Isaiah Berlin, Oxford philosopher, dies at 88

 

Sir Isaiah Berlin, who died yesterday, aged 88, rose to be one of Oxford's most celebrated philosophers, intellectuals and historians. Early in a distinguished career which took him to the top of the British Academy, he established a reputation as a brilliant scholar, orator, raconteur and conversationalist - legendary for his ability to talk very quickly.

What astonished audiences most was that despite the speed with which he spoke - timed once at nearly 400 words a minute - he had the gift of translating theories and ideas into erudite, lucid imagery that made sense to academics, lay audiences and radio listeners.

Acclaim, honours, and accolades followed. So did the Royal Academy presidency and Fellowship of All Souls.

His specialist subject was the history of political ideas and concepts of liberty.He was fascinated by human behaviour. A man without political affiliations, he was an authority on Russian literature, American affairs, music and ballet.

Isaiah Berlin was born in Riga, Latvia, on June 6th, 1909, the only child of a Jewish timber merchant. His family fled the Russian revolution in 1919 when he was 10 and went to England.

As an adult, he conversed in fluent Russian with Nikita Khrushchev, but English was spoken at the family home in Kensington.

At 12, he read through his father's library of Russian classics, moving on to Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Huxley and the literary magazine, Transition.

Educated at St Paul's in London, he won a scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

Some 40 years later and a prominent member of the British Jewish community, he resigned from the school's old boys' society when he became aware of its rigid quota governing the admittance of Jewish boys.

He became editor of Oxford Outlook, got a double first and was elected to All Souls in 1932, the same year he began lecturing in philosophy at New College.

During the second World War, he became an envoy, first in New York and then at the British embassy in Washington. His weekly summaries from Washington to Winston Churchill were said to have been the prime minister's favourite reading.

The reports were signed I. Berlin, prompting the fabled story of Churchill inviting the songwriter, Irving Berlin, who was on a trip to England, to lunch at Downing Street in the mistaken belief he was the First Secretary.

The startled American composer went home with the anecdote that the British leader had asked his opinion on when the war would end.

At the end of the war Isaiah Berlin was seconded to the British embassy in Moscow.

In 1946 he was made a CBE and a year later, at age 46, he married Aline Halban, the 1934 French women's golf champion and the elegant French-born daughter of a Russian Jewish banker. The marriage brought him three stepchildren.