The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library

  I S A I A H   B E R L I N
1 9 0 9 – 1 9 9 7

Home 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

A   P E R S O N A L   I M P R E S S I O N 
Isaiah Mendelevich Berlin was born in 1909 to Russian-speaking Jewish parents in Riga, capital of Latvia. His father, Mendel, owned a timber business (chiefly providing sleepers for the Russian railways); he and especially his wife Marie were lively, cultured people, enthusiastically interested in the arts. They bequeathed their enthusiasm in full measure to their only surviving child, whose love of music in particular, especially but by no means only opera, was a thread of deep and growing importance to him which ran through his life from boyhood onwards.

In 1915 the German army was closing on Riga, and the Berlins moved to Russia. They lived first in Andreapol, then, from 1917, in Petrograd, where in that year Isaiah witnessed both the Social-Democratic and the Bolshevik Revolutions. On one occasion he saw a terrified, white-faced man being dragged and kicked through the streets by a mob; this was a formative experience which left him with an ineradicable loathing of any form of violence.

In 1920 the Berlins returned to Latvia, under a treaty with the Communists, and Mendel decided to move to England, where he had friends and business connections. Arriving in early 1921, they lived first in Surbiton, then in London, in Kensington and, a little later, Hampstead. After prep school Isaiah went to St Paul’s and, without ever losing touch with his Russian or Jewish identities, continued a thoroughgoing process of Anglicisation that enabled him to become a prominent figure in the English culture of his day.

In 1928 he went up as a scholar to Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He took Firsts in Greats and PPE in 1931 and 1932. Thereafter he was interviewed (unsuccessfully) for the Manchester Guardian and made preparations to read for the bar; but Richard Crossman, then a don at New College, gave him his first post, as a lecturer in philosophy. Almost immediately he was also elected to a fellowship at All Souls which ran concurrently with his lectureship until 1938, when he became a Fellow of New College. It was during this first spell at All Souls that he wrote his brilliant biographical study of Marx (Karl Marx: His Life and Environment, 1939) for the Home University Library: ironically he was by no means the editors’ first choice for the job. 

During the early years of the Second World War Berlin continued to teach. Then, in 1941, he was sent to New York by the Ministry of Information. In 1942 he was transferred to the Foreign Office, which he served until 1946 (apart from a few months in Moscow) at the British Embassy in Washington as head of a team charged with reporting the changing political mood of the United States. The despatches sent to Whitehall from Washington, not in his name but mostly drafted by him, attracted the attention of Winston Churchill, and have long had a reputation for their brilliance; a selection was published (as Washington Despatches 1941–1945, edited by H. G. Nicholas) in 1981.

Berlin has written most engagingly about aspects of these years: in particular, his descriptions of his meetings in Russia with Boris Pasternak, Anna Akhmatova and other writers are extremely moving. His encounter with Akhmatova had an especially profound effect on him; and the many passages about him in her poems bear witness to its fundamental significance for her too. ‘He will not be a beloved husband to me / But what we accomplish, he and I,/ Will disturb the Twentieth Century’: she was convinced that there was a direct link between Stalin’s reaction to their meeting in 1945 and the beginning of the Cold War in 1946.

By the end of the War Berlin had decided that he wanted to give up philosophy for the history of ideas, ‘a field in which one could hope to know more at the end of one’s life than when one had begun’. In 1950, with this in view, he returned to All Souls, where in 1957 he was elected to the Chichele chair of Social and Political Theory in succession to G.D.H.Cole. His inaugural lecture, Two Concepts of Liberty, is one of his best-known works, and certainly the most influential. In it, with great passion and subtlety, he stands up for ‘negative’ liberty – freedom from obstruction by others, freedom to follow one’s own choice – and shows how easily ‘positive’ liberty, the (desirable) freedom of self-mastery, is perverted into the ‘freedom’ to achieve ‘self-realisation’ according to criteria laid down and often forcibly imposed by self-appointed arbiters of the true ends of human life. His account has remained an indispensable reference-point for thought about freedom ever since, and permeates all subsequent informed discussion of the subject; nevertheless, perhaps partly because of the unassertive and deliberately unsystematic nature of his ideas, and his rejection of panaceas of any kind, he did not (to his relief) in any narrow sense acquire disciples or found a school of thought.

The year before his election to the chair, abandoning his apparently settled bachelor existence, he had married Aline Halban (daughter of the eminent European banker Pierre de Gunzbourg), perfectly described by Lord Goodman as ‘a lady of grace and distinction’. In his late forties he had found the partner who would be the linchpin of his life from that time onwards; and, in his three stepsons (he had no children of his own), a mutually devoted family. He always recommended marriage to others. 

© Copyright Henry Hardy 1997 N E X T > > 

Questions and comments to please

The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library