in the hedge with the fox


It was slightly disconcerting when, towards the end of Berlin’s life, as his friend and former colleague Henry Hardy began to gather up his Remains, he published a series of essays under the title of The Crooked Timber of Humanity (1990). Here was the Maistre essay again, rechauffé under a new title but saying more or less what was contained in the volume of forty years before. It gave one the sense that perhaps Berlin – charming, witty, urbane, brilliantly talkative as he was – had not exactly done much with the intervening years. This sense is quickened by the publication of his voluminous letters. Before turning to these remarkable documents, I should like to stay for a moment with Berlin’s intellectual interests and with his heroes. Chief of these was undoubtedly Alexander Herzen. In his delightful essay on Herzen – in the volume entitled Russian Thinkers (1978) – Berlin painted another little self-portrait when he wrote, “Herzen is detached from party, detached from doctrine”. Young Revolutionaries (of 1860) attacked Herzen for “being a gentleman, for being rich, for living in comfort, for sitting in London and observing the Russian revolutionary struggle from afar, for being a member of a generation which had merely talked in the salons, and speculated and philosophised, when all round them was squalor and misery, bitterness and injustice”. Yet Herzen, sybaritic and lazy as he appears, had been clever enough not to be bewitched by doctrine when many others had been; and therefore he was able to see clearly. “Why is liberty valuable? Because it is an end in itself, because it is what it is. To bring it as a sacrifice to something else is simply to perform an act of human sacrifice.”

more from A.N. Wilson at the TLS here.