The following is based on several interviews in London between Isaiah Berlin and the Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo, who now lives in Paris.
Ramin Jahanbegloo: You were born on June 6, 1909, in Riga, and you left Russia with your parents at the age of ten. Do you still have memories of this period, in particular of the conditions of your immigration?
Isaiah Berlin: I left Riga with my parents for Petrograd1 in 1915. We left Petrograd in 1919. In Petrograd I witnessed both Russian Revolutions at the age of eight. I remember the first Revolution very well. There were meetings, banners, crowds in the streets, enthusiasm, posters with the faces of the new Lvov2 ministry, propaganda by more than twenty parties for the Constituent Assembly. Not much talk about the war, at any rate in the circles in which my family was living. The liberal revolution was greatly welcomed by the Jews (whose disabilities were likely to be abolished) and the liberal bourgeoisie. But this did not last long. The Bolshevik Revolution broke out in November. We—my family and their friends—hardly knew that it had happened. The first sign was a general strike against the Bolshevik seizure of power. Various newspapers disappeared. I remember there was a liberal newspaper called Day—it reappeared as Evening, then as Night, then as Midnight, then as Darkest Night, and then, after four or five days or so, it was finally suppressed. There was distant shooting. People in our world thought that the Putsch might last at most for two of three weeks. If you look at the London Times of that date you will read reports from the Russian ambassador in Paris: he predicted a quick end to the Putsch. The Bolsheviks were called “Maximalists” in the Times, and not regarded as a major force. Gradually Lenin and Trotsky emerged as the two dominant figures of the Revolution.
My parents, who were bourgeois liberals, thought that Lenin would create a society in which they would not be able to survive; they looked on him as a dangerous fanatic but a true believer, honest and incorruptible, a kind of sea-green Robespierre. Trotsky, on the other hand, they regarded as a wicked opportunist. At the age of eight I had no idea why this strange opinion was so strongly held. They were never referred to apart—“Lenin and Trotsky” were spoken of in one breath, like the name of a firm. The only people who remained loyal to the tsarist government, I recollect, were the police. I do not think that there is much about this in the literature. The police in the streets were called Pharaohs—oppressors of the people. Some of them sniped at the revolutionaries from rooftops and attics. I remember seeing a policeman being dragged off, pale and struggling, by a mob, obviously to his death—that was a terrible sight that I have never forgotten; it gave me a lifelong horror of physical violence.
Jahanbegloo: Did you have problems leaving Russia after the Revolution?
Berlin: No. My family came from Riga, which became the capital of an independent state.3 If you could prove that you were a native of Latvia, they let you go. We left Russia for Latvia. My father was a timber merchant who supplied sleepers for the Russian railways. For two years he continued to work for the new Soviet Russian government, but in the end evidently could not bear it. We were never touched: neither my father nor any immediate member of my family was arrested or in any way molested. I remember people standing in queues for bread, or anything they could get: I was left standing to keep a place in such queues for four or five hours on end. A soup kitchen next door to our street provided some food, and there was a small cinema which showed Socialist films about the persecution of nineteenth-century revolutionaries by the tsarist regime—there were no Communist films yet; and some emaciated singers sang arias from Mozart and Rossini. These are my childish memories. We all lived in one small room because there was no way to heat more than one. But I was not frightened, and felt no sense of oppression—perhaps I was too young to know what was going on, and my parents seldom spoke of it.
Jahanbegloo: How did you arrive in England?
Berlin: We went first to the country, then moved to London. I went to a preparatory school, first in the suburbs of London; at that time I spoke little English, but my parents spoke English to each other. We didn’t meet many Russians then or later. My parents felt no nostalgia for Riga or Russia. My father was a fanatical Anglophile—and I grew up in the belief that the English could do no wrong. I preserved my Russian mainly, I think, by reading the Russian classics. As a result, I speak Russian freely; and on my visits to the Soviet Union I was at times taken for a native. There was one boy in my school who was Russian—his name is Bilibin. His father was a famous Russian painter. His son is still a dedicated Russian monarchist. I did occasionally speak Russian to him, but I met few Russian speakers and my Russian is due mainly to reading and something ingrained in childhood.
Jahanbegloo: Later you received a scholarship to Oxford. Can you tell me what were the main intellectual currents there at that time?
Berlin: I do not quite know what you mean by “intellectual currents.” I do not think that one can identify currents of this sort—in effect philosophies of life, dominant ideas, criss-crossing with other ideas, as happened in continental and certainly Russian universities before the Revolution. I do not think that animateurs des idées are a typical English phenomenon. But I may be wrong. I simply did not come across such intellectuals interested in general ideas or passionate advocates of political or social or aesthetic ideas with followers and opponents in Oxford. I did meet people like that after I left the university.
Jahanbegloo: There aren’t any?
Berlin: Well, of course, I may be exaggerating. They exist. While I was a student in the 1930s there were Socialists, Liberals, Conservatives; the master of Balliol, A.D. Lindsay, was a prominent Christian Socialist; there was Douglas Cole, who exercised a good deal of influence on undergraduates; there was A.L. Rowse (in those days a Socialist), and a little later Richard Crossman, A.J.P. Taylor, Patrick Gordon Walker. But it is difficult to describe this as a powerful intellectual current. There were young poets, a lot of writing as well as public readings. I edited an intellectual periodical called Oxford Outlook, which two or so years before was edited by the poet Wystan Auden. We read Auden, Spender, Day Lewis, MacNeice. I was a contemporary of Stephen Spender. He is one of my greatest friends, I have known him all my life. He wrote beautiful poetry while he was still a student at Oxford. Most undergraduates of my day were unpolitical. Later there were, of course, radicals and Communists—like my friends Norman O. Brown, Philip Toynbee, and so on; but nothing like, let us say, postwar Paris, where there was a Merleau-Ponty, or a Sartre. We were liberal-minded; we hated Mussolini, Franco, and (some of us) Stalin, and of course Hitler and all the minor dictators then arising in southeastern Europe.
What was going on in France at the time that I was a student? Were Barbusse, Romain Rolland, Gide, politically influential? I do not wish to convey the idea that we were, either when I was a student or in the years before the war when I began to teach, politically passive. My friends and I were antifascist, packed parcels for the supporters of the Spanish Government. But I cannot say that I had pronounced political views apart from general support of liberal movements and progressive forces. There was the Labour Club, which some of us occasionally went to. In the mid-Thirties there was a weekly lunch organized by Douglas Cole, which, as I remember, was attended by Crossman, Gordon Walker, Pakenham, Rowse, the philosophers A.J. Ayer, J.L. Austin, Stuart Hampshire, the Roman historian Hugo Jones, Christopher Hill (whom I did not then know to be a Communist, though I do not think he concealed this), the economists Roy Harrod and James Meade. Meade was the purest liberal I have ever known—he is still amongst us, I am happy to say, a man of about my age. I always felt that if there was a crisis—a revolution in which I might not be quite clear about what I should do—if I followed him I should avoid perpetrating anything squalid or contemptible and would be, if not politically secure, certainly morally safe.
