Today marks the 109th birthday of Isaiah Berlin, the great Riga-born Russian-British political philosopher and historian of ideas. It is difficult to overstate the influence that Berlin held over British cultural institutions and the effect that his work continues to have on political thought.
The 20th anniversary of Berlin’s death last November saw numerous conferences, exhibitions, television programs, lectures, and memorial events commemorating his life and legacy, many of which will be published this fall or gave rise to projects that are still ongoing. The Yale historian Timothy Snyder, now one of America’s foremost public intellectuals, delivered last year’s Isaiah Berlin Lecture in Riga. Titled “The Politics of Inevitability,” the lecture’s two-part conceptual structure was patterned on Berlin’s famous theory of “two concepts of freedom,” and constituted a kind of prelude to Snyder’s new book The Road to Unfreedom, in which Snyder’s debt to Berlin’s thought is proudly displayed. Yale University hosted a major conference, with the scholarly papers being presented forming the core of what is to become the Cambridge Companion to Isaiah Berlin, which is slated for publication this fall. The art historian and filmmaker Judith Wechsler, known for her film about Walter Benjamin, is in the midst of completing a documentary film exploring the philosopher’s life.
Yet the Berlin revival seems to owe as much to nostalgia for a fast-vanishing academic world of educated insights and sharp argument mediated by good manners as it does to the philosopher’s ideas themselves. The Yale conference saw the world’s preeminent experts on Berlin gather in his natural habitat, a wood-paneled hall, to give papers on his core concepts and concerns: the tension between cosmopolitanism and populism, his Cold War liberalism, the dangers of monism, the interplay between irrationality and the capacity of reason to know the world. Yet, what was so remarkable about it was the sense of genial camaraderie and something resembling almost low-key mirth. It felt very much like the family reunion in honor of a beloved uncle. Perhaps no more than a dozen of those who spoke or attended the conference, at most, had actually met Berlin or had studied with him.
The most memorable moment of the conference came when Berlin’s loyal editor Henry Hardy stood at the podium to deliver the keynote speech. It was a beautiful speech, with Hardy speaking about the way that his commitment to Berlin’s work and legacy had given his life meaning, and how otherwise he would have been an unremarkable but competent editor at a trade house. When Hardy stopped speaking, the entire crowd of 50 academics got up and gave him a standing ovation. Afterward, all present gathered in the private chamber of a Yale dining club for dinner and fond reminiscences. As Snyder correctly noted to me that week, “This is not the sort of relationship that people have to most political theorists.” I myself was a student of Berlin’s student, the Marxist philosopher Marshall Berman, who always told me of his great love for Berlin. It is an intellectual lineage that I am proud of.
The conventional wisdom is that the recent completion of the publication of Berlin’s selected letters, lovingly edited by Mark Pottle and Hardy, have drastically changed our view of the Oxford philosopher by adding warts to what had hereto been an unblemished and highly idealized portrait. It is true that alongside some remarkable literary ruminations in chatty, conversational epistles written to anyone worth corresponding with over six decades at the center of public life, the volumes reveal Berlin to have been a canny academic infighter—but he never denied being anything other than a British establishmentarian. Berlin’s posthumous reputation is widely assumed to have been secured by Hardy’s meticilous editing and rummaging through Berlin’s papers for lost treasures.
Berlin lived through remarkable times in a time in which being an academic was still to be ensconced in intellectual life, which at that point still held an integrated connection to the life’s blood of the wider society. Berlin and his Oxbridge friends took advantage of working arrangements present before academia had been ruined by overspecialization and corrupted by the worst aspects of corporate governance. At another recent conference dedicated to Berlin’s legacy, the British philosopher John Gray opined that Berlin’s leisurely career would have been totally impossible in the contemporary academic environment, with its onerous administrative drudgery, teaching loads, and ceaseless demands for publication.
The manner in which Berlin lived his life remains eminently, even achingly, attractive and a stirring example of how to compose one’s being in the world. Perhaps more than any other thinker of the 20th century, Berlin personified the contemplative life with an engagement with the world—an engaged connoisseurship with the arts coupled with a tireless pursuit of pleasure and friendship. Berlin took part in likely every interesting cultural phenomenon of his time, and personally engaged in the cultural politics that involved the occasional bout of espionage—like his assistance in getting the manuscript of Boris Pasternak’s banned novel Doctor Zhivago out of the Soviet Union.
