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date: 30 June 2022

Berlin, Sir Isaiahfree


Berlin, Sir Isaiahfree

  • A. Ryan

Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909–1997)

by Lucinda Douglas-Menzies, 1988

© Lucinda Douglas-Menzies; collection National Portrait Gallery, London

Berlin, Sir Isaiah (1909–1997), philosopher and historian of ideas, was born on 6 June 1909 in Riga, Latvia, then part of the Russian empire, the son of Mendel Borisovitch Berlin (1884–1953), a prosperous timber merchant whose main business was supplying wooden sleepers for the Russian railways, and his wife, (Mussa) Marie, née Volshonok. Berlin was an only child; an elder sister had been stillborn, and his mother had been warned that further pregnancies would threaten her life too. She had a very difficult childbirth as predicted, and Berlin's left arm was permanently damaged by the forceps of the attending doctor.

Family and education

Berlin's parents were well-educated secular Jews; they spoke German as well as Russian, and their literary and musical tastes rubbed off on their son. So did their lack of interest in religious faith. Berlin's wider family, however, was devout; his grandparents and his cousins were Chabad Hassidim, and Berlin later took a wry pleasure in the fact that Menachem Schneerson, the ‘Lubavitcher Rebbe’, was a distant cousin.

During the First World War the family moved first to Andreapol to escape the German advance of 1915, and then in 1916 to Petrograd (the former St Petersburg, renamed at the start of the war). There Berlin saw the brutality of revolution at first hand. He was horrified by the spectacle of a mob hounding a policeman in the street, and dragging him off to his presumed death. In later years he maintained that his hatred of political violence had its origins in that experience, though it was very far from making him a pacifist.

Antisemitism was never far below the surface of the Soviet revolution, and it was a constant threat during the subsequent civil war. Nevertheless the Berlins fared no worse and no better than most other middle-class Russians who found their homes requisitioned and their lives threatened by the ubiquitous informers who hoped to advance themselves by denouncing their neighbours. They escaped the worst of the subsequent horrors of life in the Soviet Union by moving to Britain two years after the end of the First World War. Mendel Berlin was an Anglophile. He had supplied plywood to Britain during the war, and possessed assets in Britain. Taking advantage of the peace treaty between the Soviets and Latvia to return to Riga in 1920, Mendel Berlin moved on from there to Britain in early 1921. The family settled in Surbiton, a place whose domestic comfort and security epitomized for Mendel Berlin the virtues of the British. They moved to Kensington a year later, and subsequently to Hampstead. They were naturalized in 1929.

The eleven-year-old Berlin was faced with the need to learn English from scratch, and to catch up with his English classmates. He did so at a great pace, and in old age amused his listeners with a rendition of 'Daisy, Daisy' as he thought it must have sounded when sung by himself some seventy-five years before. He survived the rigours of the English preparatory school, went as a scholar to St Paul's School in west London, and in 1928 was elected to a scholarship at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. Although his scholarship was in classics, he was not an enthusiastic or talented student of the ancient languages. He therefore bypassed honour moderations, and gained a first in Greats in 1931; a year later he took another first in philosophy, politics, and economics. Even as an undergraduate he was a notable talker, and his rooms in Corpus were thronged with friends listening to and arguing with him. Soon after his death his lifelong friend Miriam Rothschild maintained that nobody really knew the pleasures of Berlin's mind and conversation who had not known him as a teenager. However that may be, it was during the next decade that he began to acquire his reputation as the most interesting conversationalist of his age.

Philosophy don

In the autumn of 1932 Berlin was elected to a prize fellowship at All Souls. He was the first Jew to be elected in the college's 500-year history, and one of only a handful of Jews who held fellowships anywhere in Oxford. Among acknowledgements of the achievement were a letter of congratulation from the chief rabbi and an invitation to lunch at Waddesdon with James de Rothschild. Until 1938 Berlin held his All Souls fellowship in combination with a lecturership in philosophy at New College; then from 1938 to 1950 he was a fellow in philosophy at New College, though absent for several years on war service. In comparison with All Souls, where he enjoyed the company of John Austin and Stuart Hampshire, Berlin found New College deeply boring. The one bright spot was meeting the visitors at the warden's lodgings, including as they did both Virginia Woolf—a cousin of H. A. L. Fisher—and Elizabeth Bowen. The former wrote a maliciously amusing account of their meeting, but their relations improved in due course; of Elizabeth Bowen he became a close friend: he visited her in Ireland, and carried on a vivid correspondence with her for many years.

