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Do we really need to read Isaiah Berlin’s every last word?

His devoted acolyte Henry Hardy has already given us 14 volumes of writings and four of letters. Will this latest ‘literary adventure’ be his last?

9 February 2019

9:00 AM

9 February 2019

9:00 AM

In Search of Isaiah Berlin: A Literary Adventure Henry Hardy

I.B. Tauris, pp.288, £20

This is a fascinating example of a small genre, in which the author decides at an early stage in his adult life that he would like to devote himself to a great figure whom he idolises, but who needs help of one kind or another to continue with his work, or at least for what he has done to be more widely appreciated.  The classic case in the recent past is that of Robert Craft, who in his early twenties offered his unlimited services to Igor Stravinsky, and can plausibly be claimed to have enabled the Master to create the works of his last decade, but who also fought against being seen as no more than a vassal, and whose copious writings, in all their brilliance, both celebrate Stravinsky and reduce him, at least as a person, to size. Henry Hardy met Isaiah Berlin in 1972, and was interviewed by him and others for entry to Oxford to read for a B.Phil at the recently founded Wolfson College, of which Berlin was the Master. Hardy rapidly developed a passion for Berlin, the personality and the intellect, and after graduating suggested to Berlin that he should edit his writings.

Berlin was notoriously unwilling to write books, but it turned out that he had produced far more articles, most of them on the history of ideas, than apparently he realised. Hardy managed to persuade Berlin to allow him to collect and publish some in book form, despite Berlin’s previously having agreed to do so with an American publisher. ‘Berlin had undeniably treated him shabbily, ‘Hardy concedes. Anyway, one book led to another, until Hardy published 14 volumes of Berlin’s writings, as well as four immense volumes of his letters. It has been Hardy’s life, and he is still in search of communications or other pieces which may have escaped him.

This book is in two unequal parts. The first chronicles the relationship, initially a business one, which then developed into a somewhat more relaxed affair, though always clearly meaning more to Hardy than to Berlin, who never ceased protesting that what Hardy intended to publish next wasn’t worth it. One can sympathise with both men: one reluctant to read and have published what he had written in some cases years earlier, the other desperate to maintain the connection and realising that he could only do so by further bibliographical excavations. The more time Hardy spent editing Berlin, the more he had to, to justify his previous labours.


For him Berlin was, as the blurb of this book astoundingly states, ‘one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century’ — surely a bizarre overstatement. Hardy writes: ‘He had no small talk’, something which will also come as a surprise to those who would rather agree with an earlier mention (in the introduction) of Berlin’s ‘taste for gossip, though in his case the gossip was (usually) benign’. From my very limited experience that is not accurate. When I asked him about Theodor W. Adorno, who spent an unhappy time in Oxford in the 1930s, Berlin called him ‘a deeply comic figure’, and said he couldn’t understand a word he wrote — and Adorno was one of the greatest thinkers of the century.

Hardy became so devoted to Berlin that when a photograph was taken of the contributors to Berlin’s Festschrift, with one or two extras, Hardy points out (twice): ‘This is the only photograph known to me of Berlin and me together.’ Yet at the same time that he was bringing every last word into print, he was also having serious doubts about his hero’s crucial moral standpoint.

The larger part of Berlin’s oeuvre is devoted to studies of major figures in the history of social thought — though he admitted late in life that he had never read Max Weber. But he did have a distinctive and strongly held position, to the effect that there are incompatible ethical views, among which it is futile and mistaken to think that one or another is correct and the others are wrong. He was what one might call an extreme liberal, which went with a reluctance to think that people act purely maliciously or sadistically. He repeatedly claimed that the Nazis’ attitude towards Jews was the result of mistaken views about what Jews are like, not an expression of sheer hatred. He did once write to Hardy ‘I believe in original sin’, but since that doctrine is so obscure the remark didn’t help much.

The second, 100-page-long part of the book consists of Hardy, mainly in letter form, probing and asking for elucidation on how Berlin managed to be both an ethical pluralist and at the same time to avoid the time-honoured objections to relativism, while Berlin patiently explains and sometimes modifies his views. But Hardy is not to be put off; and though to the non-philosopher the debate may seem unduly prolonged, since it ends in stale-mate, it shows another and more welcome side of Hardy’s tenacity.


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