Isaiah Berlin (1909–1997) was an Oxford philosopher and historian of ideas who made a key contribution to the development of political theory with his essay 'Two Concepts of Liberty' (1958). More famous still is his study on Tolstoy's view of history, The Hedgehog and the Fox (1953). Berlin was an original thinker whose writings on liberty and pluralism are a part of the intellectual bedrock of an open society. The best concise biography of him is Alan Ryan's article in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
To Isaiah Berlin, Alexander Herzen mattered. Berlin came upon Herzen's works by chance in the London Library, while he was researching his biography of another 19th century radical, Karl Marx. It was an accidental discovery that had a profound influence on Berlin's life and thought. The more that he read Herzen, the more that he admired him. He considered Herzen 'the most eloquent and convincing preacher' of what for Berlin was a central truth - that monist systems of thought were responsible for inhumanity and injustice on a colossal scale: 'political fanaticism of this type, no matter how pure the motive, how noble the goal, invariably leads to blood'. No century, he believed, illustrated this truth 'in a more dreadful fashion' than his own, and he recommended Herzen's humane and pluralist outlook as the antidote.
John Banville, New York Review of Books , 19 December 2013
The Isaiah Berlin Image Database - IBID - has hundreds of photographs of Isaiah Berlin, his life and times. This month's picture shows him in February 1988, speaking to the press at the ceremony in Turin where he was presented with the Agnelli Prize for his contribution to ethics: the award was intended 'to draw attention to the need for reflection on the role of ethical principles in modern society'. He considered his address, 'On the Pursuit of the Ideal', to be a succinct statement of his ‘general credo’.
When was The Hedgehog and the Fox first published? What else did Isaiah Berlin write about Tolstoy? What was his output in any given year, or range of years? Find out the answers in the IBO Catalogue - a searchable list of published and unpublished works; translations; broadcasts; and interviews.
'In the end I come down on the side of the Enlightenment, but the other side should be listened to: they have identified grave flaws, they have a vision too.' (to Mark Lilla, 13 December 1993)
A link to pages that will explore IB's writings on Jewish themes, including the Diaspora, anti-Semitism, and Jewish identity.
Berlin was a Russian-speaker with a lifelong interest in the Russian intelligentsia: find out
Music and Opera
'I have listened to more soloists, chamber music, opera, symphonies, choral works than almost, I think, anyone living.' (to Michael Ignatieff, 10 January 1997)
A link to pages that will recall Berlin's meetings with Akhmatova, his memories, and thoughts thereon. Find out more...
Back in the USSR
Berlin was a self-proclaimed 'cold war liberal', who had strong feelings about the Bolshevik Revolution, and even more so the Soviet state that succeeded it: find out
To be, or not to be...
'I still believe [...] in the deep truth of that saying of C. I. Lewis that "the truth when it is discovered will not necessarily prove interesting"' (to Charles Taylor, 1962)
'Berlin remained a Zionist, but always a liberal Zionist. He was deeply loyal to his fellow Jews, but he deplored narrow tribalism' (Alan Ryan, ODNB).
Washington & the East Coast
Berlin spent the Second World War mostly in the United States, and made many post-war visits to the great universities of the East Coast.
'Pasternak in his day scolded me for regarding everything truly Russian through enamoured eyes. That's true: in my old age recidivism is setting in' (to Lidiya Chukovskaya, 20 November 1975).
Berlin entertained sharply contrasting views on Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov, both of whom he admired, but in very different ways.
Boris Leonidovich Pasternak
'Pasternak, to his honour, be it said, was one of the purest poets of our age – everything he writes is poetical, whether it be prose or verse, essays or novels or stories or indeed words in ordinary (in his case very extraordinary) conversation' (to Christopher Barnes, 13 July 1972).