As an undergraduate teacher in the formal sense, Berlin would have been harshly judged by a later age. He subsequently observed that he could not have been a member of any academic community more tightly structured than Oxford then was; the ability to pursue his own interests in his own way was indispensable. Nor would he have survived the departmental organization of American university life or cared for the early morning classes common in the United States. He was reluctant to leave his bed before mid-morning, and sometimes passed the time during tutorials playing with mechanical toys or with the wind-up gramophone that was much admired by generations of pupils. In spite of this seeming lack of interest in their work, most of his pupils, and by no means only the cleverest of them, found that they learned more philosophy from Berlin than from their more orthodox instructors. Indeed, he was recalled with particular affection by students who had been terrified by, or entirely uninterested in, philosophy. The undergraduates of the 1930s were the first among many generations of students who found Berlin an astonishingly generous teacher, and one who fuelled their imaginations as few others could. He was a rarity among university teachers in the later twentieth century in finding the young irresistible; until his mid-eighties he was endlessly available to naïve and vulnerable graduate students from all parts of the world, who would sit at his feet for an afternoon and leave transformed.

In the later 1930s Berlin was part of a small group of young and iconoclastic philosophers that included John Austin, Stuart Hampshire, and A. J. Ayer. They met in Berlin's rooms in All Souls and thrashed out their puzzles in debate. Berlin later regretted that they had been too introspective to publish their conclusions; their passion was for the excitement of the chase, and their chief desire to convince one another. Once they had settled a problem to their own satisfaction, they saw no reason to broadcast the answer. All were broadly in sympathy with what became the linguistic turn in philosophy but, as their later careers showed, were otherwise far from being of one mind. Ayer was an early convert to logical positivism; Austin, Hampshire, and Berlin were not. A favourite move within logical positivism was to translate propositions that were felt to be epistemologically dubious into propositions felt to be more secure; statements about the past, about the future, about the contents of other minds, and about persisting material objects, were parsed as hypothetical propositions about verifiable facts of our own experience. Berlin published three original and powerful criticisms of this central tactic of logical positivism, 'Verification', 'Empirical propositions and hypothetical statements', and 'Logical translation'; the first appeared in 1939, the others in 1950. In showing that hypothetical statements were logically parasitic on the supposedly dubious assertions for which they were offered as less dubious translations, Berlin attacked positivism at its weakest point.

More importantly for Berlin's long-term future, Fisher and Gilbert Murray commissioned him in 1933 to write an account of the life and ideas of Karl Marx for the Home University Library. The project had already been turned down by the Webbs, Frank Pakenham, and Harold Laski, and it took Berlin a long time to finish the book. But Karl Marx (1939) was both a publishing success and a double landmark in Berlin's life. In the first place, it was one of the first works in English that treated Marx absolutely objectively—neither belittling the real intellectual power of his work, nor descending into hagiography. Second, it revealed Berlin's unusual talent as a historian of ideas—or more exactly as a biographer of ideas. Berlin was no admirer of Marx, and wholly deplored the political consequences of his ideas, but he entered into the intellectual world of Marx and his fellow revolutionaries as few biographers have known how to do. The five years of reading and reflection on the ideas and allegiances of the radical intelligentsia of nineteenth-century Europe that were needed for Karl Marx also furnished Berlin with many of the resources he later employed in his accounts of the Enlightenment and its critics, of Romanticism, and of the ideas of the Russian radicals whom he brought to wider notice in the 1940s and 1950s.

