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Free Spirit

The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and Their History

by Sir Isaiah Berlin, edited by Henry Hardy, with an introduction by Patrick Gardiner
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 278 pp., $25.00

Of all the lost arts—the stained glass of Chartres, the tiles of Delft, the ink of Gutenberg, the memory system of the Renaissance, the singing of the castrati, the speech of the ancient Romans, the poetry of the minnesingers, illuminated manuscripts, Gobelin tapestry, real tennis, old ale, oral epics, public hangings, penmanship, motherhood, savoir faire, and dolce far niente—the most lamented is the art of conversation. Where is the despot of the breakfast table today? Where the after-dinner raconteurs? The salon lions? The philosophers, strolling in gardens and ordering the world through talk?

Fortunately Sir Isaiah Berlin, the last of the line and perhaps the greatest of them all, is still to be heard in Oxford. He enjoys an unrivaled reputation as a conversationalist. The height and range of his wit have delighted students and dinner companions for decades. Once tuned to his heavily accented basso profundo, they have learned to watch him as if he were a trapeze artist, soaring through every imaginable subject, spinning, flipping, hanging by his heels—and without a touch of showmanship. After bouncing from the net, Berlin sometimes shakes with levity and slaps his left hand with his right, as if he were applauding, not himself, but the game, the sheer pleasure of talk.

Was ever there before such a conversationalist? Yes: Diderot. Here is Diderot talking, as described by one of his companions:

Diderot’s conversation…had great power and great charm. His talk was enlivened by absolute sincerity, subtle without obscurity, varied in its forms, dazzling in its flights of imagination, fertile in ideas and in its capacity to inspire ideas in others. One let oneself drift along with it for hours at a time, as if one were gliding down a fresh and limpid river, whose banks were adorned with rich estates and beautiful houses.1

Conversation for Diderot was an end in itself, something done pour le sport, but it issued in philosophy. Like Plato, Diderot philosophized through dialogue. His greatest works—Rameau’s Nephew, Jacques the Fatalist, D’Alembert’s Dream—worry philosophic problems by putting them in the mouths of interlocutors and talking them out. Isaiah Berlin does the same, using a related genre, the essay. Unlike a treatise or a monograph, an essay, in Berlin’s sense of it, essays a subject, testing it, running it through an exposition and objections, as one would do in the give-and-take of talk. Such essays do not prove cases. They explore subjects, informally, sometimes playfully, and leave the reader to draw his own conclusions. In the hands of a master like Berlin, they are written conversations.


The Sense of Reality is the seventh and last volume in the series of Berlin’s essays edited by Henry Hardy. Only one of the nine essays in this volume had been previously published—and that was in 1950. “Political Judgment,” a philosophic fireside chat, was delivered on the BBC in 1957 and had to be reconstructed from notes and a recording of the broadcast. The other essays had been delivered here and there as Berlin’s wit rose to various occasions—a colloquium on the centenary of the First International Working Men’s Association at Stanford University in 1964, the centenary of the birth of Rabindranath Tagore commemorated in New Delhi in 1961, the bicentennial celebration at Columbia University in 1954.

They had lain about, in various drafts and forgotten drawers, for twenty, thirty, forty years, until Hardy sorted them out and put them into print. Capped by an anthology of Berlin’s most famous essays, published recently in London as The Proper Study of Mankind,2 the series brings a vast collection of Berlin’s thoughts on a wide variety of subjects within t he range of readers located far outside the dining and the lecture halls of Oxford. It is a service to civilization; and Hardy is to be congratulated, for he has done a masterly job of editing. But the most recent of the essays dates from 1972. Are they museum pieces, recordings of a voice from the past and of nothing more than antiquarian interest, even though Berlin’s table talk continues to enliven Oxford?

Certainly not, as anyone can see from a glance at the essays. But why should these occasional pieces, written so long ago, still have force today? Part of their staying power, I believe, has to do with the mysterious quality known as voice. Berlin speaks to us, his readers, without a hint of condescension. He draws us into the discussion and infects us with his energy. He has been everywhere, met everyone, read everything. He can tell us what it is like to talk with Churchill, Roosevelt, Virginia Woolf, and, best of all, Anna Akhmatova, in Leningrad in 1945, from nine in the evening until eleven in the morning:

We talked about literature and life and our friends before the revolution. I was the first foreigner from the West to meet her since 1917. This was in 1945. She said, “Is Stravinsky alive? Is his wife alive?” We talked about everything, about life, about love. She recited her poems, her prose, she recited Byron, not one word of which I understood—her English pronunciation was non-existent. That’s when I learnt that people who read Aeschylus without knowing how it was pronounced will still derive a great deal from it.3

Berlin’s method, if you can call it that, comes close to the German notion of Hineinfühlung: instead of weighing down his argument with textual analysis and elaborate citations, he tries to get inside an alien way of thinking, to capture its texture and its tone as well as its general drift, and to bring it to life by means of sympathetic synopsis. Berlin may be erudite, but he is not academic. He addresses his essays to the general reader, and he speaks with such infectious energy that he sweeps us up and carries us with him into territory that had seemed inaccessible. He becomes everyman’s guide to everything exciting in the history of ideas, whether in Aristotelian Athens, in Machiavellian Florence, in Kantian Königsberg, or in prerevolutionary Petrograd.

