Isaiah Berlin Affirming: Letters 1975-1997

When Michael Ignatieff’s biography of Isaiah Berlin was published in 1998, a year after Berlin’s death, opinions were divided. Writing in The Sunday Times, Ralf Dahrendorf called Berlin “A Modern Day Erasmus”. The Cambridge political philosopher, John Dunn, however, called his review, “For Services to Conversation”.

Almost twenty years later people are still divided about Berlin and the central fault-line remains the same. Was he one of the wisest men of his time, a leading liberal political philosopher and historian of ideas who influenced the way we think about the history of culture from the Enlightenment and Romanticism to modern liberalism? Or was he merely a gifted broadcaster, lecturer and raconteur?

These don’t just represent two very different views of Berlin, but a significant generational divide. Dahrendorf came to Britain in the early 1950s when Berlin was at his height, producing major essays on liberalism and the history of ideas. The Hedgehog and the Fox was published in 1953, the year Dahrendorf arrived at the LSE. Berlin gave his inaugural lecture as Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford, Two Concepts of Liberty, just a few years later.

Dunn, by contrast, was born in 1940 and came of age in the Sixties, the heyday of the New Left, a time when Berlin felt embattled and increasingly out of touch with the times, not interested in Sixties issues such as feminism and the post-colonial world. Though he had written a book on Marx back in 1939, this was before the new interest in the Young Marx and he was not interested in the Western Marxist thinkers who became so influential in the late Sixties and Seventies. It is no coincidence that some of the most trenchant criticisms of Berlin came from leftist writers of Dunn’s generation such as Perry Anderson and Christopher Hitchens.

To get a real flavour of this generational divide we should turn to The Philosophical Lexicon, edited by Daniel Dennett, a leading American philosopher who was almost an exact contemporary of Dunn. His dismissive entry on Berlin reads: “berlin, N. An old-fashioned stage coach, filled with international travellers, all talking rapidly and telling anecdotes of vivid life elsewhere. ‘As the berlin came through town, one could hear many accents one had never heard before, and delightful tales.’”

Since Berlin’s death in 1997 we have had Ignatieff’s biography, new editions of many of Berlin’s best-known books and collections of essays and four volumes of letters, superbly edited by Henry Hardy and his colleagues, including for Volumes 3 and 4, Mark Pottle. These four books, published over eleven years, cover almost seventy years of Berlin’s life, starting with a letter to GK Chesterton in 1928. The books together add up to over three thousand pages, including a number of essays, biographical glossaries on key figures from Berlin’s life, detailed chronologies and magnificently researched footnotes and interstices which almost constitute a biography in their own right. They not only provide essential (and sometimes inessential) material about books, people and ideas, but, Jeeves-like, correct Berlin’s excesses, on matters large and small, from minor inaccuracies to troubling evasions.

Now that we have the final volume, these Letters put us in a better position than ever before to decide what we make of Berlin’s life and legacy. A modern-day Erasmus or a garrulous conversationalist full of “delightful tales”? Or do these books open up a third way of looking at Berlin, a darker, more complicated life than we ever realized?
People, Berlin often said, were his landscape. That is true. He was an intensely social being, a fascinated observer of people, whether politicians, poets or dons. “I knew that others’ lives are this man’s forte,” wrote Joseph Brodsky after his first meeting with Berlin. There are letters here to some of the leading thinkers of his time, intellectuals such as Chomsky and Popper, Bernard Williams, Arthur Schlesinger and Hugh Trevor-Roper. But he also writes to poets such as Brodsky and Stephen Spender and to the musicians, Alfred Brendel, Yehudi Menuhin and Isaac Stern.

Isaiah Berlin with with Alfred Brendel and Yitzhak Navon, Oxford 1983
Isaiah Berlin with with Alfred Brendel and Yitzhak Navon, Oxford 1983. Courtesy of the trustees of the Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust.