Berlin's capacity for friendship, and his liking for people from all sorts of places and social backgrounds, meant that he was constantly in demand as a guest in London as much as in Oxford. He was a particular favourite of Emerald Cunard and of her rival London hostess, Sibyl Colefax. His more austere Oxford colleagues fretted that he was wasting his brain on high society, but Berlin was not deterred. His friends reflected his passions—for music, literature, and philosophy, as well as for the sheer variety of human temperament—and they also reflected his political allegiances. The German philosopher and sociologist Theodor Adorno, in exile in Oxford in those years, was saved by Berlin's friendship from despair at the philistine surroundings into which he had strayed. Berlin's ability to distinguish between personal affection and intellectual approval allowed him to enjoy Adorno's company while thinking that his ideas were mostly nonsense. One friendship that came to grief on the rising power of Nazism was with Adam von Trott, the glamorous German Rhodes scholar who took Oxford by storm in the early 1930s. Relations cooled when Berlin thought von Trott insufficiently hostile to Nazism, and they were never fully restored. Although Berlin was not yet the theorist of liberal Zionism nor the commentator on its ambiguous connections with secular forms of nationalism that he became, he was quick to notice and resent anything smacking of antisemitism. He began to take a serious interest in Zionism only after a visit to Palestine in the summer of 1934. His travelling companion, John Foster, found Berlin moved to tears by his first encounter with a Jewish ticket inspector.

War service, Moscow, and Zionism

The outbreak of the Second World War changed Berlin's life dramatically. At first, he was left stranded. Physically he was not fit for military service, and as a Latvian by birth he was suspect to the intelligence services, who vetoed his application for a humble desk job. In the summer of 1940 he was persuaded by Guy Burgess to join him in Moscow; quite who had authorized this proposal, if anyone, remains unclear. Subsequent events suggest that if it was not Harold Nicolson, it was Burgess himself, and that he had not even tried to persuade his superiors to endorse the scheme. Burgess and Berlin arrived in the United States after an unpleasant Atlantic crossing, and Burgess was promptly recalled to London. Berlin's subsequent efforts to get to Moscow were cut short by Stafford Cripps, the British ambassador in Moscow. Meanwhile, Berlin had begun to charm the political and newspaper élites of Washington and New York, to whom he was introduced by Felix Frankfurter, the supreme court justice whom Berlin had met in Oxford a few years earlier. Friends suggested to Lord Lothian, the British ambassador, that a job should be found for Berlin, and he was set to work analysing American press reports of the British war effort. This went so well that he was drafted to the British information office in New York. After a few weeks back in Britain to settle his affairs, he returned to the United States in January 1941, and spent the remainder of the war there.

After a year of this work, Berlin was transferred from New York to Washington, and for the remainder of the war drafted on behalf of Lord Halifax, who had succeeded Lothian as ambassador, a stream of dispatches for onward transmission to London. (A selection was published by H. G. Nicholas as Washington Despatches, 1941–1945 in 1981.) They were much admired by Winston Churchill, among others. The ordinarily rather remote Lord Halifax—'a creature from another planet', in Berlin's recollection—was fond of his young colleague from All Souls and gave him his head. Through Frankfurter, Berlin met most of the democratic administration, along with coming young journalists such as Joseph Alsop, and the present and future publishers of the Washington Post, Philip and Katharine Graham, all of whom remained friends for life. Berlin walked with some skill the fine line between exact reporting and colouring the news to enhance the prospects of a desired policy. It was a skill he especially needed to preserve relations with Chaim Weizmann and other Zionist friends. He was happy to do what he could to keep doors in both the American and British governments open for his friends, but he was also acutely aware of Foreign Office doubts about Zionist aspirations. He took care neither to betray his friends nor to destroy his own usefulness by becoming an object of suspicion to his employers, although in 1943 he was instrumental in obstructing a joint British–American declaration against the establishment of a post-war Jewish state.

Immediately after the end of the war Berlin served for four and a half months in the Moscow embassy. It was a painful homecoming, notable for meetings with the two greatest Russian poets of the day, and coloured by his prior knowledge that almost all his extended family had been murdered during the war. With Boris Pasternak his relations were friendly, although he struck Berlin as somewhat reserved; they discussed his plans for Doctor Zhivago, and on a return visit ten years later Berlin was given a typescript copy of the finished novel. His encounter with Anna Akhmatova in Leningrad on the other hand was a meeting of minds, or of souls, unlike any other he ever experienced. It was a costly encounter for Akhmatova, who well knew that the secret police would have followed Berlin to her flat, and that she would suffer their attentions and the bullying of the Writers' Union in consequence. Berlin and Akhmatova talked all night, and Berlin became fully aware of the psychological, cultural, and intellectual disasters that Soviet communism had inflicted on Russia. The contrast between the cultivated, imaginative, and liberal world that might have existed in Russia and the world of the commissar and the secret policeman that Stalinism had created coloured everything he wrote thereafter. Akhmatova thought their meeting was a world-historical event, and Berlin regarded it as the most important event of his life. A later meeting in Oxford was less successful; predictably, Akhmatova thought Berlin had become a songbird in a gilded cage.