Berlin’s pluralism was most keenly connected to his thinking about the multiple selves of an individual with multiple contradictory allegiances—a truly British-Russian Jew.
Haunted by childhood experiences of having to flee the Russian empire in the midst of the carnal violence wrought by the Bolshevik revolution, Berlin was also throughout the course of his long career a keen student of the character, internal processes, aesthetics, ideological structures, and cultural apparatus of totalitarian systems.
We are now bombarded by a nearly continuous stream of articles and think pieces urging us to rediscover the philosophical tracts of Hannah Arendt and the novels and essays of George Orwell as practical guides to survival in the age of Trump. It is Berlin however who provides a more refined schemata for understanding the developmental vectors of totalitarianism—and his lesser-read essays on Soviet culture constitute a useful and timely adumbration of the deformation that is wrought upon the arts by their coerced politicization. There should by all rights be a run on his books.
In a manner that was taxonomically similar to that of Susan Sontag’s literary project, Berlin rummaged through the canon of obscure and elided 18th-century political thinkers to construct an alternative canon. In the process he created an entire sub-discipline of intellectual history, the “counter enlightenment” pantheon—a convocation of anti-rationalist figures of European philosophy against whose anti-rationalist and reactionary arguments he measured a skeptical and anti-utopian understanding of human nature.
Personally amenable and moderate of character, Berlin was intellectually drawn to wild histrionic extremists such as the aristocratic revolutionary Joseph de Maistre whom he identified as “certainly the most brilliant and the most polemical of the critics of the philosophy that underlay the French Revolution.” Having penned numerous scholarly studies of figures such as Giambattista Vico, J.G. Hamann, and Johann Gottfried Herder, Berlin would certainly have known what to make of the luminaries of the so-called alt-right movement. He also likely would have been fascinated with and would have studied carefully the lineages and intellectual taxonomies of the anti-democratic thinkers and neo-reactionaries who have become more widely known over the last few years, and which have lately been popularized and weaponized by noxious characters of the sort that Russians refer to as “political technologists,” like Steve Bannon. The impulses animating the “neo- traditionalism” of the Italian philosopher Julius Evola, or the “Eurasianism” of the Russian Alexandr Dugin as well as the various tendencies associated with the so-called dark enlightenment would have been all too familiar to the man who wrote Three Critics of the Enlightenment.
Berlin’s fascinating study of illiberal thought was carried out at least partly with the intention of injecting salutary antibodies to opposition to democratic norms into the bloodstream of Cold War liberalism. If he were here to observe our contemporary American or European politics, Berlin would have made an excellent guide to diagnosing and diagramming the ideological intonations and historical antecedents of the “illiberal democratic” wave that is cresting on both the right and the left, in a surreal moment when the New York Times publishes quirky pieces about Evola. Whether Berlin would categorize a figure like Jordan Peterson as being a representative of the enlightenment or the counter-enlightenment is a fascinating and important question.
Reading Berlin provides an excellent preparation for thinking about contemporary identity politics as well. Contemporary accusations of globalism (as distinct from internationalism) aimed at what some “rooted” peoples view as a deracinated, postnational, self-dealing, and globe-trotting elite would have surprised Berlin only at the generally primitive and derivative level at which the discourse is being waged. He thought of the individual as being intimately embedded in a tribe, a folk, a nation, and a civilization, and he would have dismissed out of hand both the rejection of sophisticated cosmopolitanism as well as its corollary impulse to denounce even the liberal defense of the nation-state or national borders as being illegitimate.
Berlin was always an immigrant, who came from a fragile minority in a small nation, and who maintained an exquisite sympathy for the plight of small peoples and never took the idea of home for granted. He maintained an equal sensitivity to the warmth and comfort of national feeling and the damage that it could do. “In our modern age, nationalism is not resurgent; it never died,” he told an interviewer immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and “neither did racism. They are the most powerful movements in the world today, cutting across many social systems.”
Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Russian American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.