However, there is also a larger imaginary and cultural landscape which emerges from these letters. First, Russia. Though Berlin was born in Riga in 1909, he never thought of himself as a Latvian. The identity that mattered more for him was as a Russian, an admirer of that unbroken literary tradition from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1950s, of writers and thinkers from Herzen, Tolstoy and Turgenev to Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak.

In one of the first letters in the book, he writes about how Akhmatova and her friends “remain uncontaminated, unbroken, sensitive, articulate, dignified, morally impeccable.” The last phrase stands out. At great cost to themselves these writers stood against Soviet Communism, championed human values when many compromised and even made corrupt deals with the devil. “The behavior of both Pasternak and Akhmatova, and others, in the face of what they lived through,” Berlin wrote to the Harvard historian of ideas Judith Shklar, “does vividly transform one’s (at any rate my) notions about the moral freedom and dignity […].”

When we read Berlin’s early reports on post-war Stalinism and his attacks on historical determinism in the 1950s we must remember the crucial encounters he had with these writers in Moscow and Leningrad in the winter of 1945-46. Berlin had entered the belly of the beast. He might have had little apparent interest in the statistics of the famine in the Ukraine or the mass deportations, but he had no illusions about Soviet Communism. This affected his political thinking through the 1950s, in particular, at the height of the Cold War.

However, Berlin was not interested in all modern Russian writers. There is only one reference in Affirming to Isaac Babel and another to Vassily Grossman. A few to Nadezhda and Osip Mandelstam. None to Bulgakov. By contrast, there are over thirty references to Pasternak, more than seventy to Akhmatova. It was the mid-19th century writers and the generation born before 1914 who really captured his moral imagination.

The one non-literary Soviet figure who really mattered to Berlin was Sakharov. “Of course, Sakharov is my man,” he writes to the historian Arthur Schlesinger. He calls him, “the authentic noble liberal voice, very like Herzen’s – everything he says seems to me true, unanswerable and more simply and better put, braver and more moving, than any other voice in the world today.” The comparison with his beloved Herzen is Berlin’s ultimate compliment.
The next key place in Berlin’s personal landscape is Israel. Berlin was a lifelong and passionate Zionist. Not uncritical, especially in the dark years of Begin and Shamir. Again, he was curiously selective about the Israelis who really mattered to him. Weizmann, who Berlin had known when he was a young man, in London and then in wartime Washington, most of all. For Berlin Weizmann was a towering figure. Along with Churchill and Roosevelt he was one of the statesmen at the centre of his political life. They represented the three great causes of his youth: Zionism, the New Deal and the war against Fascism.

Except for Teddy Kollek, the charismatic mayor of Jerusalem, other Israelis make little impression in Affirming. Dayan, Sharon and Golda Meir are barely spear-carriers. Just a few references. Amos Oz, just one reference. David Grossman not even that. Israel mattered to Berlin, but we need to be careful about what kind of Israel. This partly explains why his many references to the Middle East and especially to the politics of Israel and Palestine, to the Middle East in general, are so unilluminating. Affirming covers some momentous years in the region: Camp David, the fall of the Shah and the rise of Khomeini, the Iran-Iraq war and the rise of a generation of tyrants throughout the region, from Saddam to Gaddafi. However, here, as with much of the post-colonial world, Berlin is not an ideal guide.

Israel mattered to Berlin, above all, because he was part of that generation of Jews born in east Europe and the Russian Pale around the turn of the century who were confronted twice in their lifetimes with the central question of anti-Semitism. This is one of Berlin’s great subjects and he returns to it here, again and again, in a number of different keys. Close to home he wonders whether English establishment figures like Trevor-Roper, Duff Cooper and Edward Mortimer were anti-Semitic? What about Eliot’s anti-Semitism?