As the time for him to leave government service drew closer, Berlin was unsure what to do with himself. He fended off the enticements of Weizmann, Ben Gurion, and others who wanted him to make his home in what shortly became the independent state of Israel. He was enthusiastic about the creation of Israel, but was not always an admirer of what had been created. The existence of an independent Israel was a necessity for the Jewish people, but he was critical of many of its leading figures, and unhappy at how Israel had come into existence. He enormously admired his cousin (and uncle by marriage) Isaac Landoberg, who by 1946 had changed his name to Yitzhak Sadeh and was a leader of the anti-British Jewish underground; a little later Sadeh became a leader of Jewish forces in the war that followed the partition of Palestine. On the other hand, Berlin disapproved of terrorism, and felt that he himself was far too English to make his home among Middle Eastern Jews. He always insisted on the importance of the existence of the state of Israel for Jews outside Israel. It liberated them. It may not have been clear to all readers of his essay 'Jewish slavery and emancipation' just what the connection was between the existence of a state that Jews anywhere in the world could regard as a second home and the freedom of Jews elsewhere; but Berlin himself certainly felt that the existence of Israel was an element in his conviction that he did not face a stark choice between assimilation and exclusion if he chose to stay in England.

Berlin remained a Zionist, but always a liberal Zionist. He was deeply loyal to his fellow Jews, but he deplored narrow tribalism. He never forgave Menachem Begin his membership of the Irgun, and never forgave the Stern gang for its murders of British administrators and soldiers during the struggle for an independent state of Israel. He was utterly unforgiving of anyone who displayed antisemitic sentiments, but his loyalties were not in the usual sense nationalistic. The Israel to which he was devoted was a liberal, or social-democratic, state, not a theocracy; his last intervention in public life, very shortly before his death in November 1997, was to plead for Israelis to make the concessions needed to secure peace between themselves and the Palestinians.

Historian of ideas

Towards the end of the war Berlin decided that if he was to remain in England and Oxford, it could not be as a post-war incarnation of the philosophy tutor he had been before the war. He did not at once abandon philosophy for the history of ideas, nor did he immediately abandon undergraduate teaching for a life of writing and lecturing. It was not until 1950 that he resigned his fellowship at New College and returned to All Souls. Indeed, he half-jokingly claimed that he had been sacked by an economical bursar of New College who had counted the philosophy tutors and decided that Berlin was one too many. But his intellectual tastes had changed; analytical sharpness for its own sake was no longer something he much valued. He turned to the history of ideas, political theory, and what may be termed ‘cultural commentary’. The change was marked by the publication in 1953 of The Hedgehog and the Fox, a long essay (an expanded version of an article originally published in 1951) on Tolstoy's theory of history that made famous a hitherto obscure tag from Archilochus: 'The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing'. Tolstoy, on Berlin's view of the matter, was a fox who tried to turn himself into a hedgehog, a man whose genius lay in his understanding of the infinite variety of human character, and who drove himself almost mad by trying to cramp that genius into a single recipe for salvation.

In 1954 Berlin gave the Northcliffe lectures on 'A marvellous decade', which brought to an English audience the ideas of Herzen and Belinsky and other Romantic Russian radicals of the 1840s. Their impact on British intellectual sensibilities was indirect but powerful. On the one hand, the lectures demonstrated that liberalism could no longer be thought of as an Anglo-American possession presented to the world by John Locke and John Stuart Mill; on the other, they showed that the contrast between a naturally despotic Russia and a naturally liberal western Europe had to be given up. In the Soviet Union, Berlin's revelation of the Romantic, liberal Herzen was heretical; in Soviet ideology, Herzen was approved of as a populist, though criticized for the inadequate, pre-Marxist view that underlay his populism. The loathing with which Herzen would assuredly have greeted the Soviet regime was not something that Soviet commentators dwelt upon.

