he’d given a lecture, rather than the merits of the pieces themselves. So I set about the task of extracting all the finished but unpublished material and turning it into books with his assistance, in so far as I could while he was alive (several books had to wait to be published posthumously).
I’ve put the cart before the horse. Fifteen years before I became his literary executor, while I was still at Wolfson College as a graduate student, I began to bring together his many scattered published writings. He had published a number of pieces in very obscure places, in academic journals or foreign newspapers or whatever. It was clear that there was a possibility of bringing these together and making them available in volumes that would bring them to the notice of a wide public, and that in the process his work would become better known. At that point, my first task was to discover what he’d written and what he’d published. That wasn’t easy because he had no idea. So I started compiling a bibliography of his work, which I published in the Wolfson College magazine, and when the Internet came into existence I decided to set up a website which would be a kind of database for all things Berlinian, the Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library. That website contains my bibliography of his work in an updated form, it also contains a list of the hundreds of articles and books about his work, and all sorts of other material about him. People seem to find it useful.
Could you give a rough idea of how many books of Berlin’s writing have been published now?
It depends how you count them. A few items had appeared before my involvement started, but only one real book, the one on Marx — unless you count his anthology of writings by Enlightenment philosophers, The Age of Enlightenment. Four Essays on Liberty and Vico and Herder were collections of essays, and there were also some essays published separately, most famously The Hedgehog and the Fox. The two collections and all the free-standing pieces were scooped up into the collections I edited later. I have edited or co-edited thirteen books of essays, twelve of which have now appeared in new editions, four new editions of books first published by Berlin himself and four volumes of letters. So the total is about twenty or thirty, depending on whether you count new editions. Let’s say around twenty, because the new editions don’t really count in most people’s minds as genuinely new books, although, I have to say, some of them involved as much – if not more – work than the original editions, and they all include additional material. So it’s twenty-odd, including the four volumes of his letters, the last of which has recently been published.
Let’s go to the first book that you’ve chosen, which is Liberty. Could you give a flavour of the book?
There was once a display of books somewhere – I think it might have been at the British Academy, a display of books by Fellows. Berlin was the President at the time, and was asked what his most important book was. He said Four Essays on Liberty. I don’t disagree with that. It was first published in 1969, and I produced a considerably expanded edition of it in 2002, simplifying the title from Four Essays On Liberty to Liberty. It contains his principal essays on liberty and also, under the same umbrella, material on pluralism, which was one of his principal ideas: that values are incommensurable, and, associated with that, also on monism, which he’s opposed to – the idea that there’s only one correct way to live life. Monism is exemplified by movements such as Nazism and Communism, which he analyses in the first of the four essays. Liberty very much has the core of his intellectual position in it, the heart of the matter.
Isn’t he most famous for his notion of the two concepts of liberty?
That could be said to be true, although I believe that his contribution to the idea of pluralism has begun to overtake the idea of the two concepts of liberty. In the academic community, there’s still a lot of interest in the two concepts, which do remain very important. But I think if you ask an intelligent reader today what strikes them about Berlin, they’re more likely to talk about his pluralism. Pluralism is the view that ultimate human values – that is to say, values that we pursue for their own sake, not objectives that we pursue because they contribute to some deeper or more fundamental end – are of their very nature irreducibly distinct, and often in conflict, and cannot be measured against one another, or measured in terms of one super-value in which they can all be cashed out, such as utility – which is what the Utilitarians are supposed to have done. This means that the idea that you can construct a perfect life where all values are harmonised with each other and all make their exactly right contribution to a single perfect way of living life is conceptually incoherent. It just can’t be arrived at. And because this is so, according to him, you have to make room in your political arrangements for many different approaches to life, each of which has just as much claim to be right as the others, rather than imposing top-down a single way of life, as, say, Communists seek to do. And that’s why liberty, but in particular negative liberty – which means that you are not impeded by other people from doing what you want to do or might come to want to do – is so important, because it gives space for the plural ways of life to flourish and doesn’t promote one at the expense of others.
And positive liberty is particularly associated, in some forms at least, with what you’ve called the monist approaches to social life, the ones that emphasise that there’s only one right way to live?
