Isaiah Berlin by Isaiah Berlin
Letters 1928-1946 (v. 1)

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Isaiah Berlin is one of the towering intellectual figures of the twentieth century, the most famous English thinker of the post-war era, and the focus of growing interest and discussion. Above all, he is one of the best modern exponents of the disappearing art of letter-writing. 'Life is not worth living unless one can be indiscreet to intimate friends,' wrote Berlin to a correspondent. This first volume inaugurates a long awaited edition of his letters that might well adopt this remark as an epigraph. Berlin's life was well worth living, both for himself and for the world. Fortunately he said a great deal to his friends on paper as well as in person. Berlin's letters reveal the significant growth and development of his personality and career over the two decades covered within them. Starting with his days as an eighteen year old student at St. Paul's School in London, they cover his years at Oxford as scholar and professor and the authorship of his famous biography of Karl Marx. The letters progress to his World War II stay in the U.S. and finally, his trip to the Soviet Union in 1945-6 and return to Oxford in 1946. "Emotional exploitation, cannibalism, which I think I dislike more than anything else in the world." To Ben Nicolson, September 1937 "Valery delivered an agreeable but dull lecture here. He said words were like thin planks over precipices, and if you crossed rapidly nothing happened, but if you stopped on any of them and stared into the gulf you would get vertigo and that was what philosophers were doing." To Cressida Bonham Carter, March 1939 "I never don't moralize." To Mary Fisher, 18 April 1940 "I only feel happy when I feel the solidarity of the majority of people I respect with and behind me." To Marion Frankfurter, 23 August 1940 "Certainly no politics are more real than those of academic life, no loves deeper, no hatreds more burning, no principles more sacred." To Freya Stark, 12 June 1944 "Nobody is so fiercely bureaucratic, or so stern with soldiers and regular civil servants, as the don disguised as temporary government official armed with an indestructible superiority complex." To Freya Stark, 12 June 1944 "My view on this is that you will not find life in the country lively enough for persons of your temperament. Life in the country in England depends entirely on (a) motor cars (b) rural tastes. As you possess neither, it is my considered view that apart from a weekend cottage or something of that sort, life in the country would bore you stiff within a very short time." To his parents, 31 January 1944 "This country is undoubtedly the largest assembly of fundamentally benevolent human beings ever gathered together, but the thought of staying here remains a nightmare." To his parents, 31 January 1944 "I am a hopeless dilettante about matters of fact really and only good for a column of gossip, if that." To W. J. Turner, 12 June 1945 "England is an old chronic complaint: every day in the afternoon in the left knee and the left leg below the kneecap, tiresome, annoying, not bad enough to go to bed with, probably incurable and madly irritating but not necessarily unlikely to lead to a really serious crisis unless complications set in." To Angus Malcolm, 20 February 1946
 

About Isaiah Berlin

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Philosopher, political theorist, and essayist, Isaiah Berlin was born in 1909 to Russian-speaking Jewish parents in Latvia. Reared in Latvia and later in Russia, Berlin developed a strong Russian-Jewish identity, having witnessed both the Social-Democratic and the Bolshevik Revolutions. At the age of 12, Berlin moved with his family to England, where he attended prep school and then St. Paul's. In 1928, he went up as a scholar to Corpus Christi College in Oxford. After an unsuccessful attempt at the Manchester Guardian, Berlin was offered a position as lecturer in philosophy at New College. Almost immediately, he was elected to a fellowship at All Souls. During this time at All Souls, Berlin wrote his brilliant biographical study of Marx, titled Karl Marx: His Life and Environment (1939), for the Home University Library. Berlin continued to teach through early World War II, and was then sent to New York by the Ministry of Information, and subsequently to the Foreign Office in Washington, D.C. It was during these years that he drafted several fine works regarding the changing political mood of the United States, collected in Washington Despatches 1941-1945 (1981). By the end of the war, Berlin had shifted his focus from philosophy to the history of ideas, and in 1950 he returned to All Souls. In 1957, he was elected to the Chichele Chair of Social and Political Theory, delivering his influential and best-known inaugural lecture, Two Concepts of Liberty. Some of his works include Liberty, The Soviet Mind: Russian Culture under Communism, Flourishing: Selected Letters 1928 - 1946, Political Ideas in the Romantic Age: Their Rise and Influence on Modern Thought, and Unfinished Dialogue, Prometheus. Berlin died in Oxford on November 5, 1997. Dr. Henry Hardy, a Supernumerary Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford, is one of Isaiah Berlin's literary trustees. He has edited several other books by Berlin and is currently preparing his remaining unpublished writings and letters for publication.
 
