When Isaiah Berlin died on November 5th last year, an astonishing number of people felt it as a personal loss. Berlin was eighty-eight years old, and had been unwell for some months, so his death was not exactly a surprise; nonetheless, it came as a shock, and it left a large gap in the lives of those who knew him even slightly. It sounds mildly insulting to say of anyone that he has become an institution; but it is certainly true that Berlin had become something larger than any of the roles he had occupied with such distinction—among them, philosopher, author, diplomat, and college president. Perhaps, to borrow W.H. Auden’s description of Freud, he had become a “climate of opinion.” It was a climate that owed much, if not quite everything, to the personality of its creator.
This sets Berlin apart from almost all other twentieth-century philosophers. Bertrand Russell had a striking personality, a razor-sharp intelligence, and a command of the English language that many of us would sell our souls to possess; but his account of “definite descriptions” and his theory of classes belong—or do not belong—to the permanent achievements of logical analysis for entirely austere and impersonal reasons. Karl Popper’s intolerance of any criticism of his own views was a standing joke against his theory that inventing hypotheses and subjecting them to critical testing was the key to scientific progress. But the attractions and the shortcomings of Popper’s philosophy of science have nothing to do with the temperamental irritability that led his students to joke that The Open Society and Its Enemies should have been called “The Open Society by one of its enemies.” Many of us admire the philosophy and deplore the ill temper.
Berlin’s work is very much harder to separate from its author, and for anyone who heard him lecture in person or on the radio it is almost impossible to separate the speaker from the text. This is no accident. Although Berlin did not explain philosophical, political, moral, or aesthetic ideas as mere outgrowths of the personalities of the thinkers who held those ideas, he certainly treated them as aspects of those personalities. When he engaged with ideas he engaged with their authors, and for all the world as though he were doing so in the immediate here and now.
Only one volume of Berlin’s collected essays is entitled Personal Impressions, but it is striking how his far more philosophically or historically demanding essays, too, seem to be giving the reader Berlin’s personal impressions of, as it might be, Herzen, Belinsky, Machiavelli, Montesquieu, or the Parisian Utopian Socialists of the early nineteenth century. One thing that made him a great teacher was the way he taught his students to shed their inhibitions—and thus taught them to feel that they too were entitled to buttonhole the immortal dead in a transhistorical conversation. Many of them felt that a benign uncle had taken them to a particularly dazzling party in the Elysian Fields and introduced them to his best friends.
That quality in Berlin was central to his entre temperament, and it is picked up very enjoyably in Michael Ignatieff’s Life. It made Berlin one of the most engaging conversationalists that most of those who knew him had the good fortune to meet. It must also have made Michael Ignatieff’s task as a biographer exceedingly difficult. So vivid was the impression that Berlin made on almost everyone and so many were the people on whom he made such an impression that there are hundreds of friends, former students, and old colleagues with their own fixed views of Berlin, his ideas, and his achievements. Berlin encouraged this by the intellectual and emotional openhandedness with which he treated them. “He was prodigal with words and time. To an obscure graduate student in Oregon he would expound his distinction between two concepts of liberty with the same gusto that he devoted to sharing gossip with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. In this endless flow of verbal facility, it seemed as if he genuinely believed that he could be personal with almost anyone.” Ignatieff must have had a hard time assimilating all the varied—and inconsistent—insights he was offered by the beneficiaries of this largesse.
But Ignatieff was Berlin’s own choice as a biographer; for the last ten years of Berlin’s life he visited him week after week, taping their conversations together, reading the letters Berlin gave him, and exploring the unpublished essays and lectures still awaiting the attentions of Berlin’s devoted editor, Henry Hardy. Although Berlin insisted that he would not influence what Ignatieff wrote—“Après moi, le déluge,” he told him—and refused to read a word of it, he was in fact rather less able than most of us to let other people think what they wished about him or his work. He would cheerfully belittle his own scholarship—but was deeply wounded if others did so, and the mixture of what Ignatieff calls “pre-emptive” self-denigration and sensitivity to criticism was visible in other matters, too. It is a tribute to Ignatieff’s tact as a biographer that his book shows so little evidence of what must have been some interesting battles for his allegiance.