Elsewhere, though, Berlin addresses the subject head on. The best example is a five-page letter to the broadcaster Alistair Cooke in 1985. He starts with Balfour and Curzon, then English upper class “club anti-Semitism”, and on to “acute anti-Semitism – Wagner, Hitler, Henry Ford, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the anti-Dreyfusards”. He speculates about its Christian roots and the failure of Jews to assimilate, paraphrasing Namier’s great image of east European Jews: “they begin as a frozen mass, devout, self-insulated, plunged into their religious habits, a survival from the Middle Ages… Then the sun of the Enlightenment starts melting this frozen mass. Some of it evaporates (conversion, intermarriage, assimilation into the surrounding peoples), some of them remain stiff and frozen (the Orthodox religious un-surrendering ones), and some are turned into rushing streams – socialist and Zionist.”

Letter from Isaiah Berlin to Alistair Cooke, 1985
Letter from Isaiah Berlin to Alistair Cooke, 1985. Courtesy of the trustees of the Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust

Berlin then moves onto Weizmann (“an absolutely fanatical moderate”) and Zionism, before returning once more to anti-Semitism and his fears that it will never disappear.

This history is why Israel and Zionism mattered to Berlin. They are a central part of a history of anti-Semitism which dominated the experience and thought of a generation of Jewish intellectuals. For Berlin this was also personal: from memories of a train journey to Riga in 1920 with some Jew-hating Latvians to the murder of many of his family in Latvia during the Holocaust. The way he twists and turns about Eliot, here and elsewhere, and references to anti-Semitism at Oxford show how this preoccupation never left him.

Russia and Israel mattered to Berlin. Or, rather, particular ideas of Russia and Israel mattered to him enormously. Large parts of the world did not. There are fewer than a dozen references to Japan or to China. Fewer still to South Africa or India. “About Latin America I know nothing.” There is one reference to the anti-Semitism of the Argentinian military dictators. Two mentions of Chile during the Pinochet years. The great personalities of the post-colonial world fare no better. Mao, Mandela and Indira Gandhi put together get fewer mentions than Lord David Cecil.

The third centre is the United States, or to be more precise the East Coast, from Washington DC to Harvard. His America was as particular as his Israel and Russia. Berlin’s time working for the British government in wartime New York and Washington, was hugely important for him. He built lifelong friendships with bright young New Dealers like the columnist Joseph Alsop, the diplomat ‘Chip’ Bohlen and Katharine and Philip Graham. Katharine Graham was publisher of The Washington Post when Affirming begins.

In addition to this group of political friends from Washington days there is also a group of leading American intellectuals clustered around New York and Boston who loom large in Affirming – the historian Arthur Schlesinger, the critics Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling, Bob Silvers, one of the founding editors of The New York Review of Books, and the philosopher, Morton White, among them.

These American friendships gave Berlin a number of things. First, New Deal liberalism was a central strand to his politics. He admired Churchill but was not a Conservative. He was a liberal-cum-social democrat, a lifelong Labour voter, but few leading Labour politicians make much of an impression in his letters. Roosevelt, by contrast, was a major figure for him.

Secondly, his friendships with well-connected American figures gave him a ringside seat at the American century. He wasn’t especially interested in domestic American (or British) politics but he wanted to know what his friends thought of the great issues of the world.

Finally, very few of his Oxford friends were Jewish. It was a gentile world. The Trillings, Meyer Schapiro and the New York Review group were more Jewish, and seem to have supplied a set of preoccupations and experiences that mattered to Berlin.

The fourth and final centre of Berlin’s world is England (not Britain). In particular, Oxford (not Cambridge) and the West End, from his apartment in Albany and the Athenaeum to the Royal Opera House and the British Academy.
Berlin spent much of his adult life in Oxford, from his undergraduate days at Corpus to teaching at New College, a Fellow at All Souls and the founding President of Wolfson College. Here he made lifelong friendships: with philosophers Stuart Hampshire, Herbert Hart and AJ Ayer, with Hugh Trevor-Roper, Maurice Bowra and WH Auden. These were among the great figures of what another friend, Noel Annan, called “Our Age”. As Brodsky wrote, “they wandered through each other’s books the way they did through their rooms at Corpus or University College.”

