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In Search of Isaiah Berlin: A literary adventure, by Henry Hardy

30 November 2018

Anthony Phillips reads a literary executor who had a job on his hands

ENTERING Wolfson College, Oxford, in 1972, as a graduate student and while still completing his doctorate, Henry Hardy became contracted to produce four volumes of the Selected Writings of the College’s first President, Sir Isaiah Berlin. It was a partnership which was to last 25 years, and was to continue after Berlin’s death for another 15. It is this remarkable “literary adventure” that Hardy relates through their unpublished correspondence.

While Hardy allows some glimpses of his personal life, it is his tenacity and skill (sometimes, as he confesses, underhand) in getting the reluctant Berlin to publish, which dominates the first part of his book. One can only sympathise with Hardy in the face of Berlin’s “negative instincts”, and his belief that “I have all my life been overestimated.” “Fear of shame was the governing motto of his life.”

Although Hardy regarded Berlin as a genius, he was not uncritical: “He had his own share of ‘human imperfection’.” At times, he is brutally frank: “Indeed my appreciation of your work, as of your person, is of a warts-and-all variety, not a can-do-no-wrong kind.” While Berlin was cavalier about accuracy, Hardy sets out his own criteria for publishing, urging that “one must not be crippled by a phobia about being discovered in error”.

In 1988, Berlin revised his will and made Hardy one of his literary executors. This led Hardy to propose to Berlin that he should start work on Berlin’s papers in his lifetime, while he could still ask questions. Berlin accepted, and funding was found.

Alice KelikianIsaiah Berlin and his wife, Aline, during Eights Week 1974, in Oxford. From the book

Hardy likens his first sight of Berlin’s cellar to Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. His papers eventually filled 800 archival boxes in the Bodleian. But it was a constant struggle to get anything published. Some papers Berlin denied writing: others had to be held back until after his death

The second part of the book consists of their philosophical exchanges about pluralism, religious belief, and human nature. While Berlin was a non-believer, and argued that life had no meaning, he accepted that, in some way, religious belief was “hard-wired” into human nature.

Hardy believes that he was still influenced by his Jewish background, although he applauds Berlin’s admission that he does not know what “God” means. For Hardy, a pluralist cannot, in logical consistency, subscribe to a universalist religion.

Finally, Hardy attempts to understand Berlin’s view of morality by drawing a diagram, at the centre of which is the moral core of basic human values surrounded by the human horizon: “a periphery of unshared values”. For Berlin, “all human beings must have some common values or they cease to be human, and also some different values else they cease to differ, as in fact they do.” Beyond the horizon lie the inhuman and insane. But Hardy complains that Berlin is too lenient about evil.

In a poignant epilogue, Hardy discloses that, for much of the period since Berlin died, he has struggled with “debilitating depression”. He rejects the notion that Berlin was a substitute father, and instead concludes that “he was an intellectual and personal lodestar, an inspirational model of truly humane scholarship, an exemplar of one life-affirming form of human excellence and fullness of being.”

Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.

In Search of Isaiah Berlin: A literary adventure
Henry Hardy
I. B. Tauris £20

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