Jahanbegloo: Well, Bergsonian philosophy had a great influence at that time in France.
Berlin: There was no philosopher in England who exercised a general influence on the public in the way that Bergson did in France, or Croce in Italy. There were no philosophers whose lectures were attended by fashionable ladies. I was told that in Paris their servants used to come to the lectures in the hall in which Bergson spoke; they came an hour before and attended the lecture of, let us say, some Professor of Assyrian archaeology; he and others were very surprised to find the entire lecture hall so full of odd-looking people, very unlike academics. No sooner was the lecture over than the audience rose to its feet and made room for the smart ladies who crowded in to hear Professor Bergson. There has been nothing like this in England since the lectures of Thomas Carlyle.
Jahanbegloo: So there was not a great deal of political activity in Oxford at that time?
Berlin: No doubt there was—there was a Socialist and a Communist club—the preoccupation with aesthetic values gave place to political interests. The breaking point in Oxford, I should say, was the financial crisis of 1931. That struck a blow at the prevalent aestheticism which socially had counted a good deal in the Oxford of the 1920s. Harold Acton, Cyril Connolly, Evelyn Waugh, Brian Howard, were typical “aesthetes,” as they were called. There is, indeed, a French book on the subject by Jean Fayard called Oxford et Margaret—not widely read now, I daresay. The vast majority of these aesthetes are lost to history. To flout academic conventions and to hope to survive in the outer world one needed some degree of financial security—that is, support from parents or guardians. The crisis of 1931 hit the affluent quite hard, and this support became precarious henceforth. After this aestheticism declined and left-wing politics came to the fore. But I do not think it was anything like the ferment in Paris or before Hitler in the Weimar Republic. Still, the Zeitgeist reached me too. I wrote a book on Karl Marx, which to my surprise is still obtainable.
Jahanbegloo: Do you consider your interest in the history of ideas was profoundly influenced by your political and philosophical experiences at Oxford?
Berlin: Not exactly. First of all, I couldn’t help being affected by the existence of the Soviet Union. I was never attracted by Marxism, nor by the Soviet regime, even though my parents had not been persecuted by it and came to England without in any way being compelled to do so. But I did have memories of the Soviet regime, which were not happy: one or two people we had known who were shot quite early in 1918, not for political reasons. There was no explanation of this from any source. There were a great many executions—there was a terror, nothing like what it grew to be in Stalin’s reign, but still, a good many people were shot for reasons that were never revealed to the public except in general terms—“enemies of the Soviet Union,” “speculators,” “counter-revolutionaries,” “supporters of the bourgeoisie,” and the like.
Jahanbegloo: Was any member of your family executed?
Berlin: No. None of our relations were executed or even arrested. My family, as I have already said, was not touched, the terror was all around us but did not reach us—we went on holidays in the summer, in a perfectly normal fashion; we did not starve, we had just enough food and fuel to continue. I had no sense of horror, but I did, even as a child, have a vague awareness of a collapse of a society, but not of the rise of another, new one. My parents were happy only during the months of February to October 1917, when there was no censorship, lots of newspapers, endless meetings, oratory, general exhilaration. In 1918 all this was changed. I sensed that there was some awareness among the older members of my family of political ideas as an important factor in human history. Perhaps those who went to school during the Soviet period felt it more, but I was taught at home. Still, as a result of this sense of the circulation of political ideas, liberty, equality, liberalism, socialism, had begun to mean something to me quite early in my life. It did not mean much to some of my contemporaries at school or at university. The aesthetes—Cyril Connolly, Bernard Spencer, Louis MacNeice and the like—I do not suppose thought in these terms while they were undergraduates nor much, I think, later in their lives. Auden and Spender and Day Lewis did, of course.
But there was another event which had an effect on me. Mr. H.A.L. Fisher, an eminent historian and head of an Oxford College, was an editor of the Home University Library—a series of popular books for ordinary readers. In 1933 Fisher asked me to write a book on Karl Marx for this series. I was greatly surprised by this offer because I had shown no signs of interest in the subject, although I did take an interest in general ideas as well as philosophical ones. Even in 1933 I enjoyed talking to people about social, political, literary, artistic ideas, but I had no particular interest in Karl Marx. The book was first offered to Harold Laski, who declined. Then it was offered to Frank Pakenham, now Lord Longford, and he, too, refused. Then it was offered to Richard Crossman, and probably to others, who all declined. Finally Fisher offered it to me, and I thought that, well, Marxism was obviously going to be more important and influential, not less. I had read a certain amount of Marx, but not much. Das Kapital was a set book for the examination which I took in my fourth year, in addition to Adam Smith and Ricardo—but I found it hard going. Still, I wanted to know what Marx taught—why his following was growing everywhere. I thought that if I never wrote about him I would never read him, because when I read Das Kapital I frequently, particularly at the beginning, found it pretty unreadable (as Keynes did, but not perhaps for the same reasons). So I forced myself to read Karl Marx extensively. My German is not too bad, so I read it partly in German, partly in English, partly in Russian, because the authoritative edition of the works of Marx and Engels had been banned by Hitler in 1933 but continued to appear in Moscow, in Russian.
Then I began reading Marx’s forerunners, the Encyclopédistes. I read Helvétius, Holbach, Diderot. I already knew Rousseau quite well. Then I began reading the so-called “Utopian” Socialists—Saint-Simon, Fourier, Owen, and was fascinated by some of their doctrines and arguments, and I looked at Rodbeztus, Louis Blanc, Moses Hess. After that, Plekhanov,4 a really brilliant Russian Marxist writer. I read him with complete fascination because he is polemical, witty, and wonderfully readable, as well as highly informative and always rational and clear. That gave me the taste for reading Marxist writers, much more, I am afraid, than reading Marx himself in bulk. I read Engels, who of course is a much clearer, if shallower, writer than Marx. I still read Plekhanov with pleasure. He was the man who was, as you know, the true father of Russian Marxism, greatly influenced Lenin and then bitterly quarreled with him. I read these people and began to lecture on them. In this way I began to work on a subject that had virtually nothing to do with what I taught my students. Nobody in Oxford seemed to have the faintest interest in French eighteenth-century thought. But because I gave lectures on it people started to become interested.
