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Isaiah Berlin: The man who got it right  (© STEVE PYKE)



In May last year Timothy Garton Ash tweeted from China, “Wonderful to see Isaiah Berlin up there among ‘All Sages’ in Wangsheng bookstore here in Beijing.” Garton Ash attached a picture of a wall of framed photographs of leading modern thinkers from a Beijing bookshop with Berlin in the middle. Twelve days later the seventh Isaiah Berlin Memorial Lecture was given in Riga by Berlin’s longtime editor Henry Hardy to a packed hall. Previous speakers in Riga have included Ian Buruma, Michael Ignatieff, John Gray and Anne Applebaum. On October 2, a party was held at Wolfson College, Oxford, to celebrate the publication of the fourth and final volume of Berlin’s Letters.

From Oxford to Beijing and Riga Isaiah Berlin still matters. Nowhere do his ideas matter more than where they are under threat. And as the threats grow, in China and Putin’s Russia, in Ukraine, Eastern Europe and throughout the Muslim world, his influence resonates in recent writings on multiculturalism and on the fragility of liberalism and democracy by a number of leading political essayists and thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic.

This might seem obvious. Berlin was perhaps the greatest liberal political thinker of the postwar period so, of course, his ideas should matter today. But his career and influence were less straightforward than one might think. Berlin was a fascinating barometer of his times. The rise and fall of his reputation tell us a great deal about the cultural and political changes of the past 60 years.

Before 1950 Berlin was little known outside Oxford and the East Coast of America where he had made his name during the war serving the British government. He had published one book, on Karl Marx (1939), which received two reviews, and a few articles on philosophy.   

Berlin’s career took off in the 1950s and early ’60s. He was professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford (1957-66) and gave a famous inaugural lecture, published as Two Concepts of Liberty (1958). He was a popular lecturer in America and gave a number of prestigious public lectures in Britain. He published perhaps his most famous work, The Hedgehog and the Fox, in 1954 and established his reputation as a political thinker with his critiques of historical determinism and his seminal writings on liberty. He also became a household name, as a broadcaster on the BBC’s Third Programme and Home Service and as a reviewer and essayist for prestigious journals in Britain and America. He watched the Coronation of the Queen for the Daily Telegraph in Piccadilly and was photographed by Cecil Beaton, he met Picasso, Shostakovich and Stravinsky, and was invited to 10 Downing Street and the Kennedy White House. 

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