(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Isaiah Berlin 1909-1997

Russian-born, English historian, political philosopher, essayist, educator, and translator

Berlin is best known for a long, distinguished, and influential career as a historian of ideas and a political philosopher. He was the champion of a pluralistic liberalism based on skepticism regarding human perfectibility, final solutions to human problems, and the ameliorative powers of rationalism. Berlin's theories were also based upon the conviction that the human condition demands choices between often conflicting values of equal worthiness.

Biographical Information

Born to a wealthy and distinguished Jewish family in Riga, Latvia, Berlin grew up in St. Petersburg, Russia, where he enjoyed a comfortable youth, with loving parents, and an intellectually stimulating environment until the Russian Revolution. In 1921, fearful for their safety, his family immigrated to England, where his father, a timber merchant, had managed previously to deposit their fortune. After attending St. Paul's School, Berlin enrolled in Oxford in 1931, and became a lecturer in philosophy in 1932. He was associated with the university until his death. Berlin spent the Second World War working for the British Foreign Service in Washington, D.C.; his dispatches to Downing Street impressed Churchill by their intelligence and vivacity. After the war he was assigned to the British embassy in Moscow. During his time in the Soviet Union, Berlin met the dissident poets Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak. Their determination to bear witness in their art to the inhumanity of totalitarianism despite censorship, terror, and desolation influenced his later pro-Cold War stance. Berlin became known as a writer in the 1950s with the publication of his study of Leo Tolstoy and the place of determinism in history The Hedgehog and the Fox (1953). In the mid 1970s, Henry Hardy, one of his graduate students, embarked upon a project of collecting all Berlin's disparately published essays and unpublished lectures; seven volumes resulted. In the 1960s Berlin taught at Harvard and Princeton and was appointed to a chair at the City University of New York. In 1965 he was invited to create a college at Oxford dedicated to the natural and social sciences. Through his friendship with McGeorge Bundy, then head of the Ford Foundation, and his prominence in the Jewish Community in London, Berlin secured funding for building the college; he also gathered the faculty and supervised the design of the buildings. Berlin's sociability was legendary, and he was on familiar terms with many notable figures of the twentieth century and served as an advisor to such figures as Winston Churchill, David Ben Gurion, John F. Kennedy, and Margaret Thatcher. Berlin's fame and prestige grew in his later years. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1957, became president of the British Academy in 1974, received numerous honorary degrees from prestigious universities, and was awarded the Jerusalem prize in 1979, the Erasmus Prize in 1983, and the Agnelli Prize for contributions to the ethical understanding of advanced societies in 1988. He died in 1997.

Major Works

The body of Berlin's work, comprising a variety of essays and lectures on related themes, reflects the ongoing engagement of a public intellectual. In essays on Niccolò Machiavelli, Giambattista Vico, J. G. Herder, Joseph de le Maistre, Benjamin Disraeli, Karl Marx, Ivan Turgenyev, Alexander Herzen, and Tolstoy, as well as on themes including liberty, the incommensurability of equally worthy values, the Enlightenment, romanticism, and fascism, Berlin explored the tensions between monism and pluralism, negative and positive freedom, individual liberty and social justice, historical determinism and free choice, and rationalism and anti-rationalism. Informed by impeccable scholarship, Berlin's essays are well-regarded for their relevance to current problems and for his ability to give readers the impression of immediate contact with the figures about whom he wrote.

Critical Reception

Berlin is regarded by many as a towering figure in twentieth-century thought. His writings on negative and positive liberty have served as the starting point for numerous discussions in scholarly and political journals. His metaphor of the fox for those with wide ranging interests who can see things from varying perspectives, and the hedgehog for those who know “one big thing” has become a common designator of literary and political types. Because of his radio lectures in England, he became known to a general as well as to an academic audience. The liberalism he espoused has been challenged by ideological opponents on the left and on the right.