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Vol 56 | No 9 | November 2009

Enlightening: Letters 1946-1960

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Enlightening: Letters 1946–1960 — Isaiah Berlin, edited by Henry Hardy & Jennifer Holmes — London, UK: Chatto & Windus, 2009; 880 pp; ISBN: 9-780-701178-8-95, hardcover £35.
An Enlightening Self-Portrait of Isaiah Berlin


University people have tried for centuries to explain to other people what they do. Until recently, one useful method was to write letters, sometimes to lay people — usually family members, sometimes to colleagues, or secular or religious rulers and leaders, or to great or wealthy people in need of “enlightenment.” This volume is a case in point.

In Isaiah Berlin’s selected correspondence, of which two of four projected volumes have appeared, we have the letters of a student (the opening section of Letters 1928–1946) and the correspondence of a lifelong academic, a man whose influential galaxy of friends and acquaintances spanned the world and the century. The editing is impeccable, the indexing and referencing almost faultless, and the production standards are high. We are left therefore to contemplate not the form (which is excellent), but rather the content of Berlin’s epistolary life.

Berlin’s student career coincided with the beginning of the Great Depression. From 1932, as an Oxford don and eventually a college head, he became known as a fluent speaker on the history of ideas, the conceptual limits of liberty, including his take on academic freedom, and a trusted public figure during and after the war. He had easy entry to the worlds of the Rothschilds, of the American Supreme Court, of the British diplomatic corps, and yet also of ordinary educated folk. All eagerly tuned in to his famous BBC lectures, or attended his public talks in various British and American cities, year after year.

Most letters in this second volume of letters were for family, for friends, and for acquaintances in society and in government, but a significant minority went to Oxford colleagues and dealt with university life and politics. They suggest a system of university governance that had not yet modernized. Oxford dons and their elected heads still ran the place. Professional managers and administrators had not yet taken a major role in the university as a whole, nor in the lives of its constituent colleges. All of this would begin to change in the 1960s, and it will be worth the wait to see Berlin’s letters from that period in forthcoming volumes.

When Ernest Macmillan announced in 1957 that Berlin would be offered a knighthood, the prime minister is said to have exclaimed that the honour was in recognition of Berlin as a … talker! This was by no means wide of the mark, for in Berlin’s many books — about Vico, Herder, Marx, Tolstoy, the general problem of liberality and moral obligation — the tone is noticeably conversational. Berlin seemed to think his interlocutors were alive and well, living down the street, still instantly recognizable at the local bar, and important in daily life. Berlin was no ordinary talker, mind you, as his sentences could go on for 400 words, uttered at speed that defied all but the tape recorder. (There’s a remarkable web site connected to the Isaiah Berlin Archives, and to this book, with texts and links to recordings of Berlin’s rapid-fire lectures and public talks:; there is also good material at YouTube.)

Here is Berlin in 1952 writing to Ursula Niebuhr (English-born theologian, wife of Reinhold) about the condition of philosophy at Oxford: “Philosophy at Oxford is in a wonderfully flourishing condition — I don’t know how long it will continue in that state, but the young men are very keen, new and important truths are discovered every hour, rigours of old-fashioned mechanistic positivism have been banished forever by the imaginative romanticism of the followers of Wittgenstein. Philosophy and literature appear to be drawing together again in mysterious ways, altogether a tiny renaissance …” (p. 326)

The present volume covers 1946–1960, and thus Berlin’s career as a university teacher at All Souls College in Oxford, with occasional — and happy — side-trips to Harvard, Princeton, Bryn Mawr, Chicago, New York — and a term, after 1966, as founding president of Wolfson College, Oxford. Berlin retired in 1975 but was by that time president of the British Academy, remaining in office until 1978.

The earlier volume of correspondence (2004) gave us the background: birth in a well-to-do Russian-Jewish family (1909), emigration to the United Kingdom with his parents (1920), school days at St. Paul’s in London, undergraduate studies at Oxford (1928–1932), university teaching, and war work. I mention the Russian-Jewish connection, because it helps to explain Berlin’s involvement in the life of the state of Israel. He was invited more than once to join Chaim Weizmann in some official capacity, but always refused, although he did finally accept membership of the board of governors of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

His refusal to help run the new Israeli state was typical of him. Berlin knew he did not have the thick skin required of high civil servants in a new and difficult political circumstance, and in any case, his notion of liberal policy-making, and his fondness for moderation and compromise, would have made life difficult for him as, say, under-secretary of foreign affairs for Israel in 1950.

