Isaiah Berlin Isaiah Berlin became one of our centurys most important political theorists for liberty and liberalism in an age of totalitarianism.
He was born in Riga, Latvia in 1909 into a well to do Jewish family. At the age of 12 he moved to Petrograd and experienced first hand the Bolshevik revolution, which would later influence his intellectual ideas about totalitarianism (Gray 3). In 1921 his family moved to London and sent Isaiah to school. His schooling lead him to Oxford where he took a position as philosophy professor in 1931.His English schooling led him to become a disciple of classical liberalism in the English tradition of Mill, Locke, and others (Berger).
During World War II the British put him to work in their Foreign Service department where he became a favorite advisor of Churchill (Honderich 92). After the war his major political theory was developed as he moved into political philosophy and history as his areas of emphasis. His most famous and important works, a lecture, “Two Concepts on Liberty”, and an essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox” where produced in the 1950s. Knighted in 1957 and he became the first Jewish fellow at Oxfords All Souls College and chair of social and political theory at Oxford.After that he later became president of the newly created Wolfson College and then President of the British Academy (Honderich 92). After his death in 1997 historian Arthur Schlesinger stated that he is one of the finest liberal thinkers and political theorists of the twentieth century (Schlesinger 1).
Isaiah Berlin is unique among intellectuals in the fact the he didnt produce a magnum opus during his life. He stated, “that he had no desire to sit in front of a desk with a blank piece of paper,” and didnt care about it influencing his academic legacy (Berger). Most of his works came in the form of essays and lectures, as his two most famous are, “The Hedgehog and the Fox” and “Two Concepts of Liberty.” He wrote few actual books and had most of his work collected and published by Henry Hardy, once of his graduate students (Gray 4).He never tried to advocate a certain political philosophy and was actually quite against any “right” political philosophy. Through his essays and lectures he made critiques on the current systems and made observations on liberty, nationalism, and socialism.
A strict stand against totalitarianism is one of the concepts that can be seen throughout much of Berlins work. His strong liberal views clashed with totalitarianism in age where it dominated. Much of his distaste also came from his own personal experience with communism and fascism.He lived during the Russian Revolution and saw first hand its effect on the Russian people.
“I was never pro-communist. Never..anyone who had, like me, seen the Russian revolution at work was not likely to be tempted (Houston Chronicle News Service).” He detested fascism but not as vocally as communism since most of it had been eradicated during World War II.
Berlin had relatives during World War II left in Riga who where killed both by Nazi and Soviet Communist forces (Gray 3). This fact no doubt further heightened his contempt for both systems. An essay in 1953 entitled the “Hedgehog and the Fox” became one of his most popular works in the United States. Taking its name from a line by the Greek poet Archilochus, it was one part literary criticism on War and Peace and an attack on the inevitability of history (Greenburg). Initially published under the title “Leo Tolstoys Historical Sceptiscism” he changed it to the, which according to British Publisher George Weidenfeld did more for his reputation than any other (Greenburg). Berlin asserted that individuals act freely in history and has a choice in their destiny.Tolstoy took the Marxian view that history was inevitable.
“The characters despite the constraints of circumstance according to Berlin act freely and thus are morally accountable for their decisions” (Greenburg). Berlin thought that the characters still had free wills over their choices despite the situation they where in and thus history was undecided. This attack on historical inevitability shows Berlins distaste for Marxs philosophy, particularly the Bolshevik brand of communism. Berlins contention with the Marxian view of history has to do with historical anthropology of Marx.
Marx asserts in his works that national culture would simply go away under communism and if it did survive, it wouldnt hold any political importance (Gray 94). He strongly stands against this view on the grounds humans being so vastly different in culture that they wouldnt be able to lose their national identities (Gray 96).This goes along with his idea in the value of human diversity and the belief that one fixed political system wouldnt be able to be assimilated under one system. One of Berlins other important beliefs shown in the essay was the idea of value pluralism.
He believed that with such a diversity of human beings are so different that there can be no one overall set of human values (Houston Chronicle News Service). “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin asserted that Tolstoy needs only one principle to live life by such as the philosophy of Plato, Dante, Pascal, Nietzsche and Proust. “The Fox, pluralist travels many roads, according to the idea that there can be different, equally valid but mutually incompatible, conceptions of how to live (Kirijasto).” Berlin supported the foxs ideal of being able to travel down a choice of roads and ideas other than the singular view of the hedgehog.The roads dont have much connection, as is seen in the works of Aristoteles, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Moliére, Goethe and Balzac (Kirijasto). This idea of value pluralism is also in numerous other works by Berlin and it is one of the concepts he values most. Value pluralism can be seen towards the end of his “Two Concepts of Liberty” and also in “The Hedgehog and the Fox.
” Value pluralism is one of the most logical ideas in all of political philosophy. Throughout most of history philosophers have been stating that thier one way of doing things is the right way. Plato, Nietzsche, Marx claimed that they had found the “right” way to go about things.As history shows neither of them or any other political philosopher had found a right away to do things.
People and governments simply draw from …