In London, blue plaques are erected on houses where important people once lived. In 2009, the centenary of Isaiah Berlin’s birth, I proposed to English Heritage, the body responsible for the plaques, that one should be installed on 49 Hollycroft Avenue, his parents’ home from 1928, where he himself had also lived. The application was deferred until 2017 on the grounds that it was ‘too soon to be certain of his lasting reputation and influence’.
I thought this a perverse decision at the time. Now, twenty years after Berlin’s death, it seems simply absurd. Berlin’s fame, influence and importance are growing rather than diminishing. I am certain that he will be a permanent star in the firmament of European civilisation. His prolific, wise, wide-ranging writings are, in Thucydides’ phrase, ‘a possession for ever’, a gift to humanity that each generation will rediscover. His own exemplary humanity, rich, full and idiosyncratic, preserved especially in his letters and in many recorded interviews, as well as in the memories and memoirs of those who knew him, is also an essential part of his posthumous identity, and will continue to be an inspiration to humane spirits.
Born a Russian Jew under tsarism, Berlin witnessed the Russian Revolution, and came to Britain in 1921, inoculated against political violence. Indeed he is best known for his championing of political liberty, especially freedom from interference by authority; of free choice as a defining condition of humanity; and of the irreducible diversity of human goals and cultures. These concerns come together in what is perhaps his most important plea, in our time more than ever. This is that we should never be seduced by ideologies or creeds that claim to provide the only correct answer to political, moral or religious questions. Not only do such totalitarian belief-systems fail to recognise the complex nature of human reality, they can also cause needless pain, suffering and death, sometimes on a terrifyingly vast scale.
Berlin reminds us that human goals are many, often in conflict with one another, and that they cannot be measured on a common scale in order to resolve clashes between them in an authoritative manner. More than one answer may be right. The same is true of human cultures, which enshrine widely differing priorities and values. It is not better to be Spanish than Portuguese, or vice versa. Both identities are valid, though of course there may be ingredients in either, as in any culture, that conflict with the demands of our shared humanity. No culture is unimprovable.
Intransigent belief in the unique validity of one’s own culture, religion or ideology is a major source of intolerance of human difference and variety. We see it at work throughout human history, at every level, from the individual to the state. Parents are intolerant of children and children of parents, spouses of one another, families and communities of other families and communities, religions of other religions, political creeds of other political creeds. The worst manifestations of this phenomenon in our day are fanatical Islamist fundamentalism, authoritarian Communist regimes, and the use of religious power and fear to cow the individual, restrict personal freedom, and impose barbaric practices such as female genital mutilation.
The opposite of blinkered conviction of one’s own rightness, which Berlin calls ‘monism’, is the welcoming acceptance of plurality and variety, individual and collective, cultural and political; the encouragement and celebration of the infinite variety and unpredictability of human life, unconfined by any arbitrary straitjacket that would cramp its potential for free development in new and unexpected directions. Berlin’s writing and personality is shot through with this open attitude to life, part of what is meant by ‘pluralism’. It should not be mistaken for relativism, the view that ‘anything goes’. Berlin has a clear view of the limits placed on acceptable human variety by the common needs and goals that we all share simply in virtue of our humanity. But within these limits there is far more room for creative variousness than is dreamt of by monist dogmatists.
This pluralist sensibility is closely implicated in one of Berlin’s greatest gifts, which is to identify imaginatively with a great range of differing thinkers, creative artists, private and public figures – past and present – to see the world from the unique viewpoint of each one, and to recreate each viewpoint for his readers in his complex, lucid, spellbinding prose. Berlin had a genius both for being human and for understanding, from within, other humans who were sometimes markedly different from himself. It was against his nature and his chosen values to try to repress the variety of life by subjecting it to some sort of single-issue fanaticism. One of his most celebrated essays begins with a quotation from the ancient Greek poet Archilochus: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.’ He was a fox among foxes.
His own writing is a case study in variety. He wrote about an astonishing range of topics and made many original contributions. Notably, he recognised and defended the basic human need to belong to a geographically based cultural or national unit, of which he saw Zionism as a special, and specially powerful, example (what would he have thought about Catalonia?). He also defended the humanities against assimilation to the sciences, and argued that they offer a deeper kind of inner understanding, one aspect of which he called ‘a sense of reality’.
His natural medium was the essay, and he is one of the greatest essayists of the twentieth century. Some of his best essays rescue from oblivion or neglect wonderful figures from the past who speak to the present. In a humorous philosophical lexicon, Daniel Dennett defined ‘berlin’ as ‘An old-fashioned stage coach, filled with international travellers, all talking rapidly and telling anecdotes of vivid life elsewhere.’ But do not take my word for it: read him yourself and I guarantee a wonderful coach journey.
I must now write to English Heritage and ask them to reconsider their decision of eight years ago.
HENRY HARDY HAS BEEN BERLIN’S PRINCIPAL EDITOR SINCE 1974, AND ONE OF HIS LITERARY TRUSTEES SINCE 1996