Berlin described himself as having abandoned philosophy in order to pursue the history of ideas. He habitually gave two different reasons for the change of intellectual allegiance. Sometimes he suggested that he had become bored with philosophy as practised in Oxford and Harvard. He often quoted the deflationary observation of C. I. Lewis: 'There is no a priori reason for thinking that the truth, once discovered, will necessarily prove interesting'. Berlin did not wish to spend his life accumulating boring truths. More often he said that he had come to believe that there was no progress in philosophy and that he had wanted to work in a field where he could expect to know more by the time he died than he had known when he started. Whether he made the transition that these explanations suggest is doubtful. He was not interested in the quotidian history that lay behind the ideas by which he was fascinated. It was bold ideas and original, quirky, and imaginative thinkers that interested him. When historically minded historians of ideas observed that ideas are transmitted by the derivative and the second-rate, Berlin did not turn to the study of the derivative and the second-rate. He rescued the intellectually second-rate from obscurity, but only when he found them interestingly underivative. It sometimes seemed to be out of justice that he rescued them; because they had had no impact he wished to bring them to the attention of their descendants.

What Berlin wrote was in that respect still philosophy rather than history, but he took seriously the old Thucydidean tag that history is philosophy teaching by examples, and he had a rare talent for linking the intellectual to the imaginative and the emotional. Ideas came to life in a process that he self-consciously understood as a re-enactment of the original author's thinking. It was therefore unsurprising that one of the writers in whom he took a keen interest was Giambattista Vico, the author of the Scienza nuova, whose discussion of fantasia was perhaps the first systematic account of the nature of historical and sociological interpretation. Vico argued that the historian's task was to rethink the thoughts of other cultures and other times, and Berlin concurred. The ideas in which Berlin was interested, particularly the central concepts of politics such as freedom, equality, and progress, are arguably such that they must be understood historically and comparatively in the light of the ways in which they have been understood in different societies and cultures. They are also pre-eminently ideas that take their colouring from the personality of the thinkers who explore them. Berlin's talent for gossip was the everyday social counterpart of an unusual talent for exploring the psychology of his favourite thinkers. Critics sometimes complained that Berlin projected more of himself than was quite proper onto the figures he most admired, but the effect was certainly to bring to life many neglected thinkers as well as to illuminate well-known ones in novel ways. It also meant that his natural form of expression was the lecture and the essay rather than the monograph; this gave him an entirely unjustified reputation for being reluctant to publish. In fact, he published a great deal, but often in fugitive journals and out-of-the-way places. The publication of his collected works from 1978 onwards showed just how ready he was to put pen to paper; the projected four volumes later turned into several more than that.

Marriage, the Chichele chair, and Wolfson College

Berlin enjoyed the company of women, but thought himself sexually unattractive, and believed until his late thirties that he was destined to remain a bachelor. All Souls was a luxurious bachelor society, and Berlin's affection for his mother was sufficient to suggest that he would neither be driven into marriage by the discomforts of single life nor lured into it by the need for stronger emotional attachments than the unmarried life provided. It was therefore somewhat to the surprise of his numerous friends that on 7 February 1956 he married Aline Elisabeth Yvonne Halban (1915–2014), the daughter of the banker Baron Pierre de Gunzbourg, of Paris. He thereby acquired three stepsons as well as a beautiful and well-connected wife whose accomplishments had included the women's golf championship of her native France. They established themselves in Aline's substantial and elegant house on the outskirts of Oxford (Headington House, nicknamed Government House by Berlin's more left-wing friends), and there they lived and entertained—or, as the same friends had it, held court—for the next forty years. Although he had embarked on marriage rather late, Berlin never ceased to recommend the married condition, and his happiness was a persuasive advertisement for what he preached.

