Isaiah Berlin was witness to a century. Born in Riga in the twilight of the Czarist empire, he lived long enough to see the Soviet state collapse. The son of a Jewish timber merchant, he became a presiding judge of Western intellectual life on both sides of the Atlantic: historian of the Russian intelligentsia, biographer of Marx, scholar of the Romantic movement, and defender of the liberal idea of freedom against Soviet tyranny. When he died in 1997, he was hailed as the most important liberal philosopher of his time.
But Berlin's life was not only a life of the mind. Present at the crucial events of our age, he was in Washington during World War II, in Moscow at the dawn of the Cold War, and dining with President John F. Kennedy on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis. From Albert Einstein to Virginia Woolf, Winston Churchill to Anna Akhmatova, his circle of friends constitutes a veritable who's who of twentieth century art, politics, and philosophy.
In this definitive work, the result of a remarkable ten-year collaboration between biographer and subject, Michael Ignatieff charts the emergence of a unique temperament--serene, comic, secular, and unafraid--and he examines its influence on Berlin's vision of liberalism, which stressed the often tragic nature of political and moral choice. A magisterial book, illuminating and beautifully written, Isaiah Berlin will stand with the great modern biographies.
Russian by birth, Jewish by descent, English by choice, Isaiah Berlin (1909-97) knit together three identities into a cosmopolitan sensibility that informed his contributions as one of the 20th century's most influential and important intellectuals. Based on his experiences as a child during the Russian Revolution and his friendships with such beleaguered writers as Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova, Berlin affirmed the superiority of individual freedom and judgment to Marxist totalitarianism. But he made fellow liberals uncomfortable with his unwelcome reminders that their ideals--liberty, equality, social justice--inevitably conflicted and required painful tradeoffs. London-based journalist Michael Ignatieff, who spent 10 years interviewing Berlin before his death, adeptly captures an appealing man: lighthearted, spontaneous, a brilliant conversationalist and lecturer (one of Oxford University's most popular professors), able to savor private happiness despite an essentially tragic view of political life. Ignatieff admires Berlin's views without accepting them uncritically; similarly, he acknowledges personal failings while appreciating the serenity Berlin achieved against considerable odds. This lucidly written, thoughtfully argued work is a model of the well-balanced biography, carefully evaluating the complex interplay of character and conviction in one remarkable individual. --Wendy Smith