A. J. Sherman

Isaiah Berlin, Flourishing


Reflecting an Anglo-American cultural divide that might have amused him, the selection of Isaiah Berlin’s early letters that has recently appeared is titled Flourishing: Letters 1928–1948 in the United Kingdom (Chatto & Windus, London), but in the American edition simply Letters 1928–1948. The omission of “flourishing” on this side of the Atlantic suggests that the editors of Cambridge University Press in New York do not trust American readers to understand the reference, which is to the flowering of a career, as well as to Berlin’s habitual sign-off in reassuring cables to his parents. But “flourishing” so precisely defines the emphatic ebullience, fullness, and spontaneity of the life reflected in these letters that it seems a pity it was not used for both editions.

Whatever the title under which we read them, though, we are indeed blessed that so extraordinary, so protean a personality as the late philosopher and historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin left thousands of letters, and that his editor, Henry Hardy, and a team of researchers have produced an exemplary selection spanning the period from 1928 to 1946, in this first of several volumes in preparation. We are all the more fortunate because letter writing itself, an art of which Berlin was so effortless a master, has largely been destroyed by the electronic innovations of our time. Instant messaging, deleted routinely, whether through the internet or on the telephone, represents a form of communication in another universe entirely from the carefully crafted epistolary conversation, the evocation in writing meant to last of an idea, a character, an atmosphere, an emotion, even the seemingly trivial daily round. Except in the case of the rare eminences whose every public and often private utterance is recorded—those notorious White House tapes!—most of us will leave no trace of the immense chatter that fills our waking hours. Isaiah Berlin’s letters are, however, destined to endure, and perhaps to constitute when published in their entirety that one grand synthesizing work, reflecting a lifetime’s creative thought, that some critics demanded in vain of Berlin.

For those who will never have heard Berlin’s uniquely dazzling conversation, that cascade of erudition, anecdote, quotations, speculation, contemporary and historical gossip, delivered in his inimitable deep rapid voice, reading his correspondence is next best to having experienced the phenomenon. Those fortunate many who are acquainted with Berlin’s books or articles, or whose lives he touched, in whatever capacity, now may apprehend through these letters, in all their captivating sparkle, their sheer range, new facets of the philosopher who was recognized as one of the towering thinkers of the twentieth century and—much rarer—a man who, in Aileen Kelly’s words, “showed us virtue in action.” The experience of these letters is a prodigious gift, an opportunity to celebrate the sheer joie de vivre that Berlin radiated and expressed in a torrent of eloquent words often poured out on the page without paragraphs, with scarcely a pause for breath or conventional punctuation. Reading Berlin’s private exchanges with his parents and friends—sometimes merely a postcard dashed off while traveling, occasionally several packed pages of argument or reporting—allows us to imagine ourselves invisible guests at some fabulous continuing dinner party, eavesdropping on talk that flies from subject to subject, clause piled upon clause, often playful, occasionally tinged with irony or light malice, always extravagantly rich in ideas, allusions, vivid evocations of the dead as well as the living. The letters repay careful reading: even at his most donnish when discussing college politics, the infinite subtleties of Oxford academic warfare, Berlin is not tedious, never merely conventional. We come away with a peculiarly intimate experience of the man, feeling we have known him as he fully was with his parents, colleagues, students, and innumerable admiring friends. And through Isaiah Berlin, we can imagine we’ve also met a splendidly various group: Oxford dons, writers, diplomats, musicians, on occasion less well-known correspondents—a parade of the great, the good, even occasionally the not so good or the downright wicked. Berlin’s appealing openness to experience, his “unquenchable delight in the variety of life and the comedy of human character,” are reflected on every page. What a glorious feast it is!

