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Learning a Lot About Isaiah Berlin

Nigel Francis/The Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust, 1997/Wolfson College Library
Isaiah Berlin; portrait by Derek Hill, 1975

The stoutest defenders of the status quo will inevitably be those whom it rewards most richly. In the period covered by Building: Letters 1960–1975, the third of four projected volumes of his correspondence, Isaiah Berlin achieved lavish success in his life and in his career. He was happily, indeed blissfully, married to a well-to-do woman and living with her and her sons in some style in her fine house outside Oxford; he had attained worldwide fame as a historian of ideas whose essays were read with admiration and envy both inside and outside academe; he was the confidant of presidents and statesmen, with an entrée to many a corridor of power on both sides of the Atlantic; and to cap it all, in these years he created a new graduate college at Oxford, securing the funding for it and overseeing its at times troubled development. He knew his place to be a high one, and despite his innate modesty he enjoyed himself hugely up there.

His letters in this volume, as ever discursive, zestful, bubbling with gossip and intrigue, sound a subtly new note. His sense of gaiety, his love of occasion, his appetite for friendship and conversation, fed into what seems at times a blinkered kind of sunny optimism, a belief that surely all this should and would be preserved against the encroaching barbarisms of the age. As the historian David Caute has drily remarked, “Berlin more frequently expressed aversion to violence that established ‘a new order on the ruins of the old’ than to the historically more common violence that re-established the old order on the ruins of the new.”

Certainly the period from 1960 to 1975 was among the most barbarous the world has experienced. These were the years of assassination—of John F. and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, among others—and of some particularly nasty wars, notably in Vietnam, Algeria, Congo, and the Middle East. There were also a number of nuclear standoffs, particularly over Cuba, that very nearly resulted in catastrophe.

Through all this IB, as from here on we shall designate him, sailed with apparent calm, though always with a lively interest, like a phlegmatic lone yachtsman navigating his leak-proof vessel over tempestuous wastes of water. Or so it would seem from his letters; it would be well to keep in mind, however, that letter-writing is a performative act, and IB was a bravura performer. He was never less than engagé yet in private maintained an attitude of amused skepticism. The world may have seemed to be hurtling toward one end, that of general self-destruction, but he was unshakable in his commitment to his version of liberalism and what is called value-pluralism, “the conception that there are many different ends that men may seek and still be fully rational, fully men, capable of understanding each other and sympathizing and deriving light from each other.”

Yet all was not bonhomie and soft sunlight. “I am,” he wrote to Mary McCarthy in 1964, when he was aged fifty-five, “in a state of excessive indignation about everything, from which I deduce old age and hardening of the arteries.” He could be fearsome when he felt he or his profession had been slighted. In 1963 he wrote to the British intellectual and Labour parliamentarian Richard Crossman about a newspaper review in which Crossman had returned to “your old bone…on which you gnaw and gnaw—the fiddling dons of Oxford, dreary and craven pedants engaged in their petty and destructive tasks while worlds are crashing and great problems are crying out for solution.” Responding to the charge, IB reminds Crossman of the German “political professors who thundered away and supplied plenty of ideology for 1871 and 1914,” and reminds him of Friedrich Meinecke’s Die deutsche Katastrophe of 1946, “one of the noblest tracts of our times” and “a sufficient answer to those who want professors to plug political programmes and ideologies, however sincere and eloquent.”

A similar though angrier broadside was delivered to the writer and journalist Ved Mehta, who in 1961 had written an article on contemporary Oxford philosophers for The New Yorker; IB’s brief riposte gleams with icy dismissiveness. “The New Yorker is a satirical magazine, and I assume from the start that a satire was intended and not an accurate representation of the truth. In any case, only a serious student of philosophy could attempt to do that.” Yet he was never pompous, and frequently expressed amazement that people should hold him in high regard. His work, he said, was like money: since he had made it himself it must be counterfeit. And like many writers he credited the judgments of his harshest critics, “whereas those who think well of one’s work are poor sad half-wits, whom one has taken in all too easily.”

However, his humorous delectation of the foibles of others sometimes verges on schadenfreude, if not outright cruelty. He revered Stravinsky as a composer—“he was the greatest genius I ever knew well”—yet in private liked to laugh at the old man’s complacent sense of himself and his unchallengeable position at the pinnacle of musical art. In Israel and writing to his wife in anticipation of a potentially controversial visit to Jerusalem by Stravinsky, known for having made anti-Semitic statements, IB wonders if he will accompany the official welcoming party to the airport. “I think may be not. If I have nothing to do…may be it will be comical: the arrival, the honour etc. Mrs S. is suffering from a nervous tic in the face: I shall enjoy that, I fear. [Robert] Craft [Stravinsky’s assistant], the tic, the whole thing may be funny.”

