Review: Building: Isaiah Berlin, Letters 1960-1975

By Josh Glancy, August 11, 2013
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Isaiah Berlin believed that some human values would always clash, so it is perhaps no surprise that his legacy continues to divide opinion today. To adapt an old Jewish joke, get three people to talk about Isaiah Berlin, and get five different points of view.

To some, he was a liberal hero, the Russian-Jewish intellectual whose wit and brilliance allowed him to storm the barricades of British academe. To others, he was a Zionist champion and eloquent advocate for the Jewish state. Some also know Berlin for his important contributions to liberal theory (notably his Two Concepts of Liberty, still the starting point for political philosophy undergraduates around the world).

But Berlin has his detractors as well. Many on the left believe him to have been an establishment sycophant whose vague liberal musings were seized on as justification for nasty Cold War undertakings. Others point out that Berlin never produced a major book, indicative of a second-class mind and an inflated reputation. They say he was a man who spent far too much time gossiping and social climbing to be of lasting importance.

In truth, Berlin was all of these things and more. There can be few to whom the famous Walt Whitman line is more applicable: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”

One thing most can agree on is that Berlin was one of the great raconteurs of his age, and this third and latest batch of his correspondence does not disappoint. All of his multitudes and contradictions are present.

He remonstrates with Teddy Kollek over the execution of Adolf Eichmann, dines with JFK on the first day of the Cuban Missile Crisis (“very romantic, rather terrifying”) and “imposes himself” on David Ben-Gurion at Sde Boker. He founds Wolfson College, Oxford, perhaps his greatest achievement, and exposes his own inadequacies, complaining that all he can produce are “little fragments” and no “solid work”.

Also present here is his famous letter objecting to the proposed appointment of Isaac Deutscher to a chair in Soviet Studies at Sussex University. He describes the Marxist intellectual as “the only man whose presence in the same academic community as myself I should find morally intolerable” (Berlin later denied that he had scotched Deutscher’s candidacy).

Most notably, this volume includes, for the first time, some of Berlin’s correspondence with his wife, Aline. This reveals a passionate and loving soul who quickly became lonely when separated from the comfort of his Oxford home.

The eloquence, charm and bitchiness will be familiar to students of Berlin, but what is most remarkable about these letters are their versatility. He switches instantly from catty Oxford gossip to grand Zionist statesman, and then again to loving husband or stepfather. Each on their own might make for an interesting collection of letters; together they represent a fascinating insight into the life of a towering figure in 20th-century British public life.

Building: Isaiah Berlin, Letters 1960-1975. Edited by Henry Hardy and Mark Pottle.

Last updated: 9:45am, August 11 2013