The Undefeated

Russian Thinkers

by Isaiah Berlin, edited by Aileen Kelly and Henry Hardy
Viking, 312 pp., $14.95

Sir Isaiah Berlin
Sir Isaiah Berlin; drawing by David Levine

In a brief preface to this book, Isaiah Berlin seems to show some reluctance about its publication. “The essays collected in this volume,” he writes, “the first of four, were written or delivered as lectures, on various occasions over almost thirty years, and therefore possess less unity of theme than if they had been conceived in relation to one another.” If this remark represents a serious scruple, the editors must be congratulated for having overcome it and made more easily available these eloquent, masterful essays, hitherto scattered in periodicals, anthologies, and introductions to others’ books.

These essays have to do with men’s ideas and the effect of these ideas on social and political events, more specifically with Russian liberal thought in the nineteenth century and its effect on events in the twentieth—they make a wonderfully penetrating study of an intellectual trend that has commanded much of modern history. However disconnected originally, once brought together they are perfectly unified around this central, though implicit, theme, splendidly illustrating Isaiah Berlin’s belief that “great ideas do have great influence.” The theme is implicit. It is not discussed in itself. It is, perhaps, more accurately Berlin’s basic presupposition rather than his major theme. But by whatever name, the concept is central, and its very implicitness is characteristic.

The entire burden of these collected essays,” Berlin says, “so far as they can be said to display any single tendency, is distrust of all claims to the possession of incorrigible knowledge about issues of fact or principle in any sphere of human behaviour.” The least dogmatic of thinkers, Berlin lays no claim to absolute correctness, nor does he invoke absolutes of any kind. He is a thinker for whom generalities are abhorrent, and is for this reason exceptional as philosopher, historian, and literary critic. He is all three of these. But his concern, as a philosopher, is with concepts in their bearing on human affairs, not as systematized abstractions; as a historian, with the interplay between ideas and events, that is, with how social, political, and moral forces shape ideas and how ideas them; as a literary critic, with the reflection in a work of art of the artist’s thought and character. His major preoccupation is the minds of men. And it is this that unifies his many-sided work with its mastery of several disciplines and his undoctrinaire commitment not to any one of them, but to the essentially human factor that underlies them all.

The heart of the collection is a section called “A Remarkable Decade,” the title borrowed from the memoirs of “an agreeable, intelligent, and exceedingly civilized man,” Pavel Annenkov, who was describing his friends, “the founders of the Russian intelligentsia” between the years 1838 and 1848. Berlin presents the outstanding members of this group, Herzen, Belinsky, Bakunin, Turgenev, with great understanding and sympathy, sketching their characters, explaining the evolution of their…

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