Building: Letters 1960-1975, by Isaiah Berlin, Edited by Henry Hardy and Mark Pottle, Chatto and Windus, 704pp, £40, (hardback)

Isaac & Isaiah, by David Caute, Yale, 335pp, £25, (hardback)

We now have the third volume of Isaiah Berlin’s letters, and it is as rich in interest as the two superb volumes that have preceded it. It begins in 1960, the year in which he turned fifty-one. This brilliant son of a Jewish timber merchant, born in Riga in 1909, was by now the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at All Souls College, Oxford, an institution he scarcely knew anything about when he was elected a Fellow of it at the age of twenty-three. He had seen the start of the Russian Revolution in Petrograd, come to England as a boy in 1920, and gone to St Paul’s School and Corpus Christ College, Oxford. But All Souls, that assembly of scholars and thinkers whose material needs are provided for, was to be at the heart of his life from then on.

By 1960 he was a famous man. In Oxford he was famous right from his undergraduate days both for his wit and intelligence, and his deep, gabbling voice, which in due course would be imitated by many other young dons. In the country at large, he had won fame for an outstanding series of lectures on great thinkers on the BBC Third Programme. He had also met numerous thinkers, politicians, and writers, and made many close friends. He hated solitude, and when not talking to members of this substantial tribe, he was constantly writing letters to them, often describing and discussing other members of it. It is as if he were a rapporteur of innumerable committees that were engaged in debating the issues of his time, and joining in the debate intensely himself.

In this volume we are plunged in immediately. His spontaneous pen pictures in the letters are marvellous, not least of his Oxford colleagues. Here is a tragic one of the ageing Maurice Bowra, one of his earliest friends in Oxford, and subsequently a renowned, flamboyant Warden of Wadham College. The letter was written to a close woman friend to whom he felt he could write plainly, after Bowra had visited him and his wife in Italy.

He eats as much as he can: his greed is terrific: & he drinks what he can get: omnivorously & indiscriminately; & grows dark purple: he goes up our hill and down it: slips, falls, takes what Evelyn Waugh called “arsers” – all this can be called intolerable exploitation or great & splendid gallantry, according to one’s values: it is both I suppose….courage: egoism: ruthlessness: like a condottiere at the wrong time and place…I remember how parents trembled at the thought that their sons were being corrupted violently by this Byronic, satanic, brilliant destroyer: now he is a pathetic old porpoise … a kind of Churchill unrealised

Nevertheless these letters are peppered all over with admiring and affectionate remarks about Bowra, and in one written after Bowra’s death he says, just as spontaneously and sincerely, ‘He was a marvellous man, and shaped us all … He was against every kind of narrowness and death’. Berlin’s unhesitating impulse to say frankly and wittily whatever is in his head at the time is one of the glories of these letters. It was no doubt helped by the fact that he dictated many of them into a Dictaphone – speaking rather than writing.

The disputes and quarrels between the Fellows at All Souls are also energetically documented – and there were many, especially as the Warden, John Sparrow, was trying to resist any change. The rows came to a head over the wish of Berlin and others to take graduate students into the college, with consequences that we shall see. On the way, we get many more excellent vignettes of people. One notably combative philosopher in Berlin’s circle was A. J., or Freddie, Ayer, whose book, Language, Truth and Logic, writes Berlin, ‘provoked violent opposition, made happy converts and liberated a large number of people from what they came to regard as metaphysical delusions or prisons. There were a lot of jokes made in 1939/40 about ARP, or Ayer-Raid Precautions.’

Berlin was a deep lover of music, and was for some years a trustee of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. This too was a hotbed of disagreements, and Berlin fought fiercely – but with a tact that he could also display – to maintain the highest standards there. In 1965, he says in a private letter that the new Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet ‘was an almost indecent success…a kind of highbrow Beatle affair … One touch of Fidelio or Falstaff by Toscanini, or Don Carlos by Giulini, and all these things shiver into nothing. The ignoble tastes of our most famous and most gifted conductors is a strange and disturbing symptom of our times.’

Oxford, London … these were places that he loved. But he found other places that welcomed him and where both eye and mind became deeply engaged. He was often lecturing during these years in America, where he had many friends from the period during the war when he was working in the British Embassy in Washington, and made many new ones. He met President Kennedy at a dinner during the Cuban missile crisis (‘I had a haircut in his honour’), and was impressed. He tells Bowra that Kennedy ‘is constantly alert, never lets go, some kind of electric current moves unceasingly within him and he is thinking political thoughts all the time and never relaxes for one single second’. But Berlin is never really comfortable in America: “They fall in love; then they get into states: the psychoanalyst gets to work; the girls say ‘do you have a compulsion neurosis about meals? The boy I go with has a guilt complex about penis envy’”. He was happier in Israel, a country towards which he felt a profound but often troubled loyalty. He tells his wife: ‘I like the faces, stones, etc. I feel at home, unnervous, unself conscious, don’t mind being bored, exhausted, etc … I don’t mind the familiarity, chaos, lack of dignity, noise: nothing is stiff, German, disapproving.’

The political and philosophical ideas for which he became famous naturally appear in many of the letters, particularly when he finds himself called on to defend them. He arrived in Oxford when a variety of forms of linguistic philosophy, such as Ayer’s, were in the ascendant, and he made his contribution in that sphere. But he never felt it suited his kind of mind, and he decided to become what he called an historian of ideas – a new concept not wholly welcomed in Oxford, where the tradition was that philosophy was philosophy – an activity of the mind independent of time – and history was history. But it was what he wanted to do, and in due course he wrote outstanding works on the great Russian thinkers of the nineteenth-century, especially Herder, and more generally on the ideas and influence of the writers of the Romantic Age in Europe.

