Quotations from Isaiah Berlin

‘he that tries to recommend him by select quotations, will succeed like the pedant in Hierocles, who, when he offered his house to sale, carried a brick in his pocket as a specimen’
Samuel Johnson, Preface to Shakespeare, 1765


Dated quotations in chronological order


If ever I marry I shall certainly choose an Irish woman.
To Sigle Lynd, 1 July 1933

I am not a very political thinker.
To his father, Mendel Berlin, autumn 1935

I have always been prone to coloured descriptions of unimportant phenomena.
To Marion Frankfurter, 3 June 1936

I hate responsibility.
To Elizabeth Bowen, July 1937?

... emotional exploitation, cannibalism, which I think I dislike more than anything else in the world ...
To Ben Nicolson, September 1937

Valéry delivered an agreeable but dull lecture here. He said words were like thin planks over precipices, & if you crossed rapidly nothing happenned, but if you stopped on any of them & stared into the gulf you wd get vertigo & that was what philosophers were doing.
To Cressida Bonham Carter, March 1939

I never don’t moralize.
To Mary Fisher, 18 April 1940

I only feel happy when I feel the solidarity of the majority of people I respect with & behind me.
To Marion Frankfurter, 23 August 1940

I am vainly searching New York for a copy of Alexander Herzen’s memoirs, a book which altered my life and became a point of reference both intellectually & morally.
To Lillian Schapiro, August 1941

No town has ever taken itself so seriously with so little reason.
Of Washington, to René Janin, 30 March 1943

One cannot safely live in a house with a red-haired bluestocking.
To his parents, 16 August 1943

I hope your son has not forgotten the excitable conductor – that is how I am sure I should like to be remembered.
To Meyer Schapiro, 16 August 1943

This is the part a recital of which, although true, might by some be called inartistic exaggeration. I have no passion for the truth and will omit it.
To S. N. Behrman, 16 December 1943

My view on this is that you will not find life in the country lively enough for persons of your temperament. Life in the country in England depends entirely on (a) motor cars (b) rural tastes. As you possess neither, it is my considered view that apart from a weekend cottage or something of that sort life in the country would bore you stiff within a very short time.
To his parents, 31 January 1944

This country is undoubtedly the largest assemblage of fundamentally benevolent human beings ever gathered together, but the thought of staying here remains a nightmare.
To his parents, 31 January 1944

I am determined to remain persistently frivolous, a quality which goes down with the Ambassador but no one else in this establishment, despite all, and confine the serious side of my nature to academic subjects and private life. I now know that solemnity and public seriousness are fatal qualities in the conduct of public affairs and shall never believe anything else.
To Joseph Alsop, 11 February 1944

London is heaven, but Oxford seventh heaven.
To Freya Stark, 12 June 1944

Certainly no politics are more real than those of academic life, no loves deeper, no hatreds more burning, no principles more sacred.
To Freya Stark, 12 June 1944

Nobody is so fiercely bureaucratic, or so stern with soldiers and regular civil servants, as the don disguised as temporary government official armed with an indestructible superiority complex.
To Freya Stark, 12 June 1944

I am a hopeless dilettante about matters of fact really and only good for a column of gossip, if that.
To Walter Turner, 12 June 1945

England is an old chronic complaint: every day in the afternoon in the left knee and the left leg below the kneecap, tiresome, annoying, not bad enough to go to bed with, probably incurable and madly irritating but not necessarily likely to lead to a really serious crisis unless complications set in.
To Angus Malcolm, 20 February 1946

What is Life?
(1) Tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
(2) Dictionary definition in biology (chemical process within organic entities involving metabolism etc.)
(3) Mrs Woolf: ‘Life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.’
(4) Series of actual and hypothetical behavioural data which differ in certain assignable ways from data defining dead or inanimate entities.
(5) That which the Lord infused into Adam. See Genesis 1. 4 [sc. 2. 7].
Which?
Mental Cramp.
‘Berkeley’s External World’, unpublished lectures, Hilary Term 1947

Genius means the power of rendering paradoxes as platitudes.
‘Berkeley’s External World’, unpublished lectures, Hilary Term 1947

