He was born in the twilight of imperial Russia and he was buried on a grey Friday morning at the end of the century in the Jewish section of Oxford’s Wolvercote cemetery. At the age of seven, he watched the banners of the Russian Revolution waving below the balcony of his parent’s apartment in Petrograd; he lived long enough to witness the collapse of Soviet tyranny. The Russian Revolution framed both his life and work: as an intellectual historian he uncovered its totalitarian impulses, and as a political theorist he defended the liberal civilization it sought to destroy.
He was the last representative of the passionate, comic, voluble, and morally serious intelligentsia of old Russia. When he and Anna Akhmatova talked through the night in her bare apartment in the Fontanny Dom in November 1945, sharing a dish of boiled potatoes, it was as if two Russian traditions—one exiled, the other persecuted—were meeting to pledge that they would endure and persevere. He lived long enough to see the pledge honored.
Exile in England never left him beset by nostalgia. In Englishness, he discovered a skeptical empiricism which became the central strand of his identity and which he combined with the Russian and Jewish elements of his character. All of these elements, the Russian, the Jewish, and the English, became relatives in his soul and they argued together and told jokes to each other throughout his life.
He had a Humian temperament—worldly, unsentimental, and serene—which managed to turn episodes of self-doubt into opportunities for self-transformation. Doubting that he could ever become a philosopher, historian, or political theorist of the first rank, he became by turns all three. The intellectual trajectory he followed was thus daringly original. No other major figure in twentieth-century Anglo-American letters made contributions across such a range of disciplines: in analytical philosophy, in the intellectual history of Marxism, the Enlightenment, and the Counter-Enlightenment, and in liberal political theory.
He seemed like the quintessential fox, but now that his journey is completed, it is possible to see that he was a hedgehog all along. The unity to his work grew from a sustained concentration on what he took to be the Enlightenment’s central flaw: its belief that the truth was one and that the goods which men valued could not ultimately conflict. From Vico and Herder and from the German Romantics he distilled the idea that some human ends were actually incommensurable and incompatible. Justice and mercy, for example, or liberty and equality were in contradiction, and there was no science of human affairs capable of resolving the conflict. Knowledge, he memorably said, does not set us free from the dilem-mas of human choice. “We are doomed to choose,” he wrote, and “every choice may entail an irreparable loss.” Utopia was not merely unrealizable, it was “conceptually incoherent,” and the attempt to build heaven on earth could only end in tyranny.
“Ends, moral principles, are many,” he once wrote. “But not infinitely many: they must be within the human horizon.” He kept his intellectual gaze firmly upon that horizon, trying to understand what human beings could genuinely comprehend about one another. His work was a passionate defense of human empathy. The precondition of a liberal society was not consensus or shared values, he insisted, but our capacity to understand moral worlds different from our own.
He believed the state should try to create conditions of equality for its citizens, but he thought it was self-deceiving to suppose that equality could always be reconciled with liberty. Bishop Butler’s remark—“Everything is what it is and not another thing”—was a talisman for him. The most astringent—and influential—sentence he ever wrote insisted that liberals must not fool themselves into believing that liberal society could be everything they wished: “Liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or culture, or human happiness or a quiet conscience.”
“The concrete situation is almost everything,” he wrote. “There is no escape: we must decide as we decide; moral risk cannot, at times, be avoided.” The particular quality he admired in great men and women was their “sense of reality.” His own was unfailingly acute and it was why his friends called him wise.
When I once asked him how he thought he would like to be remembered, he was characteristically brisk: “After I’m dead, I don’t mind what is said or thought about me. This is the truth.” It had always been a matter of wry amusement to him that his own reputation had been systematically overvalued in his lifetime. The possibility that he might be undervalued after his death was a matter of indifference. He wished he could live forever—wished there might be an afterlife—but saw no grounds to believe that such a place existed.
The wet earth falling on his plain casket in Wolvercote cemetery momentarily obliterates that other sound—the low, rapid rumble of his voice—which was music to those who loved him. It mingled Oxford, Petersburg, and Riga together in an intonation we will never hear again. But he left the moral quality of his voice behind him, in the long tumbling paragraphs and the clauses within clauses of his best essays, and it is to these that we can turn when we need to remind ourselves what intellectual life can be: joyful, free of illusion, and vitally alive.
By the superabundance of his curiosities and the range of his interests, Isaiah Berlin burst through all the usual restraints and cautions of academic thinking. He was in fact a peculiar kind of genius in academia. True scholarship has behind it a desire, even a compulsion, to dominate and to monopolize a field of study: a totalitarian wish to be first and everywhere in the field, in the spirit of A.E. Housman. Berlin never in his life thought of himself as a scholar and had no desire for mastery or monopoly. When in the summer of 1936 I traveled with him to Ireland on holiday, I remarked, censoriously, that he seemed to study texts only when conversation with his friends lapsed and he needed a substitute.
