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Home Uncategorized The Genius and the Pedant

The Genius and the Pedant

Johnny Lyons
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….

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