Isaiah Berlin: Our greatest thinker, who straddled a terrible century

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Sir Isaiah Berlin (pictured above), don, diplomat, historian, political theorist and philosopher, died on Wednesday at the age of 88. Rupert Cornwell gives just a taste of the life and impact of an intellectual lion of the 20th century.

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Even without the academic accomplishments which adorned it, Isaiah Berlin's was a life that encapsulated a century - from an early childhood in Riga and St Petersburg to England and Oxford, to Washington and then back to Moscow as a diplomat, then Oxford once more, and the summits of the English establishment as a director of the Royal Opera House, and the presidency of the British Academy.

But he will be best remembered for two things: his scholarship and his ability to communicate his scholarship. In Berlin three strands wondrously fused; a Russian fascination with ideas, a sense of community derived from his Jewish origins, and a devotion to tolerance, the dignity of the individual, and freedom taken from his adopted country of England. And for those who knew him and studied under him, his finest pulpit was the lecture rooms of postwar Oxford.

Isaiah Berlin was the university's in-house legend, a Pavarotti at the rostrum of learning , a multilingual, multi-disciplinary force of nature. For those who listened to him, the memory is indelible - the glittering, tumbling torrent of words as speech struggled to keep up with the Catherine wheel of ideas that was his mind. He was once measured at 400 words a minute, twice the normal rate. Whether it was total enlightenment or inspired obfuscation was debatable: "Unintelligible in several languages," AL Rowse once remarked, only part in jest. But the sheer sweep and wit of the man, the richness and originality of his mind, made you feel, if only for an instant, that suddenly everything was clear.

Berlin has not escaped revisionism's barbs. For today's philosophy students he is no longer required reading. So, some start to wonder, was he really a unique genius? Or was he merely an inflated Oxford cult figure, a Grade One listed monument of the high table, unique only in that gift the English intelligentsia prize above every other - of holding forth at the drop of a hat, effortlessly, authoritatively and humorously, about any subject, under the sun? He could do that - and how. But he was not just clever. He was also wise.

He offered a remarkable combination of historian and philosopher, a student of ideas who also shaped ideas. Berlin is famous above all as a liberal. You did not have to be an aspiring historian or philosopher to have read his 1959 essay "Two Concepts of Liberty" and be disquieted and enthralled by the distinction drawn between "freedom from" and "freedom to" - the one the justificatory claim of the Communism which he loathed, the other all too easily a licence to tyrannise.

Today, the "Two Concepts" is less admired, and Berlin himself admitted in his last published interview, in last month's issue of Prospect magazine, that "I should have made more of the horrors of negative liberty, and all that has led to." No one, however, would challenge the central lesson he drew from "this most terrible century in Western history", that nothing was as dangerous as blind pursuit of a political or philosophical system. He had seen these evils at first hand: the overthrow of tsar Nicholas II and Lenin's coup, as a child in St Petersburg, and the ebb and flow of the Second World War from the British embassy in Washington. Famously, his dispatches were some of Churchill's favourite wartime reading.

Above all, perhaps, he recognised that in an imperfect world good was divisible, that noble intentions often conflicted, that the most intractable disputes are where both contestants are right. From that flowed a special skill, of illuminating each side of an argument. He was a mesmerising raconteur - but "at the opposite extreme from those ... who use their gifts to monopolise the conversation", wrote the philosopher Alasdair Macintyre. "Berlin's splendid performances enable us to listen more intelligently to other voices, not just to his own. How much we owe him."

How much indeed. More conclusively than any other, he proved that playfulness, laughter and a sense of fun could survive a fellowship of All Souls at the age of 23. He was, wrote his biographer, Michael Ignatieff, "the rarest of creatures, a wise man who is also loveable".

All this will make him irreplaceable. Each generation throws up just a handful like him; Andre Malraux, George Kennan, John Maynard Keynes are a few names which come to mind.

We should be thankful that this particularly coruscating specimen fetched up on our shores. England, he once said, "is the best country in the world: the least corrupt, the least cruel, the least liable to enormities". Pace the trumpeting of New Labour, these days this self-doubting country tends not to see itself so. Let us therefore return the compliment. Berlin's favourite quotation is a line by Immanuel Kant: "From the crooked timber of humanity , no straight thing was ever made." If that is true, then no one was more adept at explaining and ironing out the twists, gnarls and contortions of our era than he.

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