For services to conversation

Isaiah Berlin
November 13, 1998

John Dunn celebrates the colloquy, if not the political thought, of Isaiah Berlin

Michael Ignatieff's Isaiah Berlin begins unpromisingly with the author himself very much centre stage at the Albany, and a strikingly gratuitous falsehood on page one: "All of his life has been spent in places just like this, in the walled gardens and high-windowed rooms of English institutional privilege.'' And this of the son of a Jewish timber merchant from Riga, who watched the February and October revolutions from his parents' windows in Petrograd, saw his mother led away from the train under guard on their return to Riga and freed only after his father bribed the Latvian secret police, and who lived as startlingly cosmopolitan a life in North America, Europe and Israel as any British intellectual of his generation. What Ignatieff is attempting to indicate at this point, I take it, is not merely what Berlin was like (which he often does with very considerable success throughout the book) but also the blend of intimacy and deference with which he has approached the task of conveying this: "a servant taking buckets to a fountain''. But the information that it contains is sometimes pretty unsparing and many of its judgements of Berlin as a person are far from flattering. No one who disliked him cordially could fail to find ample ammunition for their hostility.

As a biography it succeeds at more than one level. In the first place it is a vivid, if sometimes rather lush description of a charmed and often glittering life, which carried Berlin into the company of many of the most important and exciting figures, political, literary, intellectual and musical, of well over half a century: from Churchill, Weizmann and Kennedy (on the opening night of the Cuban missile crisis) to Einstein, Virginia Woolf, Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova. Some of these plainly admired Berlin more than others. (Wittgenstein seems to have been particularly unimpressed.) But an astonishing range of them met him, listened at some length to him talking, and clearly found the experience a delight. In the second place Ignatieff offers an altogether more personal study of a life of sentiments and intellectual excitements, of emotional encounters humiliating and fulfilling, of moral, cultural, and political choices.

For a biography so plainly commissioned and abetted by its subject this is distinctly more hazardous. Few authors would think it necessary to apologise to friends of their subject who find their names missing from the index. But the dangers are presumably even worse with those who do not care for the mentions that they do discover. I have no idea how much hurt or offence the text has caused to those who were closest to Berlin. But it is difficult to disbelieve Ignatieff when he tells us at the end of the book of the final encounter with his broken and dying subject, in which the biographer struggles to assure Berlin that he has not betrayed him.

No biographer, however eager to please, can hope to please everyone (a pluralist truth if ever there was one). The wider audience of those who scarcely knew Berlin personally or never even met him, who wish to know what he was like and what kind of a life he lived, are well served by this book and it is hard to imagine them being better served in this respect in the future. I had not, to be minimally frank, expected to like it or to admire the intellectual judgements on which it rested. In one simple and central way this proves to have been an injustice. Isaiah Berlin contains a considerable amount of hard work and many sharp perceptions. It is consistently interesting to read and genuinely illuminating as to why Berlin thought and felt as he did.

Where it is distinctly less successful is in taking the measure of Berlin's intellectual achievement and assessing the force of his main ideas about politics. Partly this is simply a consequence of Ignatieff's excessive closeness to his subject (the very opportunity that enabled him to write so perceptively about the life). Partly, more interestingly, it is perhaps a consequence of the degree to which Berlin himself never quite managed to bring into focus what that achievement consisted in and what its political implications really were. In the end his main contribution was more as a teacher and a moralist than as a strictly political thinker. He was certainly interested in the high politics of countries he cared about, in the outcomes of the brutal struggles of the second world war and its cold war successor, and still more personally in the unfolding tragedy of Zionism. But there is little evidence in his writings of continuing curiosity as to why politics should take the forms that it does over time and space and have the consequences that it does. There is, for example, virtually no indication of any serious interest in economics. And how could anyone over the last century or two think seriously, systematically and responsibly about politics in this drearier and more comprehensive sense without having to think endlessly, tiredly and despondently about economic causality?

