Connoisseur of Error

By Valiunas, Algis | The American Spectator, April 1999 | Go to article overview

Connoisseur of Error

Valiunas, Algis, The American Spectator

Isaiah Berlin: A Life Michael Ignatieff Metropolitan Books / 3S6 pages / $3o

The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays

Isaiah Berlin; edited by Henry Hardy and Roger Hausheer Farrar, Straus & Giroux 667 pages / $35

When the Oxford philosopher A.J. Ayer was introduced at a London party in the early 195o's as "the cleverest man in England," a bedazzled new acquaintance declared, "Oh, so you must be Isaiah Berlin." Then and for many years after, Berlin (1909-1997) enjoyed the distinction of being most everybody's idea-in Oxford, in London, even in New York-of the finest mind around. All the prizes that go to Englishmen of eminent intellect came his way: He was a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford; a lecturer on BBC Radio, heard by hundreds of thousands of listeners; a member of the Board of Directors of the Royal Opera House; president of the British Academy; founding president of Wolfson College, Oxford. Now that his fine biographer, Michael Ignatieff, and the editors of a splendid collection of his essays, gathered from some ten volumes of his works, have contributed to the chorus of approbation, it is time to ask: Just how clever was he?

Berlin got off to an early start, demonstrating his powers of discrimination at the age of three, when he brought the dancing at a wedding reception in his native Riga to a halt by screaming repeatedly at full throttle (in the German spoken by the educated classes of the Baltic states), "Ich hasse diese Scheissemusik!" By the time he was seven (and living in Petrograd), he was discussing contemporary Russian painting, and at ten he read Tolstoy, loving War and Peace but baffled by Anna Karenina. In 1921 he and his parents emigrated to England, and in 1932 he was elected a fellow of All Souls, the blessed college without students, whose members are free to pursue their work just as they choose. During the 1930's Berlin wrote a vigorously anti-Marxist book on Karl Marx, and he met regularly with a circle of logical positivist philosophers, the Brethren, who were bent on cleansing philosophy of inane metaphysical speculation; they scorned questions about the meaning of life, the existence of God, the nature of the good, and confined themselves to matters that were empirically verifiable or logically provable. Berlin had a taste for this beguiling austerity not to say penury, of mind; but he was clearly meant for other things.

It was his flair for more worldly concerns, with the help of a preposterous piece of luck, that first earned Berlin a nationwide reputation for brilliance. Like many of his Oxford colleagues, he went to work for the British government when war broke out, and the weekly dispatches he wrote from Washington about the American political scene caught the admiring eye of Churchill himself. In 1 Churchill heard Berlin was in London, and invited him to lunch. However, Churchill and his wife somehow got their signals crossed, and the Berlin who joined them was not Isaiah, but Irving. Churchill was unaware of the substitution, and the conversation took some farcical turns; only after lunch was over did Churchill learn the reason why. He told his Cabinet the story, word got out to the press, and Isaiah Berlin suddenly became famous, if not quite as famous as Irving. The eminences of journalism, academe, and Whitehall began to treat him like an eminence himself. After the war, he worked on the tricky job of collating translations of the United Nations Charter, and averted some cunning Soviet mischief; he went off to the Soviet Union in 1945 to gather information for the definitive dispatch on Soviet-AngloAmerican relations; Churchill consulted him on the writing of The Second World War, and took his advice; David Ben Gurion entreated him, unsuccessfully, to give up England and to become the director of the Israeli Foreign Office.

The great world was tempting, but Berlin knew he was made for the life of thought. Yet philosophy as it was being done at Oxford had lost its charm for him; logical positivism, which had seemed admirably rigorous and scientific, he came to find attenuated and uninspiring. …

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