I was a member of the wonderful London Library, a private collection, where I found a lot of Russian books which one of the old librarians who was a Slavic scholar had carefully collected. There I found a book by someone I had only vaguely heard of, Alexander Herzen. I read somewhere that he had known Turgenev and Bakunin. Herzen became my hero for the rest of my life. He is a wonderful writer and an acute and honest political thinker, and exceedingly original. His autobiography is perhaps the best I have ever read in my life, even better than Rousseau’s. It was Herzen who gave me a real taste for the history of social and political ideas. That is what truly started me off.
Jahanbegloo: What was your attitude toward the kind of philosophical activity engaged in at that time by your colleagues in the field of logical positivism?
Berlin: There were no strict logical positivists at Oxford apart from Freddie Ayer. He began it. He went to Vienna, attended lectures and seminars of the Vienna School, and in 1936 published his famous book Language, Truth and Logic, which is a kind of manifesto of this movement. It was written in beautiful English, clear, incisive, and highly readable even by those who were not professional philosophers. The dominant philosophy in Oxford before the war was a kind of philosophical realism, directed mainly against Hegel and Idealism—inspired by the British Empiricists, and, of course, G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell. Plato and Aristotle were of course studied by those who read Greek, but were, perhaps, rather less influential. The idea that the 1930s were dominated by logical positivism is not accurate—groups met in London and elsewhere: but the domination came later.
I think the main cause of this was Ayer’s book. Maybe my friend Ayer, who was my contemporary at Oxford, may have thought because he had himself been completely absorbed by it, and was certainly the first and most vigorous apostle of logical positivism in England, that it was more universally dominant among English philosophers than in fact it was. But the influence was very considerable. The source of logical positivism was Vienna. In Cambridge there were revisionist positivists because Wittgenstein was there, and Frank Ramsey, and Braithwaite, and their disciples. The influence of the earlier writings of both Russell and Moore cannot be ignored. In Oxford, even after the war, positivism had to struggle against something that was called “Oxford philosophy,” a kind of general undoctrinaire empiricism, united with an analysis of language. This movement was sometimes called radical empiricism or linguistic analysis. It is a part of an old English tradition, which ultimately derives from Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Mill, Moore, and Russell. Russell was not a logical positivist, though this movement certainly sprang in part from his pioneering work.
I thought that logical positivists were in important respects mistaken—some of them were exceedingly fanatical.
Jahanbegloo: Do you still think so?
Berlin: Yes. But you know, there are no true logical positivists left, as far as I know. They did, as I said, have a powerful effect. Schlick, Carnap, Waismann, had an influence on leading English philosophers like Ryle, Wisdom, and, at Harvard, Quine, and their pupils.
Jahanbegloo: During the Second World War you worked for the Foreign Office in Washington and Moscow. Was the change in surroundings from Oxford to the horrors of world war too difficult for you?
Berlin: There were no horrors in Washington—it was shamefully comfortable and most interesting. I was one of a great body of British officials, some of whom, like myself, felt genuinely ashamed of our security while terrible sufferings were being inflicted on our countrymen and others in Europe and elsewhere.
Jahanbegloo: How about in Moscow?
Berlin: Of course that was a sudden transition. I began working in New York in 1941 as a British information officer, then I was moved to the British Embassy in Washington as a reporter on American opinion. That was completely different from anything I had done before. The work was not very exacting: one week’s work in an embassy—that is my experience—is less of a strain than one day’s teaching at Oxford—less interesting, but immeasurably less exhausting. I preferred philosophy to diplomacy. From Washington I went to Moscow in 1945, after Potsdam. I arrived in mid-September and left in January 1946. I was told that I would not meet anybody of interest—only officials who would reveal nothing about anything; but in fact I met writers—especially Pasternak and Akhmatova, both poets of genius. I used to visit Pasternak once a week—it was a unique and wonderful experience. I met Akhmatova then only twice, but that was one of the most—perhaps the most—memorable experiences of my life. I have described it all, as best I could, in an essay published in Personal Impressions, so I won’t go on about this now.5 Some of the writers in Russia were heroic and morally deeply impressive people: living and working in intolerable conditions. No one who has not lived in Stalin’s Russia can imagine what it was like.
Jahanbegloo: There were no other problems with Stalin’s police?
Berlin: Of course there were. My visits did not do some of my acquaintances any good. I think the persecution of Akhmatova was not exactly alleviated by my visits. She told me that Stalin was personally infuriated by the fact that I had met her, and said, “I see that our nun [as he called her] now receives foreign spies.”6 All members of foreign embassies were, of course, considered spies by Stalin and his entourage. Akhmatova had literally not met any foreigner since 1917, save one Pole, which doesn’t quite count—nobody from the West, until I called upon her. Of course this moved her. She knew very little of the outside world—and I was able to tell her a good deal, and answer a very great many of her questions. She was not allowed to publish much during Stalin’s years. She is a great poet and a genius even as a human being. To know her was one of the greatest good fortunes and most moving experiences in my life.
Jahanbegloo: And how did you find the Soviet Union after so many years?
Berlin: I lived in a building that belonged to the British Embassy. In Moscow at that time foreign embassies were like a zoological gardens—the cages intercommunicated but you couldn’t go outside the fence. Perhaps it was different for representatives of Eastern European countries, at least some of them. But 1945 was a very fortunate year for me, because after Potsdam nobody quite knew who was friend, who was foe. Everything was somewhat confused. Russian intellectuals lived in a kind of false paradise, they met foreigners more easily in the autumn of 1945 than even after Stalin’s death. It is a paradox: by 1947–1948 all the doors were shut, but in 1945 there was a lot of excitement. Russians came back from Germany and brought stories about the West, and had met people there very unlike those whom they had known during previous decades. Russia was a prison—but there seemed new hope now. The last chapters of Doctor Zhivago give some indication of the false dawn in which people lived at the time.
Jahanbegloo: Do you consider Pasternak a great poet or a great novelist?
Berlin: He is of course a great poet. Let me tell you, there are two kinds of poets. There are poets who are poets when they write poetry and prose writers when they write prose, like Pushkin. And there are poets who when they write poetry write poetry, and when they write prose also write poetry. Pasternak belongs to the second category. His prose is always poetical prose, he is not by nature a prose writer in my opinion. He is a great poet, one of the last great Russian poets, and his novel is a great poetical work, one of the few that describe love, the love of the hero for the heroine, describe it genuinely, as few writers—despite the fact that it is the center of so much fiction—have succeeded in doing.
