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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 within the human horizon.” He kept his intellectual gaze firmly upon that horizon, trying to understand what human beings could genuinely comprehend about one another. His work was a passionate defense of human empathy. The precondition of a liberal society was not consensus or shared values, he insisted, but our capacity to understand moral worlds different from our own.

He believed the state should try to create conditions of equality for its citizens, but he thought it was self-deceiving to suppose that equality could always be reconciled with liberty. Bishop Butler’s remark—“Everything is what it is and not another thing”—was a talisman for him. The most astringent—and influential—sentence he ever wrote insisted that liberals must not fool themselves into believing that liberal society could be everything they wished: “Liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or culture, or human happiness or a quiet conscience.”

The concrete situation is almost everything,” he wrote. “There is no escape: we must decide as we decide; moral risk cannot, at times, be avoided.” The particular quality he admired in great men and women was their “sense of reality.” His own was unfailingly acute and it was why his friends called him wise.

When I once asked him how he thought he would like to be remembered, he was characteristically brisk: “After I’m dead, I don’t mind what is said or thought about me. This is the truth.” It had always been a matter of wry amusement to him that his own reputation had been systematically overvalued in his lifetime. The possibility that he might be undervalued after his death was a matter of indifference. He wished he could live forever—wished there might be an afterlife—but saw no grounds to believe that such a place existed.

The wet earth falling on his plain casket in Wolvercote cemetery momentarily obliterates that other sound—the low, rapid rumble of his voice—which was music to those who loved him. It mingled Oxford, Petersburg, and Riga together in an intonation we will never hear again. But he left the moral quality of his voice behind him, in the long tumbling paragraphs and the clauses within clauses of his best essays, and it is to these that we can turn when we need to remind ourselves what intellectual life can be: joyful, free of illusion, and vitally alive.

Stuart Hampshire

By the superabundance of his curiosities and the range of his interests, Isaiah Berlin burst through all the usual restraints and cautions of academic thinking. He was in fact a peculiar kind of genius in academia. True scholarship has behind it a desire, even a compulsion, to dominate and to monopolize a field of study: a totalitarian wish to be first and everywhere in the field, in the spirit of A.E. Housman. Berlin never in his life thought of himself as a scholar and had no desire for mastery or monopoly. When in the summer of 1936 I traveled with him to Ireland on holiday, I remarked, censoriously, that he seemed to study texts only when conversation with his friends lapsed and he needed a substitute.

In one of my still-vivid pictures of him that summer he is standing in an Irish country bus, holding a copy of Bouvard et Pécuchet in a Russian translation, and exchanging banter with an Irish priest who thought he was a Communist. His ideal at that time, and again immediately after the war, was to live among a small group of friends who shared his passion for the history of thought in all its varieties—discussing, for example, Russian intellectuals before the Revolution, the French Enlightenment, the golden generation in Paris, Heine and Bellini, the errors of Russell and Carnap, Karl Marx and anti-Semitism.

He was the least academic of all the academics in the humanities that I have known. His love of the movement of ideas, and of their possible life in conversation, carried him over all dividing hedges and fences. This cross-country flying was precisely Virginia Woolf’s definition of highbrow, and a gentle, benign, amazingly effortless, and modest highbrow he was. At the same time he venerated the true scholarship of his friends Meyer Schapiro, Arnaldo Momigliano, Ernst Gombrich, and Ronald Syme, just as he admired the extravagant sympathies and occasional polemics of his friends Edmund Wilson and Joseph Alsop—high spirits in a classical form.

He had a capacious memory for the particularities of persons, living and dead, their origins, friends, families, and habits, and he had a gift like Aubrey’s for the odd anecdote, or the fragment of speech, that illuminates a person. He was notoriously profligate in giving his time to the great number of strangers, particularly foreign scholars, who consulted him. Both superficially and at a deep level, he understood and sympathized with the varieties of human mentalities and of styles of thought across the Continent. He turned aside to found Wolfson College and to preside over its innovations, and it remains a college that is delightfully unlike any other.

His essays show him as a master of praise and he had a talent for hero worship: among his characteristic heroes were David Hume, Diderot, Rossini, Verdi, Herder, Herzen, Chaim Weizmann, Turgenev (because he was so unheroic), Leonard Woolf.

One feature of his long life and of his personality now stands out in my mind before all others—his amazement in the face of the immense affection and admiration that he inspired in persons of very different kinds, both inside and outside universities. It is as if he had been for years talking in his usual helter-skelter manner among his ever-widening circle of friends—which included musicians, writers, artists, politicians, journalists, captains of industry, professors—and then he suddenly looked up and saw a great sea of faces, an audience that stretched away to Italy and to Poland and to countless people without public labels who responded to the spontaneity and heat of his speech.

He had never expected to be, or intended to be, an internationally famous leader of thought. He had never planned his publications. A meticulous editor, Henry Hardy, made marvelous books out of his scattered lectures and essays. He had simply gone forward, consumed with curiosity and with the intense pleasures of speculation, leaving much of his life to impulse and to chance. He was pleasure-loving, and he never thought particularly well of himself in any role. He was superbly unpretentious and unpretending.

Alfred Brendel

No one ever wrote obituaries like Isaiah. Unlike some of those printed in British papers, they appraised mainly by praising. Isaiah knew a vast amount about an amazing number of people. Never full of himself, he was full of others. His curiosity was insatiable, his criticism playful rather than malicious. The first person to be critical about was himself. Always keen to take in new information, his memory seized on it, and retained it precisely. A lot of gossip was sifted through and put to higher use. I have never met anyone with a more remarkable memory. Isaiah could sum up books he had read a long time ago with exemplary clarity, and quote from them with astonishing accuracy. He could also hum musical themes, while tapping with the right hand on his knee, from the obscurest operas. To talk to people of all backgrounds, professions, and persuasions—or better, to communicate with them—was what he liked best.

Isaiah was convinced of the power of individuality and the force of genius. He had his heroes. In music, they were Verdi and Rossini, whom he also admired as human beings. He deemed both of them “naive” (in Schiller’s sense), yet the “sentimentalists” Beethoven and Schubert also found their way to his heart. The somewhat labored distinction between naiv and sentimentalisch seemed to become increasingly blurred to him, Schubert being an important later acquaintance while Beethoven moved up to be the favorite of his last years. In a radio program, he mentioned the andantino from Schubert’s late A major Sonata as the piece he wished to be played in his memory.

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