FEBRUARY 19, 2019
AT THE TIME of his death, Isaiah Berlin (1909–1997) was one of the most famous 20th-century political theorists. Elected a fellow of All Souls College in Oxford in 1932, he was knighted in 1957, the same year when he was appointed to the prestigious Chichele Professorship of Social and Political Theory, which he held until 1967. He served as the first president of Wolfson College (1966–1975) and as president of the British Academy (1974–1978).
When Berlin was appointed to the Order of Merit in 1971, his Oxford colleague Maurice Bowra quipped: “Though like Our Lord and Socrates he does not publish much, he thinks and says a great deal and has had an enormous influence on our times.” Bowra’s view was shared by many until Henry Hardy came and challenged the way we see Berlin’s productivity. In Search of Isaiah Berlin tells the story of Hardy’s extraordinary encounter with Berlin. Written with passion, wit, and verve, the book is divided into two parts: the first gives an account of editing Berlin’s works, the second is an engagement with Berlin’s key concepts.
If Berlin had genius, Hardy claims, “it was a genius for being human,” one marked by incisive intelligence, a wide breadth of knowledge, and an unusual capacity for grasping quickly the key points made by others. Suspicious of dry metaphysical constructions, Berlin had little patience for the academic jargon, and was easily annoyed by others’ pretentious language and “specious lucubrations.” He was bored by reading and talking only to people who shared his own views. He liked to swim against the current, and felt attracted to marginal or underappreciated authors, such as Alexander Herzen, J. G. Herder, and Giambattista Vico.
Berlin had a taste for gossip and could be pedantic, even snobbish. He lacked self-confidence, being prone to excessive self-doubt. “I remain unshakably convinced that I have all my life been overestimated,” he once confessed. He also seemed overly cautious and anxious to please; he disliked adverse publicity and was fearfully sensitive about certain topics. Some of Berlin’s critics claimed that courage was not among his virtues. Roger Scruton wrote a caustic profile in 1989 titled “Freedom’s Cautious Defender,” while some of Berlin’s Jewish friends were disappointed that he never emigrated to Israel. Moreover, Berlin was a slow worker, and prone to starting far too many things at once. “All I write,” he confessed, “is by nature dishevelled […] well-combed and neatly fitting wigs […] are not for me.” Berlin saw himself as “wildly unscholarly” in the strict sense of the term; he once jokingly described himself as an “intellectual taxi,” ready to drive in almost any direction.
If for Machiavelli Fortuna was a woman, for Berlin the goddess of luck was a … man — Henry Hardy — who worked, tirelessly and skillfully, to bring to light much of Berlin’s writings. Hardy first met Berlin in 1972, when he was 23, during an interview for admission to graduate study at Wolfson College. In reading Berlin’s Four Essays on Liberty, Hardy recounts, he had the uplifting sensation of “suddenly sailing in first-class waters,” which never left him after that. “Talking to Berlin,” Hardy writes, “made one’s thoughts race.” Berlin managed to “set everything on fire,” enlarging the imagination of the interlocutor. He spoke swiftly and passionately, and his words sometimes appeared as “inextinguishable fireworks.” Berlin wrote as he spoke, in complex and long sentences, with a typically 19th-century command of language.
Berlin would have never succeeded in bringing all his essays into print on his own. He badly needed an editor, but did not know how to look for a competent one. Not surprisingly, his first attempt to find someone ended in failure. When Hardy was hired in the mid-1970s, his first challenge was to identify and discover what exactly Berlin had worked on. He had written a great deal, and on many subjects, in the 1950s and 1960s, but lost track of many of his writings over time. Of some Berlin kept no record, others were meant only as lectures, ex cathedra or on the radio. Because Berlin was “pathologically indecisive” and systematically underestimated his writings, Hardy had to work hard to convince him that his essays were worth being collected. In this book, he reproduces significant selections from their correspondence. They show a hesitant Berlin, surprised by the interest in his works, and unduly pessimistic about their worth; in several instances, when a volume was ready to go to press, he asked for a last-moment delay, or even withdrew his consent.
Overcoming Berlin’s shyness and propensity to procrastination was only a first obstacle for his editor. Hardy describes his role as that of an intellectual impresario and views his task as a midwifery of sorts, fraught with literary, editorial, and personal complications. Yet what he achieved in four decades is nothing short of miraculous. By the time his main editorial task was completed in 2015, Hardy had published 18 volumes of Berlin’s writings and four volumes of his selected letters. He has also curated the Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library, which now has a new partner, Mark Pottle’s Isaiah Berlin Online.
Hardy’s collaboration with Berlin started with a detailed plan to produce a four-volume edition of his writings. In the early chapters of the book, Hardy recounts the complex planning of these volumes: Russian Thinkers came out in 1978, followed by Concepts and Categories (1978), Against the Current (1979), and Personal Impressions (1980). Implementing the plan was not as smooth as one might think. “Editing your work,” Hardy wrote to Berlin, “has (forgive me) certain special problems attached to it — not least overcoming your self-critical attitude.” Berlin was often unwilling to compromise on seemingly minor issues, and this made the editor’s task harder.
