In Search of Isaiah Berlin: A Literary Adventure, by Henry Hardy, IB Tauris, 288 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-1788312448
This is a book of two halves. In the first we are told how an indefatigable editor, Henry Hardy (the Pedant), managed to convince a celebrated thinker, Isaiah Berlin (the Genius), that his writings must, by hook or by crook, be published (the labels are Hardy’s own). The second half sees the self-proclaimed pedant turn into a particularly tenacious philosopher who takes a sceptical, if always learned and respectful, gaze at Berlin’s thought. As a result, the experience of reading this very fine book can be a rather strange one.
By the time Hardy was introduced to Berlin in the early 1970s, the latter was already a household name in intellectual circles. Berlin was a Russian Jew, born in Riga in 1909, who together with his parents had fled their homeland three years after the Bolshevik Revolution. Emigrating to London, they made a new and successful life for themselves. Isaiah, a doted-on only child, showed his intellectual precocity from an early age and, with seemingly effortless ease, graduated from St Paul’s public school to Oxford, where he eventually won a fellowship at the university’s intellectually pre-eminent college, All Souls – the first Jew ever to do so. This was followed in 1958 by his appointment to the prestigious Chichele chair of social and political theory, which he vacated nearly a decade later to become the first president of Wolfson College.
But Berlin did not just enjoy a reputation as a renowned academic by the time Hardy met him. He was a truly Renaissance man, a distinguished public intellectual with friends and acquaintances in various walks of life. Berlin had what used to be called “a good war”. Not only did he manage to survive the conflict, but it opened up new and vastly interesting worlds to him, worlds that he would hardly have entered if the global conflict had not erupted when it did. During the Second World War, the Foreign Office in its wisdom agreed that Berlin could help out the war effort from abroad. The original plan was to travel to Russia via the United States but Berlin ended up staying in the US, from where he would send back regular dispatches informing the FO of what the influential and powerful members of American society were thinking about the war. As the historian Arthur Schlesinger noted, “Whitehall worried more furiously about American opinion in these years than at any point since about 1783.” Berlin’s dispatches were so brilliant that even a busy wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill, found time to enjoy them. Shortly after the war, Berlin was sent on a diplomatic mission to Russia where, off his own bat, he managed to have an unforgettable meeting with the great poet Anna Akhmatova as well as smuggle a manuscript of Boris Pasternak’s great novel, Doctor Zhivago, to the Western world.
So the celebrated thinker that Hardy first met in 1972 was not your typical, ivory tower figure. Indeed it was obvious to Hardy early on that Berlin was an extraordinarily interesting and engaging person who possessed what he aptly describes as “a genius for being human”. But what also became clear to him was that this particular genius had serious and sustained qualms, or at least a deep ambivalence, about publishing his own writings. Indeed, there are several moments in the book in which Berlin emerges as someone who resembles the playwright Alan Bennett’s paradoxical description of himself as feeling “overappreciated but underestimated”.
Berlin enthusiasts owe an immeasurable debt to Hardy. He succeeded firstly in persuading the ever-reluctant Berlin that his works should be printed in collected form and then in performing such a splendid job of sedulously editing them for publication. Currently, Berlin’s published works stand at over twenty volumes, all of which have been either edited or co-edited by Hardy. This must count as one of the great editorial achievements of recent times. As a consequence of these tireless labours, we have virtually full access to one of the most cultivated and fascinating minds of the last century, a mind that had a unique ability to show the endless interest of ideas and the influence, often barely understood, they have on our lives.
The second half of the book sees Berlin’s Boswell turn into Berlin’s philosophical gadfly. Hardy begins this part by giving us one of the clearest and most perceptive “sympathetic reconstructions” of Berlin’s thought. As someone who is a lifelong admirer of Berlin’s outlook, I found much of Hardy’s treatment original, significant and faithful to the spirit of Berlin’s philosophy. He reveals in the process that his proven talents as an editor are matched by his exemplary gifts as a philosopher. Sections of the later chapters are occasionally jarring, as Hardy could be more guilty than not of the kind of finicky fault-finding he says he wishes to avoid. This is not to say that his robust scepticism about certain aspects of Berlin’s thought is unwarranted; it is more that it can feel a bit too relentless and heavy-handed, with the result that Berlin’s ideas become smothered or, at least, somewhat diminished.
But perhaps it is churlish to object to Hardy’s critical analysis of Berlin’s thought. At the end of the day, Hardy is simply keeping the Berlinian or, more generally, the philosophical conversation alive. And who can blame him for that? As a genuine philosopher himself, he is being true to his vocation. Besides, Berlin, who would have deplored the idea of generating his own school of thought, would no doubt have approved of Hardy’s robust but always scrupulous critique of his ideas; controversy rather than consensus always having been the engine of philosophy. And it’s in that sense that the two seemingly incongruous elements of the book not only become reconciled but, in a way, belong to one another.
There are moments when the reader might naturally, if ungenerously, wonder if Berlin saw Hardy as an imposition, a figure whose editorial work just about redeemed his occasionally intrusive presence? Happily, the overwhelming evidence suggests otherwise. Berlin’s deep affection for Hardy the person as well as the dedicated editor grew steadily and indelibly over time. A particularly clear and moving insight into what he meant to Berlin is revealed in a letter (which is mentioned but not quoted in Hardy’s book) that Berlin wrote to him when he was retiring as president of Wolfson College:
To say that I was touched, even moved, by your letter [Hardy had expressed in a heartfelt way what Berlin’s tenure as president of Wolfson College had meant to him] would be a grave understatement. We all go about avoiding the least suspicion of sentimentality, or even a bubble of too much emotion, nevertheless feeling will out, and your letter means far more to me than I shall ever be able to say, even to myself; my gratitude to you is immense, not only for this expression of feeling which cannot have been altogether easy to put in words, but for everything. […] There is no substitute for warmth of heart, moral and intellectual spontaneity, candour, honesty, perceptiveness, unswerving nobility of purpose, public spirit, sheer human decency. I offer you this unsolicited testimonial with all my heart.
In the epilogue, Hardy states that “for much of the time since Berlin died I have struggled with debilitating depression”. This is sad but not at all surprising to hear. For what emerges vividly from this exceptionally interesting and beautifully written book is the depth of the friendship that developed between the two men.
We are now extremely fortunate to have a first-hand account of how their friendship began and matured and of the rich and permanent fruit it bore in the form of Berlin’s meticulously produced works. The sense of meaning and happiness that Hardy derived from being a friend of Berlin’s explains the lasting sadness he has felt in the wake of Berlin’s death. Hardy chooses the closing words of Plato’s Phaedo to convey his profound sense of loss in the aftermath of his dear friend’s demise. “This was the end, Echecrates, of our friend, a man who, we may affirm, was the best of all men in his time whom we have known, and also the surest in wisdom and judgement.” In this instance, these words do not sound one bit hyperbolic.
Johnny Lyons lectured in political theory at Trinity College Dublin before joining the commercial world over twenty years ago, where he specialises in corporate communications. He has recently completed a book on Isaiah Berlin’s thought, Why Isaiah Berlin’s Ideas Matter. Email: [email protected]