As a biographical subject, Berlin is less easy than he seems. He was, as Stuart Hampshire said of him, “life-creating” and as a friend and interlocutor quite irreplaceable. Still, his life was mostly—not always—led in comfortable surroundings, and it was not in the ordinary sense full of incident. His adventures were adventures of the mind, and what was interesting in his life was what he thought and felt and said. Yet it is not true that his ideas about philosophy, politics, historiography, and human culture at its widest and most colorful would have been just as interesting if they had been someone else’s. The contrast with most other philosophers is striking. Where, like Russell, they led vivid private lives, these were separate from their intellectual concerns; where, like Dewey, they did not, their ideas were no less interesting. Defenders of Heidegger do their very best to detach the life from the thought. With Berlin, the how of what he thought is almost inseparable from the what—but only almost. It is one of the many pleasures of reading Ignatieff that he possesses such a sure touch about when to step into the narrative of events to remind us of the lessons that Berlin drew from them.
Still, the beginning of Berlin’s life was as romantic and dramatic as any biographer could wish. His mother had had a stillborn daughter two years earlier and had been told she could never have children; Isaiah nearly died at birth—the labor was prolonged, and in his impatience an incompetent doctor pulled Isaiah into the world so violently that his left arm was permanently damaged. Something that Berlin seldom mentioned in later life was that although his parents were Europeanized bourgeois, with a taste for opera and travel, his father was a descendant of Schneur Schneerson, the founding Lubavicher rabbi. It was not a connection Berlin valued, at least so far as contemporary Hasidim were concerned. “As for the modern Lubavich Hassidim—with their three-quarter-length black frock-coats, wide-brimmed hats, beards and ringlets—he regarded them as alarming fanatics,” Ignatieff writes. Neither his birthplace, Riga, nor his native country, Latvia, meant anything to him in later life; when he won the Agnelli Prize in 1988, Berlin was much amused by a newspaper item describing him as a distinguished “Lithuanian” philosopher.
Isaiah was as spoiled by his parents as one might expect an only, longed-for, and despaired-of child to be. It produced a familiar kind of two-way tyranny, with Isaiah’s happiness always the most important thing in the world to his parents, and pleasing his mother something quite close to that for him. When his more left-wing friends reproached him for accepting a knighthood in 1957, he excused himself by insisting that he had accepted it for his mother’s sake.
Into this sunny prosperous world there erupted first the tensions of world war and then the greater and nearer dangers of the Russian Revolution. Mendel Berlin moved the family to Petrograd in 1916; he and Marie were enthusiastic about the first, liberal revolution of February 1917—though it was during the course of it that the seven-year-old Isaiah had an encounter with the horrors of political violence that stayed with him all his life. He and his governess were in the street when a mob rushed past, with a secret policeman in their grasp. “All the seven-year-old had time to see,” Ignatieff writes, “was a man with a white face twisting and turning as he was borne away. The child could not know where they were taking him, but even then it seemed clear that he would not escape with his life.” With the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917, the world became more dangerous. The family did not suffer destitution, but they suffered the bullying of both their poorer neighbors and the semiofficial police forces of the new regime. It was time to leave Russia.
Initially, Mendel Berlin thought of reestablishing his business in Riga. But on the journey there, the family encountered such a degree of anti-Semitic vindictiveness that they soon decided that they must leave for England. During the war, Mendel Berlin had made a healthy profit on a consignment of plywood for the British market, and the funds were waiting in a London bank. On February 3, 1921, Berlin spent his first night in England. It was in the unlikeliest of surroundings, a rented bungalow in the most suburban of places—Surbiton, a few miles southwest of London. There cannot have been another Russian within miles, and there were few Jews. Ignatieff dissolves the mystery of this unlikely destination: an English trading partner had told Mendel Berlin that the English did not live in towns.
Arriving with enough English to sing the old music-hall song “Daisy, Daisy,” Isaiah speedily mastered his new tongue and his new surroundings, though even in old age he recalled the effort well enough to enjoy mimicking the long-ago child who sang, “It von’t be a stylish marridze. I can’t afford a carridze. But you’ll look sveet upon ze seat of a bicycle built for two.” Berlin had mixed feelings about the skills that took him swiftly through an English preparatory school, on to St. Paul’s, and thence to Corpus Christi College, Oxford. “One of the paradoxes of his temperament,” says Ignatieff, “was to wish that he been one of life’s noble intransigents—those who did not bend, but made others submit to their will. Look at my heroes, he used to say. Not one of them was a nice, grass-eating, accommodating liberal. They were all hard, difficult, ‘impossible’ characters—Toscanini, Churchill, Weizmann—men whose vices he excused because they did not include a fatal eagerness to please.”