Isaiah Berlin once told his biographer, Michael Ignatieff, that “I have a natural tendency to gossip, to describing things, to noticing things, to interest in human beings and their characters, to interplay between human beings, which is completely independent of my intellectual pursuits.” The 700-odd pages of this first of three planned volumes of Berlin’s letters testify in spades to the truth of each except the final clause of that sentence. In fact, Berlin’s many intellectual pursuits all welled up from his fascination with gossip of the mind. He entered ideas through his feeling for the thinkers who thought them: He was interested in how and why people did things with ideas, not in abstract philosophical patterns.
This accounts both for his own chosen intellectual path–which led him to renounce footnoted philosophy papers in favor of well-turned essays displaying his talent for intellectual empathy, even for minds and milieus he disliked–and for the success he enjoyed progressing up it, in a culture whose educated classes preferred to take their philosophy in biographical rather than analytical dress. Renown came also of course for his political views: A defender of Western capitalism during some of its most dicey years, he became the cold war’s house liberal. Although he reveled in complexity and shades, he could also conveniently simplify the world: hedgehog or fox, negative or positive liberty, with us or against us.
This volume of letters–bulging with helpful editorial material–opens with Berlin as an 18-year-old about to go up to Oxford; it ends with him already, at 36, something of a public figure, and about to return to his fellowship at Oxford, having spent several of the war years at the British Embassy in Washington. Much of the life lived in these years seems choiceless: unfolding in that characteristic effortless way of the English upper-class life, where apparently fortuitous (but in fact socially predetermined) encounters and invitations draw one to an unavoidable destination.
Yet the remarkable fact is that Berlin was not pulled from Oxford’s gilded genetic pool: He was a Riga-born Jew, a lone and late child of doting parents who, wealthy and in flight from the Bolsheviks, arrived in London in 1921. Dumpy, thickly bespectacled, with a rich accent and a bad arm, he was a dark duckling among the pretty blonds: Isherwood, Auden, Spender, all of them his contemporaries and friends at Oxford. But he had wit, intelligence, charm, extraordinary–sometimes excessive–capacities of self-dramatization and a preternatural self-confidence, his expressed thoughts unmarred by the self-doubt one might have expected of someone in his shoes, all articulated in what he called his “mannered garrulity.”
We see him developing a taste for both the life of the mind and of the deed, and wavering between them. In Ignatieff’s 1998 biography, Berlin resembled a little too closely a Canadian intellectual, and these letters reveal him in all his bitchy, campy, upwardly billowing glory (Louis MacNeice once suggested that the most appropriate gift for Berlin was a “dish of milk”). We encounter here a sophisticated and energetic young man on the make, in an Oxford more socially porous than ever before. Like most newcomers, Berlin worked hard to be liked, a trait that was always to fill him with intense self-loathing–since he had quickly enough made his own the English dislike of ingratiation. (One senses perhaps a trace of this self-hatred when Berlin writes of another professor, “I have never met a man so anxious to please, to adapt himself to the strange but distinguished English.”)