[W]hy be clever? it is a much overrated attribute.
To Patrick Reilly, 3 August 1947

The Open Society and its Enemies, by Dr Karl Popper: a work of exceptional originality and power. The second volume provides the most scrupulous and formidable criticism of the philosophical and historical doctrines of Marxism by any living writer.
KM (2nd ed., 1948) 277
Compare:
[Popper’s] championship of rational thought and his effective exposure of confusion and fanaticism in this region, and their often terrible consequences, are a genuine asset of Western culture.
From the back cover of  Popper’s The Myth of The Framework, ed. M. A. Notturno (Routledge, 1994)

Life may be seen through many windows, none of them necessarily clear or opaque, less or more distorting than any of the others.
‘Winston Churchill in 1940’ (1949), PI 4

Injustice, poverty, slavery, ignorance – these may be cured by reform or revolution. But men do not live only by fighting evils. They live by positive goals, individual and collective, a vast variety of them, seldom predictable, at times incompatible.
‘Political Ideas in the Twentieth Century’ (1950), L 93 [FEL 40]

Rousseau is the greatest militant lowbrow of history, a kind of guttersnipe of genius ...
Freedom and its Betrayal (1952): FIB 41; misquoted by the Observer, 9 November 1952, as ‘Rousseau was the first militant lowbrow’

... there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision ... and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory ... The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes ...
‘The Hedgehog and the Fox’ (1953), PSM 436–7

[The Jews] have enjoyed rather too much history and too little geography.
‘The Origins of Israel’ (1953), POI 143

I am beginning to think I should like to create an institution.
To his parents, 4 November 1953

[C]hoosing is hell.
To Lord David Cecil, 8 November 1953

[John Sparrow] is the only man I know who is capable of making a scene in a letter.
To Sir Maurice Bowra, 19 November 1953

I can be very hard when I am driven to it.
To his mother, Marie Berlin, 28 April 1954

My mother is calling. I must go down to dinner. I quail like some hero in P. G. Wodehouse before my mother’s stern, all-perceiving and all-penetrating eye.
To Arthur Schlesinger, Jr, 2 May 1955

Unless there is some point at which you are prepared to fight against whatever odds, and whatever the threat may be, not merely to yourself but to anybody, all principles become flexible, all codes melt, and all ends-in-themselves for which we live disappear ...
To Philip Toynbee, 24 January 1958

[O]ne of the distinguishing characteristics of a great man is that his active intervention makes what seemed highly improbable in fact happen.
‘Chaim Weizmann’ (1958), PI3 60

Everything is what it is: liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or culture, or human happiness or a quiet conscience.
‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ (1958), L 172 [FEL 125]

It may be that the ideal of freedom to choose ends without claiming eternal validity for them, and the pluralism of values connected with this, is only the late fruit of our declining capitalist civilisation: an ideal which remote ages and primitive societies have not recognised, and one which posterity will regard with curiosity, even sympathy, but little comprehension. This may be so; but no sceptical conclusions seem to me to follow. Principles are not less sacred because their duration cannot be guaranteed. Indeed, the very desire for guarantees that our values are eternal and secure in some objective heaven is perhaps only a craving for the certainties of childhood or the absolute values of our primitive past. ‘To realise the relative validity of one’s convictions’, said an admirable writer of our time, ‘and yet stand for them unflinchingly is what distinguishes a civilised man from a barbarian.’ To demand more than this is perhaps a deep and incurable metaphysical need; but to allow such a need to determine one’s practice is a symptom of an equally deep, and more dangerous, moral and political immaturity.
ibid., L 217 [FEL 172]

... it is this, the ‘positive’ conception of liberty, not freedom from, but freedom to – to lead one prescribed form of life – which the adherents of the ‘negative’ notion represent as being, at times, no better than a specious disguise for brutal tyranny.
ibid. 178 [131]

All forms of tampering with human beings, getting at them, shaping them against their will to your own pattern, all thought control and conditioning are, therefore, a denial of that in men which makes them men and their values ultimate.
ibid., L 184 [FEL 137–8]