Born in 1909 in Riga, then part of the Russian Empire, Isaiah Berlin was the only child of a prosperous timber merchant and his wife, both conscious bearers of the Russian intelligentsia tradition but still very much attached to their Jewish origins. His parents were related to the Chassidic dynasty of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, a connection in which Berlin took some pride, reinforcing as it did his lifetime loyalty to certain Jewish traditions, though he never subscribed to the claims of Judaism or any other religion to ultimate truth. During the first World War the family moved to St. Petersburg, and shortly after the Revolution to Britain, but not before the young Isaiah had witnessed bloody street clashes: in later years, he often recalled these scenes, and linked them to his lifelong hatred of cruelty and violence. Learning English at the age of ten, Berlin did well if not brilliantly at St. Paul’s School, and in 1928 won a scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where, already an impressive talker, he became the center of an eclectic social circle—his rooms were known as “always a place of resort”—and went on to earn first-class honors in the classical curriculum as well as in Modern Greats, the newer curriculum that included philosophy, politics, and economics. Berlin spoke and wrote English to his parents, but his letters to them and indeed to some others include phrases in Russian, French, German, and Hebrew, all languages in which he was famously fluent. In 1932 he was elected by examination to a Fellowship at All Souls College, the first Jew to be so honored. That election propelled the young Berlin into the very highest strata of Oxford and British society, and gave him an attractive, comfortable way of life that relieved him of the existential questions plaguing so many of his contemporaries in the Depression decade.

He also became a Fellow of New College, where he taught philosophy, somewhat to the bemusement of undergraduates who reported he was an easily distracted tutor, who would spend time tinkering with his antique gramophone or playing with other toys, though he never failed to comment, sometimes in withering detail, on the essays read to him. In addition to his teaching, Berlin began the systematic research on Marx and Marxism that resulted in 1939 in the publication of Karl Marx: His Life and Environment, which became an instant classic, translated into many languages. Berlin later recalled, in an interview with his official biographer Michael Ignatieff: “I was terribly disapproved of by the academic senior Fellows, because they thought I was a time-wasting chatterbox who would never write anything and wasted the time of people who might. I felt waves of disapproval . . . they thought I didn’t show any signs of settling down to work and getting things out. It’s quite true, I didn’t in my first three or four years. When I produced a book on Karl Marx, they were totally astonished that I could have generated anything at all.” But Berlin was restive with undergraduate teaching, finding most of his students unchallenging, and the Fellows of New College, in contrast to those at All Souls, largely parochial if not sclerotic.

When war broke out, Berlin, barred from military service because of a withered arm, an injury inflicted at birth, sought to put his Russian and other skills at the disposal of the British Government, but found himself being manipulated by the smoothly plausible Guy Burgess, later exposed as a Soviet spy, in a complex scheme that was ostensibly designed to bring Berlin as press attaché to the British Embassy in Moscow, but was actually a cover enabling Burgess to report directly to his espionage handlers. Nonetheless, stranded in New York in 1940 by the Soviet government’s refusal to issue him a visa, Berlin landed on his feet and found a unique niche, first in the British Ministry of Information office in New York, and then at the British Embassy in Washington. His brief in both places was explaining British policy to the Americans and vice versa, with special emphasis on forging links with the Jewish and other minority communities, and with organized labor. Berlin also presented the British point of view in the elite circles to which he easily gravitated, introduced initially by his gregarious friend Justice Felix Frankfurter, whom Berlin had known at Oxford. Berlin was soon an indispensable part of the hectic Washington scene, then dominated by ambitious political hostesses who valued his ability to delight and occasionally mystify a dinner table. Berlin’s wide circle, in which the Frankfurters, Katharine Graham, and Joseph Alsop were prominent, included diplomats, journalists, military officers, civil servants, leading political figures of both parties, and representatives of the arts and academic life. His regular wartime dispatches were anything but dry political surveys: brilliant reports on personalities, powers, and atmospheres in Washington, they soon became required reading in London, where they were brought to the personal attention of Winston Churchill. In a celebrated incident, Churchill insisted on meeting the author, and in due course a Mr. I. Berlin was invited to lunch at Downing Street. There, after useless efforts to get his guest to comment intelligently on aspects of American policy, the Prime Minister with some irritation asked him which of his works he considered most important. When after momentary thought Irving Berlin replied “White Christmas,” lunch came to an abrupt close. Initially not at all amused, Churchill later enjoyed telling the story, though it took some time for his Private Secretary to recover; and in due course Churchill and Isaiah Berlin met, to their mutual pleasure. Isaiah Berlin’s wartime papers, edited by H. G. Nicholas, have been published as Washington Dispatches, 1941–1945 (1981), and a fragment of reminiscence, “Zionist Politics in Wartime Washington,” is included as an appendix in the present volume of Berlin’s letters.