Consequently, there is a lot of Oxford gossip, not of all of it edifying. “I have persuaded Michael Dummett not to tell Tony [Quinton] that his name is no longer being considered, since (a) he knows it, and (b) not all truth liberates.” “Let me tell you that one of the junior fellows of my College earnestly enquired of one of his seniors whether [Maurice] Cowling could been induced to apply for the chair of political theory, or even invited to do so!” In October 1977 Berlin went to Iran. One observer, the editors tell us, recalls Berlin “making no concessions to the heat, in dark suit, and, in the car with the windows firmly closed, talking as only he did, mainly Oxford gossip.”

Isaiah Berlin with Tony Quinton and Princess Margaret chez Drue Heinz for an 80th birthday lunch, 1989
Isaiah Berlin with Tony Quinton and Princess Margaret chez Drue Heinz for an 80th birthday lunch, 1989. Courtesy of the trustees of the Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust.

The further from Oxford and from mainstream Anglophone philosophy they are, the less other thinkers seem to register. For example, leading Cambridge historians of ideas like Quentin Skinner and John Dunn or figures like Raymond Williams, Frank Kermode or Ernest Gellner barely feature. Historians like Robert Darnton, Le Roy Ladurie and Carlo Ginzburg aren’t mentioned at all. French thinkers fare particularly badly. Two references to Levi-Strauss and Raymond Aron, one to Braudel, none to Foucault. As for French Theory that is dismissed with contempt in one letter: “I abhor the absurdities of people like Derrida, de Man, and the sages of Yale, which seem to be of a kind of game – a form of perhaps not wholly unconscious, clever, amusing, frivolous quackery…” He had many books by these authors, but there is little or no sign of critical engagement with their work. As for the sciences they barely seem to exist.

Isaiah Berlin was that curious mix, outsider and consummate insider. A Latvian Jewish refugee, he was a professor at Oxford, knighted, a Trustee of the National Gallery, President of the British Academy, presided over the opera committee of the Royal Opera House and was offered (but declined) a peerage.

The great cultural and academic institutions loom large in his English landscape. The BBC, of course. He made over a dozen appearances on BBC radio during these years and his interview with Bryan Magee for Men of Ideas was the most exhilarating appearance by a philosopher on British television. When Berlin died Radio 3 broadcast a two-and-a-half-hour tribute to him and BBC2 showed two fifty-minute interviews with Michael Ignatieff.

Berlin wrote to Bernard Williams about Men of Ideas. He goes through the series, marking the various philosophers. He is flattering (“your performance on the Magee show was far and away the best to date”), and unkind, if accurate (“[I] thought Hare a caricature of an Oxford philosopher of a certain date”).

For a man who could be warm, generous and loyal, some of his letters are mean-spirited. Eugene Kamenka “is a disarming, affable know all, with a rather pedantic ambitious Chinese wife who lacks the higher attributes very conspicuously”; AL Rowse (a regular target over the years) “had become too megalomaniac, remorselessly boring and offensive to guests”; George Steiner “is not a man whose views I can conceivably take seriously on any subject”; “I never thought him [Bernard Berenson] either a nice man or an honourable one”.

This kind of gossip is small beer. But there are more serious examples here and in the earlier volumes of how he could use his status to intimidate or even damage others. In 1986 he wrote to Mark Bonham Carter, the chair of Index on Censorship, then edited by George Theiner. Berlin complained about an article by Noam Chomsky, accusing him of “howling inaccuracies”. “His polemics are very violent”, Berlin writes, and “he is liable in my view, to distort … pretty unscrupulously”. “I do not see how I can go on receiving Index”, writes Berlin, but then he asks Bonham Carter not to “show my letter to Mr Theiner or anyone else -” The letter was leaked to Chomsky. Berlin wrote to Chomsky to try to rebuild their relationship. Chomsky replied, complaining about “elite British intellectuals, spewing forth their malice in secret.” The editors observe, “There was no further contact between them.” The point here is not just Berlin’s duplicity. He knew that his views carried a lot of weight with a small magazine, and seemed happy to use it behind the scenes rather than engage with Chomsky in open debate.

