Isaiah Berlin’s Letters

Simon Schama reads Letters 1928-1946 by Isaiah Berlin, edited by Henry Hardy:

BerlinIf reading this glorious collection of Berlin’s letters is, predictably, a heady experience, it is also a hearty one. Not in the British sense of cheery muscularity (definitely not Berlin’s thing), but in the sense that the letters reveal an intellectual sensibility in which uncompromising analytical clarity was uniquely married to an unshakable faith in the decent instincts of humanity. Abstract ideas, free-floating in their own rarefied sphere of discourse, unmoored from historical place and moment (the philosophical fashion when he arrived in Oxford in the early 1930s), became for Berlin a kind of high intellectual aesthetics. In the hands of its nimblest practitioners, such as J.L. Austin, the performance was a marvelous thing to behold, but in the end, as Berlin realized while crossing the Atlantic in the belly of a bomber in 1944, it was play, not work. It was not, at any rate, his kind of work. So while the collection is packed with letters that place Isaiah Berlin in the same rank of modern epistolary artists as Evelyn Waugh and Kenneth Tynan, and can be enjoyed as the most delicious kind of literary and intellectual confectionery, the book is best read as a Bildungsroman of the twentieth century, the strenuous journey of an exceptional mind toward its own self-realization.

More here in The New Republic.