In 1957 Berlin was elected to the Chichele professorship of social and political theory. The next twenty years were the high tide of his career. He was elected to the British Academy in the same year, and was vice-president from 1959 to 1961 and president from 1974 to 1978; he was a member of the board of directors of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, from 1954 to 1965, and again from 1974 to 1987, and a trustee of the National Gallery from 1975 to 1985. He had been appointed CBE for his wartime service in 1946, was knighted in 1957, and was appointed to the Order of Merit in 1971. These positions and honours, more than enough for most people, do not capture the richness of Berlin's existence, nor his impact on British, American, and Israeli social and cultural life. He was in constant demand as a lecturer; repeatedly he gave dazzling performances in settings obscure and famous. He characteristically described himself in self-deprecating terms as an intellectual taxicab: when he was hailed, he went. Yet even though he was a figure who seemed more at home in the streets of Jerusalem and New York than in the English countryside, he found Oxford indispensable, and never succumbed to the urgings of Israeli or American friends who thought he should abandon his phlegmatic and slow-moving English university for more adrenalin-charged environments. They failed to see that Berlin was not the cosmopolitan figure they thought; his view was that most people need a base in some particular place and attachments to particular people and opinions if they are to understand other places, people, and opinions. Perhaps he was conscious of the insult of ‘rootless cosmopolitan’ that was the commonplace of Soviet antisemitism; at all events, it was a rooted cosmopolitanism that he espoused.

Berlin's loyalty to Britain needed little theoretical explanation. He had arrived as a small boy; Britain was tolerant and friendly, and it was full of people for whom he felt affection. Although he was instantly at home in New York, or Washington, or Cambridge, Massachusetts, he had no reason to emigrate to places that he could visit as often as he liked without at the same time revising his political and personal allegiances. In any case, if it was a question of sheer pleasure, he preferred Italy to any other destination. He and Aline built a house overlooking Portofino, and from there he explored far and wide, frequently in search of half-forgotten bel canto operas that were being revived in out-of-the-way places.

In 1966 Berlin became president of Wolfson College. Under the name Iffley College, this had been a new and under-financed graduate college, created to provide a collegiate base for lecturers—largely in the sciences—who had no collegiate attachment, and to provide a community for graduate students who had hitherto been neglected in Oxford. From the Ford Foundation he secured an endowment for the college. It was renamed Wolfson College in acknowledgement of the generosity of Sir Isaac Wolfson's foundation, which paid the cost of the new building. Berlin toyed with the thought that ‘St Isaac's’ might be apt, but only privately. With these resources he secured from the architectural practice of Powell and Moya one of their best large-scale developments, a set of unflinchingly modern collegiate buildings running gently down to the River Cherwell, whose white concrete and granite starkness was not so much softened as heightened very elegantly by the lushness of the surrounding gardens and riverside. Berlin was a highly successful founding president, but he had never been enthusiastic about presiding over an established collegiate institution. He was an inventor rather than a manager. Nor did he expect to feel entirely at home in the institution he had created. Berlin wanted Wolfson College to be family-friendly; but All Souls and New College did not provide much training for a world in which married graduate students took this to mean that they should bring their babies to dinner in college. Berlin retired from Wolfson College in 1975, and returned to All Souls as a distinguished fellow.

Liberal intellectual

Berlin remained a considerable figure on the intellectual scene. His years at Wolfson had coincided with the most contentious period of British and American post-war politics. The Vietnam War, and the extraordinary upheavals of 1968 in France, Germany, Czechoslavakia, and the United States, raised both old and new questions about the prospects of liberal politics. Berlin's inaugural lecture as Chichele professor, 'Two concepts of liberty', was second in fame only to The Hedgehog and the Fox, and had come to occupy a position in late twentieth-century liberalism rather like Mill's essay On Liberty a hundred years earlier. Its ambiguities and unclarities were explored for many years thereafter, but its simple assertion of the general priority of 'negative liberty'—the right to be left alone—over other goals, including those that Berlin summed up as 'positive liberty', was irresistible to most readers and intolerable to many. Written at a time when admirers of the Soviet Union were still insisting that it had achieved a higher form of liberty than the decadent West, 'Two concepts of liberty' was seized on by the critics of Soviet communism, and inevitably became entangled in the arguments between cold war liberals and their liberal and socialist critics.