But it is his poetry that accounts for the almost universal admiration for which Russians and others who read Russian feel for him. Only Joseph Brodsky comes anywhere near; actually Akhmatova and Mandelstam mean far more to him. He is, in my opinion (and I am not alone in this), the best living Russian poet anywhere. But not every genius is like one’s image of a genius. Pasternak was such a one. He talked marvelously, he was a little unhinged at times, but at all times a man of pure genius. Nobody could have had a more fascinating experience than to listen to him talk—in my experience only Virginia Woolf talked somewhat like that. She, too, of course, was a trifle crazy.
Jahanbegloo: In what way?
Berlin: Images, similes, descriptions, wonderful creative, unforgettable language of unbelievable vitality—in the case both of Pasternak and of Mrs. Woolf, it made one’s thoughts race in one’s head. Akhmatova’s magic was of a different, but no less powerful, kind.
Jahanbegloo: In your essay “Meeting with Russian Writers” you said that Akhmatova disliked Tolstoy and she worshiped Dostoevsky.
Berlin: That is so. It’s quite difficult to talk about Akhmatova’s view of life in a few sentences. She had a tragic view of life rather like Unamuno in Spain…. Akhmatova said to me: “Tolstoy’s morality is wrong. He shouldn’t have condemned Anna Karenina. He knew better. That is the morality of his Muscovite aunts. Monstrous!” Akhmatova didn’t like Chekhov, because in him everything is low-toned, gray, the color of mud—“no swords flash.” The excellent critic D.S. Mirsky felt that too—so did others, but of course this is not a general view, and rightly so. Akhmatova believed in a life of passion, and profound religious and emotional tragic experience, which she did not find in Tolstoy. She found it in Dostoevsky and Kafka and Pushkin.
Jahanbegloo: Do you consider your work a philosophical investigation or a historical one?
Berlin: How can I distinguish? Let me explain: take, for example, the history of philosophy. Some histories of philosophy throw little light on philosophy because, unless the writer is or has been a student of philosophy himself, unless he has thought about philosophical problems as such, he cannot have any idea of what it is that made someone else think these thoughts or be tormented by these problems. He cannot truly grasp what questions philosophers have attempted to answer or analyze or discuss. He will simply transcribe—he will write that Descartes said this, Spinoza said that, but that Hume did not think that either was right. That is all quite dead. Unless you have yourself spent sleepless nights thinking about philosophical problems, you cannot possibly tell that there exists such a subject.
What philosophy is, is itself a philosophical question, to which ordinary people do not have clear answers. To write a good illuminating history of philosophy you must try to see these problems from the “inside,” so far as you can. You must try and enter imaginatively into the mental world of the philosophers you are discussing. You must try to enter into what the ideas meant to those who entertained them, what were the kinds of things that were central to them. Without that there can be no true history of ideas. My interest was not centered on mainly philosophical ideas, but also on social, political, and artistic ideas. Again, unless you are yourself involved in such topics and are puzzled by such problems, you cannot write a significant history of the similar preoccupations of others. The history of ideological positions cannot be written properly except by those who are themselves liable to think in ideological terms, and are aware that they are doing so.
Jahanbegloo: What do you mean by ideology in this sense?
Berlin: In the sense that these ideas must make a difference to you. An intellectual is a person who wants ideas to be as interesting as possible. Unless you think the ideas you are discussing are interesting, whatever you may believe yourself, the history of ideas will remain a mechanical catalog of unexamined doctrines, terribly boring and unreal. I am interested in certain ideas. If you are interested in ideas and they matter to you, you cannot but be interested in the history of these ideas, because ideas are not monads, they are not born in the void, they relate to other ideas, beliefs, forms of life, outlooks—outlooks, Weltanschauungen, flow out of one another and are part of what is called “the intellectual climate,” and form people and their actions and their feelings as much as material factors and historical change.
Jahanbegloo: I asked this question because I remembered that in your article “Nationalism” you consider yourself neither a historian nor a political scientist. Therefore I thought maybe you think of yourself as a philosopher.
Berlin: My view of philosophy is colored by my fascination with the genesis and development of general ideas. Let me explain what I mean. There are certain subjects which advance by accumulation: that is progress. If you are a chemist you don’t need to study Lavoisier unless you are interested in the history of chemistry. If you are a chemist today you have to know what chemists are thinking today. And this is true for all subjects which progress, inasmuch as we can affirm that we know more today than we knew yesterday. Philosophy is not like that. It does not advance in that sense. You do not say, “Plato said this, Aristotle said that, but we have gone far beyond them, so there is no need to read them—they are as obsolete as Archimedes or Roger Bacon—or if not obsolete at any rate totally superseded.” The questions Plato asked can still be, and indeed are, asked today. The questions which Herder and Vico asked are still debated. Aristotle is a direct influence on present-day philosophers, not only on Thomas Aquinas. Philosophy is not a cumulative discipline. The major ideas, outlooks, theories, insights, have remained the central ideas of philosophy. They have a certain life of their own which is trans-historical.
Some people disagree. They say you can only understand questions and ideas in terms of the historical environment in which they occur. How can you understand Machiavelli without accurate knowledge of events in Florence, life in Italy, in the fifteenth century? How can you understand Spinoza if you know nothing about Holland or France in the seventeenth? There is some truth in that, but only some. Historians who have never been philosophers say that people who take an interest in Machiavelli must absorb themselves in the Renaissance. No doubt this helps. If you understand the circumstances of the questions he was asking, and why they occupied his thoughts, you will certainly understand him better. I don’t mean that the mentalités discussed in Annales are not important. They are. But let me ask you: How much do we know about Athens—the mentalité, or the ways of life, in the days of Socrates or Plato or Xenophon? We scarcely know what Athens looked like—did it look like Beirut or like a Zulu kraal? The Parthenon, the other temples—yes, of course; and there are remains of dwellings. But we do not know what the streets really looked like, what kind of food the Athenians liked best, what their speech sounded like, what they looked like—despite the vase paintings and the statues. We don’t know the details of family life, of the relations of free men to slaves, of the rich to the poor; we try to construct ideas about these things, but in comparison with what we know about more recent centuries, we are certainly ignorant.
And yet Plato’s ideas mean something, indeed, a great deal to us today, even without the environmental knowledge that ideally is needed to understand what Greek words mean. Central ideas, the great ideas which have occupied minds in the Western world, have a certain life of their own—we may not understand precisely what they meant to Athenians, we may not know how exactly Greek or Latin were pronounced, we may not understand inflections, nuances, references, allusions—but major ideas survive in some sense, despite the ignorance of the material aspects or historical details of the world in which they were born and exercised influence. But of course there are a good many ideas, political, social, moral, which perish with the societies in which they lived—which can only be studied historically with an imperfect understanding of how they came to be so powerful and so influential.