There are instances, however, when he ascends to thrilling heights of moral disdain. Here he is in 1964 contemplating with dismay the rise of the Republican Party presidential nominee Barry Goldwater:

I wonder…whether Goldwater followers are not simply the old 20 percent—quite enough too—who were isolationists during the war, did not want to go to Europe but to Japan towards the end of it, supported McCarthy and McCarran [both paranoid anti-Communists], and are in fact the old combination of Southern “Bourbons,” Texas industrialists, Catholic bigots, Fascists, lunatics, political neurotics, embittered ex-Communists, unsuccessful power-seekers of all kinds, as well as rich men and reactionaries, in whom America has never been poor…. This is the optimistic view.

In these years too IB was much concerned with the State, and state, of Israel, commenting on and frequently entering into that troubled nation’s endless and intermittently violent arguments with its neighbors and with itself.1 He had been a friend and enthusiastic admirer of Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader and first president of Israel, and was ever ready to leap to the defense of a country that he saw, surely rightly, as the last best hope of a historically persecuted people. He was too honest and too much of a realist to imagine that Israel could do no wrong, but he left no one in any doubt as to the staunchness of his conviction that Israel, in whatever form or within whatever borders, must survive.

The first letter in this volume, addressed to Teddy Kollek—an official in the office of the Israeli prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and later to be a famously successful, liberal mayor of Jerusalem—was written after the capture of Adolf Eichmann in Argentina by Israeli agents. In its agitated tone and tortured syntax the letter displays IB’s distress at his belief—correct, as it turned out—that Israel would try Eichmann and execute him for his part in the Holocaust, thereby losing a matchless opportunity to refrain from exacting vengeance even for such heinous crimes and expel Eichmann instead: “Nothing in the world wd make so deep an impression on the world, I am quite sure, as an act by a small and deeply wronged people which refuses to plunge the dagger to the hilt.”

From an early age IB had been acquainted with extremism, social upheaval, and internecine violence. During the February Revolution in Petrograd in 1917, he was out for a stroll with his governess one day when a group of men swept past dragging a tsarist policeman with them. In the account of IB’s biographer, Michael Ignatieff:

All the seven-year-old had time to see 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. However brief the scene, it made an indelible impression.

Although it would be easy to exaggerate the effects of this “indelible impression,” there is no doubt that throughout his life, both as citizen and philosopher, IB was keenly aware of the potential destructiveness of ideas, “ideas about what relations between men have been, are, might be and should be,” which in time become transformed into visions of a supreme good, and therefore a supreme goal, in the minds of leaders, “above all of the prophets with armies at their backs.” Hence we find him, in the pages of Building and everywhere else, ready always to promote and defend a liberal and pluralist agenda. A thumbnail sketch of his philosophical position is given in a letter to a younger political theorist, Bernard Crick, who had taken issue publicly with IB’s most celebrated work, Two Concepts of Liberty:

Freedom (or liberty) is the condition for activity. I think that what you call freedom (a free spirit; a liberal outlook; liberal-handed) I prefer to call power. You want to say, “How free they are! How mobile, active they are, how richly their gifts are realised and scattered,” whereas I wish to say, “How free! How untrammelled! How uninhibited—whithersoever they wish to move, they can; nothing can stop them!” Freedom for you is the living of the life; for me it’s its condition [italics added].

IB was anything but a reclusive or unworldly scholar, and was impatient with many aspects of the academic life—the constant jostling for position, the endless squabbles over protocol, the irritation and resentment so many dons feel at the presence of mere students—and found academic work at times well-nigh intolerable. “It is very depressing to be a professor even here,” he wrote from Oxford to a colleague in 1960, and to Richard Crossman three years later he displayed the egalitarian spirit that would inspire him to set about founding a new college to meet the needs of graduate students rather than cater to the comforts and promote the self-esteem of the teaching staff:

There is an Anglo-Saxon academic world quite different from the Latin one, where all the professors are judged by their intellectual eminence or political views, but never, never in terms of relations with students, which hardly exist; they are so remote, impersonal and grand.

A goodly portion of the correspondence in Building is concerned, as might be expected, with the establishment of Wolfson College. This was a highly significant undertaking in IB’s professional life, but inevitably the tribulations entailed in fund-raising and the dreariness of having to deal with architects and builders, etc., make for less than fascinating reading. However, the success he achieved with the project, and in particular his skill in persuading McGeorge Bundy, president of the Ford Foundation, and the wealthy businessman Sir Isaac Wolfson to provide financial backing does shed a light on the perhaps surprising wheeling-and-dealing side of his character, a side even he had been unaware of hitherto.

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    Robert Silvers, in an interview with New York magazine (April 7, 2013), gives a different version from IB’s of a meeting the two men had with Golda Meir, the Israeli prime minister, in 1969—see IB’s letter to Arnaldo Momigliano, January 9, 1970. It is a salutary reminder that a volume of letters is necessarily a one-sided conversation, in which the letter writer always has the last word. 

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