Its place in the contemporary politics of the 1950s and 1960s aside, Berlin's liberalism remains difficult to characterize. There is a tension at its heart that Berlin never quite addressed. Berlin was famous for holding two views, the first being that the ends of human existence are many, not one, that they conflict with one another, and that there is no one best life, either for an individual—who must choose only one of the possible lives that may suit her or him—or for whole societies, which inevitably hold a particular set of cultural, social, political, moral, or religious allegiances and must accept that these bring with them gains and losses peculiar to them. An insistence on the plurality of social and individual goods is neither relativism nor scepticism; it is not the view that what is good depends on who and where one is, nor the view that there are no real goods or bads. Berlin thought that there were many genuine goods; he espoused pluralism. Yet he also held a second view, that liberty takes priority over all other values. On the face of it, this combination is incoherent. If there is no rationally defensible hierarchy of values, liberty cannot be at the summit of that hierarchy. There are many ways of softening the conflict between Berlin's liberalism and his pluralism; none is so obviously right that one can assume that it must be what he really thought.

Berlin's liberalism was not in the ordinary sense a political creed. In party terms, it was consistent with voting for any of the main parties in British politics, and implied an allegiance to none of them in particular. It was the defence of a set of cultural and psychological attachments rather than the defence of a particular set of political and legal arrangements to which he committed himself. It was in this way that his controversy with E. H. Carr over the possibility of a scientific history, and his attack on the idea of historical inevitability, were aspects of his liberalism, and the controversy a politically loaded one. Like the Romantics that he invoked in his Mellon lectures of 1965 (published in 1999 as The Roots of Romanticism), Berlin saw human beings as always unfinished creatures capable of new and unpredictable feats of invention. Like the Romantics, he thought it was impossible to write history from the detached perspective appropriate to physics or chemistry, and that it was absurd to pretend to do so. History was not a scientific experiment but a moral drama. E. H. Carr, who had been Berlin's chief target, complained that Berlin ignored the explanatory aims of historians altogether; this was an unfair jibe uttered in the heat of the controversial moment, but one that Berlin's emphasis on empathy and insight could easily provoke.

The models for Berlin's literary, cultural, and philosophical engagement were Russian: Belinsky, Herzen, and Turgenev in particular. Berlin translated Turgenev's First Love as early as 1950, and twenty years later he devoted his Romanes lecture of 1970 to Turgenev's Fathers and Children. It was an extraordinarily apt choice. By this time Berlin closely identified with Turgenev. Turgenev sympathized with the young radicals of the 1870s while thinking they were intolerably crude and fanatical; Berlin felt the same about their successors of the 1960s. Turgenev feared that his scepticism and caution in political matters might be mere cowardice; so did Berlin. Such anxieties were inevitably heightened by the political quarrels of the 1960s, when Berlin's many American friends took violently opposed sides on the Vietnam War and all of them expected him to side with them. Berlin had no qualms about describing himself as a 'cold war liberal', inasmuch as he had no doubt that the United States and what they represented were worth defending against the threat posed by the Soviet Union. His doubts about the Vietnam War were not high-principled; but as a matter of prudence, he was far from certain that American foreign policy was well advised.

Music, and other interests

Berlin's talent for friendship means that a roll-call of those who thought of themselves as his good friends would embrace most of the musical world in Europe and the United States, just as it would embrace social and political theorists, philanthropists, journalists, diplomats, and politicians. Their affection for him is not surprising; their admiration for him is perhaps more so. Berlin's passion for music was unaccompanied by any technical proficiency; he could not play an instrument or read a score. He was, nevertheless, a friend of Stravinsky, and later a close friend of Alfred Brendel, who said that Berlin was a uniquely illuminating commentator on his performances. He had discussed music endlessly with Theodore Adorno before the war, and some of his first published essays were on musical performances. He often said that he could not imagine a world without music.

As in many other areas, Berlin's intuitive sense of the most important issue at stake was uncanny. He had, like anyone else, blind spots and antipathies; he did not care for Wagner, and disliked the cruelty that lurks in Turandot and Tosca. His affections lay with the operas of Mozart and Italian opera from Bellini to Verdi, rather in the way in which his non-operatic passions led him to Mozart and Schubert. The powerful feelings that music provoked made him a very influential trustee of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. His passion was above all for the music; 'prima la musica' was his operating principle, though it took quite exceptional performances to make him forgive cheap or tawdry productions. Among his achievements, one was to secure the services of Sir Georg Solti as musical director at Covent Garden, and more generally to encourage ambition in the house. As a trustee of the National Gallery he was almost equally invaluable. When the controversial Sainsbury wing was being built, he played a vital role in soothing the bruised feelings of the trustees on one side, and their distinguished architect Robert Venturi on the other. Characteristically, what enabled him to do this was his discovery that the architect's wife was a Baltic Jew like himself. And he was an impressively fearless president of the British Academy; his intellectual distinction, and his long years of mingling with politicians, senior civil servants, and the rich and famous in the worlds of arts and letters gave him a unique immunity against whatever governments and administrators might try to impose.


