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…

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