Building: Letters 1960–1975 by Isaiah Berlin (Edited by Henry Hardy and Mark Pottle); Isaac & Isaiah: The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic by David Caute - review by John Gray

John Gray

A Professor of Principles

Building: Letters 1960–1975


Chatto and Windus 680pp £40

Isaac & Isaiah: The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic


Yale University Press 336pp £25

I am happily married, I have stepchildren, I live in a large house in Headington, I hate being Professor, I hate lecturing, I hate work, I see fewer people than I used to, I tick over, I go to the same place in the summer and the same place in the spring, and on the whole enjoy monotonous routine … Really there is nothing to say about me, I am much as you left me, only older and weaker. I do not feel in the least professorial.

So writes Isaiah Berlin, in a letter to the American philosopher Irving Singer in November 1960, in this third volume of Berlin’s letters. More selective than the previous two because many more letters have survived, this volume covers the period in which Berlin became one of the most commanding figures in British academic life, giving up his professorship in political theory at All Souls to become the first president of a new graduate college in Oxford and taking on the presidency of the British Academy. 

For some readers the most surprising revelation to emerge from these absorbing letters may be that Berlin was in no sense a natural academic. He loved Oxford and relished college life. At the same time he loathed the routine responsibilities that go with being a university teacher. Partly this was

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