in defense of Isaiah Berlin

Isaiah Berlin’s letters from the years 1946-1960 have been published, and A.N. Wilson reads them as the record of a man who was smoothly diplomatic and glitteringly successful in public, but malicious behind people’s backs and never a profound author. I haven’t yet read these letters, but Wilson’s judgment that Berlin was “nothing but a witty talker” seems flatly wrong on the evidence of his great political essays.

Here is an example from Wilson’s review: “The 800 pages [of Berlin’s letters] are peppered with malice about poor A. L. Rowse (a more interesting man than Berlin and ultimately more intellectually distinguished).” While Berlin was writing his “tedious, infelicitous, prolix letters”– Wilson writes–Rowse was “producing those readable, well-researched volumes The England of Elizabeth, Ralegh and the Throckmortons, The Early Churchills, The Later Churchills, etc.”

I happen to have read The England of Elizabeth recently (well, most of its 592 dense pages). It contains a lot of interesting information, some vivid imaginative prose, and strong, idiosyncratic opinions. It is worth something, but it is far from profound or reliable. The author is so strongly committed to his politics (secular, mercantile, hierarchical, nationalist) that he makes all kinds of implausible claims–for instance, that Elizabeth I was privately not religious.

Christopher Haigh’s introduction to Rowse’s book (the text chosen to accompany and advertise the 2003 edition) says:

    Rowse was bitter and vindictive, nurturing hatreds and maintaining grievances for decades, but he could be generous, loyal, and sensitive to the needs and misfortunes of others. He was a homosexual misogynist, who would turn his back on female guests at his college, but some of his closest confidants were women. … From the start he was insufferably arrogant: as a little boy he shouted to his family, “Everyone’s a fool in this house but me!”–and he kept saying it to the end of his life, with irrepressible self-congratulation.

Imagine that you were trapped with this person in the tiny, static community of an Oxford college, where all the inmates have life tenure. You are diplomatic to him in person but complain about him behind his back, writing (for example) that he “grows more and more impossible and awful daily.” Should anyone blame you?

Berlin never wrote a magnum opus. His historical work was not deeply sourced enough for professional historians, and he gave up the rigors of analytic philosophy. Most of his ideas were unoriginal; he hastened to show that he had found them in previous authors. But he had the huge gift of being right (something that one can hardly say of A.L. Rowse). I think he was right because his thought was grounded in worldly experience.

A.N. Wilson writes: Berlin “settled down to be a ‘historian of ideas’, but the great book never got written. He accepted the role of being a sort of Samgrass from Brideshead Revisited, the don at the rich man’s table, the brilliant chatterer, who moved among bright worldly people who had not read as much as he had, so were impressed by the idea of someone who had heard of, let alone read, Maistre:

    The dinner party consisted of the Queen Mother, the diva [Maria Callas], Lady Fermoy (in waiting), Lady Rosebery, Mr Anthony Gishford (late of Boosey and Hawkes, who used to edit Isis when I was an undergraduate, slightly disreputable and quite nice), Mr David Webster, and the Harewoods. I sat between the QM and Lady Rosebery and enjoyed myself.

That quotation from Berlin’s letters makes him seem too social and glamorous to be taken seriously. In fact, I wouldn’t enjoy reading a lot of pages about dinners with H.R.H. the Queen Mum. But Berlin’s gift was to learn about politics–and life–from diverse people. He could enjoy an evening with royalty, but he could also seek out the tragically persecuted Anna Akhmatova in Leningrad, or guide an American student though her dissertation. He talked incredibly fast and with great self-assurance, but he also listened. For him, sociability was a form of research. Since his topic was people, his method was apt, and he was superb at it.