The last of the great intellectuals

The contrast between two just-published books on and by Isaiah Berlin exposes the sad decline in the quality of informed public debate in our debased times

Share

When Sir Isaiah Berlin died in 1997, The Observer – then in one of its post-modernist, highbrow-baiting moods – affected to confuse him with his namesake Irving. Amid a riot of not terribly funny jokes of doubtful originality about "Was this the man who wrote 'White Christmas?'" there was a general feeling that unrepentant, dyed-in-the-wool Oxford common room braininess of the kind which Berlin represented in the course of a long and combative academic career was rather on the way out.

A decade and a half later, on the other hand, shares in Berlin Enterprises are holding up surprisingly well. Building: Letters 1960-1975, the third gargantuan volume in a seemingly inexhaustible fount of correspondence, is being enthusiastically reviewed. A second book, Isaac and Isaiah, by the historian David Caute, which covers Berlin's thorny dealings with the left-wing ideologue Isaac Deutscher, has just joined it on the Waterstones shelf. Most of the clever men of 1960s' Oxford, with whom Berlin wined, dined, caballed and zealously gossiped, are no more than footnotes, but, mysteriously, the man himself endures.

Or not so mysteriously. Building's blurb, trying to give some idea of what its subject was, or stood for, describes him as "a charismatic intellectual leader" as well as "a prominent thinker in his own right". Berlin, in other words, not only identified intellectual trends; he helped create them. He was, to use a job description that gets bandied about rather a lot these days, "a public intellectual". As a fellow of All Souls, Oxford and Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory, his intellectual interests were bracingly diverse: the development of "liberal thought" (his real specialism), but also some of liberal thought's practical applications to, for example, the state of Israel, or – this being the height of the Cold War – the West's dealings with the Soviet bloc.

Berlin, it seems fair to say, was simultaneously the deediest kind of academic fixer and someone who believed that ivory towers had the seeds of their own destruction concealed in the foundation stones, that an academic was nothing unless he worked, however indirectly, for the public at large. Fifty years on from his globe-trotting heyday, the range of his contacts – John F Kennedy, the presidents of India and Israel, half a dozen British cabinet ministers – can seem as exhaustive as the stack of newspapers and magazines on which he regularly descended in an attempt to correct misinterpretations of what, even when laid out on the pages of The Sunday Times, were a set of highly complex intellectual positions.

Do "charismatic intellectual leaders" of the Berlin type still exist? Certainly the world is full of "public intellectuals" – the pages of the London Review of Books and Prospect positively swarm with them – but the charismatic intellectual leadership they offer nearly always has to be taken at its own valuation. This is not so much the fault of, let us say, Professors A C Grayling and Terry Eagleton, as a consequence of various changes in the nature of public debate which Messrs Grayling and Eagleton have to accommodate themselves if they want to be given a hearing.

One of them, of course, is that Berlin was sui generis. There never was anyone like him before, and there probably will not be anyone like him again. Another is the disappearance of several of the communication channels (Encounter, say, or The Listener) in which some kind of contact between the Berlins of this world and their prospective audience could be established. The most wide-reaching, alternatively, is the chasm that has opened up, here in the early 21st century, between what might be called the life of the mind and the life of the street.

To read half-a-dozen pages of Berlin's letters from the era of the Bay of Pigs and the Kennedy assassination is to be reminded of just how effectively a high-powered academic with a popularising taste could intervene on the wider cultural stage. If Berlin himself was having his lectures on the origins of Romanticism broadcast on Radio 4, then the Oxford historian A J P Taylor was contributing polemical articles to the Daily Express.

Berlin might have thought privately that Taylor, with whom he enjoyed chronically strained relations, was prostituting his talent, but the fact remains that Taylor, both through his newspaper articles and his off-the-cuff BBC lectures (delivered straight to camera, without notes) was a public figure known to millions who barely knew that Oxford academic history existed.

Naturally there are modern academics whose names and faces are known to the public at large, who write articles in the weekend press and appear on television to examine the sexual gymnastics of the Tudor court. Their difficulty, unlike Berlin, is the endless series of compromises forced upon them by the medium in which they operate. A popularising philosopher who turns up in the columns of a Sunday newspaper discussing the best way of living "the good life" usually ends up pitching his reflections slightly above the level of a cracker motto.

Richard Dawkins, to particularise, is an exceptionally clever man, but he is not, when he treks down from Olympus to the level plains of a literary festival, a public intellectual on Berlin lines, but simply the possessor of a solitary idea, and that, it might be argued, is not a very subtle one.

It would be wrong to suggest that the early 1960s were some kind of golden age of intellectual debate: their popular newspapers could be just as philistine as our own, and the wild halloo of the highbrow hunt just as rigorously enforced. And yet, with one or two laudable exceptions, the space in which intellectuals can discuss complicated issues in terms which the layman can understand gets smaller by the year. Berlin, on the evidence of his letters, was interested in pluralism, in liberal behaviour, "how to behave" in the broadest sense, in examining the social and political stand-offs of the kind that the modern world throws up and suggesting how the average liberal-minded citizen might respond to them.

He was, above all, a genuine – as opposed to a stage – liberal, who believed people were entitled to their beliefs and even to their prejudices, and both could be accommodated into a viable political fabric. Most of these concerns, you suspect, lie at the heart of what Matthew Arnold would have called the "regrettable modern tendencies" of our age, and it would be good for all – you, me, Mr Miliband and the next asylum-seeker jumping off the boat – if the forums existed in which they could be given some kind of airing.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing & Commnunications Executive, London

£30000 - £34000 per annum: Charter Selection: This highly successful organisat...

Quantitative Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Developer C++, Python, STL, R, PD...

Web developer (C#, MVC4, HTML5, CSS3, Javascript, Jquery)

£30000 - £44000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Web deve...

Senior Automation QA Engineer (Java, Selenium WebDriver, Agile)

£40000 - £65000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Senior A...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

August catch-up: The Hitch on Americans, literature, liberal intervention and language

John Rentoul
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the nation on the country's Independence Day in New Delhi, India  

With Modi talking tough and Sharif weak, the India-Pakistan love-in could never last

Andrew Buncombe
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment