Isaiah Berlin used to say that people were his landscape. In the first volume of his letters, Flourishing, edited by Henry Hardy and covering the years 1928 to 1946, he went so far as to declare a positive dislike of nature, suggesting that love of sublime landscapes was linked with reactionary romanticism. It is true that his focus was always on human beings, and this second volume shows him finding fulfilment among them as never before. Returning from war work in the British embassy in Washington, becoming once again and then ceasing to be a bachelor don, taking up the history of ideas and achieving, through a series of radio talks, a degree of celebrity about which he was highly ambivalent, immersing himself in the internecine struggles of All Souls and Oxford, giving advice to heads of state and officials running government agencies – these and other aspects of Berlin’s life are vividly captured in this absorbingly readable second selection. There could hardly be a more intimate portrait of Berlin than that which emerges from these letters. But the man himself is not so easily captured, and sometimes appears quite different from the one who seemed always to feel at home in the world.
Berlin used to present himself as an extrovert for whom his own personality was of no great interest. On the whole the letters support this claim, but they also suggest that his gregarious, outward-looking persona may not have been entirely spontaneous. One of Berlin’s most remarkable talents was