Jahanbegloo: But do you believe that philosophy is an eternal question?
Berlin: Certainly. Philosophy comes from the collision of ideas which create problems. The ideas come from life. Life changes, so do the ideas, so do the collisions. The collisions breed puzzles, but when life changes these puzzles are not so much answered as die away. Ideas perish from inanition far more frequently than as a result of being refuted by argument. Because of this, because of the social changes that breed new problems, the very idea that you can even in principle find solutions to all questions is absurd. You cannot, because philosophy is not like inorganic chemistry, where perhaps you really can answer all the questions—but I suspect even there you cannot. Philosophy has to do with puzzles which arise from some kind of conflict of words or ideas or ways of speech in which they are expressed. Problems arise because an attempted solution to a problem is not compatible with methods of solving another kind of problem.
Philosophical questions are not like empirical problems, which can be answered by observation or experiment or entailments from them. Nor are they like mathematical problems which can be settled by deductive methods, like problems in chess or any other rule-governed game or procedure. But questions about the ends of life, about good and evil, about freedom and necessity, about objectivity and relativity, cannot be decided by looking into even the most sophisticated dictionary or the use of empirical or mathematical reasoning. Not to know where to look for the answer is the surest symptom of a philosophical problem. Fermat’s Theorem has not been solved, but the methods of treating it are not in doubt: one knows what a proof—if it is found—would look like. Not so with philosophy.
The history of ideas is a very different matter. There we really do try to trace the development of ideas. The history of ideas is the history of what we believe that people thought and felt, and these people were real people, not just statues or collections of attributes. Some effort to enter imaginatively into the minds and outlooks of the thinkers of the thoughts is indispensable, an effort at Einfühlung is unavoidable, however precarious and difficult and uncertain. When I was working on Marx, I tried to understand what it was like to be Karl Marx in Berlin, in Paris, in Brussels, in London, and to think in terms of his concepts, categories, his German words. It was the same thing with Vico and Herder, Herzen, Tolstoy, Sorel, whoever. How were their ideas born? In what particular time, place, society? Their ideas may be interesting as such, but they are their ideas, and you must ask yourself what bothered them, what made them torment themselves over these issues. How did their theories or writings mature in their heads? One cannot talk about ideas in complete abstraction, unhistorically; but neither can one talk solely in terms of concrete historical milieux, as if ideas made no sense outside their frameworks. As you can see, this is a complex, imprecise, psychologically demanding, imagination-requiring field of inquiry, in which nothing like certainty can ever be obtained, only, at the most, a high degree of plausibility and coherence and evidence of intellectual power and originality and effectiveness.
Jahanbegloo: Do you think philosophy can survive without philosophers?
Berlin: It depends what you call philosophers. Ordinary men with sufficient curiosity and capacity for understanding general ideas can, of course, philosophize. Herzen, for example, was not a professional philosopher, nor were Marx or Dostoevsky or Nietzsche, yet their ideas still have considerable philosophical importance. It depends on what you mean. Bodin was a lawyer. So was Bacon. They were not professors. Nor were Leibniz or Spinoza or Descartes or Hume. Berkeley was a Bishop. Before Christian Wolff I know of no professional professor of philosophy—perhaps Thomasius was one—Vico certainly was not, he taught rhetoric and law.
Jahanbegloo: So you think philosophy can exist outside professional philosophy?
Berlin: Of course. I think that professional philosophers are needed because if they are any good they do clarify ideas; they analyze words and concepts and the ordinary terms in which you and I think, and this makes a great deal of difference to the progress of thought. Perhaps freedom from thought would make us happier, but it is not attainable. Still, it is the basic difference between human beings and animals. Let me tell you a story which is merely an anecdote. The late Harold Macmillan told me that when he was a student at Oxford, before the First World War, he went to the lectures of a philosopher called J. A. Smith, a Hegelian metaphysician. In his first lecture to his audience of students, this professor spoke as follows: “All of you, gentlemen, will have different careers—some of you will be lawyers, some of you will be soldiers, some will be doctors or engineers, some will be government servants, or enter the Church, some will be landowners or politicians. Let me tell you at once that nothing I say during these lectures will be of the slightest use to you in any of the fields in which you will attempt to exercise your skills. But one thing I can promise you: if you continue with this course of lectures to the end, you will always be able to know when men are talking rot.” There is some validity in that remark. One of the effects of philosophy, if it is properly taught, is ability to see through political rhetoric, bad arguments, deceptions, fumisme, verbal fog, emotional blackmail, and every kind of chicanery and disguise. It can sharpen the critical faculty a very great deal.
Jahanbegloo: So you don’t agree with the Hegelian project of philosophy as a science?
Berlin: No. Philosophy consists of trying to move toward resolving problems where prima facie there appears to exist no obvious technique for finding the answers. I think Kant is a great philosopher in part because he understood the nature of philosophy in this sense. Moreover, I think that self-understanding is one of the main purposes of philosophy. One of the aims of philosophy is to understand the relationships of people, things, and words to one another.
Jahanbegloo: So you feel closer to a philosopher like Schopenhauer than to Hegel?
Berlin: Yes. I do not find all-embracing systems, vast metaphysical edifices congenial. One can ignore Schopenhauer’s system, yet derive great profit from his many sharp and sometimes profound insights. The Hegelian system seems to me a dark, deep cave of Polyphemus, from which few return—all the footsteps point one way, as the Latin poet pointed out.
Jahanbegloo: What do you think about Leo Strauss and his political philosophy?
Berlin: I knew Leo Strauss personally and liked him. He was a very learned man, a genuine classical and Talmudic scholar, who thought that political philosophy went gravely wrong with Machiavelli—“the teacher of evil”—and has never recovered since. For him, no political thinker since the Middle Ages had found the true path. Burke came nearest to it, but Hobbes and his followers had gone badly wrong and gravely misled others. Utilitarianism, empiricism, relativism, subjectivism—these were the profound fallacies which had deeply perverted modern thought and had done grave damage to individuals and societies. Objective Good and Evil, Right and Wrong, have been dethroned.
Strauss was a careful, honest, and deeply concerned thinker, who seemed to have taught his pupils to read between the lines of the classical philosophers—he had a theory that these thinkers had secret doctrines beneath the overt one—which could only be discovered by hints, allusions, and other symptoms, sometimes because such thinkers thought in this fashion, sometimes for fear of censorship, oppressive regimes, and the like. This has been a great stimulus to ingenuity and all kinds of fanciful subtleties, but seems to me to be wrong-headed. Strauss’s rejection of the post-Renaissance world as hopelessly corrupted by positivism and empiricism seems to me to border on the absurd.
