It’s Complicated: Isaiah Berlin and the Journey of a Jewish Liberal
The cover of Arie Dubnov’s book Isaiah Berlin: The Journey of a Jewish Liberal shows Steve Pyke’s familiar portrait of the philosopher and historian of ideas—the public face of the Anglo-Jewish sage in old age, his bald dome and shaggy eyebrows grave above owlish glasses, his mouth pursed as he gazes somberly sideways into the distance. The iconicity of the photograph is marred only by its exclusion of Berlin’s signature waistcoat.
The image will be familiar to readers of Michael Ignatieff’s sensitive biography of Berlin. So will the story of Berlin’s journey from his upbringing as the son of a Jewish timber merchant in Riga to his late-life venerability as a British intellectual grandee. Born in 1909 to descendants of the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Berlin (who passed away in 1997) came to Britain with his parents in 1921, following scrapes with the Bolsheviks and Latvian anti-Semitism. Within months of arriving, he was fast on his way to achieving the idiosyncratic mastery of the English language that would win him fame as perhaps the most dazzlingly erudite and vivid conversationalist of his time. Berlin seems to have gone everywhere, met everyone from Winston Churchill to Greta Garbo (often at crucial moments, as when he attended a dinner with John Kennedy on the first night of the Cuban Missile Crisis), and impressed them all—even when they could not follow his rapid-fire, Oxbridge-accented delivery. Harold Ross, founder of The New Yorker, is reported to have told the young Berlin, “Young man, I don’t understand a word you’ve said, but if you write anything, I’ll print it.”
Charm and affability had their dangers. It was cattily said that Berlin had been knighted for “services to conversation”; Berlin himself admitted that he had “always been prone to coloured descriptions of unimportant phenomena” and never stopped protesting that he had been “systematically over-estimated.” Yet his essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” has shaped liberal political theory and dominated theoretical discussions of political freedom for more than half a century; and in his account of moral conflict and loss he offered, in the opinion of one contemporary, “the truest and the most moving of all the interpretations of life that my own generation made.”
Berlin’s legacy is more considerable than either he or his critics predicted, but it is also ambiguous. His liberalism was complicated and enriched by his fascination with romantic, anti-rationalist critics of the temperate, humanitarian, rationalist ethos with which he was identified. Admirers and critics alike continue to debate whether Berlin remained a faithful liberal. Did his romantic sympathies lead him to adopt a relativistic or crypto-reactionary stance? And did his insistence on rationally irresolvable moral conflict support liberalism’s affirmation of toleration or reduce it to one contender among a multitude of equally valid value systems?