The Questions of Isaiah Berlin

Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas

by Isaiah Berlin
Viking Press, 394 pp., $16.95

Edmund Wilson once described Isaiah Berlin as “an extraordinary Oxford don, who left Russia at the age of eight and has a sort of double Russian-and-British personality. The combination is uncanny but fascinating.” But even these words from such a usually restrained source fail to do justice to the variety of gifts of this civilized and widely admired man who at one time or another has been a philosopher, a political theorist, an acute practical analyst of American and European politics, a historian of ideas, a biographer of Marx and translator of Turgenev, an active and influential participant in Jewish affairs, a long-time director of the Royal Opera House, founder of Wolfson College at Oxford, and President of the British Academy. Those who have been in his presence have witnessed his intellectual gaiety; he is a man of universal learning, a justly celebrated conversationalist, a man who inexhaustibly enlarges the lives of his colleagues, his students, his friends.

The four volumes of Isaiah Berlin’s collected essays and other writings that are currently appearing under the editorship of Henry Hardy should dispel the persistent myth that he has not found much time for scholarly writing among his many activities and that his work consists largely of critical and fragmentary occasional pieces that have no collective shape and express no single point of view. Berlin, as these volumes show, is a highly imaginative philosopher and historian of ideas who has repeatedly reminded us not to underestimate the influence of abstract ideas in human affairs, however harmless such ideas may appear when detached from their historical settings and microscopically analyzed by philosophers. He has reminded us that we cannot live without explaining the world to ourselves; that such explanations always rest on a conception of what is and can be; that whether we know it or not, insofar as we care about ideas at all, we are all participants in debates once familiar only to coteries of intellectuals.

Berlin sees his task as one of contributing to our self-knowledge by exhuming, clarifying, and criticizing the main ideas and values that lie behind our current conceptions of ourselves—of understanding historically whence we came, and how we came to be where we are now, thereby diminishing the dangers of being at the mercy of unexamined beliefs. This task requires rare psychological sensitivity, the capacity to enter into the consciousness of men far removed in space and time, and Berlin discharges it with grace and skill in the essays in the history of ideas collected in Against the Current.

In these portraits of thinkers from Machiavelli to Sorel he displays the powers of exposition, analysis, and lucidity familiar to readers of his other work. Berlin’s essays are neither chronicles nor exegetical exercises: he approaches ideas as incarnated in the men who conceived them; his subjects are never mere vehicles. Berlin is thoroughly at home with ideas in their personal and emotional, social or cultural embodiments—whether his subject is a humorless and …

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