The publication of Berlin’s writings slowed down after the appearance of Personal Impressions in 1980. It was only toward the end of the decade that Hardy came up with the idea of collecting more essays in a volume that appeared later as The Crooked Timber of Humanity (1990). A key moment occurred when the editor was invited to visit the cellar of Berlin’s house in Oxford, which Hardy memorably describes as his “Tutankhamun’s tomb” moment. There he discovered a rich treasure consisting of miscellaneous papers, placed in various boxes, suitcases, and trunks. “The quantity of material was overwhelming, terrifying, and exhilarating,” Hardy notes. In total, here and elsewhere in the house, he found around 180,000 leaves, which ended up filling more than 800 boxes in the Bodleian Library. They included many texts that Berlin had put aside decades earlier, some of which had disappeared even from his own memory.
Hardy subsequently left his employer, Oxford University Press, and began working full-time on Berlin’s archive. He brought to light Berlin’s book on J. G. Hamann, which he transcribed miraculously from Dictabelts (old recording devices from the 1960s, no longer in use today). He also published Berlin’s essays on romanticism and “the sense of reality.” The task of publishing Berlin’s writings continued after his death. Seven volumes were posthumously published (between 1999 and 2006), in addition to Berlin’s selected correspondence. The rescue of the Hamann book was, in Hardy’s opinion, his finest hour, because Berlin himself had entirely forgotten he had written it. Other texts he even denied he ever wrote, only to discover later that he had.
In editing Berlin’s writings, Hardy came to view him as a public moralist with a focus on specific thinkers whose worldview he sought to recreate through an effort of empathy. What interested Berlin were the ideas they proposed; he judged the value of a subject according to “the ratio of ideas to facts in it.” The thinkers Berlin studied opened unexpected windows on life, allowing him to learn new things, some more exotic than others. He was able to capture, in just a few sentences, the complex atmosphere of a certain milieu or the key traits of a particular personality.
Hardy is right to note that in writing about others, Berlin often described and projected his own ideas, hopes, and fears. For all the diversity and untidiness of his essays, and in spite of the fact that Berlin never intended to offer a systematic account of human life, Hardy believes that there is “a coherent vision of human nature and human life” underlying all of Berlin’s works. “I have had three or four ideas in my life,” Berlin once confessed to his editor, “which I repeat constantly in various forms: incompatibility of values, scientific method inapplicable to humane studies or politics, inevitability, two liberties and so on.” Even if some of Berlin’s writings remained unfinished, there is a central thread that connects even his most disparate texts. That, Hardy insists, has to do with Berlin’s conception of liberty, monism, and pluralism.
Berlin believed that the entire history of philosophy can be interpreted as a dialogue between two camps. The first claims that there is a single true answer to all our problems and questions (how we ought to live), and that there is a discernible path that can lead to its discovery. The second posits that such a monistic understanding of life is fundamentally wrong and holds that the world of values is inevitably plural. Berlin sided with the second camp against the first. A believer in free will, he maintained that the only source of value is our moral sense, which leads us to pursue various paths and projects. Following Kant, Berlin insisted that people must always be treated as ends in themselves, never as means to others’ projects. He warned us against all those whose one-sidedness makes them fanatical.
These are fundamental liberal ideas that need little explanation. Not so clear, however, are the relationships between pluralism, relativism, and freedom, and what Berlin views as the common human moral core. The final three chapters of Hardy’s book offer a detailed account of what he perceives as tensions, or potential lack of clarity, in Berlin’s work. Hardy discusses the content and range of the moral common core (can this set of minima moralia prevent Berlin’s pluralism from relapsing into relativism?) and reflects on the distinction between political tolerance and philosophical and religious pluralism. To Hardy’s objection that religious monism implies the view that there is only one true religion, which must therefore be universal, Berlin responded that
a pluralist does not need to maintain that there are no single, objective answers to ultimate questions. […] what makes him a pluralist is that he is able to understand, by some kind of imaginative empathy, how is it that people living under [different] circumstances […] should believe in these other things.
Equally complex is the issue of Berlin’s personal religious beliefs, on which the book touches on several occasions. While Berlin might seem closer to agnosticism than to atheism, Hardy believes that neither label accurately captures his position. Faced with the problem of God’s existence, Berlin confessed: “I am like a child faced with trigonometry. Since I don’t know what ‘God’ means, I cannot be described as either denying or doubting him.” Hardy also believes that Berlin did not speak as much as we might have wished about the tendency to malignity in human nature (original sin). On the question of the meaning of life, he quotes from a 1984 letter of Berlin to Irving Singer, in which he admitted:
As for the meaning of life, I do not believe that it has any. […] [W]e make of it what we can, and that is all there is about it. Those who seek for some deep, cosmic, all-embracing teleologically arguable libretto or god are, believe me, pathetically mistaken.
This may be so, but the fact is that Berlin was attracted precisely to those pilgrims of the absolute, from J. G. Hamann to Joseph de Maistre, who refuse to believe that we can live (only) by Enlightenment ideals and seek a terra firma under our feet.
Hardy ends the book with a moving confession. Isaiah Berlin, he writes, “was not a father to me […] but he was an intellectual and personal lodestar, an inspirational model of truly humane scholarship, an unmatched exemplar of one peculiarly attractive life-affirming form of human excellence and fullness of being.”
His encounter with Berlin radically changed Hardy’s life, and it is hard to imagine him apart from his association with the Oxford don. The same can be said of Berlin himself: without his dedicated editor, his authorial personality would have never come to fruition. This beautifully produced book is a timely reminder of that important point as well as an invitation to reread a major thinker whose ideas remain relevant today.
Aurelian Craiutu is the author, most recently, of Faces of Moderation: The Art of Balance in an Age of Extremes.