Enlightening: Letters 1946 - 1960 Paperback – 7 Apr 2011
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"Readers of Berlin's letters will find the same bubbling flow of malice, wit and human insight on the written page" (The Economist)
"A dazzling display of intellectual pyrotechnics" (Vernon Bogdanor New Statesman)
"As well as being sometimes profoundly wise, these letters are often laugh-out-loud funny" (Brian Lunch Irish Times)
"They delight in flashing the stiletto, these donnish types, and impossible to conceive would be a college in which no academic grown had a dagger sticking out of the back. It is precisely this kind of malice which constitutes a naughty proportion of the book's appeal" (Guardian)
"Ironic, gossipy, witty, intermittently profound and always intensely human" (Justin Cartwright Sunday Telegraph, Books of the Year)
The second volume of Isaiah Berlin's revelatory letters, spanning 1946-1960See all Product Description
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Berlin belongs, with Plato, Leibniz and Hume, to that select group of philosophers one wouldn't mind meeting, were it possible to resurrect them. Of course, Berlin, unlike the other three, was by no means a great philosopher, if indeed he can be called a philosopher at all. What he was, without doubt, was a supremely gifted gossip, able, as Heine was, to gossip well about philosophers, both the living and the dead. He was interested in people and in how ideas made them better, or worse, than they otherwise might have been. He was in fact a connoisseur of personalities and could size one up almost at a glance. Meeting Nixon at a party in 1958, Berlin required no time at all to see what others needed decades to figure out, namely, that Nixon was "a most shifty, vulgar, dishonest and repellent human being." Because Berlin was not a proper philosopher himself, he wasn't much good at assessing the merits of philosophers as philosophers, as opposed to assessing the influence of their ideas on personalities. For example, he judged (at various times) that J.L. Austin was the cleverest man he had ever known (or the second cleverest, after Keynes). But Berlin knew Popper and Russell, and it is pretty easy to see that, in order of increasing cleverness, the correct sequence is Austin, Keynes, Popper and, enjoying a commanding lead, Russell.
These are entertaining letters. They reveal a great deal about the people Berlin knew, if one allows for Berlin's biases. And they reveal even more about Berlin himself, a very odd bird. His interests were confined almost exclusively to personalities. He appears to have been largely blind to the aesthetic qualities of the natural world and, for a clever man alive in a great age of natural science, astonishingly incurious about physical theory. As these letters show, Berlin was very close to his father, whom he claims to have regarded as a younger brother, and deeply attached to that truly outsized personality, Maurice Bowra. What they also show is that, in one respect at least, Berlin was miles beyond most philosophers: his appreciation for the great variety of human personalities enabled him to see that any attempt to press people into a "rational" society is bound to result in a great deal of breakage.
With luck we'll have the next volume of letters in two or three years.
The book is organized chronologically with sections keyed to where IB was during a particular period (Oxford [New College and All Souls]; visits to Harvard, Chicago and New York), or significant events in his life such as his marriage, designation as Chichele Professor, and knighthood. Much of his substantive intellectual history interests are reflected in the letters, which adds context to his published work on these topics. When he is critical of someone, he lays out his reasons (e.g., Isaac Deutscher, G.D.H. Cole, Rowse, Mortimer Adler, Hannah Arendt, and Dean Acheson). He also explains why he likes certain folks such as Edmund Wilson, B. Berenson, and Trevor-Roper. These letters were not meant for publication so they are extremely candid and open; historians of the future will decry the introduction of email and the telephone which will probably largely extinguish the existence of correspondence as a research source.
While extremely lengthy (700 or so pages), and sometimes a bit repetitive, the letters have an unique ability to place the reader into the context during which IB was writing. We learn also some of IB's feet of clay: his proclivity for affairs with married women (Jenifer Hart and his wife being the prime examples), that he sometimes lied in his letters, and that he was somewhat insecure as surprising as that may appear. The letters are supported by four interesting appendices; 42 photographic plates and other illustrations; a biographical glossary of the leading individuals who appear in the letters; an index to the sources of the correspondence and a 37 page index. Also of extreme value is a 17-page chronology of Berlin's activities between 1946 and 1960. The editors have scored two out of two bull's eyes with the first two volumes; the prospect of at least two more tasty morsils is enticing.