Berlin could be a feline gossip. But he could also write the most sycophantic gush. Writing to Anthony Eden’s widow after his death, Berlin says her “love and devotion and wisdom” “were beyond praise and beyond description – noble, moving and magnificent beyond words.” Later he adds, “no one has lived more truly than you… no one has lived a better or nobler life.””Your sermon,” he wrote later to Lord Jakobovits, “is wonderful – and by wonderful I mean wonderful.” ”I shall say nothing about your public life,” he wrote to Arthur Schlesinger, “… save that no more warm-hearted, honest, brave, dedicated devotion to public causes has ever existed.”

Towards the end of his life Berlin wrote to Henry Hardy, “I feel embarrassed at having been so excessively polite – almost obsequious – to [TS] Eliot.” A little later he writes to Eliot’s widow, “I repeat that of course I did not suspect Mr Eliot of any personal anti-Semitism.” The footnote quotes Berlin elsewhere, “Cf, 355: ‘he was obviously, in fact, an anti-Semite.’”

These are not isolated examples. Both the malice and what he called his “anxiety to please”, and sometimes both about the same person, run through all four volumes. There is also an impression of an out-of-control garrulousness, what he calls in an early letter, “a constant jumble or jungle … – thickets of unnecessary words.” Over twenty years later, he writes that a few fellows of All Souls “thought of me as a talkative flibbertigibbet…”

“I really must not go on,” Berlin writes in 1981. It is a constant refrain here and throughout the Letters. The question he never asks is Why not? What would happen if he stopped going on? Berlin thought and talked with astonishing fluency. Of course, it could be exhilarating. He was one of the great talkers of his age. Still, one might wonder what silence, or even slowing down, would have meant for him? What were all these torrents of words about?

This hints at a darker side of Berlin’s character. In 1979 he wrote to the psychiatrist Anthony Storr, “every line I have ever written and every lecture I have ever delivered seems to me of very little or no value. After every lecture I feel a sense of shame…” False modesty is a central theme in Affirming. However, what if we were to take this admission at face value? Does this explain his great sensitivity to criticism (which I think was the real source of his conflict with Isaac Deutscher, which prompted a number of efforts by Berlin to ruin Deutscher)? Does it tell us something about his problem with writing major works? “In the eyes of critics -” write the editors in one of their invaluable interstices, “he was a talker, not a writer.” Berlin was in fact enormously productive: huge numbers of lectures and essays, “well over 150 pieces by the mid 1970s”, the editors tell us, many of them later gathered together by Henry Hardy in a series of collections which have transformed Berlin’s reputation. However, essays, eulogies and it is now clear, letters, were his real medium, not monographs or major synthetic works.

Letter from Isaiah Berlin to Anthony Storr, 1978
Letter from Isaiah Berlin to Anthony Storr, 1978. Courtesy of the trustees of the Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust

The second letter in Affirming, written to Jean Floud in 1975, starts with a moving account of a memoir of the poet Anna Akhmatova. Berlin moves on to historical determinism and its earlier critics, Schiller and Herder (“But there, I must not go on”), and to “a dreadful mistake” in his account of Vico. “How could I not have known that Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) anticipated Vico’s account of what Ryle always calls ‘maths’?” And then he’s off and away via Robert Matthews, David Lockwood, “Prof. Kristeller”, Minucius Felix and the American philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser.

This brings us to the heart of the book and all four of the books of Berlin’s Letters. The erudition is exhilarating. There is the sheer range, from Schiller to Vico, from modern Russian literature to Nicholas of Cusa. Of course, there are central preoccupations: the Enlightenment and its critics, Romanticism and liberalism, anti-Semitism and Zionism, his beloved Russian writers, Communism and the Cold War.