Jahanbegloo: How about his critique of modernity?
Berlin: I have little sympathy with it. He did try to convert me in many conversations when I was a visitor in Chicago, but he could not get me to believe in eternal, immutable, absolute values, true for all men everywhere at all times, God-given Natural Law and the like. I gather that in one of his essays to be published soon—a posthumous work which has lain unread for some years—I am about to be severely attacked. So be it. I cannot answer him, for he is in his grave, and I have too little interest in his many disciples. He and they appear to me to believe in absolute good and evil, right and wrong, directly perceived by means of a kind of a priori vision, a metaphysical eye—by the use of a Platonic rational faculty which has not been granted to me. Plato, Aristotle, the Bible, the Talmud, Maimonides, perhaps Aquinas, and other Scholastics of the Middle Ages, knew what was the best life for men. So did he, and his disciples claim this today. I am not so privileged.
Jahanbegloo: So you consider yourself purely as a modern?
Berlin: I don’t know what that means. Empirically minded, yes. I cannot sum up all my beliefs in two words, but I think that all there is in the world is persons and things and ideas in people’s heads—goals, emotions, hopes, fears, choices, imaginative visions, and all other forms of human experience. That is all I am acquainted with. But I cannot claim omniscience. Perhaps there is a world of eternal truths, values, which the magic eye of the true thinker can perceive—surely this can only belong to an elite to which I fear I have never been admitted. Leo Strauss is right to think that I disagree with his doctrines in principle. I think his best book is that on Hobbes, which he wrote in England—he told me that he thought it was his least good; so there is an unbridgeable chasm between us.
Jahanbegloo: Among thinkers of modernity you pay particular attention to Vico and Herder. Is it correct to say that your considerations on history were influenced most by these two thinkers?
Berlin: What you say about Vico and Herder is true, but I do not own to many considerations of my own on history. I am not a philosopher of history in the proper sense. I believe in pluralism and do not believe in historical determinism. At crucial moments, at turning points, when factors appear more or less equally balanced, chance, individuals and their decisions and acts, themselves not necessarily predictable—indeed, seldom so—can determine the course of history. I do not believe in a libretto of history (that is a phrase used by Herzen, who did not think that history was a drama with acts—a play with a theme created by God or Nature, a carpet with a recognizable pattern). Marx and Hegel did believe that history was a drama, with successive acts where, in the end, after, it may be, great upheavals and, for Marx, terrible conflicts and tribulations and disasters, the gates of Paradise will open, there will be a final denouement: then history will stop—what Marx calls prehistory—and all things will be forever harmonious and men will act in rational cooperation. Vico and Herder said scarcely anything of that type. They believed in certain patterns, especially Vico, but not in a play with a denouement.
My view comes, I suppose, from reading Hegel, Marx, and their followers, and finding their arguments totally unconvincing. I feel the same about other pattern-discoverers—Spengler, Toynbee, and their predecessors from Plato and Polybius onward. Of course people will always seek for purpose and explanation of history of this type, but it seems to me that the facts do not bear this out, the laws are broken by too many obvious exceptions and counterexamples. I have read enough Braudel, E. H. Carr, and modern Marxists to know what their arguments are, what historical determinists believe in, and although of course there are great impersonal factors which determine the shapes of the lives of individuals and nations, I see no reason to see history as an autobahn from which major deviations cannot occur. I am interested in Vico’s and Herder’s beliefs in the plurality of cultures, each with its own center of gravity—in a variety of cultures with different, novel, unprecedented outlooks and conflicting attitudes. Vico seems to me to have understood, as no one before him, that cultures—the sense of what the world meant to societies, of men’s and women’s collective sense of themselves in relation to others and the environment, that which affects particular forms of thought, feeling, behavior, action—that cultures differ.
Vico discriminated this in terms of periods, Herder in terms of various contemporary national civilizations as well as those which arose at other times. This reinforced my idea that history is not a rigid, linear progression. Voltaire thought of history as a kind of continuous progress of reason and knowledge and the creation of works of art, broken by terrible interruptions—collapses into barbarism—e.g., the superstitious Christian Middle Ages. I see no incremental progression. Of course more knowledge, more happiness, more kindness, more freedom, more efficiency, represent advances. Of some of these developments one can say that there are more now than at some other period: of others, less. Can anybody in the twentieth century—certainly one of the worst centuries in human history—really believe in uninterrupted human progress? Or general progress as such? Without specifying progress in respect of what, can one speak of progress? One can speak of a system of values which most men in the West accept today and did not two thousand years ago; and this is progressive in terms of our values, in some respects, in others not. But a general movement—I do not perceive it.
Jahanbegloo: When you speak of the conflict of goals between individuals do you base this argument on Vico’s thought?
Berlin: Vico teaches us to understand alien cultures, in that sense he differs from the thinkers of the Middle Ages. Herder, even more than Vico, discriminated between Greece, Rome, Judea, India, the German Middle Ages, Scandinavia, the Holy Roman Empire, France. The fact that we are able to understand how people live in the way they do, even if they are different from us, even if they are hateful to us and sometimes condemned by us, means that we can communicate across time and space. When we claim to understand people who have a culture very different from our own, it implies the existence of some power of sympathetic understanding, insight, das Einfühlen—a word invented by Herder. Even if these cultures repel us, one can, by an effort of empathetic imagination, conceive how it can be possible that men—nos semblables—can think these thoughts, feel these feelings, pursue these goals, commit these acts.
Jahanbegloo: Don’t you think that there is a contrast between the principle of universality and cultural relativism?
Berlin: I don’t think so. The differences among peoples and societies can be exaggerated. No culture that we know lacks the notions of good and bad; true and false. Courage, for example, has so far as we can tell been admired in every society known to us. There are virtually universal values. This is an empirical fact about mankind, what Leibniz called vérites du fait, not vérites de la raison. There are values that a great many human beings in the vast majority of places and situations, at almost all times, have in fact held in common, whether consciously and explicitly or as expressed in their behavior, gestures, actions. On the other hand, there are great differences. If you succeed, or even think that you have succeeded, in understanding in what way individuals, groups, nations, entire civilizations, differ from one another and, by an effort of imagination, “enter” into their thoughts and feelings, imagine how you yourself, placed in their circumstances, could view the world, or view yourself in relation to others; then, even if you are repelled by what you find (tout comprendre is certainly not tout pardonner), this must diminish blind intolerance and fanaticism. Imagination can feed fanaticism, but imaginative insight into situations very different from yours must in the end weaken it.