Life is very hard, and I am very tiresome.
To Hugh Whitney, 25 February 1959

Opera before Country!
To David Webster, 8 October 1959

‘Wittiest man in Oxford’ – I am not particularly witty – nobody can ever remember a single epigram I have ever made – and it annoys all the other really witty men. Anyway it is the last reputation I wish to have – I should like to be thought of as grave, deep, serious etc., and not as an agreeable talker. However one’s view of oneself and the view taken by others are strangely dissimilar.
To his aunt Ida Samunov, 10 December 1959

No great doctrine of originality and power in human affairs appears to me ever to have got into the common consciousness of men unless it was to some extent exaggerated.
‘A Philosopher Looks at the Future’, in Conversations with Henry Brandon (London, 1966: Deutsch), 21
[F]ew new truths have ever won their way against the resistance of established ideas save by being overstated.
‘The Philosophical Ideas of Giambattista Vico’ (1961), TCE 102; cf. TCE 16–17, PSM 370

He believed that the ultimate goal of life was life itself; that the day and the hour were ends in themselves, not a means to another day or another experience. He believed that remote ends were a dream, that faith in them was a fatal illusion; that to sacrifice the present or the immediate and foreseeable future to these distant ends must always lead to cruel and futile forms of human sacrifice. He believed that values were not found in an impersonal, objective realm, but were created by human beings, changed with the generations of men, but were none the less binding upon those who lived in their light; that suffering was inescapable, and infallible knowledge neither attainable nor needed. He believed in reason, scientific methods, individual action, empirically discovered truths; but he tended to suspect that faith in general formulae, laws, prescription in human affairs was an attempt, sometimes catastrophic, always irrational, to escape from the uncertainty and unpredictable variety of life to the false security of our own symmetrical fantasies. He was fully conscious of what he believed. He had obtained this knowledge at the cost of painful, and, at times, unintended, self-analysis, and he described what he saw in language of exceptional vitality, precision and poetry. His purely personal credo remained unaltered from his earliest days: ‘Art, and the summer lightning of individual happiness: these are the only real goods we have,’[1] he declared in a self-revealing passage of the kind that so deeply shocked the stern young Russian revolutionaries in the 1860s. Yet even they and their descendants did not and do not reject his artistic and intellectual achievement.
Penultimate paragraph of the introduction (1968) to Alexander Herzen’s My Past and Thoughts, AC 211–12, PSM 523–4A. I. Gertsen, Sobranie sochinenii v tridtsati tomakh (Moscow, 1954–66), vol. 16, p. 135 [back]

All central beliefs on human matters spring from a personal predicament.
Letter to Jean Floud, 5 July 1968

What the historian says will, however careful he may be to use purely descriptive language, sooner or later convey his attitude. Detachment is itself a moral position. The use of neutral language (‘Himmler caused many persons to be asphyxiated’) conveys its own ethical tone.
Introduction to ‘Five Essays on Liberty’ (1969) , L 22–3 [FEL xxix]

Acceptance of common values (at any rate some irreducible minimum of them) enters our conception of a normal human being.
ibid. 24 [xxxi]

The simple point which I am concerned to make is that where ultimate values are irreconcilable, clear-cut solutions cannot, in principle, be found. To decide rationally in such situations is to decide in the light of general ideals, the overall pattern of life pursued by a man or a group or a society.
ibid. 42 [l]

The need to choose, to sacrifice some ultimate values to others, turns out to be a permanent characteristic of the human predicament.
ibid. 43 [li]

Those, no doubt, are in some way fortunate who have brought themselves, or have been brought by others, to obey some ultimate principle before the bar of which all problems can be brought. Single-minded monists, ruthless fanatics, men possessed by an all-embracing coherent vision do not know the doubts and agonies of those who cannot wholly blind themselves to reality.
ibid. 47 [lv]

