|Wolfson apart, Berlin’s chief legacy to the
future is what he wrote: a large, enormously varied oeuvre of
unmistakable style and penetration. In his own, reasonable, estimation
his most important work is represented by his exploration of four
fields of enquiry: liberalism; pluralism; nineteenth-century Russian
thought; and the origins and development of the romantic movement.
Under all these headings he shed much new light, and the way he did so
still retains the power to excite which it had when his contributions
were first made public.
For most of his life his reputation as a writer lagged behind
his actual output, much of which was in the form of occasional essays
(‘I am like a taxi: I have to be hailed’), often published obscurely.
Comparatively little had appeared in book form – principally Karl
Marx, The Hedgehog and the Fox (a long essay on Tolstoy’s view of
history), and the collection Four Essays on Liberty, which
included his inaugural lecture. But then in 1976 came Vico and
Herder, and shortly thereafter four volumes of collected essays
(1978–80). These books gave the lie to a remark made by his friend
Maurice Bowra when Berlin was appointed to the Order of Merit in 1971:
‘Though like Our Lord and Socrates he does not publish much, he thinks
and says a great deal and has had an enormous influence on our times.’
Other volumes followed in the 1990s, including two devoted to work he
had left unpublished when it was first written, and The Proper
Study of Mankind, a retrospective anthology of his work published
early in the year of his death.
By contrast with Bowra’s case, a good deal of Berlin’s way of
speaking is captured, happily, in his published work, which is imbued
with his personality and sets forth his cardinal intellectual
preoccupations with the greatest clarity and fecundity, if often
through the medium of his enquiries into the ideas of others. One of
the most attractive characteristics of his writing is that he is never
merely the detached scholar, never forgetful that the point of the
enquiry, in the end, is to increase understanding and moral insight.
Since, as another friend, Noel Annan, has put it ‘He will always use
two words where one will not do’, his message – a notion he would have
hated – is impossible to summarise without losing all of its
characteristic mode of expression. But its central content can be