Published June 4, 2004 by Cambridge University Press. 752 pages
Genres: Biographies & Memoirs, History, Literature & Fiction, Law & Philosophy. Non-fiction

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Kirkus Reviews

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This was also the time when Berlin first made the acquaintance of Chaim Weizmann and became a Zionist, and the author compares what he calls Berlin's postwar “diaspora Zionism” with his becoming a political thinker of freedom.

Mar 01 2012 | Read Full Review of Isaiah Berlin: Letters 1928-1...

The Guardian

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Flourishing: Letters 1928-1946 by Isaiah Berlin, edited by Henry Hardy 755pp, Chatto & Windus, £30 Isaiah Berlin wrote of one of his intellectual heroes, John Stuart Mill (in the fifth of his essays on liberty, in 1959), that "what he came to value most was neither rationality nor contentment...

May 01 2004 | Read Full Review of Isaiah Berlin: Letters 1928-1...

The Guardian

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And although he is thought of as a gentle, herbivorous liberal, there was a crucial part of his mind that was not: he preferred "dry, mordant, 'tough' qualities as against woolly idealism and general sentimentality and sweetness, which I detest much more than intellectual or even moral wickedness...

Apr 23 2011 | Read Full Review of Isaiah Berlin: Letters 1928-1...

The Guardian

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The child of Hasidic Jews who fled Russia after the Bolshevik revolution, Isaiah Berlin spent the rest of his days in an Oxford that might have been purpose-built for him.

Jun 27 2009 | Read Full Review of Isaiah Berlin: Letters 1928-1...

The Telegraph

"As for the meaning of life, I do not believe that it has any… and this is a source of great comfort to me.” The Book of Isaiah: Personal Impressions of Isaiah Berlin ed by Henry Hardy 336pp, Boydell, £25 Enlightening: Letters

Jul 17 2009 | Read Full Review of Isaiah Berlin: Letters 1928-1...

London Review of Books

Describing an exchange between Berlin and the old mandarin George Kennan, he writes that ‘it was a fixed principle of his that so-called élites – intellectual or otherwise – had no business presuming that they knew better than the man or woman in the street.’ A recently unearthed interview betwee...

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The New York Review of Books

The more ambitious and extreme scientific determinists, such as Holbach, Helvétius, and La Mettrie, used to think that, given enough knowledge of universal human nature and of the laws of social behavior, and enough knowledge of the state of given human beings at a given time, one could scientifi...

Oct 03 1996 | Read Full Review of Isaiah Berlin: Letters 1928-1...

The New York Review of Books

All I can say is that he seems to me to have offered the truest and most moving interpretation of life that my own generation made.— Noel Annan The whole adds up to an admirably lucid exchange.— Times Literary Supplement The Legacy volume provides an interesting and important discussion of wh...

Apr 01 2002 | Read Full Review of Isaiah Berlin: Letters 1928-1...

The New York Review of Books

He was educated at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and became a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, where he was later appointed Professor of Social and Political Theory.

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The New York Review of Books

Whereupon the car was ceremonially driven in, another Soviet official leapt out, and finally the composer himself appeared, small, shy, like a chemist from Canada (Western States), terribly nervous, with a twitch playing in his face almost perpetually—I have never seen anyone so frightened and cr...

Jul 16 2009 | Read Full Review of Isaiah Berlin: Letters 1928-1...

The New York Review of Books

What appalled Berlin was not only Rowse’s egoism, but his writing letters to The Times “to say that education is bad for the poor, since most of them are incurably barbarous & do badly on a little knowledge.” In any case, malicious gossip, whether treachery or simply letting off steam, is not...

Jan 12 2010 | Read Full Review of Isaiah Berlin: Letters 1928-1...

The New York Review of Books

Nicholas Kristof [“On Isaiah Berlin: Explorer,” NYR, February 25] rightly praises the last paragraph of Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty” (which you print as two).

Apr 08 2010 | Read Full Review of Isaiah Berlin: Letters 1928-1...

The New York Review of Books

This does not seem sufficiently borne out by the evidence.4 Even in 1847, the skeptical note, in particular, pessimism about the degree to which human beings can be transformed, and the still deeper skepticism about whether such changes, even if they were achieved by fearless and intelligent revo...

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The New York Review of Books

He merely left what he took philosophy to be.” When Berlin was coming of age, philosophy was, for the most part, considered respectable only if it dealt analytically with abstract questions, and he was too absorbed by politics and humanity’s tribulations to spend his life in a corner of academia.

Feb 25 2010 | Read Full Review of Isaiah Berlin: Letters 1928-1...

The New York Review of Books

He was educated at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and became a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, where he was later appointed Professor of Social and Political Theory.

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Mises Institute

Someone who thinks that values can be ranked who denies the irreconcilable conflict thesis need not hold that values can be measured on a common scale.

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