Although a lifelong admirer of the Zionist idea, and on the whole favorably impressed by his visit to Palestine in 1934, Berlin was never uncritical of the Zionist movement, emphasizing from the outset that an accommodation would have to be reached with the Arabs, and urging that goal upon the Zionist leaders he met. Berlin’s Zionist sympathies indeed made his task of liaison and intelligence-gathering peculiarly delicate, but he managed to steer an adroit course between the consistently pro-Arab stance of his Foreign Office colleagues, and his personal friendships with such Zionist luminaries as Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion. At the very end of the war, in 1945, Berlin was sent to Moscow charged with undertaking an assessment of Anglo-Soviet relations, especially in the cultural sphere, a mission that deeply touched him. In his meetings with Soviet officials and a great many leading intellectuals, Berlin realized the destructive power of Stalin’s oppressive dictatorship and felt the deepening chill of the Cold War then beginning.

He also discovered, with great emotional force, how Russian he himself remained despite his years in England, feeling instantly at home, able to share with his intellectual peers a common cultural heritage and language. In later life Berlin often recalled the transformative power of his meetings with Boris Pasternak and particularly Anna Akhmatova, who famously dedicated to him her poem “The Guest from the Future.” In his long night’s conversation with Akhmatova, as Berlin subsequently wrote, she read from her poems, discussed writers living and dead, passionately pressed the case for Dostoyevsky and his dark vision, and talked of Russia’s literary culture and its fate in the Soviet Union. The entire encounter passed in a mutual exaltation that appears to have been incandescent but Platonic. The meeting swiftly came to Stalin’s personal attention, arousing his angry paranoia, and Akhmatova suffered severe consequences, including expulsion from the Writers’ Union and the re-arrest of her unfortunate son. Berlin was stricken, realizing that in seeking out the great poet, who had long suffered persecution and surveillance, he had unwittingly exposed her to acute danger. Berlin was also involved in arranging for the publication in Britain of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, an incident that fed official disapproval of the writer, and resulted in pressure on Pasternak to refuse the Nobel Prize that was subsequently awarded him. Berlin’s detestation of Stalinism and its oppression of artists and intellectuals was reinforced by these personal experiences; his hatred for the gratuitous cruelty of all totalitarian regimes was moreover heightened by confirmation that the Nazis had murdered members of his extended family. He remained aware that, but for a few timely decisions by his parents, he might have shared their fate. Berlin’s reluctance to speak about the Holocaust, in contrast to his willingness to discuss the crimes of Communism, reflected both distaste for what he called “the Shoah industry” and a feeling that certain horrors were literally unspeakable.

When the war was over, Berlin, still only in his mid-thirties, returned to Oxford, resumed teaching, and took up a new career as an enormously popular speaker on the BBC’s celebrated Third Programme. Even those who could not understand his rapid complex sentences, and his coruscating allusions to works they had not read, were enchanted and became regular listeners, flooding the BBC with admiring letters. Isaiah Berlin blossomed in other ways too: forsaking the cozy familiarity of an Oxford bachelor don’s college-centered life, he came to love and, at the age of forty-seven, marry Aline de Gunzbourg, embarking on what were to be more than forty years of a rare felicity. His wartime experiences, and reflection on the aridities of purely analytical philosophy, had by this time also dictated a change of course in Berlin’s intellectual preoccupations: engaged above all by the life and thought of the great Russian philosopher and revolutionary Alexander Herzen (1812–70), Berlin launched into an immensely fruitful exploration of the history of political and social ideas. His creativity and influence seemed to increase with every publication, beginning with the seminal The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History (1953), and going on to Historical Inevitability (1954) and Two Concepts of Liberty (1958), his inaugural lecture as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford. This last, a small and elegantly written volume, was to be immensely influential in its introduction of the distinction between negative and positive concepts of freedom, always Berlin’s great theme. Berlin’s lectures as holder of the Chichele chair became Oxford legends, attracting crowds of curious students who knew that these performances, delivered at top speed, without reference to notes, were unlike anything they would ever again encounter: even the bewildered were utterly mesmerized. Despite the feline observation of his friend Maurice Bowra—“though like Our Lord and Socrates he does not publish much, he thinks and says a great deal”—Berlin was a prolific writer, conveying in relatively few well-chosen words what others labored to express in many more. If he never produced the book-length magnum opus some observers expected, his oeuvre of essays, reviews, and lectures scattered over many publications, some quite obscure, now collected and edited by the faithful Henry Hardy, is impressive in its range and eloquence, exploring the large themes of liberty, human nature, and the proper ends of life, primarily through investigations of nineteenth-century Russian thought, Romanticism, and the ideas of liberalism and pluralism. His perceptive appreciations of friends, some delivered as addresses at memorial convocations, are outstanding in their sympathetic insights: these essays include evaluations of Chaim Weizmann, Winston Churchill, Aldous Huxley, and such colleagues as J. L. Austin, Maurice Bowra, and others. Often moving and always vivid, these tributes are gathered in the volume Personal Impressions (1980), again edited by Hardy. Berlin’s remarkable ability to present with warmth and empathy thinkers who interested him, relating their lives to their works, brought these figures vividly to life, and enabled him to attract and fascinate ever-growing audiences at his lectures in England, the United States, and elsewhere.

