Isaiah Berlin: A Life
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Isaiah Berlin was witness to a century. Born in Riga in the twilight of the Czarist empire, he lived long enough to see the Soviet state collapse. The son of a Jewish timber merchant, he became a presiding judge of Western intellectual life on both sides of the Atlantic: historian of the Russian intelligentsia, biographer of Marx, scholar of the Romantic movement, and defender of the liberal idea of freedom against Soviet tyranny. When he died in 1997, he was hailed as the most important liberal philosopher of his time.
But Berlin's life was not only a life of the mind. Present at the crucial events of our age, he was in Washington during World War II, in Moscow at the dawn of the Cold War, and dining with President John F. Kennedy on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis. From Albert Einstein to Virginia Woolf, Winston Churchill to Anna Akhmatova, his circle of friends constitutes a veritable who's who of twentieth century art, politics, and philosophy.
In this definitive work, the result of a remarkable ten-year collaboration between biographer and subject, Michael Ignatieff charts the emergence of a unique temperament--serene, comic, secular, and unafraid--and he examines its influence on Berlin's vision of liberalism, which stressed the often tragic nature of political and moral choice. A magisterial book, illuminating and beautifully written, Isaiah Berlin will stand with the great modern biographies.
Dissent is better than pride and a sense of national mission; that liberty may be incompatible with, and better than, too much efficiency; that pluralism and untidiness are, to those who value freedom, better than the rigorous imposition of all-embracing systems, no matter how rational and disinterested, better than the rule of majorities against which there is no appeal’. All of this, he insisted, was ‘deeply and uniquely English’.2 Actually, his liberalism included some very un-English stuff:.
Hypochondria. He likes being mildly, curably ill. He loves doctors, regimes, nursing homes; he will take to his bed at the slightest provocation. Students remember him conducting tutorials from his bed, the covers scattered with books, papers, cups of tea and biscuits. On the night table of the small single bed where he sleeps now, next to his wife’s room, there is a platoon of pill bottles, ointments, boxes, tumblers of water. He will tell you he is faring badly, but the truth is that he has.
Rhodes Scholar reading PPE at Balliol. At the time, the tall, aristocratic German was turning over in his mind whether to try to remain in Oxford and take up philosophy or return to Germany and embark on a public career. His father had been a Minister of Education in a Wilhelmine administration. Adam formed part of a circle of left-wing, moneyed and good-looking undergraduates who included Peggy Garnett, Douglas Jay, Shiela Grant Duff, Diana Hubback and David Astor.39 Berlin and von Trott were.
With Israel, so he had to make his peace with America. He was attached to the Russian Research Center at Harvard and, besides pursuing his own research on the Russian intelligentsia, was supposed to teach an undergraduate course on Russian thought. Maurice Bowra, who had been at Harvard a short time earlier giving the Norton Lectures, wrote Isaiah a teasing letter about his instructional duties: In that admirable publication ‘Courses of Instruction’ p. 161 under ‘International and Regional.
And his mother’s memory, Andreapol became a sepia print of old Russia in its dying hours. Displacement to this new world was neither strange nor threatening: Andreapol was effectively owned by the Berlin timber firm, and everyone deferred to the young princeling. In the Hebrew school, sitting on plank benches with timber-cutters’ children, Isaiah received his first formal religious instruction. It was also his first experience of schooling, and to the end of his life he could still remember the.