The notion that there must exist final objective answers to normative questions, truths that can be demonstrated or directly intuited, that it is in principle possible to discover a harmonious pattern in which all values are reconciled, and that it is towards this unique goal that we must make; that we can uncover some single central principle that shapes this vision, a principle which, once found, will govern our lives – this ancient and almost universal belief, on which so much traditional thought and action and philosophical doctrine rests, seems to me invalid, and at times to have led (and still to lead) to absurdities in theory and barbarous consequences in practice.
ibid. 47–8 [lv–lvi]

The fundamental sense of freedom is freedom from chains, from imprisonment, from enslavement by others. The rest is extension of this sense, or else metaphor.
ibid. 48 [lvi]

[T]hose who have ever valued liberty for its own sake believed that to be free to choose, and not to be chosen for, is an inalienable ingredient in what makes human beings human.
ibid. 52 [lx]

[L]ogical objections are no good, in principle, against beliefs about reality.
To Philip Toynbee, 23 June 1969

[L]ife is not worth living unless one can be indiscreet to intimate friends.
To Morton White, 7 May 1970

Cosmopolitanism is the shedding of all that makes one most human, most oneself.
‘The Counter-Enlightenment’ (1973), PSM 255

Long runs are made of short runs – to ignore the latter is very foolish.
To Joseph Alsop, 15 January 1976

[H]ow trivialities rest the soul!
To Pat Utechin, 2 September 1976

A profound historian cannot be a shallow human being.
It is a terrible and dangerous arrogance to believe that you alone are right: have a magical eye which sees the truth: & that others cannot be right if they disagree.
‘Notes on Prejudice’ (1981), L 349

[T]he first people totalitarians destroy or silence are men of ideas & free minds.
ibid. 350

[T]hose who know there is only one true answer to all questions and have metaphysical a priori guarantees of it are always wrong and often dangerous.
To Beata Polanowska-Sygulska, 22 April 1987, UD 57

[N]o doctrine which inspires a movement or a party has ever to my knowledge been refuted by argument – it expires as a result of changes in the world.
To Nora Beloff, 4 March 1988 

Participation is not my thing; by nature I am an observer.
In conversation with Beata Polanowska-Sygulska, April 1988, UD 168

Happy are those who live under a discipline which they accept without question, who freely obey the orders of leaders, spiritual or temporal, whose word is fully accepted as unbreakable law; or those who have, by their own methods, arrived at clear and unshakeable convictions about what to do and what to be that brook no possible doubt. I can only say that those who rest on such comfortable beds of dogma are victims of forms of self-induced myopia, blinkers that may make for contentment, but not for understanding of what it is to be human.
‘The Pursuit of the Ideal’ (1988), PSM 11 

[Y]ou must realise that if you use violent methods the result will almost invariably be totally different from what you intend. Why? Because too much is unknown – not because you are wrong. The abuses are abuses, the tyranny is a tyranny, it should be stopped, it can be stopped; but if the measures are too violent – that’s to say, if you believe in the possibility of a total or even three-quarters transformation of society by organised means, if need be by violence – you will find that you’ve heaved up forces of whose existence you were probably not aware, which will in some way frustrate your designs and produce something maybe better than there was before, but not what you wanted.
Interview with Michael Ignatieff, 29 November 1989

Undated quotations/anecdotes



[H]e remarked that sociologists reminded him of men who wear deep-sea diving suits to enter a room full of people to find out what they were doing.
Daniel O’Flaherty

I am now going to tell you all that is known about Zeno, and probably quite a lot more.
Isis, 22 February 1964

Berlin liked to remind people that when they most believed they know where they are going, that is when they are likeliest to be wrong.
Colin Walters, ‘Tracking Romanticism, root and branch’,
Washington Times, 14 March 1999, B6

Isaiah Berlin was once asked what animal he would want to be, and he replied: a penguin. Because when the penguin remains alone, he dies.
Yuli Tamir, interviewed by Ada Ushpiz in Ha'aretz, 6 October 2006, B11

In the course of my work I come across, and often have to trace, many passages from other authors, some of which seem to me eminently quotable, though they are not in standard reference works: a list of some these appears on this site under the heading Quotations by Isaiah Berlin


Thanks to Arie Dubnov and Willie Jones