Berlin remained consistently concerned with the dignity of individual human beings, with their perforce difficult and even tragic choices among values that inevitably and often hopelessly clashed. He rejected absolutes, distrusting “all claims to the possession of incorrigible knowledge about issues of fact or principle in any sphere of human behavior,” as Hardy has observed. Denying the Enlightenment view that there could eventually be a convergence, a synthesis of all human aspirations and values, Berlin instead maintained that values and ideals will always conflict, and that however we may be convinced of the rightness of our ultimate choice, we have no authority to insist that it govern the lives of others as well. Berlin was fond of quoting Kant’s “out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made,” but insisted that his pluralist view of human possibility was not to be confused with relativism. The Kant quotation gave its title to another selection of Berlin’s essays, edited by Henry Hardy: The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas (1990). Berlin abhorred the notion, cherished inter alia by missionaries, terrorists, and ideologues of all persuasions, that “organized happiness” is a desirable aim and that coercive sacrifices in the name of some Utopia are justifiable in pursuit of the ideal. Although he was capable of understanding those whose views he found objectionable, he felt closest to such personal heroes as Herzen, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and in the twentieth century above all Akhmatova. Throughout Isaiah Berlin’s writing the tone is free, animated, never pedantic or insistent, asking of the reader only openness, a degree of worldly curiosity; the arguments persuade by charm as well as by logic. Berlin himself was quite unapologetic about his penchant for the occasional essay rather than the monumental statement, asserting more than once, “I am like a taxi: I have to be hailed.”

In 1966 Berlin resigned his professorship to become the first President of Wolfson College, Oxford, a new graduate college endowed by Sir Isaac Wolfson (university wags said of Wolfson that he was the first Jew since Jesus to have colleges in both Oxford and Cambridge in his name). To the surprise of those who had observed Berlin’s dislike of administration, he flung himself with great energy into fundraising and other formidable tasks demanded by the establishment of a new college. Wolfson College was a triumphant success; its welcoming atmosphere and breezy iconoclasm—wives and children were actually admitted to its Common Room—reflected Berlin’s personal preferences and made it a magnet for overseas as well as British students. As head of house, Berlin presided with amiable informality over a cosmopolitan, lively community of Fellows and students. There was much laughter at Wolfson, and a great deal of serious work; its President was loved as well as revered. Isaiah Berlin was knighted in 1957, explaining to those who carped that he accepted this honor to please his mother, to whom he remained devoted throughout her lifetime. Other honors came in profusion: honorary doctorates from more than a score of universities around the world, including every university in Israel; the Erasmus Award, the Agnelli Prize, the Jerusalem Prize, and in 1971 the Order of Merit in recognition of his public service as well as academic eminence. Accepting this honor, Berlin became one of only twenty-four members of the Order. From 1974 to 1978 he was President of the British Academy. The following year he resigned as President of Wolfson College but continued to supervise graduate students, to lecture, and to entertain a stream of visitors, petitioners, and sometimes even time-wasters and bores who sought interviews in Oxford or London. Berlin seemed to know everybody who was anybody, all over the world, but was also astonishingly available to a range of far less illustrious callers. His generosity was legendary: he was a soft touch for those who needed help, and often quietly intervened to make it possible for impecunious students, especially from overseas, to complete their time at Oxford. More than once, a private word from him to University or Home Office officials solved difficulties in which students became entangled. He always somehow had time, managing to give each visitor full unhurried attention, perennially avid for his interlocutor’s news, ideas, and companionable gossip.