Berlin was one of the most important historians of ideas in the twentieth century, perhaps because he was not in the usual sense a historian at all. It is at first sight somewhat puzzling that he was admired by historians and sociologists, to whom his unconcern for minute factual detail would, on the face of it, have not endeared him; but only a very few of them could bring themselves to complain that his broad-brush characterizations of movements of ideas in European history omitted much and misrepresented a good deal. The obvious explanation is that, even where one might on third or fourth reading come to think that Berlin's characterization of a thinker or a thought was seriously askew, readers were grateful for the stimulus provided by his fertile imagination. He started hares, flushed the historical coverts for overlooked quarry, and discovered strange, neglected species. By the same token, his success as a college president and his membership of so many governing bodies and committees might seem slightly surprising. He was an enthusiastic conspirator, and enjoyed getting his favoured candidates into positions for which they were not always entirely suited, but he was not one of nature's civil servants. He did not need to be, since those who were were sufficiently enchanted to carry out his plans. The same qualities kept him on good terms with the publishers who despaired of the books they had been promised, and the editors who received corrected proofs long after the last possible moment. This did not go along with a wholly relaxed attitude to his work. He had a capacity for tinkering with the wording of his texts that went far beyond the point of diminishing returns, and his self-deprecating estimate of his own abilities did not extend to an equal tolerance of criticism from others. He was notably thin-skinned. It must be said in mitigation that his critics were rarely very friendly; they were made fiercer by Berlin's own eminence and because political allegiances were as much at stake as academic reputations.

Berlin died at the Acland Nursing Home, 25 Banbury Road, Oxford, on 5 November 1997. He had been in less than perfect health for some time, but his final illness was brief. He was survived by his wife, Aline, and his three stepsons, and was buried in Oxford. Commemorations of his life and work were held in Oxford, London, Washington, and New York.


  • I. Berlin, Personal impressions, 2nd edn (1998)
  • A. Ryan, ed., The idea of freedom: essays in honour of Isaiah Berlin (1979)
  • E. Margalit and A. Margalit, eds., Isaiah Berlin: a celebration (1991)
  • R. Jahanbegloo, Conversations with Isaiah Berlin (1992)
  • J. Gray, Isaiah Berlin (1995)
  • M. Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: a life (1998)
  • G. Dalos, The guest from the future: Anna Akhmatova and Isaiah Berlin (1998)
  • M. Lilla, The legacy of Isaiah Berlin (2001)
  • The Times (7 Nov 1997)
  • Daily Telegraph (7 Nov 1997)
  • The Guardian (7 Nov 1997)
  • The Independent (7 Nov 1997)
  • ‘Three faces of Isaiah Berlin’, TLS (29 May 1998)
  • M. Brock, ‘Nine years with Isaiah Berlin’, Oxford Magazine, Michaelmas (1997), 13–14
  • P. A. Hunt, Corpus Christi College biographical register, ed. N. A. Flanagan (1988)
  • personal knowledge (2004)
  • private information (2004); (2006) [H. Hardy]

  • naturalization details, TNA: PRO, HO 334/118/B987
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.



  • BFINA, ‘Tribute to Isaiah Berlin’, BBC 2, 15 Nov 1997


  • photograph, 1950, repro. in The Guardian
  • D. Hill, portrait, 1973, repro. in The Independent
  • L. Gowing, oils, 1982, NPG
  • L. Douglas-Menzies, photograph, 1988, NPG [see illus.]
  • S. Pyke, bromide print, 1990, NPG
  • photograph, 1990, repro. in Daily Telegraph
  • R. Avedon, bromide print, 1993, NPG
  • photograph, repro. in The Guardian
  • photograph, repro. in The Times
  • photographs, repro. in

Wealth at Death

£1,537,871: probate, 30 June 1998, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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