Enlightening Letters 1946-1960 (2009), by Isaiah Berlin


As reported in Enlightening Letters, George Kennan told Isaiah Berlin, the celebrated, endlessly and internationally consulted, knighted, Jewish, dazzlingly conversational, brilliant British Oxford don and twentieth century philosopher, scholar of the history of ideas, political theorist, and, above all, defender of human liberty in totalist and totalitarian times, “You have unquestionably the greatest critical mind of this generation….” Berlin, who had thoughtful, wise, cheerful exchanges with Kennan but about whom here, in these voluminous confessional missives published wisely only now that nearly all the written-to have passed, says (as he has a predilection to do about more than a few of those to whom he wrote these letters) some nasty things using “Kennan” and not “X,” tells us that he himself was taken by these words of Aristotle, who was certainly among the greatest critical minds in history: “In the observation is the judgment.” Many philosophers being remarkably cryptic–Berlin is not among such–Aristotle here is an especially notable poetic pithic (there should officially be such a word) and the great realist downward-pointing while strolling with the upward-pointing great idealist Plato in Michaelangelo’s masterpiece of the latter’s Academy, means that the attempt to understand experience should not rely so much on airy idealistic general pinciples as on a pragmatic reading of the here and now reality: down to earth.

Listening to Aristotle, Berlin abhorred a ghoulish consistency. It was the Awful Mistake, the worst of ideas, made by many bright minds, especially in our time, and rationalized tyranny. For Berlin, salvation lies rather in the messy state of “negative liberty” by which Berlin means largely that people in a polity, a society, must be free to do what they will, with the inevitable ensuing clashes among precious values–a conflict between, say, liberty and security–to be settled on any occasion by observing the particulars of the situation and fitting to them a wise solution. Wisdom for Berlin would not be simply optimizing at the margin among competing forces, and if you were tempted to advocate that methodology for challenging decisions, you wouldn’t want to carry that sense too far in a Berlin seminar: he was a subtle fencer and you’d probably notice the blood after class in the corridor and collapse there.

He wrote a famous work called The Hedgehog and the Fox about Tolstoy’s idea of history as not roadmaking by heroes but a vast, entangling web of fateful particulars stretching far beyond the vision let alone the control of ensnared Homo sapiens. Tolstoy was something of both creatures: The hedgehog, such as Plato, knows one big thing; the fox, such as Shakespeare, knows many small things. Tolstoy wanted to be in his radical mysticism a hedgehog, but his idea of history (see War and Peace) is foxlike. Berlin, a nifty philosopher, cruises past the dilemma by saying that probably a group of humans will most of the time do the predictable but not all of the time: You can predict the conduct of some of the people all of the time and the conduct of all of the people some of the time, but you cannot predict the conduct of all of the people all of the time. Hence in Historical Inevitability, Berlin admonishes that gloomy claims that humans are but pawns of large, inexplicable forces–helpless victims–are the excuses of cowards fearful of a striving, crucial responsibility, limited though it may be.

Berlin’s letters (there is a collection of earlier ones written from the 1920s to the 1940s) are, I think, better than his books. He explains his central ideas elaborately and markedly in them. That he is not a hedgehog but a fox, eager to know all manner of particular things here and now, is demonstrated in his famous saying, “People are my landscape.” He has a Proustian analytic skill at sizing up his mostly prominent and seemingly inexhaustible addressees but sounds traditionally witty in the manner of, say, Samuel Johnson:

Garbo: “As for Miss Garbo, goodness she is dumb. By a series of accidents I found myself at a party next to her: she is beautiful beyond belief & no less stupid; she painfully, slowly, terribly, tells stale anecdotes of 1925.”

Tolstoy: “I find that I admire Tolstoy more & more. His point of view is often dreadful: his conclusions paradoxical in the most absurd & offensive ways: but he is always very clever, he has a kind of grim high spirits, a sharp quality like a big bread knife which makes suitable nonsense of the absurd theorists of his time. His parody of the 19th century is very good….”

Trotsky: “Trotsky was genuinely soulless and genuinely inhuman: his colossal power of oversimplifying the issues, which I suppose is one of the great gifts of revolutionary leaders of certain types, by which you cast a violent beam of light upon the centre path, which automatically blacks out everything else so that your weaker and more cowardly followers derive sheer strength and simplicity of the central vision–is paid for by lack of interest in people, arrogant contempt for most of them and absence of genuine personal relations, which makes such people no good to me…however magnificent and important and serious they may be.”

There are dozens of such wonders in Enlightening Letters.

Berlin to me is heroic, a true friend of human liberty and the good society, and like all heroes, as with all of us, partly blind. He loves the History of Ideas. He insists on such things as this: The totalitarians of the twentieth century were possible in crucial part because of one of the flawed beings among the great thinkers of the Enlightenment, the hyper-Romantic, Rousseau. Fortunately, though, believed Berlin, the better ideas of that decisive period have prevailed.

Ideas, ideas, ideas–they determine.

He is right, of course, to stress the importance of ideas. But in my view, he is, as are the rest of us, partly what he doesn’t favor. His scholarship of Ideas reminds me almost as much of Plato as of Aristotle. Berlin is an idealist in a fine way. Sometimes, you are not sure how close he is to Aristotle’s ground at your feet.

He did lecture at the University of Chicago in the 1950s but apparently did not encounter Saul Bellow. Bellow’s great masterpiece, Herzog, is about a scholar of the History of Ideas. I don’t think anything else nearly as incisive, approving and yet realistic–much of it fondly seriocomic–has ever been written of such historians. It would be an expedition, but reading Enlightened Letters followed by Herzog would be a great, broadening adventure.

Berlin is surely someone to meet and get to know. He is one of our great friends, especially in these times. Enlightening Letters is better than having dinner with him. Sadly, you couldn’t have dinner with him any longer. But you can still meet him.