But Berlin’s life contained much more: he always adored music, especially Rossini and Verdi, and as an undergraduate wrote cheeky concert reviews in Oxford under the pseudonym Albert Alfred Apricott, sometimes shortened to A.A.A. He knew many of the leading musicians and artists of his time, and they found him an immensely knowledgeable and supportive connoisseur. He was for years a Director of the Royal Opera House, as well as a trustee of the National Gallery. Some critics complained that he spread himself too thin, that he never seemed able to refuse an invitation, that he was addicted to talking, too accessible altogether. I once asked him how he dealt with importunate requests for meetings, advice, recommendations, help of all kinds. Standing under an umbrella in a London street, he waggled his eyebrows at me and intoned, “Fear shame, fear shame! That is what was taught me. I had rather be bored or irritated or imposed upon than refuse even a tiresome schnorrer.” He used the Yiddish word for a persistent mendicant. Never solemn or self-important, Berlin seemed genuinely unimpressed and surprised by his eminence as well as by the enormous enjoyment and affection he evoked. His letters, often gay in an earlier sense of that word, reflect and explain his prodigious appeal to others.

The tone was set very early. In 1928, just before he came up to Oxford at age nineteen, Berlin wrote to his mother: “Remember: Life is Good; and always will be good however ugly it looks: for Beauty and Goodness are not the same thing. But enough of vain philosophy.” He signed with the affectionate “Shaya” he reserved for family and close friends. To his friend Shiela Grant Duff in 1932, referring to a book by her future Oxford tutor: “I read it at school and have forgotten it entirely. It is, I believe, shallow and exhilarating. But I may be hopelessly unfair.” That last disclaimer is classic: even when being critical or mischievous, Berlin was always concerned about fairness, not being cruel simply to amuse.

Describing Virginia Woolf at an All Souls dinner, Berlin writes to the novelist Elizabeth Bowen, a close friend whose work he much admired, “She really is a most beautiful and godlike person whom it is a pity that anyone should know intimately. I hope I shall meet her again.” And then, after considerable Oxford gossip, “Please forgive me. I write on & on as I talk, & how tiresome that must often be. But I cannot think of stopping therefor.” It was also to Elizabeth Bowen that Berlin confided his profound dislike of dramatic landscapes: “very high mountains, very low valleys, angry torrents, pure & snowy peaks etc. The sublime in nature directly connects with Nazi heroes, T. E. Lawrence . . . bully boy etc. & moral bullying. This in its turn leads to reactionary romanticism, the Germans, chivalry & the beauty of danger . . . I cannot conceive why I suddenly have begun to go on like this, unless it is that it is nice to take sides, & seems relevant now.” That was written in the summer of 1936, as ominous clouds were gathering over Europe, and even placid, privileged Oxford was agitated by political ferment.

On his first trip to Palestine in 1934, Berlin wrote to Felix Frankfurter and his wife saying he felt that the whole country under the British Mandate was like a large secondary school staffed by unfortunate teachers who themselves had come from inferior lower-middle-class schools. The High Commissioner was a well-meaning but merely decorative Headmaster, the Board of Governors (the Colonial Office) remote and stupid, the Arab boys high-spirited, good at sports, given to occasional rioting, while the Jewish boys were richer and more able, “conceited, ugly, ostentatious . . . always saying they know better, liable to work too hard & not to play games with the rest.” The Palestine Jews he found “most odd and fascinating, & I felt equally uneasy with them & away from them, like relations one hasn’t seen for 30 years or something, to whom one knows one is, even feels, related, but whom one doesn’t really know, & is afraid of, & has to treat on an oddly familiar footing, tho’ knowing nothing about them, & even afraid of them.” Berlin, who had relatives in Palestine, felt admiration for their strivings, but was never tempted to join them on the shores of the Mediterranean. Nor, despite his loyalty to his origins, were his feelings about his fellow Jews without a certain ambiguity. He once wrote to his friend Diana Hubback, “I much respected the general type represented by your grandfather—a tiny class with hardly any members—one of the very, very very few English Jews of any station by whom one was in no way embarrassed. Which is really exceptional.” In later life, Berlin relished his role as the unofficial head of the Jewish community in Oxford, a sort of Exilarch, and liberally lent his name and gave both time and support to numerous Jewish causes; but his pride in Israel’s early achievements was sorely tried by the rise of religious extremism, and he came to feel both anger and despair when contemplating the policies of the various Likud governments, against which he wrote in protest, though he refused to be drawn into more active political demonstrations. On Berlin’s first visit he described Tel-Aviv as “built on sands in every sense,” and toward the end of his life felt deep sadness at what he perceived as the Jewish state’s loss of direction and moral authority.