In one of my still-vivid pictures of him that summer he is standing in an Irish country bus, holding a copy of Bouvard et Pécuchet in a Russian translation, and exchanging banter with an Irish priest who thought he was a Communist. His ideal at that time, and again immediately after the war, was to live among a small group of friends who shared his passion for the history of thought in all its varieties—discussing, for example, Russian intellectuals before the Revolution, the French Enlightenment, the golden generation in Paris, Heine and Bellini, the errors of Russell and Carnap, Karl Marx and anti-Semitism.
He was the least academic of all the academics in the humanities that I have known. His love of the movement of ideas, and of their possible life in conversation, carried him over all dividing hedges and fences. This cross-country flying was precisely Virginia Woolf’s definition of highbrow, and a gentle, benign, amazingly effortless, and modest highbrow he was. At the same time he venerated the true scholarship of his friends Meyer Schapiro, Arnaldo Momigliano, Ernst Gombrich, and Ronald Syme, just as he admired the extravagant sympathies and occasional polemics of his friends Edmund Wilson and Joseph Alsop—high spirits in a classical form.
He had a capacious memory for the particularities of persons, living and dead, their origins, friends, families, and habits, and he had a gift like Aubrey’s for the odd anecdote, or the fragment of speech, that illuminates a person. He was notoriously profligate in giving his time to the great number of strangers, particularly foreign scholars, who consulted him. Both superficially and at a deep level, he understood and sympathized with the varieties of human mentalities and of styles of thought across the Continent. He turned aside to found Wolfson College and to preside over its innovations, and it remains a college that is delightfully unlike any other.
His essays show him as a master of praise and he had a talent for hero worship: among his characteristic heroes were David Hume, Diderot, Rossini, Verdi, Herder, Herzen, Chaim Weizmann, Turgenev (because he was so unheroic), Leonard Woolf.
One feature of his long life and of his personality now stands out in my mind before all others—his amazement in the face of the immense affection and admiration that he inspired in persons of very different kinds, both inside and outside universities. It is as if he had been for years talking in his usual helter-skelter manner among his ever-widening circle of friends—which included musicians, writers, artists, politicians, journalists, captains of industry, professors—and then he suddenly looked up and saw a great sea of faces, an audience that stretched away to Italy and to Poland and to countless people without public labels who responded to the spontaneity and heat of his speech.
He had never expected to be, or intended to be, an internationally famous leader of thought. He had never planned his publications. A meticulous editor, Henry Hardy, made marvelous books out of his scattered lectures and essays. He had simply gone forward, consumed with curiosity and with the intense pleasures of speculation, leaving much of his life to impulse and to chance. He was pleasure-loving, and he never thought particularly well of himself in any role. He was superbly unpretentious and unpretending.
No one ever wrote obituaries like Isaiah. Unlike some of those printed in British papers, they appraised mainly by praising. Isaiah knew a vast amount about an amazing number of people. Never full of himself, he was full of others. His curiosity was insatiable, his criticism playful rather than malicious. The first person to be critical about was himself. Always keen to take in new information, his memory seized on it, and retained it precisely. A lot of gossip was sifted through and put to higher use. I have never met anyone with a more remarkable memory. Isaiah could sum up books he had read a long time ago with exemplary clarity, and quote from them with astonishing accuracy. He could also hum musical themes, while tapping with the right hand on his knee, from the obscurest operas. To talk to people of all backgrounds, professions, and persuasions—or better, to communicate with them—was what he liked best.
Isaiah was convinced of the power of individuality and the force of genius. He had his heroes. In music, they were Verdi and Rossini, whom he also admired as human beings. He deemed both of them “naive” (in Schiller’s sense), yet the “sentimentalists” Beethoven and Schubert also found their way to his heart. The somewhat labored distinction between naiv and sentimentalisch seemed to become increasingly blurred to him, Schubert being an important later acquaintance while Beethoven moved up to be the favorite of his last years. In a radio program, he mentioned the andantino from Schubert’s late A major Sonata as the piece he wished to be played in his memory.
Stravinsky was a friend. One of the stories Isaiah delighted in telling was this: as Stravinsky stood weeping at Rimsky-Korsakov’s funeral, Rimsky’s widow admonished him by saying, “Pull yourself together, young man, we’ve still got Glazunov.” Among contemporary composers, Harrison Birtwistle and George Benjamin stirred his interest. Opera, Russian as well as Italian, was familiar ground: for many years Isaiah was on the board of London’s Covent Garden. But to please him, it needed opera producers who served the composer, not themselves. Among performers, Toscanini and Schnabel had been his guiding lights. To another performer, it was moving to see this dearest and most enlightened of friends looking for solace in music, a solace which helped him to face a century that, at its close, he deeply deplored.
