November 22nd, 2017


My tweets


Isaiah Berlin, by Michael Ignatieff

Second paragraph of third chapter:
By May 1915 the Baltic was under German naval blockade and the timber trade was at a standstill. Mendel [Isaiah Berlin's father] had managed to re-orient the business away from export to supplying the Russian railroads, but still a large portion of his timber was sitting in local yards. When a fire wiped out his stock, Mendel accused the German owner of the yard of setting it deliberately; the German retaliated by denouncing Berlin to the police, for setting it to claim the insurance. By then imperial Russia was in full retreat along the eastern front and the German armies were within twenty-five miles of the city.
This biography was published in 1998, the year after Berlin's death, many years before Ignatieff took the Canadian Liberal Party to their worst result ever. I confess that although I have been involved with politics for most of my adult life, I've had very little time for political philosophy. After reading this biography, I'm willing to concede that I may have missed out. Berlin's work on liberal political philosophy in an age of political extremes was of crucial importance to steer between different brands of totalitarianism in the years leading up to the Second World War, and to give the West friendly criticism during the Cold War. His life as an academic was not particularly interesting, but his life as a Russian emigrant who became a loyal British subject (yet always conscious of his origins) it fascinating. The relationship he had with Russian literature was crucial to his philosophy, and his most famous phrase, "The Hedgehog and the Fox" comes from an essay on Tolstoy. His November 1945 meeting with Anna Akhmatova in Moscow had profound effects on them both. Ignatieff clearly admired and loved Berlin, but is not uncritical of his political philosophy which he says looked more at the negative case of illiberalism than the positive case for liberalism; I don't feel qualified to judge.

There is one truly hilarious anecdote which I had not heard before. In the later stages of the Second World War, Berlin was posted to the British Embassy in Washington D.C. and wrote detailed and insightful reports back to Whitehall. Winston Churchill, hearing that Mr Berlin was in London for a few days, invited him for lunch with the Chief of the General Staff and others. But the lunch guest, surprisingly to Churchill, had a strong American accent and yet was only able to give vague and disappointing answers to Churchill's questions about the political and economic situation across the Atlantic. It turned out that there had been a mistake; Churchill had invited not Isaiah Berlin, but the composer Irving Berlin, author of "White Christmas". It seems too good to be true, but it's well documented.

This was my top book acquired in 2010. next on that list is Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, by Jane Hirshfield.