Berlin was far from a saint, and his pen is occasionally dipped, if not in vitriol, then at least in a mild solution of vinegar. After escaping from a meeting with one of Oxford’s professorial wives, he wrote that “the combination of tigress, bore, & femme fatale is really very odd: the effect is violent claustrophobia & a desire for solitude, with me as rare as rare.” Recommending a former pupil to Justice Frankfurter, Berlin describes him as “a philosopher of radical views, & in himself a bright, slightly childish little man, clever, well behaved, assiduous, tidy, conscientious, slightly affected. . . . I think he would seem pleasant enough to you: there is no great need to take trouble about him, but if he comes & sees you I recommend him fairly warmly. He is not exactly interesting, but bright, ingenious, & I think, very technically clever . . . He has a kind of charm.” Newly arrived in Washington in 1940, still unsure of his bearings, Berlin writes to an Oxford friend: “The Americans are very pro-Allied, but befuddled & frightened. I cannot bear—I mean I can & hate—being here, intriguing, being frustrated, alone, doubtfully placed.” Berlin missed the subtle charms of Oxford ways and Oxford talk; he had earlier noted to another correspondent that “nothing becomes a genuine conversation so little as subtlety.” Visiting Harvard, he pronounced: “After Oxford, Harvard is a desert. What I enjoy is the brimming vitality, the unexhausted passion for life, the enormous appetite & childish affectionateness, of some young Americans . . . they are simple, idealistic, hot blooded, generous and full of fire. Out of such material a world may yet be buildable, if only they let themselves be affected a little by the more fastidious taste of our hemisphere & not shout shout shout so much, & always the same, & always as if one were intellectually & even physically deaf.” “Los Angeles,” Berlin wrote to Joseph Alsop after an official trip to California, “is a hell of [such] depth and blackness as I never hope to see again. I loathed Hollywood, where everyone was either nasty or passionately anxious to be something else, and the accumulation of European decay in a series of rock pools is unsurpassed. The only agreeable thought is that since all these people are accumulated there, they cannot also be somewhere else, which is a great source of relief.” Berlin was also highly critical of the flight of his friends W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood to the United States when war began, and he wrote to Marion Frankfurter from Oxford, as the Blitz was reaching its climax, “I see no excuse for anyone leaving unless directly in the interests of their political institutions, directly by orders of their government, or else because they are exposed racially or politically, and the end has come. We are not on the edge of disintegration: the government did not send Auden to China, or to the U.S.A. . . . Personal survival is no doubt a legitimate end: one fights while one can & then one either dies or escapes. I am not a soldier, & can’t be one, and am in certain respects highly exposed, if only because I am a Jew & have written on Marx: I shd do my best not to be caught: if I could induce some institution in the U.S.A. to invite me, I would. But cold blooded flight is monstrous. And indifference to a conflict on which the outcome of which all art & thought depend, repulsive and stupid.”

Berlin’s letters to his parents, affectionate, deliberately vague, and reassuring, especially as to his health, often contain tidbits of gossip that may have amused wartime censors: Stephen Spender’s new wife is described as “at the very least 1/2 a Jewess, and as Mr. Bowra said in a letter to me, worn out. Why, as Mr. B. also said, has he this passion for marriage?” Again to his parents, in July 1941, Berlin divides American Jews into “the dignified dead, of German descent, dull, benevolent, pompous, far from brave, unwilling to act, rich and not very generous,” and “the lively intriguers. Some are nice & some are not. . . . The 5 million Jews of the U.S.—a fundamentally lower middle class population, like the Czechs,—are sentimentally pro-Zionist (at least 90% of them are I should say)—, but lack leadership and so . . . remain quiescent and hope for the best. It is difficult to bring home to them the implications of the war & their duty in this respect as they are, above all things, terrified of being thought warmongers and to be acting in their own, rather than general American interests.” Berlin also confides to his parents that he is immensely enjoying his Washington job: “who would have thought that from teaching philosophy at Oxford with otherwise a passion only for music, I should become avidly interested in American politics?” He then assesses the Roosevelts: “The President really is very queer—not at all what you think he is. I have reached the conclusion that despite the gay and generous nature and all the manners and sweep of an old-established landowning squire, he is (a) absolutely cold, (b) completely ruthless, (c) has no friends, (d) becoming a megalomaniac and is pulling our Mr. Churchill along rather than vice versa. . . . His wife is the opposite in every respect, a sentimental, gushing, heavy liberal, with a great deal of native shrewdness which the very ugly often develop.” An aside to Lady Daphne Straight, who had suggested he work in the British Embassy in Paris, “I do not really understand or like the French, although I admire, respect and worship them.” The Paris idea went nowhere. Always curious, Berlin managed to cut a wide swath through American cultural as well as political society, meeting Vladimir Horowitz, lunching with Virgil Thompson, listening to Jascha Heifetz, of whom he wrote: “Heifetz is really a terrible experience: he is very bored by Bach and Beethoven and only becomes excited in the former when there is a difficult thing to do, when he slightly warms up to show himself and you what he can do. As for the latter, he is very sensational—the last living descendant of Paganini and of great value in the way in which real virtuosi always have been. The experience is not really musical or artistic at all but it takes one’s breath away in the way in which an acrobat or racing motorist might—you have the feeling that if you paid him another 10,000 smackers (I think that is the word) he would go faster and clearer and in a more dynamo-motor way still. Consequently his treatment of good music is a desecration and very hollow, but Liszt and Prokofiev are thrilling and splendid.”