Take the Nazis, a very extreme example: people said that they were mad, pathological cases. This seems to me too glib, too easy, too dismissive. The Nazis were led to believe by those who preached to them by word of mouth or printed words that there existed people, correctly described as subhuman, Untermenschen, and that these persons were poisonous creatures, who undermined true, i.e., Germanic or Nordic, culture. The proposition that there are Untermenschen is quite simply false, empirically false, demonstrable nonsense. But if you believe it, because someone has told you so, and you trust this persuader, then you arrive at a state of mind where, in a sense quite rationally, you believe it necessary to exterminate Jews. This does not spring from lunacy, nor is it mere irrational hatred or contempt or an aggressive tendency, though no doubt these help; these attributes are common enough as the cause of much conflict and violence throughout human history. No, these emotions are organized by means of belief in monstrous untruths, taught systematically by orators or writers; demonstrably false, but clearly stated, doctrines which issue in crimes which lead to dreadful cruelties and vast destructive catastrophes.
I think one must be careful in calling thinking people mad or pathological. Persecution need not be insane: only spring from a conviction of the truth of appallingly false beliefs, which can lead to the most unspeakable consequences. If one wishes to prevent the harm done by fanatics, one must try to understand the intellectual, not merely the psychological roots of their beliefs; one must try to demonstrate to them that they are wrong. If this fails, then one may have to go to war against them. But the attempt to persuade must always be made. Marxism goes to war too easily and quickly. So do some religious movements. They ignore what is common to men’s beliefs. Rational methods, roads to the truth, apart from their value in themselves are, as Socrates taught, of cardinal importance to the fate of individuals and societies: about that the central traditions of Western philosophy are right.
The poet Heine a long time ago said that one should not ignore the humble professor in his study; he has considerable power, which must not be underestimated; unlike his friend Karl Marx, he believed that Kant led to Robespierre. Understanding oneself and others, rational methods, verification, the basis of our knowledge and of all science, as well as the attempt to check intuitive certainties, are of cardinal importance. The idea of human rights rests on the true belief that there are certain goods—freedom, justice, pursuit of happiness, honesty, love—that are in the interest of all human beings, as such, not as members of this or that nationality, religion, profession, character; and that it is right to meet these claims and to protect people against those who ignore or deny them. There are certain things which human beings require as such, not because they are Frenchmen, Germans, or medieval scholars, but because they lead human lives as men and women.
Jahanbegloo: But don’t you think that these principles could be in contradiction to the spirit of nations?
Berlin: I do not. I think that every culture which has ever existed assumed that there exist such rights—or at least a minimum of them. There may be disagreement about how far to expand this minimum—to helots, slaves, Jews, atheists, enemies, members of neighboring tribes, barbarians, heretics—but that such rights exist and that they are an empirical pre-condition of the leading of full human lives, that has been recognized by every culture. Denial of humanity to certain classes of human beings sometimes occurs in practice, but less often in theory.
Jahanbegloo: So, do you think that we can found a political philosophy on the basis of human rights?
Berlin: No, that is not enough. But it is a sine qua non. You can’t do without it.
Jahanbegloo: What does one need to add?
Berlin: It depends. You have to add an analysis of important concepts. You must have a view of what justice is, what freedom is, what social bonds are; you have to distinguish types of liberty, authority, obligation and the like. Political theories often differ in the way they answer a central question—“Why should anyone obey anyone?”—not why do they obey, but why should they; and how far. Most political theories are answers to this kind of question.
Jahanbegloo: Speaking of liberty, can you explain your distinction between positive liberty and negative liberty?
Berlin: There are two separate questions. One is, “How many doors are open to me?”; the other is, “Who is in charge here? Who is in control?” These questions are interwoven, but they are not the same, and they require different answers. How many doors are open to me? The question about the extent of negative liberty is to do with what obstacles lie before me. What am I prevented from doing by other people—deliberately or indirectly, unintentionally or institutionally. The other question is, “Who governs me? Do others govern me or do I govern myself? If others, by what right, what authority? If I have a right to self-rule, autonomy, can I lose this right? Can I give it away? Waive it? Recover it? In what way? Who makes the laws? Or implements them? Am I consulted? Does the majority govern? Why? Does God? The priests? The Party? The pressure of public opinion? Of tradition? By what authority?” That is a separate question. Both questions, and their sub-questions, are central and legitimate. Both have to be answered. The only reason for which I have been suspected of defending negative liberty against positive and saying that it is more civilized is that I do think that the concept of positive liberty, which is of course essential to a decent existence, has been more often abused or perverted than that of negative liberty. Both are genuine questions; both are inescapable. And the answers to them determine the nature of a given society—whether it is liberal or authoritarian, democratic or despotic, secular or theocratic, individualistic or communitarian, and so on.
Both these concepts have been politically and morally twisted into their opposites. George Orwell is excellent on this. People say, “I express your real wishes. You may think that you know what you want, but I, the Führer, we, the Party Central Committee, know you better than you know yourself, and provide you with what you would ask for if you recognized your ‘real’ needs.” Negative liberty is twisted when I am told that liberty must be equal for the tigers and for the sheep, and that this cannot be avoided even if it enables the former to eat the latter, if coercion by the state is not to be used. Of course unlimited liberty for capitalists destroys the liberty of the workers, unlimited liberty for factory owners or parents will allow children to be employed in the coal mines. Certainly the weak must be protected against the strong, and liberty to that extent be curtailed. Negative liberty must be curtailed if positive liberty is to be sufficiently realized; there must be a balance between the two, about which no clear principles can be enunciated. Positive and negative liberty are both perfectly valid concepts, but it seems to me that historically more damage has been done by pseudo-positive than by pseudo-negative liberty in the modern world. That, of course, may be disputed. A thinker whom I greatly admire is Benjamin Constant—his discussion of the two kinds of liberty in his essay called “De la Liberté des Anciens comparée à celle des Modernes” is one of the best I know on this topic.
Jahanbegloo: Exactly—that was my question. Where do you place yourself in the debate between Constant and Rousseau on the contrast between ancient liberty and modern liberty?
Berlin: I am with Constant. Constant said that there are two kinds of liberty. He didn’t deny the value of liberty as conceived in ancient Athens. For the Athenians liberty meant that anybody could bring charges against anybody else before the Assembly; anybody could look through the window into anybody else’s room. No one had the right to prevent any citizen, however humble, from bringing a case against him or her in the law courts, from denouncing them in public, from observing, criticizing, talking freely, whatever the degree of discomfort this might cause. But the modern conception of liberty allows you a right to a certain measure of privacy. Privacy is not a concept frequent in ancient, or indeed medieval, thought. Pascal said that all the ills of the world come from the fact that men do not stay quietly in a room. Modern liberty confers this right.