He also was the Foreign Office’s man in wartime Washington. His weekly reports on the inner workings of the American government so impressed Churchill that in the spring of 1944 Berlin was invited to lunch at 10 Downing Street. But lunch turned into a wonderful fiasco, which has provided merriment for generations of listeners, as our man in Oxford tells the story:

I cannot think how Churchill ever heard of me. I imagine Churchill probably said to Eden, “Halifax’s dispatch was quite interesting.” “Halifax!” said Eden, who loathed Halifax, “It’s by a hack called Berlin, I’m told.” So then, suddenly in the spring of 1944, his wife said to him, “Irving Berlin is in London, do be nice to him, because he’s made quite a big contribution to one of our charitable funds.” He said, “He’s in London is he, I want him to come to lunch, there’s something I want to ask him about.” So Irving was asked to lunch. Winston said, “Berlin, what do you think is your most important piece you’ve done for us lately?” He said rather hesitantly, “White Christmas.”4

This lunch has all the ingredients of the Berlin style in storytelling. It takes us to the heart of things—inside 10 Downing Street, offstage talk between the prime minister and the foreign minister, domestic chat between Churchill and his wife—and it exposes the human comedy for what it is: comic and human, although it also can be tragic, heroic, bitter, and bizarre.

Many raconteurs contrive to tell a tale in a way that makes themselves come out in the end as the hero. Not Berlin. Unless the manner of his writings belies the man, he is genuinely modest and deeply democratic. The effect on the reader is to reinforce the sense of participation in a common adventure: we let ourselves be carried away by Berlin’s enthusiasm for his subject.


Although Berlin’s rhetoric still works its magic today, it had a particular task to perform in the 1950s and 1960s. Berlin became an intellectual hero in England throughout the cold war. Born abroad (in Riga in 1909, to a Jewish family which moved to Petrograd in time for him to witness the first phases of the Russian Revolution) but raised at home (in 1919 the family moved to England, where he was educated at St. Paul’s School and Oxford), he was seen as someone who could take on the double menace overshadowing the continent, fascism and communism.

Not that he volunteered for ideological warfare. On the contrary, he participated in the birth of the Oxford style of analytical or ordinary-language philosophy. In a way he was its midwife. J.L. Austin, A.J. Ayer, and other young dons first debated the “meaning of meaning” in his rooms in New College, Oxford, during the 1930s. But the Warden of New College, H.A.L. Fisher, persuaded Berlin to write a book on Marx. It is the only full-scale book, as opposed to collections of essays, that Berlin has published; and to prepare it, he made a trek through the philosophers of the French Enlightenment and German idealism. In the end, he became a historian of ideas.

The ideas that he pursued led in many directions, but they emanated from a central concern, which he defined in the most famous of his essays, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” his inaugural lecture as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford in 1958. Berlin distinguished “negative liberty,” the ability to do what one wants without interference from others, from “positive liberty,” which comes in two varieties, each involving obedience to a self-imposed law and each potentially dangerous: on the one hand, withdrawal into an inner realm of conscience and contemplation, leading to political quietism; on the other, an attempt to stamp one’s will on the outer world, despite its heterogeneity, opening the way to totalitarianism.

How such a philosophical position could produce such consequences can be seen from the essays in The Sense of Reality. “Philosophy and Government Repression,” written in 1954, provides a ringing defense of freedom of thought, especially negative freedom, or “the existence of a minimum area of civil liberty within which an individual may think and do what he pleases because he pleases it.” In contrast to this unconstrained intellectual activity, Berlin warns us against positive varieties of rationalism which philosophers construct to impose order on experience, no matter how much it resists. Philosophers build systems, but they also tear them down. Their inherent tendency to undercut orthodoxy, even when it assumes the form of the noblest utopias, provides humanity with the best possible defense against oppression; for those who propound final truths clear a path for “final solutions.” Berlin uses that term three times on one page. Although he rarely refers to the Holocaust, his meaning is clear: philosophy is dangerous, and it also is necessary, our surest weapon in the endless struggle against enslavement.

  1. 1

    André Morellet, Mémoires inédits de l’abbé Morellet (Paris: Ladvocat, 1822), Volume 1, p. 28.

  2. 2

    The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays edited by Henry Hardy and Roger Hausheer (Chatto & Windus, 1997). To be published in the United States by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1998.

  3. 3

    Jonathan Glover spends an afternoon in conversation with Sir Isaiah Berlin,” New College News, no. 10 (December 1996), p. 7.

  4. 4

    New College News, p. 8.

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