Isaiah Berlin Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

ph_0111207219-Berlin.jpg Isaiah Berlin Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Drawing upon the liberal heritage of Western civilization, Berlin advocated viewing history and ideas from a plurality of viewpoints, the better to provide realistic and reasonable answers to the conditions and problems of human existence and society.

Early Life

Isaiah Mendelevich Berlin, the son of Jewish parents, was born in 1909 in Riga, a major city in the Baltic nation of Latvia, which had been part of the Russian Empire since the eighteenth century. Both Berlin’s father, Mendel Berlin, and his mother, Marie Berlin, spoke Russian. They were very interested in the arts, especially writing and music; throughout his life, Isaiah Berlin displayed a keen appreciation for and enjoyment of literature and opera.

World War I began in 1914, and by 1915, German armies were pressing close to Riga. The Berlins moved into Russia for greater safety, first to Adreapol and then, in 1917, to the capital, Petrograd (modern-day St. Petersburg). In Petrograd, the young Berlin witnessed first the moderate February Revolution, which brought Prince Aleksandr F. Kerensky to power, and then the more violent Bolshevik Revolution in November, led by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. It was during this time that Berlin saw a former czarist police officer dragged away, pale and struggling, to his almost certain death by a mob, an action that, as he remembered years later, “gave me a lifelong horror of physical violence.”

When Latvia achieved its independence in 1919, the Berlins returned to Riga, where they endured the extreme hardships of the postwar years. Berlin later recalled standing in line for up to five hours to buy bread or other food. Berlin’s father, a committed Anglophile, had friends and business acquaintances in Britain, and in 1921, the family moved to England, living in London before settling in Hampstead. While in Britain, the young Berlin grew fluent in English but retained his knowledge of Russian by reading the great classics of Russian literature.

After establishing himself as an outstanding student in preparatory school, Berlin received a scholarship to attend Corpus Christi College of Oxford University in 1928. While there, he edited an intellectual periodical, The Oxford Outlook, and made a lifelong friend of the poet Stephen Spender. His time at Oxford confirmed his choice of career: an intellectual, whose service to the public in both government and the academy would be appreciated primarily because of his own independence of thought and interests.

Life’s Work

After graduation, Berlin became a lecturer in philosophy at New College, Oxford. Soon after, he was elected to a fellowship at All Souls College. He was commissioned to write a biographical and critical study of German political philosopher Karl Marx for the Home University Library; ironically, he was not the first choice of the editors. With perhaps equal irony, Karl Marx: His Life and Environment was Berlin’s only full-length book; although a prolific writer, he would confine himself to essays and collections throughout his lengthy and productive career.

Berlin’s Karl Marx was, in many ways, the first serious consideration of Marx as a philosopher and political thinker in the noncommunist world. It gave Marx the respect he deserved for having acutely isolated and analyzed the failures and inequities of unrestrained capitalism and honored him for his criticisms of the often hypocritical stances of bourgeoisie democracy but did not shrink from noting that Marx, in his view of the inevitable trend of human history, had failed to foresee either fascism or the welfare state. In short, in this relatively brief work, Berlin described Marx the man, Marxism the philosophy, and Marxism’s fatal contradictions.

Chosen in 1938 as a fellow of New College, Berlin spent the first years of World War II teaching. In 1941, he was sent by the British Foreign Office to the United States, first to New York and then to Washington, D.C. He was responsible for drafting reports on the political mood in the United States. Later Winston Churchill would state that Berlin’s dispatches were the ones he most prized and enjoyed during the war years. They were published as Washington Despatches, 1941-1945 (1981).

Berlin was transferred to Moscow in 1945 and remained there until the following year. While in the Soviet capital, he met a number of writers and intellectuals, among them the novelist and poet Boris Pasternak and the poet Anna Akhmatova. He was especially impressed with Akhmatova and later wrote movingly of their meeting and her influence on him in his work Personal Impressions. His regard for Akhmatova was not one-sided, for the Russian poet was impressed enough by Berlin to write a poem about the visit, and she felt that the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was so suspicious of the meeting that it was a small, but real, cause of the Cold War.

During the war, Berlin had decided that his interests were less in pure philosophy than in the history of ideas, especially those of political science. In 1950, he returned to All Souls College and began his examination of how, and perhaps why, people believe what they do and how they act upon those beliefs. One of his central concepts was that there was no single, universal answer to the perpetual questions of human...

(The entire section is 2219 words.)