On Isaiah Berlin (1909 – 1997)

Michael Ignatieff

He was born in the twilight of imperial Russia and he was buried on a grey Friday morning at the end of the century in the Jewish section of Oxford’s Wolvercote cemetery. At the age of seven, he watched the banners of the Russian Revolution waving below the balcony of his parent’s apartment in Petrograd; he lived long enough to witness the collapse of Soviet tyranny. The Russian Revolution framed both his life and work: as an intellectual historian he uncovered its totalitarian impulses, and as a political theorist he defended the liberal civilization it sought to destroy.

He was the last representative of the passionate, comic, voluble, and morally serious intelligentsia of old Russia. When he and Anna Akhmatova talked through the night in her bare apartment in the Fontanny Dom in November 1945, sharing a dish of boiled potatoes, it was as if two Russian traditions—one exiled, the other persecuted—were meeting to pledge that they would endure and persevere. He lived long enough to see the pledge honored.

Exile in England never left him beset by nostalgia. In Englishness, he discovered a skeptical empiricism which became the central strand of his identity and which he combined with the Russian and Jewish elements of his character. All of these elements, the Russian, the Jewish, and the English, became relatives in his soul and they argued together and told jokes to each other throughout his life.

He had a Humian temperament—worldly, unsentimental, and serene—which managed to turn episodes of self-doubt into opportunities for self-transformation. Doubting that he could ever become a philosopher, historian, or political theorist of the first rank, he became by turns all three. The intellectual trajectory he followed was thus daringly original. No other major figure in twentieth-century Anglo-American letters made contributions across such a range of disciplines: in analytical philosophy, in the intellectual history of Marxism, the Enlightenment, and the Counter-Enlightenment, and in liberal political theory.

He seemed like the quintessential fox, but now that his journey is completed, it is possible to see that he was a hedgehog all along. The unity to his work grew from a sustained concentration on what he took to be the Enlightenment’s central flaw: its belief that the truth was one and that the goods which men valued could not ultimately conflict. From Vico and Herder and from the German Romantics he distilled the idea that some human ends were actually incommensurable and incompatible. Justice and mercy, for example, or liberty and equality were in contradiction, and there was no science of human affairs capable of resolving the conflict. Knowledge, he memorably said, does not set us free from the dilem-mas of human choice. “We are doomed to choose,” he wrote, and “every choice may entail an irreparable loss.” Utopia was not merely unrealizable, it was “conceptually incoherent,” and the attempt to build heaven on earth could only end in tyranny.

“Ends, moral principles, are many,” he once wrote. “But not infinitely many: they must be…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.