Biography of Isaiah Berlin

Isaiah Berlin became one of our century’s 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 1950’s. Knighted in 1957 and he became the first Jewish fellow at Oxford’s 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 didn’t 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 didn’t care about it influencing his academic legacy (Berger). Most of his works came in the form of essay’s 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.

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A strict stand against totalitarianism is one of the concepts that can be seen throughout much of Berlin’s 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 Tolstoy’s 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 individual’s 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 Berlin’s distaste for Marx’s philosophy, particularly the Bolshevik brand of communism.

Berlin’s 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 wouldn’t hold any political importance (Gray 94). He strongly stands against this view on the grounds humans being so vastly different in culture that they wouldn’t 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 wouldn’t 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 fox’s ideal of being able to travel down a choice of roads and ideas other than the singular view of the hedgehog. The roads don’t 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 what they need of each political philosophy to make a government. Marx, Plato and Nietzsche made their philosophies too narrow to be practiced in the world with any real success. They also as Berlin suggests failed to take into account the differences in people and their ideas. Also much of their philosophy comes from a very euro centric perspective.

In the realm of political philosophy Berlin’s most important contribution came in the form of a lecture called “Two Concepts of Liberty.” Later released in a book called Four Essays on Liberty, it represented his interpretation on how liberty is divided up. The two concepts of liberty he discusses in his lecture are positive and negative liberty. Negative liberty is the freedom to do, not the freedom from doing something (Berlin 16). Positive liberty is the freedom from “restrictions” seen in government (Berlin 22). Berlin feels that a balance between the two must be achieved to have to a “maximum” amount of liberty. Too much freedom leads to others freedom being restricted in one form or another. Negative liberty has been used as an excuse to restrict liberty and create tyranny according to Berlin (Berger). Stalin and others committed acts of tyranny in the name of negative liberty for the proletariat. A liberal in the modern political sense he believes in government intervention as a positive.

Looking to the history of our country we can see the validity of positive and negative liberty. The history of the United States using Berlin’s perspective can be divided into two time periods. The era in the United States before reconstruction can be seen as an era of negative liberty in the constitution and after that it became predominately positive in it’s liberty to balance with the negative. This move towards positive liberty after reconstruction is what Berlin would consider the proper balance between the two types of liberty so that in a utilitarian sense the most people have the most liberty. Since Mill was a major influence for Berlin we can see this utilitarian view of liberty as logical.

The Constitution in its first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, grants the citizens of the United States negative liberty. One has the freedom to speak, petition, practice religion, etc. with out restriction. This concept of absolute freedom is no doubt good but as Berlin and history would tell it has many drawbacks. One of the obvious ones is regarding slavery, which isn’t restricted. This is an example of how too much negative liberty actually affects other individual’s liberty. This is why positive liberty is good and not simply a form of tyranny. When the United States enacted the thirteenth amendment to the constitution it granted others a liberty at the cost of others, but in the case it was a fair and just trade off. The delicate part of positive liberty is making sure it’s used in the right places to achieve a proper balance for society. Another example of how positive liberty was used properly in achieving balance in our country was the control of industry, especially the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1905, by the Progressives in the early part of our century. This moved the negative liberty held by corporations from freely doing whatever they wanted to a safer one for the consumer. American History is filled with many more examples like these some clearly for the better like those two and others that are debatable if they are too positive in liberty. All most all of the amendments dealing with Liberty starting with Reconstruction and beyond are positive in nature. Berlin would argue this is the US trying to achieve the proper balance in the two types of liberty.

Balance is key with regards to positive and negative liberty for liberty to be truly had by all. “If you have maximum liberty, then the strong can destroy the weak, and if you absolute equality, you can not have absolute liberty, because you have to coerce the powerful…if they are not to devour the poor and the meek…Total liberty can be dreadful, total equality can be equally frightful (Berger).” Our country started out with too much freedom and the strong could destroy the weak. Unregulated business and financial systems and the Southern aristocracy are examples of how the powerful as Berlin mentioned subjugated the week to their power. Since the almost absolute freedom had in the beginning of our country the laws have been changed to try to add more positive liberty to achieve a balance. All of the aforementioned things have lost their power through law along with many other institutions of negative liberty. Today the move has occurred for the most part acheiving balance, the strong are not destroying the week. Berlin makes no decision on what the balance should be instead leaving it up to the personal discretion of the society.

Today much of the conflict over political issues can be seen it terms of positive and negative liberty. Abortion, gun control, right to life, and many other issues are just splits over positive and negative liberty. The battle between positive and negative liberty appears to have shifted to these issues. Slavery and other major issues along the same magnitude already being decided the battle has turned to them. Abortion would be seen by Berlin as a classic battle between positive and negative liberty. The pro-choice would fall on the side of negative liberty since they desire the freedom to choose. The pro-life side would fall on the positive liberty side since the want the freedom to choose restricted. To take from Berlin they would argue that terminating a pregnancy would be a case of the strong dominating the weak. This argument is of course just in terms of liberty. Many other social issues don’t deal with the strong dominating the weak but yet still deal with positive and negative liberty.

Berlin might not have developed a specific political philosophy but regardless he had as much impact on the twentieth century as any other political philosopher. He made numerous contributions to the idea of liberalism in an era where totalitarianism rained. His notions of utopias where wiped away in the bloody snow of Petrograd of his youth. He didn’t try and preach that one system was better than another instead he made comments on what he saw. Berlin was less concerned with his legacy and was hoping that liberalism and liberty would survive and age of horror and totalitarianism.


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Biography of Isaiah Berlin. (2018, Aug 09). Retrieved from