In Search of Isaiah Berlin, A Literary Adventure review
Virtues of political events charted in life that spanned Russian Revolution to Cold War
Latvian-born British philosopher, historian of ideas and Fellow of New College, Oxford, Isaiah Berlin, 1909 - 1997 Photograph: John Chillingworth/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty
In Search of Isaiah Berlin, A Literary Adventure
That clashes between values represents the essence of freedom, not the loss of it, is anathema to the current tone of debate in many democracies. Absolutes appear to be colliding, moderation appears in retreat.
Similarly, the belief that trade-offs and compromise are the essence of political choices, not their failure, would find little support in bitter debates that apparently only allow binary choices.
These precepts were advocated by Isaiah Berlin in letters, lectures and essays in a life that spanned the Russian Revolution, the Cold War and academic life at Oxford University. His literary output was vast.
The selected writings of Berlin stretched to four volumes and his letters a further four.
A crucial theme was to warn against the dangers of simple claims based on the promise of a perfect future. Uncertainty, diversity and competing views were recognized as the hallmarks of political existence.
Criticism that this book is too intricate to act as an introduction would be to judge it against a role that it never claims to fill
The appropriate tone for responding to these features is humility. The most effective response to often incompatible claims is an appreciation of freedom and political agency, and a stoic acceptance of the inevitable frustrations.
These claims were not easily distilled from his writing. Essays and lectures were his literary medium with a style frequently excessively florid.
But while he never wrote a single book, his committed editor has now done so with In search of Isaiah Berlin, A Literary Adventure.
Henry Hardy makes high claims for his author, that he was a genius. The author points to Berlin’s ‘incisive intelligence’ and ‘intense engagement with the topic at hand’ as evidence of this claim.
These, and other traits, evidence an extraordinary intellect. That they were evidence of genius is a tougher claim to sustain.
Berlin accepts the need for editorial support, acknowledging that ‘in the vast chaos of my scattered papers there must be items which cannot be understood without some knowledge of what and whence and why’.
Accepting this challenge the author writes that he ‘opened the door . . . to a country full of undreamt-of riches’.
Hardy attempts to open the door to the reader through two narrative strands. The first is the story of his work as an editor. The second is an analysis of his subject’s philosophy of pluralism and religious belief.
freedom of will and the role of human agency is central to making choices between competing ends and values
Either will only be of interest to a reader already familiar with the philosophy of Berlin. A curious reader should start elsewhere, with his essays on liberty or political leaders such as Churchill and Roosevelt.
Those seeking an introduction of his life should look to the biography by Michael Ignatieff.
But criticism that this book is too intricate to act as an introduction would be to judge it against a role that it never claims to fill. The intellectual thrill of the accuracy of a footnote is the stuff of this work.
Hardy writes that his author ‘had always needed intellectual impresarios to help him realise his full authorial potential, and he needed one now above all’.
Scaffolding of scholarship
This impresario role is explained by reference to key publications. Distilling a vast amount of material was a demanding and exhilarating intellectual experience. Hardy writes of the thrill of examining new texts in a ‘breathless, trembling, cursory fashion’.
He admits to both loving and fearing his author. Both are easy to understand. The ebullience and charm of Berlin is evident in his correspondence.
Hardy is candid about the fear, it ‘stemmed from his power over me’. Personal difficulties are hinted at that cannot have made this easy to manage.
The last paragraph of the book concludes with reference to debilitating depression. The break up of his marriage receives glancing reference.
The challenges of summary or certainty are hinted at in the title of this work. For the author to still be in search of Berlin hints at inconclusively, at an intellectual quest yet to be completed.
This is acknowledged by Hardy, when in referring to correspondence with his author he writes that ‘I hope that our exchanges will enable readers to understand his view better than I have so far managed to do’.
The admission is honest, but the sense that the author is still seeking to understand lingers through this text, at the eventual cost to the reader who seeks clarity.
A central theme of the philosophy of Berlin is acknowledged, that freedom of will and the role of human agency is central to making choices between competing ends and values.
But, this is at the expense of fully exploring other concepts that Berlin vividly interrogated, such as the nature of freedom and the risks of totalitarianism. These are significant omissions.
The scaffolding of scholarship is the well referenced claim and the definitive footnote. This book is a testament to the unsung effort behind their creation.
Paschal Donohoe is the Minister for Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform