Isaiah Berlin and the man who saved him from obscurity

How Henry Hardy single-handedly transformed Berlin into one of our best known intellectuals.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Isaiah Berlin was one of the best-known intellectuals in post-war Britain. A leading philosopher and historian of ideas, he broadcast on the BBC, was a prolific essayist and received numerous awards. But there is a curious twist. As the waspish Oxford don Maurice Bowra famously said, “like Our Lord and Socrates, he does not publish much”. By his mid-sixties Berlin had written just three books and edited one more.

This explains why when his literary editor, Henry Hardy, first searched Berlin’s cellar looking for unpublished manuscripts he was so astonished. Like the archaeologist Howard Carter entering Tutankhamun’s tomb, Hardy discovered treasures beyond his wildest dreams: shelves “piled high with chaotic papers, and with books, suitcases and trunks. The quantity of material was overwhelming, terrifying and exhilarating.” As he recalled: “I went through it the first time in a trembling cursory fashion, but immediately found unpublished texts that had been put aside decades ago, and which no one but Berlin had ever read.”

Over the following decades Hardy edited this material, hundreds of thousands of words, and published them as more than a dozen books. He single-handedly transformed Berlin’s reputation. Without Henry Hardy, Berlin’s standing would not be what it is today. It was an extraordinary partnership. “The Genius and the Pedant”, is how Hardy describes it. At times, they seem more like a Jewish-Latvian Bertie Wooster and a calm, omniscient Jeeves. When Hardy tracked down one particularly elusive reference, Berlin replied, “Bravissimo! Marvellous Scherlockismus!”

In Search of Isaiah Berlin is really two books in one. The first is Hardy’s account of how he met Berlin and brought together his unpublished radio broadcasts, lectures, articles and manuscripts. The second, the last hundred pages, is about their philosophical exchanges, focusing in particular on Berlin’s ideas about human nature, pluralism and religion.

The first part is the most interesting. When they first met in 1972, Berlin was president of Wolfson College, Oxford. Hardy had come to Wolfson to study for a BPhil in philosophy. He was just 23 and had spent a year teaching classics at Shrewsbury.

Berlin was then in his sixties, at the height of his fame. Born in Riga in Latvia in 1909 he had come to Britain as a schoolboy, studied and taught at Oxford, had a good war working for the British government in the United States, was appointed a CBE in 1946, knighted in 1957, and appointed to the Order of Merit in 1971. From 1957 to 1967 he was Chichele professor of social and political theory at the University of Oxford. Despite these awards and his international fame as a liberal thinker, Berlin underestimated the value of his work, was deeply sensitive to criticism and, writes Hardy, “was almost pathologically indecisive”.

They agreed that Hardy should become Berlin’s editor and create order out of “the vast chaos” of Berlin’s scattered papers. This has taken up more than 40 years of Hardy’s life. It was more complicated than it sounds. Hardy faced two main obstacles. First, collecting the many lectures, broadcasts and articles and then shaping them into acclaimed books of essays, including Russian Thinkers (1978), Against the Current (1979), The Sense of Reality (1996) and Freedom and Its Betrayal (2002). This involved trawling libraries for references, correcting inaccurate footnotes and what Hardy calls Berlin’s “alleged quotations”, deciphering manuscripts covered with an inky mess of scrawled corrections, ancient Dictabelts (Berlin always dictated his articles and lectures) and radio recordings. On one occasion, Hardy asked Berlin about a particular reference. Berlin replied, “You will surely by now not be surprised by my total inaccuracy, vagueness and tremendous distortion of quotations… Of course I do not have the reference. What do you take me for?”

Once Hardy had tracked down the manuscripts and made sense of them, he then had to deal with Berlin’s paralysing self-doubt and persuade him to agree to publication. This was the hardest part of Hardy’s job and he often met with failure. For example, he couldn’t persuade Berlin to let him put his famous 1979 Jerusalem Prize acceptance speech in a book and he had to wait almost 20 years until Berlin’s death before he could publish it as “The Three Strands in my Life”.

The Berlin pictured here is an old man. The book covers the last 25 years of his life. We are a long way from that extraordinary golden age, from 1950 to 1970, when his most exciting work in political theory, the philosophy of history and the history of ideas was written. Was Berlin more confident then? His published letters suggest that even in his heyday he was insecure and sensitive to criticism, reluctant to publish his best work.

This is a fascinating glimpse backstage into what the editor saw and the readers didn’t. To those who heard Berlin lecture or read the eloquent prose, it all seemed so effortless. I met Berlin half a dozen times in the mid-1990s when Michael Ignatieff and I made three programmes with him for BBC Two. He seemed confident and assured.

