Few philosophers in the twentieth century have had more of an impact on their times than Isaiah Berlin. Born in Russia in 1909, he immigrated to Great Britain with his family in 1921, where he went on to a fantastically successful academic career, first at New College, Oxford, then as a fellow of All Souls. His burgeoning career as a young philosopher (during which time he wrote his excellent short biography of Karl Marx) was put on hold by the Second World War. Working in the diplomatic service, he ended up in the United States, where he wrote weekly surveys of American politics that were unmatched for their insights and still reward reading.
Berlin's observations were not just reserved for his superiors in London, though, as they infused his correspondence with his family and friends. This book, the first of three projected volumes, collects the letters he wrote during these early years, giving us a unique view of the man and his times. The Isaiah Berlin we see in these pages is witty and perceptive, not just about the people he encountered but about himself. His pride in his identity as a Jew is also apparent, and the letters chronicle his interaction with the flourishing Zionist movement of the 1940s as well as his involvement in academics and his work for the British embassy.
Berlin's erudition also is evident in these pages, as is his penchant for name-dropping. Navigating through the people and places he writes about is a monumental task, and one that the editor, Henry Hardy, performs admirably. His footnotes provide an indispensable guide to the letters, vastly increasing the reader's understanding of Berlin's activities and encounters. The result is a work that offers a window into life in interwar Britain, the politics of wartime America, and the life of a great intellectual who lived in the world rather than apart from it.