Perhaps the best letters, though, approach these subjects from a particular angle. For example, his letter to the theatre director Peter Gill about Turgenev and the 19th century Russian gentry, or a paragraph on Tolstoy’s Kutuzov from War and Peace, elsewhere a discussion of Einstein’s Zionism or the historians AJP Taylor and EH Carr. What these letters do is bring together Berlin’s two great subjects: the history of culture and ideas and his fascination for individuals in all their idiosyncrasy. Sometimes this comes out as gossip and chatter but Berlin also had a rare gift for bringing individuals to life, whether long-dead Russian writers or society hostesses and Oxford dons.

Many of these letters illuminate Berlin’s ideas about human nature and freedom of the will, historical inevitability and liberty, and, above all, pluralism and the clash of values. There are insights into Berlin’s intellectual make-up. “You are […] right,” he writes to Norman O. Brown, “that I am drawn to the extremes – to the irrationalists, to those who upset, and not to those who smoothly assert.” “I don’t want to read allies,” he resumes, “I’d rather read the critics, the sceptics, the enemies, however extravagant, because they uncover the cracks, the flaws, the places between the ribs where the dagger can successfully be inserted… Hence my fascination with Vico, Hamann, and indeed Nietzsche.”

He provides a clear summary of his intellectual formation in a letter to an Italian graduate student in 1991: “I was brought up in that movement, empirical analytical-rational – and remain to a high degree part of it. But what I have in common [with it] is the belief that philosophical thought and language ought to be as clear as one can make them and refer to […] empirical reality, both external and internal…” “That is, I neither sympathise with nor really understand the metaphysical tradition that seems to me to prevail in the greater part of the European continent… I have no real grasp of what Heidegger or Jaspers, or most Italian philosophers under their influence, are really about. Nor have I any sympathy for the idealistic tradition, Hegel and his disciples, Croce and all…” Then he goes on to discuss his differences with the empiricist tradition, especially as these apply to understanding particular thinkers: “One wants to know what is the constellation of values, the – as it were – moral horizons of a given thinker, or a given group of thinkers, or indeed of a culture, or a society ….”

Reading these letters within a few pages of each other gives a sense of Berlin’s distinctive make-up. He is both grounded in an English “empirical analytical-rational” tradition but also drawn to “the irrationalists”, the enemies of the Enlightenment, many of them like Berlin from the periphery of Europe.

But this is just one part of his intellectual world. Not only does he write about different kinds of philosophy, but he writes with great insight about Verdi and Wagner, Tolstoy and Turgenev, in great torrents of enthusiasm, jumping from insight to insight. The cumulative effect is exhilarating. At their best these letters are a thrilling introduction to the history of ideas and culture in Berlin’s favourite period, from Mozart and Herder to Akhmatova and Stravinsky. Few have written with greater insight about this century and a half.

There are intriguing gaps and absences. And at moments the picture darkens when Berlin is challenged about what he knew, or claimed he didn’t know, about the Holocaust when he was in wartime Washington. He becomes evasive and starts to squirm. These are crucial parts of the book, superbly edited by Henry Hardy and Mark Pottle. At these most difficult moments their footnotes are admirably judicious.

It is only right to end with their achievement. In this book they have brought to life one of the great liberal thinkers and, it is now clear, one of the great letter-writers of the 20th century. They have done this not just by gathering together all these letters, but by providing all the material and references we need to understand the life and ideas of a remarkable man. All we need is a single-volume version of these Letters to bring this remarkable project to fruition.


An abridged version of this piece is available in Jewish Quarterly’s Winter 2015 issue. Subscribe to receive access to our Winter issue and more.

Headline photo: Isaiah Berlin receives an honorary Doctor of Laws, Toronto, 1994. © Steve Frost

Isaiah Berlin Affirming: Letters 1975-1997 published by Chatto & Windus is now available in bookstores.

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