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The gossiping intellectual
I have a natural tendency to gossip,” Isaiah Berlin once told a friend, while to another he wrote: “Life is not worth living unless one can be indiscreet to intimate friends”. Perhaps one of Berlin’s most endearing qualities was that, despite being one of the greatest intellectuals of his age, he loved nothing more than to settle down to a cosy natter with friends — of which he had many, for he was a warm, sociable man, with an infectious capacity for enjoying life to the full. During his undergraduate days at Corpus Christi, his rooms became the focus for social gatherings, and he later recalled: “I think I belonged to every society there was at Corpus. I made friends with almost everyone. I think I had what critics might call an undiscriminating taste in people.”
Yet underneath this joie de vivre was an insecure, sensitive individual, who privately worried that his work was worthless and disparaged the intellectual gifts that others so greatly admired.
His insecurities were undoubtedly shaped by his unsettled childhood. He was born into a wealthy Jewish family in Riga — now capital of Latvia, but then part of the Russian Empire — on June 6, 1909, the only child of timber merchant Mendel Berlin and his wife, Marie Volshonok.
When he was six, the family uprooted to Russia, where they lived through the revolutions of 1917. The young Isaiah was greatly disturbed by the sight of a man being forcefully dragged away by police, and this sowed the seeds of his strongly anti-Communist views and his strong beliefs in the value of personal liberty.
Within five years of settling in Russia, the Berlin family had fled the oppressive Bolshevik rule, and, faced with anti-Jewish sentiment in their native Latvia, moved to England early in 1921. They lived first in Surbiton, later settling in Kensington and then Hampstead. The 11-year-old Isaiah was sent to St Paul’s School, London, and then, on October 16, 1928, came up to Oxford to read Greats, matriculating at Corpus Christi.
Despite missing his parents — to whom he wrote frequently — this marked the beginning of one of the most settled periods of Isaiah’s life. He threw himself into student life with gusto, appreciating what he later described as an atmosphere of “cosiness and friendship”. Within a very short time he was writing to his mother: “My life in college is really very pleasant. No one disturbs me in my work, which is a mercy.”
More poignantly, he later recalled that “Corpus certainly gave me security which I might not otherwise have possessed.”
The astute Isaiah also noted how university life in general was on the brink of change. The so-called ‘golden age” was gradually being replaced by a much more politicised era.
When he arrived in Oxford, most undergraduates fell into one of two groups, known as the ‘hearties’ and the ‘aesthetes’.
For the former, sports and socialising were paramount, while the latter were chiefly concerned with maintaining a decidedly dandified image.
The early 1930s saw the arrival of the Communists, who, according to Berlin, were “much more troublesome”, and he noted that “the literary societies died overnight, and were succeeded by political societies”. The presence of the Communists may well have added to his anti-Communist stance, and helped to formulate his ideas about liberty and pluralism.
In the autumn of 1932, Isaiah was appointed Philosophy Lecturer at New College, and made history by becoming the first Jew to be elected a Fellow at All Soul’s. Over the next few years his attention was largely focused on writing his famous biography of Karl Marx, which was published in 1939.
During the war Isaiah served in the British Information Services in New York and the British Embassy in Washington, providing Winston Churchill with regular updates on American opinion, which were apparently highly valued by the Prime Minister. This led to a somewhat bizarre incident in spring 1944, when songwriter Irving Berlin visited London and was, somewhat to his surprise, summoned to lunch at No.10 Downing Street, whereupon Churchill quizzed him for some time about the war. The bemused Irving departed, understandably bewildered, not realizing that the Prime Minister had confused him with Isaiah Berlin.
After the war, Berlin served for a while in the British Embassy in Moscow, before returning to Oxford in 1946. In 1956 he married Aline Halban, and settled at Headington House in Old High Street, Headington, where he lived for the rest of his days.
He was knighted in 1957, and a year later appointed Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford. Over the next few years he wrote essays and gave lectures and broadcasts on the subject of liberty, advocating the principles of tolerance and pluralism, as opposed to the absolutism propounded by Marx and Lenin.
He was a popular speaker, who attracted long queues for his lectures — despite the fact that he spoke at an incredible speed!
Many of his lectures, essays and broadcasts were later published in book form.
In 1965, Berlin helped found Wolfson College, and was its first President from 1967-1975. To this day this graduate college upholds Berlin’s egalitarian vision of an “untrammelled and unpyramided” intellectual community, notable for its lack of distinction between junior and senior members. Its grounds now include a Berlin Quad, in honour of its distinguished co-founder.
Berlin died in Oxford on November 5, 1997, aged 88, leaving a legacy that continues to influence political and philosophical thinking.
Perhaps the most fitting epitaph for this brilliant but modest man is the tribute paid to him by Professor Jerry Cohen, a fellow holder of the Chichele Professorship, who told BBC Radio: “He loved life . . . he was the most effervescent person one could ever know. He was always bubbling and everybody around him couldn’t but rejoice in that. There was nobody who disliked him. They couldn’t.”
Further reading Isaiah Berlin (ed. Henry Hardy) Flourishing: Letters 1928-1946 (Chatto & Windus 2004) Isaiah Berlin (ed. Henry Hardy and Jennifer Holmes) Enlightening: Letters 1946–1960 (Chatto & Windus 2009) Henry Hardy (ed.) The Book of Isaiah: Personal Impressions of Isaiah Berlin (Boydell Press, 2009) Isaiah Berlin & Wolfson College (Available from Wolfson College. Tel: 01865 274100) The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library is the website of The Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust, and has details of Centenary events, biographical and bibliographical information, and links to recordings of broadcasts and lectures.