The letters in both published volumes suggest a personality that combined a sort of timidity with sharp intelligence. There are three constant “personal” themes in the letters: first, that Berlin saw himself as a dilettante, a not-quite-historian and a not-quite-philosopher; second, that he had a tremendously hard time getting down to sustained work, and would rather read (and talk) endlessly, and that he considered this a weakness; and third, that his liberal and sometimes comic understanding of the human condition might not endear him to everybody. All these things begin to account for the hesitancy, the timidity, the wish to be loved.

It is hard to know how seriously we should take Berlin’s estimates of himself. After all, his life work as a historian of ideas (most of us will remember his historical-intellectual biography of Karl Marx, and his influential essays on The Hedgehog and the Fox of 1953), and his sustained work on theories of liberalism and pluralism, made him into a kind of icon among literary intellectuals in his own lifetime. Like many icons, his work energized people no matter where they fell on the political spectrum, and his books could be read in more ways than Berlin may have liked. But the importance of his work (in diplomacy, not just as a public intellectual or historian) wasn’t and isn’t in doubt.

To make the point about the sharpness of Berlin’s wit, but also his sensitivity, here he is describing the way he was introduced at the August Comte Memorial Lecture of 1953 at the London School of Economics. The chair was taken on this occasion by Michael Oakeshott. Berlin imagined, quite correctly, that Oakeshott was not a friend: “He introduced me in the most ironical, hostile manner imaginable. He said, ‘Here we have the Paganini of the lecture platform’ — that sort of thing; went on in this style … for something like twelve minutes … This rather rattled me: I was nervous anyway. I had forty pages, I couldn’t begin to get through them, and halfway I got myself into a total tizzy, I saw Popper, Robbins, all kinds of people, Hayak — all these persons sitting there, and began reading one sentence from each page, and the whole thing ended in total disaster.” (from an interview of Berlin with London-based journalist Michael Ignatieff before publication of Isaiah Berlin: A Life in 1998).

He was assailed, as most of us are at one time or other, by self-doubt (“I am little more than a dabbler”), by the sense that he produced too little (a ridiculous idea in Berlin’s case), and by the depressing possibility that his “energetic and exhausting teaching” of undergraduates may not have lead to their total transformation. And yet, as most of us do, he went ahead.

For university teachers and researchers — bedevilled by managers and bothered by administrators who care more about output than the best interests of the academy — and badgered by ill-informed governments — Berlin’s correspondence is a reminder that our problems are not new, and that the cares of the professoriate have not changed much in the past century.

In 1953, Berlin was still a fellow of All Souls College, a kind of Shangri-La for academics. A recurring problem in the life of the college was the choice of a head, decided by election by the current fellows of the college. John Sparrow became head during the period covered by this volume, and Berlin’s descriptions of his endless consultations with fellows and punctilious commitment to due process make for an informative read. This was, after all, an approach to university governance with no obvious parallels in the academic world. Its advantages were numerous, not least that the college could organize itself to resist the administrative encroachments of the larger university.

But in late 1953, Berlin was tempted by an offer to take the headship of another college, Nuffield (est. 1937, but still under construction). Nuffield was a graduate college specialized in the social sciences and much in need of cash. Berlin wrote to Harvard philosophy professor Morton White that, “In a way it still tempts me, but … it would take up too much of my time and leave me no room to write any books at all … the centre of the interests, which is after all, semi-practical applied politco-economic — is not only too distant from but too unsympathetic to me, and that to twist them out of their proper goal, set for them by their pious founder and the people who originally created them, although intrinsically desirable, and indeed rather wished for by them, required somebody much tougher, much more energetic and much more passionate about ruling and guiding a foundation than I am ever likely to be. I regard myself as somewhat thin-skinned …” (p. 417)

The thing is, even when he was plumping for or against Maurice Bowra or Hugh Trevor-Roper or various other worthies, all of whom wanted this or that academic preferment, Berlin never went to the dark side. Even as Bowra sought to be principal of Wadham College and Trevor-Roper tried endlessly to keep his hands on the levers of power, Berlin never — so far as we can tell from these letters — chose a course of action that would destroy a person or a reputation. Partly it was because of his belief that he might very well be destroyed in turn were he to engage in really vicious academic politics.

Berlin had a well-defined idea of what the professional “interest” was and should be. More than two-thirds of the almost 900 pages of this volume are about life as a professor, matters of workload, curriculum, the teaching-research balance, and the role of administrators in a university. The general position is that the professoriate can and should be trusted to guide the university, always provided they do so in the open, subject to the vigorous criticism — academic and public — that university teachers should expect and even enjoy.

In the next volume, Berlin will (1966) become the founding president of Wolfson College. The general tendency of Enlightening makes it all the more surprising that he would take on that task.

William Bruneau is professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia.