In Search of Isaiah Berlin: A Literary Adventure by Henry Hardy - review by Adam Sisman

Adam Sisman

The Philosopher’s Rock

In Search of Isaiah Berlin: A Literary Adventure


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This is a touching and often fascinating memoir, the story of a serendipitous relationship between two very different men: a thinker, writer and talker of genius, and an editor with a strong tendency towards pedantry. The genius is the philosopher and historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin, and the (self-described) pedant is his editor, Henry Hardy. Berlin was the only surviving child of indulgent parents, prosperous Russian Jews who had brought him to England as a boy; Hardy was the son of a London doctor. The two met for the first time in 1972, when Hardy went to be interviewed at Wolfson, a postgraduate Oxford college of which Berlin was the founding president, indeed to a large extent its progenitor. Hardy was a young unknown, just setting out on life; Berlin, then in his sixties, was at the height of his fame, celebrated around the world as an intellectual, a knight and a member of the Order of Merit, and a champion of liberal values, above all pluralism. Yet there was nothing pompous about him. On the contrary, his openness, his zest for life, his relish for conversation and his apparent vulnerability all combined to suggest a youthful innocence.

It has been said that those who did not know Berlin personally could not understand his impact on those who did. I myself can testify to the truth of Hardy’s statement that ‘talking to Berlin … made one feel briefly more intelligent than one knew oneself to be’. Like

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