It tends to be, yes. Positive liberty isn’t essentially a bad idea. In fact, Berlin is very careful to say that it’s a valid universal human goal when uncorrupted – he’s often misunderstood on this point and treated as a critic of all forms of positive liberty. One of the difficulties is that it’s rather difficult to define positive liberty because he arguably has more than one notion of it. Roughly speaking, though, it’s a matter of who is in charge. Negative liberty is a question of how many doors are open before you, positive liberty is a matter of who decides which ones you go through. The idea is that you want to be in charge yourself – you don’t want other people to be making those decisions for you. But Berlin concentrates his fire on a particular version of positive liberty, namely the view that there are two selves within each of us: there’s the ‘real’, ‘higher’, ‘rational’ self, and the poor benighted empirical self. According to this view, what we want or need is to have the real self in charge. For that, you move on to the idea that the real self can be guided by some higher authority (typically the state) which knows what your ‘true and objective’ needs are much better than you do yourself. And then, by a further step, it becomes possible to say that freedom is a matter of obeying the state. That’s what he calls a ‘monstrous impersonation’, and he has a lot to say against it. It’s a view typified by Rousseau’s claim that it is sometimes right for citizens to be ‘forced to be free.’
My second book is The Proper Study of Mankind, whose remit was to provide the best of Isaiah Berlin’s essays all together in one volume. Indeed it includes one of my other choices, The Hedgehog and the Fox, and three of the essays from Liberty. So the idea was to choose samples of his most important work in a wide variety of areas. It includes philosophy, history of ideas, studies of nineteenth-century Russian writers (one of his main interests), three of his ‘personal impressions’ of contemporaries, and more besides. It’s quite a chunky book, it runs to 650 pages. I don’t necessarily think it’s a book that should be read straight through from the beginning to the end. Indeed, I say in my preface that I advise people to begin with the more informal, personal essays before turning to the meatier, more philosophical pieces. Most people who want to read just a certain amount of Berlin and not the whole lot will find enough here, I think, to be grist to their mill.
So, in a way, this is the book that you should start with as somebody new to Isaiah Berlin?
That was the idea, yes. I’m a bit torn about agreeing with that for all readers. I think one of the great things about Berlin is that he is not just somebody who can be read by academics and students and specialists of various kinds: he speaks to all intelligent human beings. If you haven’t got a particularly philosophical turn of mind, one of the other books that I’ve chosen – Personal Impressions – is a good one to start with because that’s the most assimilable and digestible. But if you’re a serious person who wants to understand, across the whole range of his thought, what it is that Berlin is up to, then I think, yes, The Proper Study of Mankind is the book I would start with.
Did Berlin spend most of his life reading? He seems to have an amazing grasp of huge literatures in the original languages.
He was a great reader, and his papers (which have been deposited in the Bodleian Library in Oxford) contain a lot of notes which prove line by line that he did read carefully. But he also quite evidently had the capacity to absorb the essence of a book without reading it word by word from cover to cover. This was something that mirrored his capacity in conversation: he had a great ability, as he once described it in a letter, to ‘see a pattern on the carpet.’ That is to say, he could see very quickly what you were on about if you were talking to him. He could see very quickly what an author was on about in a book too, and, when he wrote about people he knew, the same capacity displayed itself: he could convey the point of a person, the source of his or her world view – their way of looking at the world – very deftly. That was one of the most striking things about him.
That leads neatly to the third book that you’ve chosen, Personal Impressions.
This book has been considerably enlarged in its latest (third) edition to take in many more pieces that he wrote after the first two editions appeared. It displays very well his ability to put himself in the shoes of a person whose view on life, whose values, whose attitudes might be significantly different from his own, and, indeed, very different from one another’s. So what you get is empathetic pen portraits of a wide range of startlingly different people. In that way he was very unlike those writers who tend to mine other thinkers and writers, and indeed people, for things that they can co-opt for their own agendas: they are always looking for things to agree with, and things to disagree with, so that everything is filtered through their own world view. What Berlin was very good at doing was emptying himself of his own preconceptions and standing in the shoes of these other people who are describing the world from their point of view. It’s a breathtakingly impressive capacity, and not only useful in sheer human terms in yielding a rich understanding of other living human beings – which you see in his Personal Impressions – but also in the more theoretical sphere, because it makes him an excellent historian of ideas. To understand another thinker fully, you need to deploy this kind of capacity and his capacity, in this regard, was second to none.
There is a sense in which this does fit his agenda, though, because it’s consistent with his pluralism to investigate a wide range of different stances on life and different incompatible values.
Yes, it does. If you like, you can see the essays of Personal Impressions as a series of case studies in pluralism.
So far we’ve been talking as if he was a completely benevolent force, but some people have found some of his impressions of people on the caustic side.
