THE COSY PHILOSOPHER
Enlightening: Letters 1946-1960
By Isaiah Berlin (Edited by Henry Hardy and Jennifer Holmes with the assistance of Serena Moore) (Chatto & Windus 845pp £35)
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Isaiah Berlin used to say that people were his landscape. In the first volume of his letters, Flourishing, edited by Henry Hardy and covering the years 1928 to 1946, he went so far as to declare a positive dislike of nature, suggesting that love of sublime landscapes was linked with reactionary romanticism. It is true that his focus was always on human beings, and this second volume shows him finding fulfilment among them as never before. Returning from war work in the British embassy in Washington, becoming once again and then ceasing to be a bachelor don, taking up the history of ideas and achieving, through a series of radio talks, a degree of celebrity about which he was highly ambivalent, immersing himself in the internecine struggles of All Souls and Oxford, giving advice to heads of state and officials running government agencies - these and other aspects of Berlin's life are vividly captured in this absorbingly readable second selection. There could hardly be a more intimate portrait of Berlin than that which emerges from these letters. But the man himself is not so easily captured, and sometimes appears quite different from the one who seemed always to feel at home in the world.
Berlin used to present himself as an extrovert for whom his own personality was of no great interest. On the whole the letters support this claim, but they also suggest that his gregarious, outward-looking persona may not have been entirely spontaneous. One of Berlin's most remarkable talents was his ability to combine a benevolent interest in others with cool insight into their characters and motives. Even more remarkably, he was able to view himself with the same mix of clear-eyed realism and benign concern.
In a letter written in 1949 we find him praising American academic life over that in England, and describing Oxford as 'shallower, easier, simpler, gayer and less worthy, further from the heart of things, more nonchalant, more superficial, less penetrating, less directly concerned with what I care about most, than Harvard'. What is striking in these observations is their ambiguity. Berlin may have admired Harvard but he loved Oxford, partly because he found it 'easier, simpler, gayer' - qualities he knew he needed in his surroundings. In 1951 he wrote that he was 'unable to achieve even a moment of the large calm, the minimum of tranquillity which all tolerable lives require', and a year later, 'my quest for gaiety and cosiness is a perpetual defence against the extreme sense of the abyss by which I have been affected ever since I can remember myself'. One should not take statements of this kind too literally. Probably they are not much more than expressions of the intense self-doubt from which he seems to have suffered in the late Forties and into the Fifties. But they do make clear that Berlin's delight in society and gossip, his amiability and love of institutions, were traits he actively cultivated. He did not move as easily in the world as those who admired or envied him liked to imagine.
As the letters move into the mid-Fifties we find Berlin achieving self-realisation of a kind that had so far eluded him. He began a happy, lifelong marriage, was appointed to the Chichele chair of social and political theory at All Souls - at the time the foremost position in political theory in the country - and accepted a knighthood (a decision he soon regretted). In 1958 he delivered his celebrated lecture on 'Two Concepts of Liberty'. Commonly seen as a restatement of English liberalism, it seems to me to articulate a less familiar and less comfortable view of things. Berlin had a deep love of England - 'the best country in the world', he often said - and cherished a certain type of English thinking. Scepticism regarding oracular interpretations of history and respect for facts were qualities he valued greatly, and not just as intellectual virtues. Any philosophy that downgraded individual choice was morally as well as intellectually dubious, and he admired English empiricism for its decency as much as its lucidity. But even as he made his way in English life Berlin drew more deeply from the wellspring of his Russian inheritance.
For a time Oxford analytical philosophy attracted him because it prized clarity and resisted system building, but after the war he turned away from philosophy as it was then being practised. Born a hundred years ago in Riga, he was a product of the high culture of Russia's Silver Age - 'my spiritual home, the Russian self-examining intelligentsia of the 19th century', as he described it in one of the letters collected here. Much as he valued clarity, it was not enough: he could not devote himself to a discipline that lacked the human relevance he found in the best Russian thinkers. When, in the last conversation I had with him before he died, I asked Berlin who had most shaped his thinking, it was not David Hume or John Stuart Mill that he cited, or any of the philosophers he had known in Oxford. It was Alexander Herzen, the Russian radical writer.
Berlin is remembered by philosophers for defending ethical pluralism - the claim that human values make conflicting claims that cannot always be rationally reconciled - and arguing that this pluralism is the true basis of a liberal society. The argument is hardly demonstrative - if values can conflict in ways that have no rational solution, what reason can there be for favouring individual choice over other goods? But Berlin's achievement was not to give liberalism a watertight foundation. It was to present liberalism as an attractive vision of life, and one that is not tied to a quasi-religious belief in progress. Though Berlin was solidly committed to the values of the liberal Enlightenment, he never shared the faith of Enlightenment thinkers that growing knowledge could resolve fundamental conflicts of value. For him such conflicts were part of what it means to be human, and any philosophy that offered to deliver us from them was both deluded and illiberal.
Here Berlin developed a distinctively Russian tradition in which liberalism is not one more political doctrine but a form of resistance against doctrines - the assertion of human freedom against large projects of world transformation, even when they claim to serve freedom. Criticising E H Carr's account of the Russian Revolution, Berlin wrote to the American diplomat George Kennan: 'the opposition and the victims are not allowed to testify ... Only the victors deserve to be heard; the rest - Pascal, Pierre Bezukhov, all Chekhov's people, all the critics and casualties of Deutschtum or White Man's Burdens, or the American Century, or the Common Man on the March - these are historical dust, lishnye lyudi (superfluous men), those who have missed the bus of history'. Berlin liked cosiness: a part of the life-enhancing quality of his conversation came from the way he could find points of interest and affinity in the most uncongenial thinkers. The sense of intractable conflict he articulated in his writings is far from cosy, and yet it is also life-enhancing, for it enabled him to forge a version of liberalism that speaks for history's losers, the superfluous people whose fate it is to be left behind in the grand march of progress.
John Gray's most recent book is 'Gray's Anatomy: Selected Writings' (Allen Lane).