As Hardy shows, this is not the full story. Major essays gathered dust, neglected. Berlin constantly resisted attempts to rescue pieces from oblivion. Why, despite all the honours and acclaim, was he so insecure? Why did he prefer lectures, broadcasts and essays to larger projects? He never did publish his famous lectures on “The Roots of Romanticism”, his last major work in 1965, in his lifetime. In Search of Isaiah Berlin, together with the four volumes of letters co-edited by Henry Hardy and his collaborators, will dramatically change our sense of Berlin, presenting a much darker, more complicated picture of one of our leading thinkers.

The Cambridge Companion to Isaiah Berlin is less personal, more academic. However, the two opening pieces on Berlin the man, one by Amos Oz, who died in December, and the other by Hardy and Joshua Cherniss, are superb, two of the best essays ever written about him. Oz’s piece is only two pages, but manages to capture so much of Berlin’s Jewish and Russian roots and is a reminder of how much Israelis such as Oz, Shlomo Avineri and Avishai Margalit have contributed to our understanding of Berlin. 

The rest of the book of essays, based on a conference that took place at Yale in 2017, falls into several parts: Berlin on philosophy, the human sciences and political theory, Berlin and the history of ideas and Berlin and politics. It concludes with a piece from his papers, “The Lessons of History”, from the mid-1960s. 

The book captures the range of Berlin’s work, from his early writings as an analytic philosopher and on Karl Marx in the 1930s to his essays on Russian thinkers, the Enlightenment, Counter-Enlightenment and Romanticism, from nationalism to pluralism and liberalism. The essays do a good job of putting his work on liberalism in the crucial context of the Cold War, which he described in 1949 as “the battle between the creeds… the greatest since the Reformation and its aftermath”.

The book marks a shift in thinking about Berlin from liberalism to pluralism. His writings on Negative and Positive Liberty in the 1950s made his name as a liberal thinker. In recent years, however, there has been a greater emphasis on his writings  on pluralism and the clash of values, which have made him more relevant to today’s concerns about multiculturalism and identity politics.

The biggest divides between the contributors are between those who have a real sense of the importance of Berlin’s world, whether in Riga or Oxford, and those who don’t. Some of the younger American contributors write about interwar and postwar Oxford as if it’s a different world. One writes, “philosophical activity in Britain stalled significantly during the interwar years”. She’s clearly not thinking of RG Collingwood, Russell and Wittgenstein or the Young Turks in 1930s Oxford, including AJ Ayer, Stuart Hampshire and Berlin himself.

Some essays are too uncritical. The most interesting, however, offer a more even-handed account of Berlin’s work. Is his account of the Enlightenment too one-dimensional? asks Steven Smith. Were Enlightenment thinkers really as similar as Berlin implied? Why did he iron out so many significant differences between them? Cherniss and Hardy take up Ernest Gellner’s criticism: Why do Berlin’s accounts of thinkers, whether Herzen or Vico, so often seem as if Berlin is writing about himself? He was often admired as a dazzling polymath, at home in music, literature and philosophy. But there were big gaps: science, economics, and even his beloved Russian canon left out giants like Isaac Babel and Vasily Grossman.

The elephant in the room, however, is Berlin’s reputation among a younger generation of historians of ideas. Berlin dealt in large landscapes: the Enlightenment, the Counter-Enlightenment and Romanticism. Later scholars have redrawn the map, offering a more nuanced picture of 18th- and 19th-century thought, emphasising historical and cultural context more than individual genius. These critics are hardly mentioned. The Cambridge School – Skinner, Pocock, Dunn – barely receives half a dozen mentions. Jonathan Israel’s huge trilogy on the Enlightenment, which had little time for Berlin, scarcely features. There are two paragraphs on Momigliano’s devastating review of Berlin’s Vico and Herder (1976).

What is most interesting about The Cambridge Companion is what it says about the changing world of Berlin studies. Its centre of gravity has shifted from Oxford to America. Nearly all the younger contributors here are from American universities. The generation that dominated the tributes to Berlin after his 80th birthday and then his death in 1997 are barely represented – just Hardy, Alan Ryan and George Crowder. No Ignatieff or John Gray, no Margalit, Charles Taylor or Ronald Dworkin. It feels like a significant changing of the guard.

This is what makes the accounts by Hardy and Amos Oz so valuable. They bring Berlin to life. That extraordinary voice that thrilled generations of students and television viewers, part Jewish, part Russian and part English. Above all, the extraordinary erudition, preserved for future generations by Henry Hardy’s scholarship. 

David Herman was a producer of “Voices”, “The Late Show” and “Start the Week”

This article appears in the 01 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit broke politics