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Enlightening: Letters 1946-1960

The overwhelming fact of Isaiah Berlin’s life is not that he was a gossipy, gregarious Oxford don, but that he was a world figure in political theory. Of all the many books questioning why exactly people should submit to any form of government at all, Two Concepts of Liberty is pro­bably the most startlingly straightforward and compelling. To declare Berlin’s letters unreadable, as some critics have done, suggests either an extraordinary deafness to the tone and music of Berlin’s generous and full life or a lack of awareness of the originality and depth of his thought.

The letters are often mischievous, sometimes ironic, almost always witty, and occasionally profound: a typical Berlin letter apologises profusely for his chaotic life, denigrates his latest achievement – “its sentences are inelegant, its style turgid, its grammar uncertain” – and then launches into a wonderfully baroque aside, as in this letter to Hamilton Fish Armstrong:

I have a more terrible thing to confess (this is becoming like a speech in a Russian trial in which the culprit never thinks the prosecutor goes far enough). I read your original letter with the greatest attention, and indeed agreed with all it said. And it’s possible that you will find its leading ideas incorporated somewhere in the vast bulk of my white (or rather, by the colour of the sheets, pink) elephant, but towards the end I realised that almost worthless as the piece undoubtedly was (though I believe it all), I could not alter it and would merely drive myself into a condition of melancholia and utter desperation if I tried, so I sedulously avoided looking at the pages of your letter, although no sooner will the parcel begin its way, than I shall look again at your wise and excellent suggestions, and be stricken with more remorse than even before, though that scarcely seems possible.

This is merely a letter about missing a deadline and some suggested changes to his script. Berlin’s letters, it strikes me, are very similar to contemporary emails, dashed off, full of in­discretions, often perceptive, sometimes a little unconsidered, occasionally displaying attitudes aimed only at friends, but they are also examples of his compelling humanity, his wide interest in the range of human activity, his love of music, his fondness for interesting and important people, his recognisably Jewish sensibility, his entrancement with most things English, his affection for the United States, his fascination with Russia, his incorrigible sociability and his unfaltering gaze at his own anxieties and weaknesses. Those who read these letters with sympathy rather than repulsion will, I think, be the same people who understand his immense contribution to political thought, and in particular his enunciation of liberalism. Both of these were formed by an extraordinary appreciation of the joys of being human, so that he was able to leave the sterility of formal philosophy behind him and engage in the world as human beings experienced it. And this ability, in turn, was formed by his own experience of the Russian empire and emigration.

This second volume of his letters covers the period of his affair with and eventual marriage to Aline Halban, and the immense happiness this relationship gave him after 40 years of bachelorhood. She had a fine house in Headington and (as he acknowledged) all his rather grand tendencies were now suitably housed there, but still he went on seeing college friends, going to sociable dinners and concerts and flying to the US to speak, aiding various causes and always creating a great bow-wave of benevolent feeling before him. In a letter to Aline, Berlin describes his new life in this way: “that unheard-of wonder – the rarest of all things – the most wonderful luck and coincidence – the knowledge that one has arrived where one has always wanted to be”. To another friend he writes: “I am indubitably happier than I’ve ever been.” You see, as you read these letters, that Berlin had not fully enjoyed the role of voluble and witty bachelor don, something of a performing seal, that had been thrust on him, loved though he was. He always wanted a more profound and sensual relationship, and there is no question that with Aline he found it.

Sometimes it is hard to imagine that very high-minded people have their weaknesses and insecurities, but Berlin’s are clearly and frankly on display here. His long and rambling letter in 1957 to Charles Webster at the London School of Economics, asking for advice on his application for the Chichele Chair of Political Theory, which assesses potential referees and is laced with astute and frank character sketches, is a good example of this. Typically, his application was littered with mistakes, which Webster pointed out. When, in 1953, he is considering Nuffield College’s offer of the wardenship, but makes a list of the pros and cons, “awful colleagues” is at the top of his list of cons. But the clinching argument against is the “foolishness of losing a free and comfortable existence in exquisite surroundings (All Souls) for the rest of one’s life – for what?”. On the same day he writes to David Cecil, having said that he would like to leave All Souls, that “Nuffield . . .

is bleak and a bogus imitation of a social Council in London – everything that I find grotesque and unsympathetic”. You can’t help wondering if this letter isn’t tailored to Cecil’s refined, even etiolated, world-view. And throughout these extraordinary letters, the overwhelming impression – which I find attractive – is of a very alert sensibility that places weakness and other human qualities at the forefront.

Professor Géza Vermes once described to me how Berlin had helped him when he arrived in England jobless and stateless; almost everyone who knew Berlin has a similar story of kindness and consideration. At the recent Berlin centenary celebrations in Riga, there were endless tales of his extraordinary thoughtfulness. But the overwhelming consensus, both in Riga and among those who recall him in The Book of Isaiah, was that he was a life force of a sort that appears only rarely.

Enlightening: Letters 1946-1960
Isaiah Berlin
Chatto & Windus, 864pp, £35

The Book of Isaiah: Personal Impressions of Isaiah Berlin
Edited by Henry Hardy
Boydell Press, 368pp, £25

Justin Cartwright’s next novel, “To Heaven by Water”, will be published on 6 July by Bloomsbury (£16.99)

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Escape