Yet he remained a philosopher in a broader sense. Briefly put, we might say there were two main themes in his philosophical work, and these, which were very dear to him, grew in part out of his historical studies. One was the conviction that sometimes different values, both moral and political, were incompatible. There were liberty and equality, for instance, and you had sometimes to choose between them, and accept the consequences. He did not believe, like many optimistic liberals, that since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, the world had been on its way to a happy resolution of conflicting human desires.

But he was none the less a deeply liberal thinker. He thought that the widespread kind of liberal mind that believed that human beings could steer societies towards such a satisfactory end was in fact an enemy of liberty. Steering people towards their own liberty, he thought, could end up in their slavery – as it had in the monstrous totalitarian tyrannies of Fascism and Communism.

Out of this belief came the other prevailing theme in his writing – his famous distinction between ‘negative liberty’ and ‘positive liberty’. Positive liberty was when people in power thought they knew best what people wanted, and imposed it on them. Negative liberty was when people could live as they liked, provided that did not interfere with other people’s liberty to do the same.

He acknowledged, of course that it was desirable that the state, or society, should provide some things. But he thought politicians should never forget that the purest liberty was ‘negative liberty.’

He writes a long letter to the political theorist, Bernard Crick, on these points. It adds to what is in his books and lectures. Crick defends ‘positive liberty’. Berlin says freedom means open doors, whereas for Crick it means ‘the actual march through them’ – something Berlin thinks one should be free not to choose. Berlin imagines a dialogue between Crick and himself …

“Get out of your corner, stop brooding and realise your personality!” “And if I don’t?” “Then I’ll jolly well educate you and bring it out, no matter what you want!” “So you will force me to be free?”

In 1963 there was an event that in some degree reflected Berlin’s political thinking. Isaac Deutscher, a Trotskyist political thinker, had applied for a job at Sussex University. Berlin, as an adviser to the university board, was asked for his opinion on the matter. Deutscher was turned down. Six years later, a left-wing journal, The Black Dwarf, alleged that Berlin had caused Deutscher to be blocked because Deutscher was a Marxist. Berlin was enraged and denied that he had done any such thing. He had a total belief in freedom of speech.

Another new book just out, Isaac and Isaiah by David Caute, takes this episode as a basis for a wide examination of the political milieux of both men. Caute, who is himself a former Fellow of All Souls, observes that Deutscher had once written a hostile review of a book by Berlin. He does not directly accuse Berlin of being swayed by personal feelings in whatever he may have said about Deutscher – but the subtitle of Caute’s book, ‘The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic’ suggests something about what he thinks. However, as this volume reveals, in a letter in 1964 to a Polish philosopher, Andrzej Walicki, Berlin writes:

I think that on the whole, Deutscher is the least objective and factually least reliable writer among serious writers on politics to be found today: under the cover of passionate objectivity he hurls poisoned darts into both the left and the right, all except his own tiny faction of Trotskyists and semi-Trotskyists; and has, consequently, one of the least deserved reputations in the world for objectivity, solidity, good judgment.

If that was Berlin’s judgment on Deutscher, I think he was right to oppose his appointment at Sussex. Caute acknowledges, at least, that Deutscher would probably not have been happy there.

A letter to another Oxford colleague and friend, Bernard Williams, is one of the most touching in the book, and brings his ideas about incompatible values very delicately into a personal situation. Williams was leaving his wife Shirley, the Labour and then SDP politician, and marrying again. Berlin understands the guilt and agony that Williams is feeling, but says gently that ‘conflict is what it is’, and there is no way of avoiding it. Williams’s guilt and agony cannot be avoided ‘save at the cost of some other guilt & agony, or lies, self-deception or patter’. One hopes that Williams, a clear-minded man and distinguished philosopher himself, was helped by the letter.

There was one major change to Berlin’s life in 1966 that no-one could have anticipated. He was invited to become the head of a little college – just a converted family house, called Iffley College – for university teachers who were not full Fellows of colleges and consequently had no established home. The argument about graduate students at All Souls was still going on, and Berlin decided that he would accept, and turn Iffley into a bigger college that would house graduate students – especially in science – as well. The letters show the immense efforts that Berlin made to raise money to create it, drawing particularly on his friends in America such as McGeorge Bundy, the Kennedy ‘special assistant’ who had become President of the Ford Foundation. The Wolfson Foundation was the other main donor, and the fine new building was called Wolfson College. It included, at Berlin’s request, an echo of the curved wall in the harbour at Portofino, a place that he adored. The architects subsequently called the block incorporating this feature ‘the Berlin Wall.’

Isaiah Berlin unmistakably loved life. Yet there was some deep lack of self-confidence in him that he admits to again and again in his letters. He belonged in many places and yet, in some ways, nowhere. One of the best remarks ever made about him came from the conductor, Robert Craft: an ‘ironical gaiety’ underlay everything Berlin said. That was perhaps the quality, in both his life and his writing, that enabled him to touch the lives of countless people. It is certainly visible everywhere in this great volume of letters, magnificently edited by Henry Hardy and Mark Pottle.

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.