Not too many people can point to a specific day when they sat down with a book and got up cured of the stupidities of youth. And apart from Marxism and its variants, there was the lure of such philosophers as Rousseau, the great theorist of mass democracy and the supremacy of the "popular will." In the midst of all this craziness, along comes Berlin and says: Look, this is all very nice, but what the monists -- the believers in the one true truth, Marx and Rousseau and (by implication) such Third World deities as Mao and Ho and Castro -- are proclaiming is not freedom. Freedom is a sphere of autonomy, an inviolable political space that no authority may invade. The book was "Four Essays on Liberty." The author was Isaiah Berlin. Berlin was one of the great political philosophers of his time. "Four Essays on Liberty" is his great argument for pluralism. It was a time of grand theories and grand aspirations -- liberation, revolution, historical inevitability -- and we children were mightily seduced. There was, of course, Marxism; for the masochistic, there was Trotskyism; for the near-psychotic, there was Maoism.This paradox and Berlin's fecund, restless mind -- which moved from one idea to another (often in the same sentence! If they think the book is obvious, you have raised them well. Whether by religious fundamentalism, by some reconstructed Marxism, or by an ideology whose outlines and ugliness we cannot even imagine today, it will be challenged.
Against those who proclaimed they had found the one true path to political salvation, Berlin stood in the way, a champion of pluralism, the many-pathed way. In 1969, to be young was heaven -- and to be seized with intimations of heavenly omniscience.
His most famous is "The Hedgehog and the Fox," a wonderfully imaginative division of the great thinkers of history into those who have one big idea (hedgehogs) and those who have many small ones (foxes). He believed that single issues, fixed ideas, single-minded ideologies are dangerous, the royal road to arrogance and inhumanity.
He is also the editor of The Book of Isaiah: Personal Impressions of Isaiah Berlin, published in 2009. He was an émigré Russian Jew who came to Britain at the age of eleven, leaving the Soviet Union because of the after-effects of the Russian Revolution.
He was one of numerous émigrés from both Nazism and Communism in the UK who had a great influence on our culture: they’ve often been written about.
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If you have access to a journal via a society or association membership, please browse to your society journal, select an article to view, and follow the instructions in this box.Contact us if you experience any difficulty logging in.He was one of the great intellectuals of the 20th century, but a people person with little interest in publishing books.He went to America a lot afterwards as a visiting professor, but never took up a full-time post there. I first met him because I applied to Wolfson College, a graduate students’ college, in Oxford in 1971.I had been an undergraduate in Oxford, and after a year off doing other things I wanted to return to do graduate work in philosophy. I’m very grateful to Merton, because had I not failed there I wouldn’t have applied to Wolfson. It wasn’t yet in its new buildings – the buildings which it occupies now, which Berlin was influential in commissioning – but occupied two separate houses in the Banbury Road.He has edited many books by Berlin, including those discussed in this interview.The fourth and final volume of his edition of Berlin's letters, Affirming: Letters 1975-1997, co-edited with Mark Pottle, was published by Chatto & Windus in September 2015.What they offer may be glorious and uplifting and just. In fact, said Berlin, these other "higher" pseudo-freedoms peddled by the monist prophets are very dangerous. And another thing, said Berlin: Historical inevitability is bunk, a kind of religion for atheists.They proclaim one true value above all else -- equality in Marx, fraternity in Rousseau -- and in the end the individual with his freedom is crushed underfoot. And one more thing, he said (in the fourth and final essay of the book): The true heart of the liberal political tradition is the belief that no one has the secret as to what is the ultimate end and goal of life.Liberty is a revised and expanded edition of the book that Isaiah Berlin regarded as his most important Four Essays on Liberty, a standard text of liberalism, constantly in demand and constantly discussed since it was first published in 1969.Writing in Harper's, Irving Howe described it as "an exhilarating performancethis, one tells oneself, is what the life of the mind can be." Berlin's editor Henry Hardy has revised the text, incorporating a fifth essay that Berlin himself had wanted to include.