Christopher Bray in Spiked:
One evening in December 1966, the great American writer and critic Edmund Wilson had Sir Isaiah Berlin over for dinner. And a good time they doubtless had of it, but later that night Wilson recorded in his diary that he found Berlin prone to ‘violent, sometimes irrational prejudice against people’. On the evening in question the object of Berlin’s ire was the philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt, whose book about the trial of the Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann, Eichmann in Jerusalem, he excoriated without, Wilson claimed, his ever having troubled to read it.
On that last point at least, Wilson seems to have been wrong. Granted the evidence marshalled in David Caute’s Isaac & Isaiah: The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic, it is fair to conclude that Berlin had not only read Arendt’s bestseller, but had also likely arranged for his close friend John Sparrow, then warden of All Souls College at Oxford, to give the book a kicking in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement. Since TLS reviews were printed without bylines back then, why didn’t Berlin write about the book himself? Because, Caute argues, he had for some reason ‘always avoided referring to Arendt in print’. Privately, though, he was happy to rubbish her work. A few years earlier, he had written Faber & Faber a report on Arendt’s The Human Condition. It opened by telling them he ‘could recommend no publisher to buy the UK rights of this book. There are two objections to it: it won’t sell, and it is no good.’
Fans of Berlin’s waspish wit will relish those last two clauses (invert them, as the logic of the sentence dictates, and the wit is gone), but did Arendt’s most considered work really merit such a stinging rebuke?