Jun 4th 2009
From The Economist print edition
WHEN the late Isaiah Berlin was knighted, a friend joked that the honour was for his services to conversation. The distinguished theorist of liberalism was indeed a brilliant talker and feline gossip. Readers of Berlin’s letters will find that same bubbling flow of malice, wit and human insight on the written page.
A first set of letters came out five years ago. To coincide with Berlin’s centenary year—he lived from 1909 to 1997—his literary executor, Henry Hardy, and a team of co-editors have now brought out a second fat volume. The verbal pressure is higher still, for in 1949 Berlin began dictating to a machine.
Biographically the letters take the reader through Berlin’s professional ascent from clever young don to Oxford professor, public educator and transatlantic academic star. They track the consolidation of his social position as an intellectual jewel of the post-war British establishment. Three or four footnotes a page introduce perhaps 1,000 or more politicians, public servants, academics, musicians and socialites whom Berlin knew or talked about. For that alone, his letters are a unique record of a bygone milieu.
Berlin did not write on oath. He ladles praise on correspondents only to dismiss them in letters to others as gorgons or third-raters. During the Suez crisis in 1956 he writes to the wife of the prime minister, Sir Anthony Eden, that her husband has shown “great moral splendour”. The next letter, to Berlin’s stepson at Harvard, calls the British action “childish folly”. His capsule judgments are sometimes apt, sometimes sneering. He calls Sir Peter Strawson, an eminent contemporary philosopher, provincial.
Berlin is sharper still on his own thin-skinned self. He belittles his large philosophical gifts, finds publication an agony and worries to correspondents that his work is rot.
Mr Hardy says that these letters represent perhaps a fourth of those Berlin wrote in 1946-60. There are none back to him. So here is Berlin in his own ironical voice, as selected by editors. A reader only of these letters may well ask why Berlin had such grateful pupils and devoted friends. And why was he among the foremost liberal thinkers of the age? A selection of old and new tributes, “The Book of Isaiah”, also edited by the tireless Mr Hardy, partly answers both questions.
Thinkers such as John Rawls defended liberal principles with more argument. Among historians of ideas, Quentin Skinner did more to professionalise their discipline. No one had Berlin’s gift for dramatising and personalising abstract ideas.
Berlin kept returning to three core convictions. Freedom from constraint by others (negative liberty) is more urgent or basic, he argued, than freedom to realise your potential (positive liberty). The left distrusted that distinction and the right misappropriated it, while philosophers continue to pick it over. He thought, secondly, that liberalism fails if it cannot validate the universal need to belong.
But perhaps Berlin’s strongest conviction was that the basic commitments—to friendship and truth, fairness and liberty, family and achievement, nation and principle—clash routinely and cannot be smoothly reconciled. Thinkers and politicians should admit the conflicts, Berlin implied, and not blanket them with doctrine or tyrannically attempt to subordinate some concerns to others.
The first two of those ideas crop up here and there in these letters. In personal form, that third conviction—that people are to be taken in full, not in formulae—runs throughout, and was surely one source of Berlin’s charm. More volumes of letters are to follow. Readers will wonder what self-mocking Berlin would have made of this growing monument. He was an erudite wit at the dinner table and, as the reader now sees, in his letters. But he was a thinker first, and for his thought there is no substitute for his essays.
注1：A literary executor is a person with decision-making power in respect of a literary estate.
The literary estate of an author who has died will often consist mainly of the copyright and other intellectual property rights of published works, including for example film and translation rights. It may also include original manuscripts of published work, which potentially have a market value; unpublished work in a finished state or partially completed; and papers of intrinsic literary interest such as correspondence or personal diaries and records.