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Isaiah Berlin: He believed that all major thinkers were inspired by one, quite often simple, vision (©JOE PARTRIDGE/REX SHUTTERSTOCK)


With the publication of Affirming: Letters, 1975-1997 (Chatto & Windus, £40), Henry Hardy and Mark Pottle bring to a triumphant conclusion one of the most remarkable literary projects of our time. Isaiah Berlin’s selected correspondence runs to four volumes, covers nearly 3,000 pages and amounts to more than one million words. Even its recipients number well into the hundreds. These include men and women of all ages, many nationalities and a surprising range of occupations. There may be no dustmen amongst them, but nor are they confined to the conventionally respectable. Perhaps as a result, Berlin’s Letters also constitute an epistolary oeuvre alternatively deadly serious and playfully frivolous, often nobly inspired, occasionally just a little bit disreputable.

The cumulative effect is amusing, compelling and illuminating. By his own evaluation, Berlin’s natural medium was “chatting — plauderei”. Writing letters was a simple extension of that pleasure. Yet he eventually found both the time and energy to express profoundly significant observations about the Russian Revolution and its undoing, the Nazi nightmare and the Holocaust, the foundation of Israel and the creation of the modern Middle East, even the Cold War and the dynamics of decolonisation through this otherwise informal medium. Students of 20th-century politics, scarcely less than scholars in intellectual history and of political philosophy, will find much of lasting value to ponder in these pages for years to come.

The appearance of Affirming also marks the culmination of an extraordinary feat of intellectual discipleship. It is easy to pass over the impressive list of Berlin’s published works in its prefatory pages. (Seventeen volumes are listed on page ii.) It is even easier to forget that when he retired as President of Wolfson College, Oxford in 1975, having previously served for ten years as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford, Berlin had just four books to his credit. Of these only two, Four Essays on Liberty and Vico and Herder, had much claim to enduring intellectual significance. Much more had been promised, both in the fields of political philosophy and the history of ideas. But little had materialised, in print anyway. Maurice Bowra famously made light of his old friend’s lack of obvious output: “Though, like Our Lord and Socrates, he does not publish very much, he thinks and says a great deal and has had an enormous influence on our times.” Others were less charitable. Some suggested that he had been awarded his knighthood largely “for services to conversation”.

Henry Hardy insisted that both Berlin’s apologists and detractors were mistaken in this matter. There was a considerable body of work. Much of it had already appeared, albeit often through obscure outlets. Still more remained in typescript or (as it turned out) on various tape recorders. Forty years ago, he set himself the task of bringing together the best of this material in book form. Initially, this involved little more than the convenient organisation of previously dispersed essays. That yielded two volumes of lasting consequence: Russian Thinkers and Against the Current. Still unsatisfied, Hardy set about recasting previous publications into more substantial editions. This produced Three Critics of the Enlightenment and Liberty. More heroically still, he then transposed previously un-available writings, even talks, into permanent form. Political Ideas of the Romantic Age was only the most striking of these later efforts.

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