Few teachers will ever be as much loved and mourned as Isaiah. As a graduate student at Wolfson College, Oxford, whose first president he became in the late 1960s, I was constantly made aware of my great luck: my choice of college within the University had brought me into the daily orbit of what we all sensed was the most fascinating, the most remarkable person we would ever encounter. Soon after I joined the College, he sent me a note asking me to come and discuss my research on the Russian intelligentsia. Out of nervousness I delayed replying until one day he descended on me at lunch, commanding me to come back with him to his office. Iemerged nearly three hours later after a dazzling tour of the landscape of Russian thought combined with a passionate vindication of the subject of my research, which others had frequently urged me to change. In the Sixties Western liberal academics tended to regard the Russian intelligentsia mainly as fanatical precursors of communism. With a warmth that recreated them as persons, Isaiah defended them as worthy of admiration for their moral commitment to dispelling illusions about the world and our place in it.
Much of that afternoon we spent discussing Alexander Herzen, whom Isaiah described as his hero. Later that day I sought out his essays on Herzen and came upon a precise description of my own recent impressions:
I was puzzled and overwhelmed, when Ifirst came to know [him]—by this extraordinary mind which darted from one topic to another with unbelievable swiftness, with inexhaustible wit and brilliance; which could see in the turn of somebody’s talk, in some simple incident, in some abstract idea, that vivid feature which gives expression and life. He had…a kind of prodigal opulence of intellect which astonished his audience…. [His talk] demanded of those who were with him not only intense concentration, but also perpetual alertness, because you had always to be prepared to respond instantly. On the other hand, nothing cheap or tawdry could stand even half an hour of contact with him. All pretentiousness, all pompousness, all pedantic self-importance, simply fled from him or melted like wax before a fire.
Isaiah was citing a contemporary’s portrait of Herzen. His own resemblance to that extraordinary figure was striking (many of us would echo, with regard to Isaiah, Tolstoy’s comment on Herzen—that he had never met anyone with “so rare a combination of scintillating brilliance and depth”), but his sense of affinity with Herzen was based above all on a shared moral outlook. They both combined a deep respect for honesty and purity of motivation with an unerring ability to detect artificiality and self-deception in intellectual endeavor and everyday behavior. Students sensed that with Isaiah they were not required to perform, amuse, or entertain, but simply to give their best, and this paradoxically put us at ease with him, the more so as we soon found out that straining to impress him was counterproductive. (Once, hoping to be congratulated on the originality of an essay I had given him for comment, Iwas chagrined to find that he had read the footnotes just as closely as the text and had unearthed some errors of fact which Ihad overlooked in my haste to impress.)
Isaiah’s personality and utterances were the subject of continual discussion by the students of his College. His Russian connections and his exotic past provided much food for inventive speculation: Had the unusual circular hole in his ancient felt hat been acquired during hostile action somewhere in the Baltic states? More than once he walked unexpectedly into a room where a passable imitation of his own unforgettable voice was in full flow.
I believe that his true voice can be found at its clearest in his essays on Herzen. More self-revealing than anything else he ever wrote, they shed light on the most enduring mystery about him: his combination of what many have seen as a tragic vision of the world with an inexhaustible curiosity and an irrepressible sense of fun.
Isaiah can be said to have rediscovered Herzen, who he believed had either been ignored or misrepresented for so long because he had revealed a truth too bleak for most people to bear: that faith in universally valid formulas and goals was an attempt to escape from the unpredictability of life into the false security of fantasy. His devotion to Herzen remained undiminished to the end of his life. Not long ago he wrote reproaching me for obscuring the uniqueness of Herzen’s contribution by drawing parallels between him and thinkers such as Mikhail Bakhtin who had considered similar problems: “I can think of none, but perhaps I am too fanatical an admirer.” He often cited Herzen’s phrase “history has no libretto”: all questions make sense and must be resolved not in terms of final goals but of the specific needs of actual persons at specific times and places. Herzen, he wrote, believed “that the day and the hour were ends in themselves, not a means to another day or another experience.”
