For some reason Isaiah Berlin has always attracted me. I have a small collection of his works. This biography confirms my liking for this special person.
I stumbled upon this book by accident. Now and then I have a look at Yann Martel’s What is Stephen Harper Reading? to see which books he lately sent to the Canadian Prime Minister. I read about The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror by Michael Ignatieff. This Ignatieff seemed to be a very interesting person. And then I found out that he had written Isaiah Berlin’s biography. I didn’t hesitate a second.
This is the kind of biography I like very much. It is not full of details, it is written with a lot of empathy and a lot of understanding. Berlin has had an eventful life, perhaps not as an active agent, but certainly as a priviliged witness. Born in Riga as the only son in a jewish family, educated in Russian, he lived in Saint Petersburg after the family fled Riga in the First World War. Later they had to flee Saint Petersburg after the Russian revolution. Finally they went to live in England, where the young Isaiah received a splendid education.
He became an Oxford don for All Souls, worked for the Foreign Office in the second World War, founded Wolfson College, and so on.
What I specially like in a biography like this, is that this life gives you another view on historical events. Berlin visited Pasternak and Achmatova in Russia, was as political philosopher an excellent witness of the Cold War, the birth of Israel, and so on. He loved music and had several musicians as intimate friends, like Alfred Brendel. And of course, there is his lifelong search and study of the liberal idea.
More Isaiah Berlin.