Thinking by post: Isaiah Berlin's letters reveal how his ideas still hold relevance

One of the great liberal thinkers of the post-war period, Affirming: Letters 1975-97 makes clear the continuing relevance of Berlin's thought.

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In 1989 Isaiah Berlin celebrated his 80th birthday. Radio 3 marked the event with a four-hour tribute. Two Oxford colleges held dinners in his honour; there was a symposium in Jerusalem and a special concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London. “Now the decline,” he wrote to an old college friend.

He was quite wrong. That year the Berlin Wall came down and barely another two years later Soviet communism had collapsed. Berlin’s ideas became more relevant than ever. Nationalism and ethnic violence returned to Europe; the fatwa against Salman Rushdie had already raised questions about tolerance in a liberal society. A biography, a two-part BBC interview and now four volumes of letters by Berlin, superbly edited, have confirmed his place as one of the leading British intellectuals of his time.

Berlin wrote as he spoke. The arguments pour out. The range of reference is apparently effortless. He was a leading political thinker and cultural historian, but also passionate about literature, music and opera. He knew many of the leading figures of his age. There are letters here to thinkers such as Noam Chomsky and Karl Popper, but also to poets such as Joseph Brodsky and Stephen Spender and to the musicians Alfred Brendel, Yehudi Menuhin, Isaac Stern.

The best letters unite his erudition with evocations of the people he knew. In a long letter to Alistair Cooke, Berlin begins with the causes and nature of anti-Semitism and the limits of assimilation, moves on to portraits of Arthur Balfour and Chaim Weizmann and speculation about whether Lenin’s mother was Jewish, and then to reminiscences about Churchill (who “certainly did not particularly like Jews”).

Jews are one of the central subjects of the letters. There are fascinating reflections on Israel, Zionism and the Holocaust, T S Eliot’s anti-Semitism and, perhaps most interestingly, a set of defensive letters about what he knew (or claimed not to know) about the Holocaust when he was in Washington during the war. The editors’ footnotes here, suggesting he knew more than he let on, are admirable and judicious.

Then there are Berlin’s beloved Russians, that unbroken liberal tradition of writers and thinkers from Herzen, Tolstoy and Turgenev to Akhmatova and Pasternak. In one of the first letters in the book, he writes about how Akhmatova and her friends “remain uncontaminated, unbroken, sensitive, articulate, dignified, morally impeccable”. This last phrase stands out. As he reflects on the horrors of his time, he asks again and again who behaved decently. The great Russian writers in the Stalin years? Certainly. Hannah Arendt when she accuses the Jewish councils in Nazi-occupied Europe of being complicit in the destruction of their own communities? Absolutely not.

What impresses here is not the intellectual argument but the humanity. Sometimes Berlin was wrong about important matters but often he was on the side of the angels. He was a passionate critic of Soviet communism. He agonised over Israel. A lifelong Zionist, he was a critic from the inside, especially during the Begin and Shamir years.

People, Berlin said, were his landscape. He was as fascinated by pompous Oxford dons and left-wing historians whose ideas he hated as he was by his great heroes. He couldn’t stand the “murderous hatred” of Wagner, yet acknowledged that he was “the most powerful cultural influence of the entire 19th century”. This helps explain his interest in the enemies of the Enlightenment.

“I am drawn to the extremes,” he writes, “to the irrationalists, to those who upset, and not to those who smoothly assert.” He continues: “I’d rather read the critics, the sceptics, the enemies, however extravagant, because they uncover the cracks, the flaws, the places between the ribs where the dagger can successfully be inserted.”

Berlin could be garrulous, self-pitying, gushing. “No one has lived more truly than you,” he writes to Anthony Eden’s widow. “No one has lived a better or nobler life.” He was also a feline gossip, turning on people behind their backs. There’s a hilarious moment when Chomsky catches him at it after a private letter from Berlin is leaked to him. Berlin twists and turns, but Chomsky is unforgiving.

Berlin was also a lifelong fence-sitter, but perhaps precisely for that reason he had a terrific intuition for the agonies of moral choice when values clash. “Ultimate values can be incompatible,” he writes to the political philosopher Michael Walzer. Sometimes we can’t “seek for an overarching objective order, true for all times, in all places, and for all men”. On these occasions, when there is “a conflict between ends of life”, we are “forced to plump”.

The letters on philosophy and the history of ideas are the best of all. He ranges from the Enlightenment to reflections on human nature and pluralism, the conflict of values and freedom of the will.

As the torrents of words pour out of the man (“I really must not go on”) we realise how these ideas speak to us today as we anxiously negotiate conflicting values at home and abroad. Should we intervene in Syria? What should we do about refugees drowning in the Mediterranean? The letter to Walzer ends: “Anyone who does not understand the conflict of Antigone, or the Jewish leaders under the Nazis . . . is morally blind.” It is Berlin at his best, reminding us that he was one of the great liberal thinkers of the postwar period.

Affirming: Letters 1975-97 by Isaiah Berlin, edited by Henry Hardy and Mark Pottle, is published by Chatto & Windus (£40, 704pp).

This article appears in the 22 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The 18th-century Prime Minister