Even as a teacher it is hard to pin down quite what gave him the power he so evidently possessed. Certainly, as he emphasised himself, it was not a compulsive liking for all his pupils, or an indefatigable desire to set comprehension and clarity wherever bemusement and confusion were to be found. On this point Ignatieff manages to explain something to me about which I had long been puzzled. The clue lurks, I suspect, in the feline congratulations of one of Berlin's earliest, most intense and most consistently frustrating erotic entanglements, Patricia Douglas, on his knighthood "`for services to conversation''. At first sight this looks pretty condescending, even if there are many worse things for intellectuals to serve than conversation. But it captures something about the continuity between the intensity of Berlin's desire to be seen and heard by others as he wished to be and his stunning success at being so seen and heard, not merely by his remarkable circle of friends, (and by the great and sometimes not so good), but also by huge audiences across the airwaves in different continents. It was that intensity that enabled him to reach audiences he could not see (or even bear to look at) and convince them that he was speaking to them, and which made his early broadcasts in the bowels of the BBC, "a kind of agonised bawling into a machine'', sound as spontaneous as they were thrilling to listen to. In this respect it is not enough to register that he was very much a performance artist, the Paganini of the lecture platform. It is also necessary to recognise that, to a quite unusual degree, he minded losing any of his audience.

Where Ignatieff is least convincing is in his assessment of the political significance of Berlin's oeuvre, which he overestimates drastically. As a historian of ideas, his ultimately preferred professional genre, Berlin was a high Romantic of the life of the mind with an astonishing cultural range and unflagging human zest. His best work will live because it makes its subjects live again in all their idiosyncrasy, glamour and forlornness. Others try for the same effects. But no one in the last half century and more has made the intellectual lives of past thinkers as exhilarating or as fascinating on anything like the same scale or in comparable variety.

As a political thinker his legacy is far thinner. He argued fiercely, eloquently, tenaciously, and very publicly, when it really mattered, against a number of judgements which needed all the criticism they could get. Historical Inevitability and Two Concepts of Liberty were not merely highly political pieces d'occasion. They were also testimonies to some of the most powerful experiences of his own life and drew their energy and passion directly from being so. But what he had to say in them, and what his work as a whole leaves behind, does not add up to a coherent vision of politics, let alone to anything more directive on how it is good or bad to act politically. As political thinking their force was negative and is now largely exhausted by the departure of the enemies they strove to defeat. Pluralism, the political and moral viewpoint that Ignatieff picks out as the core of his legacy as a political thinker, is a precarious combination of recognition of reality and ill-thought-through recommendation on how to respond to it. The recognition is impeccable: that human sentiment, judgement and commitment is there in all its formidable heterogeneity and its all-too-extensive mutual incompatibility, and that none of us has any coherent and compelling idea of what it would be to purge it of its less welcome elements, let alone of how to do this without imposing massive unintended costs by our efforts. (Think of Zionism.)

But this is where political understanding should begin. It cannot be where it chooses to end. In itself it is in no way distinctively liberal, being just as open to a thoughtful and scrupulous conservative, and surely mandatory for even the most intrepid of radicals with the slightest regard for human decency. It tells us nothing whatever about the terms on which it would be good or bad for groups of human beings to settle down to live (or decline to live) with one another - in say, Bosnia or Palestine today. Berlin's own political tastes and attitudes, when he thought carefully about them, were very clearly liberal. But there is nothing in his account of the substance of politics or the nature of human values to give those with very different tastes and attitudes (Netanyahu, Arafat, Saddam Hussein, even Margaret Thatcher) good reason to modify their orientations as he would have wished or recommended. Indeed it is not clear to me even on what basis Berlin himself could make that recommendation.

Isaiah Berlin is an accomplished, diligent and sincere celebration of an extraordinary life. It is less sure as a guide on how to think about anything else, even perhaps the relation between Berlin's own intellectual life and the implications of his most impressive achievements. In its closing sentence Ignatieff tells us that Berlin showed us "what a life of the mind should be: sceptical, ironical, dispassionate and free''. This is scarcely a very plural view of how minds can live well, and is especially at odds with the example of Berlin's great tortured Russians. Purely personally, I prefer the first two adjectives to the third, and rather doubt the force of the fourth. But others will have very different preferences. Who is to say whether they should?

John Dunn is professor of political theory, University of Cambridge.

Isaiah Berlin: A Life

Author - Michael Ignatieff
ISBN - 0 7011 6325 9
Publisher - Chatto and Windus
Price - £20.00
Pages - 356

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