Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

While Isaiah Berlin’s writings have dealt primarily with political philosophy and the history of ideas, at times such categories have been broadly defined. Moreover, though problems and patterns in British and European thought have been his most prominent concerns, issues affecting Russia’s position in the wider context of Western intellectual life have fascinated him as well. Some of Berlin’s most celebrated and provocative pronouncements have dealt specifically with matters of this sort, where the ideas of Russian thinkers took on a wider significance largely through the operation of theoretical conceptions in unusual but appropriate settings.

The essays collected in Russian Thinkers were delivered or published between 1948 and 1970; several of them originally were public lectures, while others appeared as articles in academic journals or in other published formats. There is much continuity among the various works in this collection, while editorial selection has limited any effects of repetition or undue prolixity.

Many of the traits commonly associated with Berlin’s writing are in evidence in these essays. From outwardly modest beginnings major ideas take hold and sentences build breathlessly upon one another as new images and thoughts are constructed in what at times seems to be a tumultuous array of facts and concepts; the more informal though no less complex delivery found in his lectures has been preserved in those essays that have been taken from that format. At times Berlin appears attentive to the interests of his audience; some statements resound with dramatic effect, while others provide color and vividness to what otherwise might have been rather recondite matters. There is also a kind of boldness, and a willingness to take on vast and challenging topics; indeed, the author was hardly daunted by the large and perplexing tasks that he had set for himself. There are few reservations or modifications that he has felt constrained to make even amid sweeping judgments that go beyond the received wisdom about intellectual change in Russia. Still, Berlin displays a certain specific charm and an active sense of sympathy, where it is due, for the historical personages he treats.