This doesn’t come out much in Personal Impressions because, as he described it, it was a collection of éloges – funeral orations or obituaries or appreciations of people that he admired – so you don’t get so much of the cattiness there. But you do get a lot of the caustic remarks in the letters – that can’t be denied. He was very hard on people whose moral personality he disapproved of. He himself displayed very richly a capacity which he often attributed to others under the label ‘moral charm’, which I can’t really define further, other than by naming it. But when he found that other people manifested lack of integrity or moral failings of one kind or another that he disapproved of, he was very free – at least in private letters – with his criticism of them. He was willing to judge people negatively. He always said that you should understand before you condemn – which, of course, I hope we would all agree with. But some people felt that he was too ready to condemn without understanding. He was occasionally liable to a sort of visceral antipathy to certain people, which appeared to proceed not from an intellectual assessment but from some instinctive level – people like Hannah Arendt. It’s difficult to account for it in rational terms, but he had a small panoply of hate figures, undoubtedly.
Which are the highlights for you in Personal Impressions?
The most striking piece – and I think everybody who has read it would agree with this in some way – is his memoir of his meetings with Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova, the latter in particular, in 1945. Everybody who knows anything about Berlin knows the story of how he went to Russia at the end of the Second World War and was based in Moscow. He visited Leningrad for a fortnight and when he was there he went to see Anna Akhmatova, the great poetess, and talked to her right through one night until the middle of the next morning. His account of that and its effect on him and her is extremely moving and brilliantly written. It’s the longest piece in the book and, I think, the best.
It’s almost a love story.
It is a sort of love story, yes, but at an intellectual level, or at least on a level that was unexpressed physically. He always said that people assumed that they had an affair because he was there all night, but he always insisted – and I believe him – as he put it: ‘Nothing is further from the truth. She sat in one corner of the room; I sat in the other and we never even touched. I didn’t even kiss her hand.’ But still, there was a very intense bond created on that occasion and he came to be a deeply symbolic figure for her – often occurring in her poetry from that moment onwards. When he later married, she was obviously very hurt. Not that she wished to marry him herself, but he’d obviously betrayed some kind of mystical union which she thought that they had with each other.
“He was a genius at being a human being.”
Are any musicians or composers featured in Personal Impressions? Music was incredibly important for Berlin.
Music was one of the most important things in his life, more important than his own academic work. He would often say that personal relationships were the most important thing in life – ‘People are my landscape’, as Karl Wolfskehl put it – and I would have thought that music would come a close second or indeed an equal first. There is a piece on the music critic Martin Cooper in the book, but he also knew a number of musicians and composers, including Stravinsky, and had a rich life of listening to music. He claimed to have listened to more music of more kinds for more hours than anybody else. He was on the board of The Royal Opera House at Covent Garden and knew a great deal about opera – not only the operas themselves, but the people who performed and sang in them. He had quite an influence on the repertoire of the Royal Opera during the years that he was there, for example engineering a production of Schoenberg’s Moses and Aaron. Music was deeply important to him, but not in an esoteric way. His favourite radio channel – people are sometimes surprised to know – was Classic FM, not Radio 3, because it played more of the core of the musical repertoire that he loved.
What’s your fourth choice?
My fourth choice is The Hedgehog and the Fox, which is also in The Proper Study of Mankind, but as it’s still a separate book I feel entitled to choose it as a separate item. Not only is it one of Berlin’s most famous essays, partly because of its extremely apt title, but it’s also one of his best essays. It exemplifies something that we haven’t yet talked about: his deep knowledge of and interest in the Russian writers of the nineteenth century. It’s a book about Tolstoy and his view of history. It has also given to British and indeed world culture this tool of analysis: the dichotomy which divides writers, in the first place, but in the end all human beings, into hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs pursue one single vision: they’re natural monists in the terms we were discussing earlier. The foxes are natural pluralists who see life in all its teeming variety and don’t try to force all this variety into the Procrustean bed of a single vision of life. This book scores on a number of levels – both in the creation of the dichotomy and in the way in which he deploys it. It’s a brilliant analysis of Tolstoy’s own conflicted attitude to history. Roughly speaking, Berlin argues that Tolstoy was by nature a fox who writes most brilliantly about the fine detail of human life, none of which can be systematised in any way, yet he longs for and tries to find some enormous undergirding pattern which makes sense of it all, some vision of historical inevitability. He was torn by this division, he never managed to reconcile its two components, and ended up a broken figure as a result. That’s very brilliantly expressed. It also contains a lot about a figure called Joseph de Maistre – a right-wing Catholic writer whom Berlin wrote about elsewhere too – and ties him very interestingly to Tolstoy. It’s famous especially for its opening, where Berlin lists the various people whom he regards as hedgehogs and foxes, and for the ending, which has a moving portrait of Tolstoy as a tragic figure: ‘almost wholly isolated, he is the most tragic of the great writers, a desperate old man, beyond human aid, wandering self-blinded at Colonus.’ It’s an astonishing piece of writing. It’s 90 pages long in its new edition. It’s short, but very powerful.