Here we have the key to one of the central paradoxes of Isaiah. Although his diary was always full and he was scrupulous about keeping appointments, he never gave the impression of being in a hurry, of being distracted from a person or an issue by anticipation of the next person or problem in line. Young academics were often astonished (as I was in my first encounter with him) that so important and busy a man was prepared to give them so much of his time. An American Slavist whom I met recently at a conference recalled having sent him her first book, not expecting a reply. His warm and detailed response, she told me, had her walking on air for weeks. On the evening after his death I remembered him with a Russian colleague whom he had encouraged in the same way in Oxford many years ago. A “svetlaia lichnost” (luminous personality), she said.
But we would diminish him if we did not appreciate that the instinctive goodness we loved was coupled with a carefully thought-through moral vision of whose validity he earnestly sought to persuade us. One of its distinctive characteristics, which he saw embodied in Herzen, was the total absence of a utilitarian approach to people and events, an “unquenchable delight in the variety of life and the comedy of human character.” This was also one of Isaiah’s most entrancing qualities. I remember him as the only one of us to emerge unexasperated from an interminable and contentious College meeting, happily quoting Kant’s statement that “from the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing can ever be made.” He was convinced (again I quote him on Herzen) that there was value in the very irregularity of the structure of human beings, “which is violated by attempts to force it into patterns or straitjackets.”
Like Herzen (and Schiller) he believed profoundly in the seriousness of the play of life and human creativity, and was easily drawn into all kinds of frivolity. One night after dinner at Wolfson he joined a conversation in which a student was explaining the board game Diplomacy, where each player represented one of the Great Powers of pre-1914 Europe. He invited us to his house the following Sunday morning to initiate him into the game; he then gave an impressive performance as the Ottoman Empire. I have another memory of him sitting on a bale of hay in his three-piece suit, complete with watch chain and hat, holding forth to a group of fascinated students at a bonfire party held in a damp field on the bank of the Isis, where the building of the new College was to start the next day. It was late evening; a more typical college president, having put in the obligatory early appearance, would have been long gone.
All those who knew him well were asked over the years to persuade him to write more and not to squander his gifts in conversation. Yet his profligacy has not prevented him from being recognized as one of the major liberal thinkers of the twentieth century, and he belongs to an even more select group who achieved harmony between their moral vision and their life. He showed us virtue in action, not as obedience to a set of rules but as a generous responsiveness to the creative possibilities of the present moment. One always came away from a few hours in his company with a sense of living more intensely, with all one’s perceptions heightened, although the topics of conversation were often far from exalted. He much enjoyed exchanging news about the latest academic scandals in Oxford and Cambridge, and expected the exchange to be on equal terms:his view of humanity required that Cambridge should be as fertile a source of stories about human frailty as Oxford, and he was never disappointed. We had an unfinished debate lasting several years over the precise difference between a cad and a bounder; he could always find fresh examples of each to offer from among our mutual acquaintances.
He loved to gossip about the concerns and quarrels of nineteenth-century Russian thinkers as though they were our common friends, but there was a serious side to this entertainment. He had the greatest respect for these thinkers’ commitment to acting out their beliefs in their daily lives, and fiercely championed them against what he perceived as misjudgments of their motives; our one painful difference was over the question of how Turgenev would have behaved under particular pressures.
Isaiah saw no contradiction between recognizing that moral ideals were not absolute and believing one’s own ideals binding on oneself. Again, his model was Herzen, who, he tells us, for all his skepticism, had an unshakable belief in the sanctity of personal liberty and the noble instincts of the human soul, as well as a hatred of “conformism, cowardice, submission to the tyranny of brute force or pressure of opinion, arbitrary violence, and anxious submissiveness…the worship of power, blind reverence for the past, for institutions, for mysteries or myths; the humiliation of the weak by the strong, sectarianism, philistinism, the resentment and envy of majorities, the brutal arrogance of minorities.” Here, albeit in the third person, is Isaiah’s profession of faith, in his own cadences.
He admired Herzen more than Turgenev because while neither had any illusions about the permanence of human existence and human values, Turgenev had achieved a cool detachment from the struggles and triumphs of contingent life, while Herzen “cared far too violently”; his realism was therefore the more courageous. In his last years Isaiah confronted the tragic side of his own philosophy with the same unflinching directness as his hero. On arriving for dinner in Cambridge sixteen months ago, he told me that something “very terrible” concerning him had just appeared in the press. He would say no more about it and I assumed it was some adverse review. The next day I found the interview, reprinted in the London Times, in which he reflects on his own death, declaring that, much though he would like it to be otherwise, the idea that there was some world in which there would be perfect truth, love, justice, and happiness made no sense in any conceptual scheme he knew. It was just a comforting idea for people who could not face the possibility of total extinction. But, he adds, “I wouldn’t mind living on and on…. I am filled with curiosity and long to know, what next?
December 18, 1997