Throughout all his letters there is the lively Berlin charm. His abject apology to a Brazilian diplomat whose dinner party he failed to attend, after a series of comic mishaps that began with a mistaken address, begins, “I fear that you will never wish to speak to me again or think of me without acute distaste, but I assure you that only a peculiar kind of force majeure prevented me from dining with you last night. So humiliating is this experience I can scarcely bring myself to describe it to you,” and concludes, “Please believe me, forgive me, and give me a telephone call at the Embassy—an act which I cannot bring myself to perform without the most acute torment. There now, if I have conveyed a tithe of my sorrow and my sense of guilt, you will not be too hard on me.” A British diplomat who worked with Berlin at the time later wrote that “he broke every rule of social etiquette—regularly forgetting appointments or addresses—and yet he remained one of the top catches of all Washington hostesses. He was a brilliant conversationalist and raconteur . . . possessed of an immense bonhomie.”

In the last twenty-five years of his life, Isaiah Berlin found the ideal editor in Henry Hardy, who with discernment and devotion, over many years, located, edited, and re-published much work that had languished in obscure journals and half-forgotten festschrifts. Hardy’s painstaking editing has gone serenely on in the years since Berlin’s death. In this monumental volume of letters, reflecting editorial detective skills of a rare order, Hardy’s elegant and unobtrusive scholarship is exemplary, providing biographical information that brings to life the scores of figures whose names Berlin casually drops, and adding passages of explanatory “connective tissue” that put the letters in their precise historical and social context. Hardy’s notes are in themselves a pleasure, sometimes wryly amusing, though he points out that all his editorial matter is no substitute for reading the authorized biography by Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life (1998). Some of Hardy’s most revealing supplementary material is quoted from Ignatieff’s taped interviews with Berlin, the raw material for the graceful, affectionate memoir that describes many, but not all, aspects of Berlin’s life. Isaiah Berlin’s own “connective tissue” is added to the present volume in the form of two appendices: in addition to “Zionist Politics in Wartime Washington,” this edition includes the introduction he wrote for the volume of his Washington dispatches edited by H. G. Nicholas. At the very end of his beguiling Preface, Hardy proposes that Isaiah Berlin be named the patron saint of untidiness, but nonetheless thanks his good fortune for having had the immense privilege of knowing Berlin and laboring on his publications.

Isaiah Berlin was himself aware that his many admirers began to turn him into a sage and public monument years before his death in 1997 at age eighty-eight. He certainly enjoyed some of the tributes, but resisted the marmoreal glaze with which some admirers wished to cover him, and went on living with great gusto. Some eighteen months before his death he said to an interviewer: “I don’t know when I shall die, but I’m astonished not to be dead already. Astonished and delighted! . . . I wouldn’t mind living on and on. . . . I am filled with curiosity and long to know, what next?” That unquenchable curiosity, that seriousness and gaiety combined, animate every one of the letters presented to us here. We come away from the reading invigorated and encouraged by the awareness, in Henry Hardy’s words, that in Isaiah Berlin we see “the unexpectedly large possibilities open to us at the top end of the range of human potential, and the power of the wisely directed intellect to illuminate, without undue solemnity or needless obscurity, the ultimate moral questions that face mankind.”