I can see why the fox is a symbol of the wise person who recognises the complexity of life and the incompatible goals, and immerses himself or herself in the detail of life without trying to have a simple overarching theory, but why is the hedgehog the symbol of the monist?
The title comes from an isolated line by the archaic Greek poet Archilochus: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.’ There are disputes about how exactly this should be interpreted, but the most natural interpretation is simply that the hedgehog responds to all the different threats from the fox, and indeed from anywhere else, by rolling up into a ball: he has only a one-trick repertoire. That can be taken as a metaphor for somebody who interprets everything he discovers in life in terms of his one single issue – a single-issue fanatic.
And the fifth book?
It might seem a bit narcissistic, but the book I have chosen is a book that I edited myself, which, naturally enough, I think has something to offer. This is a book in which I commissioned a wide range of people to write ‘personal impressions,’ but in the other direction. Just as Isaiah, in Personal Impressions, wrote about a wide variety of people and saw the point of them all, I wanted a wide variety of people to write about Berlin from their own different points of view, and they are very different points of view. Churchill once spent a whole lunch talking to Irving Berlin, mistakenly believing he was talking to Isaiah Berlin. Berlin used to say about that story of the two Berlins: ‘There are many versions of this story, all true.’ I feel the same about all these different accounts of Isaiah: there are many versions of him as he was seen by the different people that he encountered, all true in their own way. The book is divided into two main parts. The first is written by people who knew him personally, the second by people who didn’t, but know his work. That second group of authors is important to me because it’s often said about Berlin by commentators that if you didn’t know him as a person you don’t see the point of him. He’s somebody whose influence and power to inspire dies with him. I very much think that that’s not true. What comes out of the contributions of people whose knowledge of him is based only on his writing is that it has a very strong power to inspire, quite independently of knowing him as a man, although that, of course, helped. So we have here a range of different accounts of him as a person and as a writer. There’s also a bonne boucheat the end – a rather remarkable piece written by his father. It’s a long piece – fifty pages long. His father Mendel was concerned that unless he wrote something down, the Jewish Hasidic side of his inheritance would be lost, partly because most of the family was killed by the Nazis in Riga in 1941. There were very few relatives living to pass on that side of the story. So Mendel Berlin tells the story of the family from its earliest beginnings up until the time when he stopped writing. It’s a very remarkable account and a very notable feature of the book.
Does this book include anything by people who didn’t like him?
The piece that comes closest to that is by Jennifer Holmes, who was the co-editor of the second volume of his letters, Enlightening. Her piece is called ‘Isaiah Berlin on Himself’. During the course of editing his letters she developed considerable reservations about him, partly on the basis of what you alluded to earlier, his gossipy cattiness about other people – and for other reasons. So there are fairly strong reservations in that piece. Nevertheless, it has to be said that the predominant emotion is approval, and the predominant theme is praise. If you are allergic to that, then I wouldn’t suggest that you read this book.
You knew Isaiah Berlin probably as well as anyone. What’s your own lasting impression of him as a man?
I don’t think I knew him as well as anyone. I knew him over a long period – twenty-five years – but largely in a certain capacity. However, I did have a very strong impression of him, which is that he was a man quite unlike any other that I’ve ever met, and mostly in a good way. He had the capacity to make intellectual questions seem intensely important and alive and exciting, just by the way he talked about them. He was almost like a small child delighted by a new toy or a new discovery. He maintained his capacity to be excited by ideas right until the end of his life, and when he got going on one of his riffs about ideas, which he did so brilliantly in conversation, one was mesmerised. That was one side of it. But I also admired him enormously just as a sheer human being: he was warm, he engaged very directly with you when he talked to you, in a way that made you feel that you were the most important thing in his life at that particular moment and that what you thought and said mattered to him. That was a terrific interpersonal talent. He was a genius at being a human being, to an extent and in a manner that I’ve never seen in anybody else. I was conscious from the very first moment that I met him that he was someone really exceptional, somebody whom I was extremely lucky to have met, and, subsequently, somebody I was very fortunate to be able to help in a small way so that his personality and his ideas became better known and more accessible than they were before.
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