Jahanbegloo: But this is private liberty, not public liberty?
Berlin: Yes. But uncontrolled exercise of either liberty destroys the other. The notion of privacy is indeed new, newer than one might think. New concepts do get born: new ideals arise. Take the notion of sincerity. Sincerity was not, so far as I can tell, considered a virtue in the ancient world or in the Middle Ages. Truth, of course, is a cardinal value; martyrdom is exalted, but only if it is bearing witness to the truth, not to a set of false beliefs, however sincerely held; no Jew or Christian thought that while what pagans believed was indeed false, one could not but admire the sincerity with which these dangerous fallacies were held. No Crusader ever said that what the Muslims believed was, of course, absurd, but that one was moved by the sincerity of such misplaced devotion. No Catholic ever said during the wars of religion that Protestants were dangerous teachers of evil who led souls to perdition, poisoners who must be resisted and if need be destroyed, yet the fact that they preached what they preached, not to get money, or power, not out of vanity, but simply because they truly believed it and were ready to die for their terrible heresies—that such sincerity was to be admired. Truth alone mattered.
I doubt if the idea of sincerity as a virtue is much earlier than the late seventeenth century. Sincerely held error was all the more dangerous and of no moral or spiritual value—at best, to be pitied. So, too, variety as a positive value is a new idea. The old idea is that truth is one, error is many. To any real question, only one true answer can in principle be given; the other answers are necessarily false. The idea that there can be two sides to a question, that there may be two or more incompatible answers, any one of which could be accepted by honest, rational men—that is a very recent notion. Some think that Pericles said something of this kind in his famous Funeral Speech. He comes close to it but does not reach it. If Athenian democracy is good then Sparta or Persia cannot be accepted. The merit of a free society is that it allows of a great variety of conflicting opinions without the need for suppression—that is surely comparatively new in the West.
Jahanbegloo: Do you think violence is inevitable?
Berlin: No. Moreover, I hate it deeply whatever its necessity. Well, I think I told you, ever since I saw a policeman being dragged to his death in the first Russian Revolution, I acquired an instinctive dislike of physical violence which has been with me all my life. But still, one has to fight wars. I was not against war with Hitler. The Italians were right to fight the Austrians.
Jahanbegloo: Now, the problem of violence brings us to Sorel. What place do you think Sorel holds as a thinker of violence in the history of ideas?
Berlin: I am not in favor of Sorel’s ideas. I am fascinated by him because he is an independent and original figure. That is all; I have no particular sympathy with him.
Jahanbegloo: But, why do you consider him as an unclassified thinker?
Berlin: Because he is at the same time on the right- and on the left-wing. He is pro-Lenin and pro-Mussolini. He was for the Church-Militant and against clericalism. He is for and against everything. He was an interesting, mixed-up, gifted man with certain insights and certain absurdities. I am not an admirer, but I am fascinated by him, because he is a remarkable, independent political thinker. That is why I wrote on him. Sorel is a unique figure in the history of French anarchosyndicalism. But the man I really admire during that period is Bernard Lazare. You know his history. Lazare was a Jew and an anarchist who wrote the famous book The History and the Causes of Anti-Semitism, an attack on the Jews. The French anti-Semites of the 1880s were delighted by it. At last, they said, there is an honest Jew who sees the defects of the Jews. People like Drumont and Déroulède, and later of course Maurras, praised him highly.
Lazare (whose real name was Lazare Bernard) was a philosophical anarchist who hated all government. Then came the Dreyfus case. He had nothing in particular to do with it. He didn’t know Dreyfus, or his family, but he asked himself: Why would Dreyfus have engaged in espionage? What motive could he have had? He was rich, conservative, pompous, conventional, ambitious, he wanted to have a successful career in the French army. What could conceivably cause such a man to act disloyally, to give secrets to the German Military Attaché? It was too unlikely, too unintelligible. So Lazare decided that Dreyfus could not have done it, that consequently the only reason for accusing him was that he was a Jew. So Jews were not Frenchmen, after all? Very well, he declared, so I am not after all a Frenchman as I had supposed. Some years before he had changed his name from Bernard to Bernard Lazare, evidently because it seemed more Jewish. He proceeded to publish a tremendous letter about Dreyfus attacking the French government and the generals and hoped to be arrested, but he was left alone because the authorities must have realized, I imagine, that they would not gain anything by arresting an eccentric anarchist. He duly became a Zionist, and went to the Second Zionist Congress. Lazare remained an individual figure. After the new French governments of Combes and Waldeck-Rousseau expelled the Roman Catholic teaching orders to prevent Catholic teaching, Lazare wrote passionate articles against them, maintaining that parents and the Roman Church had a right to teach according to their faith; to forbid this was a crime against religious freedom. He died in 1903. I admire him because there is something proudly independent and completely honest about him; he lived a brave and honorable life. I like his courage and his integrity. A very interesting English book on him was written not long ago by an excellent scholar at the University of Bristol—I did not know how admirable he was until I read it.
Jahanbegloo: Would you like to write an essay on him?
Berlin: No, because the biography of him by Dr. Nelly Wilson seems to have said all there is to say.
May 28, 1992
St. Petersburg, founded in 1703 by Peter the Great, renamed Petrograd in 1914 before becoming Leningrad in 1924; renamed St. Petersburg in 1991. ↩
The provisional government of Prince Lvov was short-lived (March 14 to July 25, 1917). Kerensky, who succeeded him, had already assumed all power on May 5. ↩
Latvia declared its independence in November 1918, and was recognized by the Soviet Union on August 11, 1920 (the Treaty of Riga). ↩
Georgii Plekhanov (1856–1918) in his youth belonged to the moderate wing of the Populists or Narodniki (from the Russian narod—”people”). His most notable works include An Essay on the Development of the Monist Conception of History, 1895, a Marxist examination of pre-Marxist materialism. In 1900 in Geneva he founded, with Lenin, the journal Iskra (The Spark). Returning to Russia after the Revolution of February 1917, he opposed the Bolshevik seizure of power. ↩
In the very beautiful “Poem without a Hero” by Akhmatova Isaiah Berlin appears as “the Guest of the Future.” ↩
“Half nun, half harlot,” as she was so grossly described by Zhdanov, the official party ideologue, in 1948. Akhmatova died in Moscow in 1966 at the age of seventy-seven. ↩