Climbing Out Of The Ivory Tower

Jul 21 2013 @ 4:47pm

Reviewing the latest installment of the political theorist Isaiah Berlin’s letters, John Gray discovers a man cramped by the university life:

For some readers the most surprising revelation to emerge from these absorbing letters may be that Berlin was in no sense a natural academic. He loved Oxford and relished college life. At the same time he loathed the routine responsibilities that go with being a university teacher. Partly this was a matter of temperament. Celebrated as a lecturer, he hated public speaking. He writes of the ‘fearful time-eating occupations’ of the average university day as ‘devouring one’s substance’. (How he would react to the unending bureaucratic chores of the current academic regime can be left to the imagination.)

Berlin’s revulsion from academic life had another source, which was biographical rather than temperamental.

When he returned to Oxford after having worked as a British official in Washington, operating at the epicentre of global events, he found the academy a dispiritingly small world – so much so that for a time, when unsettling self-doubt made him almost a ghost in Oxford, he could hardly imagine how he would make the remainder of his life there. Yet he turned down other careers, opting instead to change his intellectual self-description from philosopher – ‘I couldn’t be another ordinary Oxford philosopher,’ he used to say – to historian of ideas.

He did not actually give up philosophy, but used intellectual history as a vehicle for a philosophy of his own – a liberalism that refused to sacrifice individuals for the sake of grand visions of human progress, whose roots were not in the English life he knew and loved, but sprang, as Berlin wrote to Nicholas Nabokov in June 1970, ‘from the heart of the Russian intelligentsia, like everything else that I believe’. As much as anything else, it was this distinctively Russian liberalism that led him to take up arms in the intellectual battlefield of the Cold War.

John Crace, meanwhile, finds the correspondence evidence of the social climbing that Berlin’s detractors have long noted, writing a mocking imitation of the letters:

Dear Important Person,

Thank you for your illuminating monograph on Tolstoy which perfectly reflects my own anti-existentialist interpretation of his character; one that I iterated some years ago, I recall. I wish I could say more, but I have a busy few decades of intense social-climbing ahead, starting with an irksome but necessary trip to America to have dinner with the new president. It will mean I have to miss Joan Sutherland‘s magnificent Lucia at Covent Garden, but I will be back for Callas.

You ask me for my thoughts on the Cuban question. I regret they are at present unformed as I have spent the past month wrestling with the seating plan for the All Souls Dinner. Freddie will not be happy unless he is at high table. I know I ought to be able to find a way of making this happen, but sometimes the Kantian “ought implies can” is fallible. I have also not had time to commit my apercus on the construction of the Berlin Wall to print; it is, of course, a great honour to have such a landmark named in recognition of one’s achievements, but I am not sure I have done quite enough yet to be worthy of such a legacy…

Devotees can watch a long interview of Berlin by Michael Ignatieff here. Recent Dish coverage of Berlin here and here.