Personal Impressions

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

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

This is the fourth volume of Sir Isaiah Berlin’s collected essays, all carefully edited by Henry Hardy. His mastery of Russian intellectual history is shown by Russian Thinkers (1978), while his more general command of speculative philosophy dominates Concepts and Categories (1979) and Against the Current (1980). The present work consists of tributes to and memories of a diverse gallery of distinguished persons. It can be classified under three basic headings: men in public life (Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Chaim Weizmann, Albert Einstein in his views toward Israel); academicians at or visitors to Oxford (L. B. Namier, Felix Frankfurter, Richard Pares, Hubert Henderson, J. L. Austin, J. P. Plamenatz, Maurice Bowra, Auberon Herbert) and writers (Aldous Huxley, and most vividly Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova).

First, a summary of Berlin’s impressive credentials: he is a polymathic thinker who taught social and political theory at Oxford from 1938 to 1967, then became President of Wolfson College there until 1975. He is President of the British Academy, and holds honorary degrees from and fellowships in universities of the United States, Israel, England, Scotland, and Wales. He may well be the greatest living exponent in the English-speaking world of the history of ideas.

In this collection, he is more relaxed and personal than when analyzing the concepts of Giambathsta Vico, Johann Gottfried Herder, Karl Marx, Aleksandr Herzen, or Mikhail Bakunin. With the exception of Roosevelt, Berlin is here describing intimates who have filled his own horizon. His tone is always appreciative and often empathic; his outlook is elegantly cosmopolitan and international; his generosity of feeling is notable: perhaps his only flaw is a disinclination to be severe with his subjects’ shortcomings. He has a passion to praise, to admire heroes. Though his special love is for the life of the mind as led at Oxford, he can understand people quite different from himself in temperament and interests. He both professes and practices pluralism, mistrusting totalitarians and technocrats, advocating liberty, variety, honesty, and above all humanistic sympathy. His portraits are rendered in lively, precise, evocative prose.

In his essay on Franklin D. Roosevelt, Berlin concedes a few weaknesses—opportunism, occasional cynicism, mental laziness—but then sketches a glowing portrait of him that establishes criteria for the kind of person he most admires:

he was large-hearted and possessed horizons, imaginative sweep, understanding of the time in which he lived and of the direction of the great new forces at work in the twentieth century . . . he was in favour of life and movement, the promotion of the most generous possible fulfillment of the largest possible number of human wishes, and not in favour of caution and retrenchment and sitting still. Above all, he was absolutely fearless.

Churchill is compared and usually contrasted to Roosevelt: he was a great nineteenth century conservative with an eighteenth century prose style patterned after Edward Gibbon and Dr. Samuel Johnson, whereas Roosevelt was a twentieth century innovator who welcomed the future. Though both men are celebrated as lovers of life, Roosevelt is seen as far more optimistic, empirical, buoyant, improvisatory, while Churchill is more introverted, tradition-bound, romantic, broodingly aware of darkness as well as light. Berlin praises his countryman as a mythical hero who saved Britain in 1940 “not by catching the mood of his surroundings . . . but by being stubbornly impervious to it.”

Berlin’s passionate Zionism colors his eloquent profile of Chaim Weizmann, who was to become Israel’s first President. He regards Weizmann as not only a great man but also a genius, the most gifted representative of a bourgeois Jewry semi-emancipated from the pietism of their ancestors, devoted to their families, socially realistic, stoic in the face of persecution, determined to achieve a democratic homeland in Palestine. Berlin loves Weizmann’s imperturbable self-confidence, authority, charm, dignity, control, and refusal to indulge in self-pity or pathos. A lifelong Anglophile, Weizmann had to endure the slings and arrows of the pro-Arab British Foreign Office, particularly the “brutal ill-humor” of Ernest Bevin; he was also reviled for his gentlemanly ways by East European Jews of more militant persuasion; Britain’s betrayal of the Balfour Declaration after World War II, wounded him in an irrecoverable manner. However, his consolation was of historic proportions:

He knew well that his achievement was without parallel. He knew that, unlike any man in modern history, he had created a nation and a state out of flotsam and jetsam of the diaspora, and had lived to see it develop an independent, unpredictable life of its own.

Albert Einstein had his differences with Weizmann and other Israeli statesmen, but remained a staunch Zionist. Berlin stresses the scientist’s sad awareness of Judaism’s rootlessness in the gentile-dominated communities of the West—hence the need of a national home that would restore Jews to psychic and social health. Paradoxically, Berlin demonstrates that Einstein, stressing man’s needs for social ties, was himself a homeless, lonely individual who found intimate relationships extremely difficult.

Berlin is understandably more anecdotal and conversational in his portraits of Oxford colleagues. Here he is literally, emotionally, intellectually at home, rendering impressions that are fondly personal in line with the title of this book. He is warm toward all his subjects, bringing them alive with polished ease.

The most difficult candidate for Berlin’s understanding and appreciation is the great historian Lewis Namier, notorious for his...

(The entire section is 2396 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Christian Science Monitor. LXXIII, March 9, 1981, p. B2.

The Economist. CCLXXVII, November 22, 1980, p. 116.

History Today. XXXI, January, 1981, p. 56.

Library Journal. CV, December 15, 1980, p. 2565.

The New Republic. CLXXXIV, January 31, 1981, p. 35.

The New York Review of Books. XXVIII, February 5, 1981, p. 4.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, February 8, 1981, p. 1.

Newsweek. LVI, February 9, 1981, p. 123.

Saturday Review. VIII, January, 1981, p. 75.

Times Literary Supplement. December 26, 1980, p. 1459.