Isaiah Berlin

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2219

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.

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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 existence; each culture and age, even each individual, approached life from a unique perspective. It is the task of the historian of ideas to understand and articulate these perspectives rather than to force them into one falsely coherent whole.

The Hedgehog and the Fox, published in 1953, was one of the first fruits of this new direction. In this work, which has won classic status, Berlin examines the two contrasting visions of history and human life that writers and historians have created. His title comes from a fragment by the Greek poet Archilochus that reads, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one great thing.” Hedgehogs see everything as related; they possess a unitary inner vision. Foxes see many different phenomena but may not perceive essential connections; they have a vision of variety. According to Berlin, the writers and philosophers Dante Alighieri, Plato, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Fyodor Dostoevski, and Marcel Proust are hedgehogs. The writers and philosophers William Shakespeare, Herodotus, Aristotle, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Alexander Pushkin, and James Joyce are foxes. Tolstoy, the focus of Berlin’s perceptive study, was the saddest of all creatures, the born fox who agonized all his life because of his desire to be a hedgehog.

In 1956, already in his late forties and apparently a confirmed bachelor, he married Aline Halban, daughter of a noted European banker; she was a widow with three sons. The following year, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. The knighthood was only one of the many honors and awards bestowed upon Berlin during his lifetime. He was also awarded the British Order of Merit, made a Commander of the British Empire, and named as a fellow of the British Academy, where he served as vice president from 1959 through 1961 and as president from 1974 to 1978. His distinguished body of work also earned him the Erasmus, Lippincott, and Agnelli Prizes, along with the Jerusalem Prize for his lifelong defense of civil liberties.

In 1957, now Sir Isaiah, he was elected to the Chichele Chair of Social and Political Theory at Oxford. His inaugural lecture, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” contrasted “negative liberty” (freedom from others—who can command me?) and “positive liberty” (freedom of action—what can I make happen in the world?). This lecture made a significant contribution to political thought in the twentieth century and became the centerpiece of Berlin’s best-known work, Four Essays on Liberty.

The new Oxford graduate college Wolfson chose Berlin as its first president in 1966, in large part because of his intense personal involvement in raising funds and support for the institution. While president, Berlin was also on the faculty of City University of New York, where, from 1966 to 1971, he was professor of humanities. He retired from the Wolfson presidency in 1975.

After Berlin’s retirement, he published numerous works, including Vico and Herder, which examined two of the most influential thinkers of European history, and four volumes of collected essays, which displayed his wide-ranging and perceptive appreciation of thinkers from Niccolò Machiavelli to Karl Marx and of their influence on contemporary philosophical and political thought and action. He was especially interested in Russian thinkers. The writer and theorist Alexander Herzen was a particular favorite of his; both Herzen and Berlin wrote of an intense, innate rejection of absolutist philosophies such as communism or fascism, which demanded sacrifice and suffering, even death, from people in the present for the sake of some future utopia.

Although Berlin profoundly distrusted the hyperrationalism of the eighteenth century European Enlightenment, which sought to smooth all human knowledge into a single orderly and untroubled synthesis, he also rejected the Romantic irrationalism that followed in the nineteenth century. Two of his most important works examine the premises and results of such philosophies: “Joseph de Maistre and the Origins of Fascism,” collected in The Crooked Timber of Humanity, and The Magus of the North: J. G. Hamann and the Origins of Modern Irrationalism.

As he grew older, Berlin remained intellectually active, continuing to write his graceful and perceptive essays on a variety of subjects ranging from philosophical history to opera, one of his lifelong loves. A culminating anthology, The Proper Study of Mankind, was published in 1997. On November 5 of that year, Sir Isaiah Berlin died.


Berlin’s enduring legacy to philosophy and the history of ideas was his stress on the importance of a pluralistic point of view, the belief that there is no single, ultimately objective way of viewing the world, human existence, or the goals of individuals or societies. Throughout his long and productive career as a teacher, lecturer, and writer, he forcefully presented the view that human life cannot be viewed as a unified whole and that goals—though equally valuable, valid, and desirable—may be incompatible.

“Life can be seen through many windows, none of them necessarily clear or opaque, less or more distorting than the others,” Berlin wrote, explaining one aspect of his fundamental approach to the study of ideas. It was one that he developed and articulated throughout his career.

A second key element for Berlin was his passionate insistence on locating his theoretical and philosophical discussions in specific individuals and their activities and writings. Thus, Berlin’s examination of Marxism is directly related to Karl Marx himself; his discussions of the origins of modern totalitarianism are rooted in the life and writings of Joseph-Marie de Maistre. Berlin consistently moves from the specific to the general, always keeping his perceptions and observations fixed on the tangible and particular.

One contribution that probably can be attributed solely to Berlin is the concept of negative and positive liberty that he first articulated in his inaugural lecture as Chichele Chair of Social and Political Theory at Oxford. Negative liberty is the degree to which people are left alone—by others, the law, the state—to do as they please. Positive liberty is the ability people have to control life around them—to command others to do as they please. The subtle yet crucial distinction between these two forms of liberty and how they can exist in a free society steeped in the liberal tradition of Western civilization is one of Berlin’s most profound and lasting teachings.

Additional Reading

Berlin, Isaiah, and Ramin Jahanbegloo. Conversations with Isaiah Berlin. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1992. In a question-and-answer format, Isaiah Berlin discusses a wide range of topics, including his personal history, intellectual development, and opinions on philosophy and philosophers. Berlin’s responses to questions on such topics as “two kinds of liberty” are direct and lucid, and the biographical sections, especially those dealing with Berlin’s life as a young boy in Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, are fascinating.

Galipeau, Claude. Isaiah Berlin’s Liberalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. A thoughtful consideration of Berlin’s version of liberalism and how it differs from and yet is linked to the traditions of classical liberalism. Galipeau is especially good at placing Berlin’s thought in relationship to modern world politics, the excesses of which were often in direct, if not brutal, conflict with his more humane and humanitarian stance.

Gray, John. Isaiah Berlin. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996. A thoughtful examination of Berlin’s belief in the existence of values that while different are equally important. The central thesis of the book is that Berlin’s work is based on a principle that might be called “value-pluralism,” meaning that ultimate human values are objective but diverse and may often conflict.

Margalit, Edna, and Avishai Margalit, eds. Isaiah Berlin: A Celebration. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1991. This collection draws together essays that touch on the wide range of Berlin’s interests, from opera to political science to philosophy. Although a number of the pieces included here are valuable, the essay by celebrated legal scholar Ronald Dworkin on “Two Concepts of Liberty” is especially illuminating for those wishing to understand the full impact of Four Essays on Liberty.

Ryan, Alan, ed. The Idea of Freedom: Essays in Honor of Isaiah Berlin. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979. A useful collection of essays that shed light on Berlin’s philosophy of history and his views on the history of philosophy.

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