Isaiah Berlin, a diplomat and political philosopher, developed the idea that there are two kinds of freedom: positive freedom and negative freedom. Positive freedom is characterized by being free to do things. Negative freedom, on the other hand, is characterized by being free from the interference of others, whether other people or the government.
According to Isaiah Berlin, social structures will depend greatly upon just how a society defines freedom and what sort of emphasis is given to positive or negative freedom.
Berlin also argued very strongly against Marxist notions of a deterministic history. Berlin did not believe that there were objective forces pushing history towards some inevitable conclusion and made the point that it was necessary to reject determinism in order to preserve the principles of human freedom and moral responsibility.
Born on 6 June 1909, Berlin was the only surviving child of a wealthy Jewish family, the son of Mendel Berlin, a timber trader (and a direct descendant of Shneur Zalman, founder of Chabad Hasidism), and his wife Marie, née Volshonok. His family owned a timber company, one of the largest in the Baltics, as well as forests in Russia, from where the timber was floated down the Daugava river to its sawmills in Riga. As his father, who was the head of the Riga Association of Timber Merchants, worked for the company in its dealings with Western companies, he was fluent not only in Yiddish, Russian and German, but also French and English. His Russian-speaking mother, Marie (Musya) Volshonok, was also fluent in Yiddish and Latvian. Isaiah Berlin spent his first six years in Riga, and later lived in Andreapol (a small timber town near Pskov, effectively owned by the family business) and Petrograd (now St Petersburg). In Petrograd, the family lived first on Vasilevsky Island and then on Angliiskii Prospekt on the mainland. On Angliiskii Prospekt, they shared their building with other tenants, including Rimsky-Korsakov’s daughter, an assistant Minister of Finnish affairs and Princess Emeretinsky. With the onset of the October Revolution of 1917, the fortunes of the building’s tenants were rapidly reversed, with both the Princess Emeretinsky and Rimsky-Korsakov’s daughter soon being made to stoke the building’s stoves and sweep the yards. Berlin witnessed the February and October Revolutions both from his apartment windows and from walks in the city with his governess, where he recalled the crowds of protesters marching on the Winter Palace Square.
One particular childhood memory of the February Revolution marked his life-long opposition to violence, with Berlin saying:
Well I was seven and a half and something, and then I was – did I tell you the terrible sight of the policeman being dragged – not policeman, a sharp shooter from the rooftop – being dragged away by a lynching bee […] In the early parts of the revolution, the only people who remained loyal to the Tsar was the police, the Pharaon, I’ve never seen [the term] Pharaon in the histories of the Russian Revolution. They existed, and they did sniping from the rooftops or attics. I saw a man like that, a Pharaon […]. That’s not in the books, but it is true. And they sniped at the revolutionaries from roofs or attics and things. And this man was dragged down, obviously, by a crowd, and was being obviously taken to a not very agreeable fate, and I saw this man struggling in the middle of a crowd of about twenty […] [T]hat gave me a permanent horror of violence which has remained with me for the rest of my life.
Feeling increasingly oppressed by life under Bolshevik rule where the family was identified as bourgeoisie, the family left Petrograd, on 5 October 1920, for Riga, but encounters with anti-Semitism and difficulties with the Latvian authorities convinced them to leave, and they moved to Britain in early 1921 (Mendel in January, Isaiah and Marie at the beginning of February), when Berlin was eleven. In London, the family first stayed in Surbiton where he was sent to Arundel House for preparatory school, then within the year they bought a house in Kensington, and six years later in Hampstead.
Berlin’s native language was Russian, and his English was virtually nonexistent at first, but he reached proficiency in English within a year at around the age of 12. In addition to Russian and English, Berlin was fluent in French, German and Italian, and knew Hebrew, Latin, and Ancient Greek. Despite his fluency in English, however, in later life Berlin’s Oxford English accent would sound increasingly Russian in its vowel sounds. Whenever he was described as an English philosopher, Berlin always insisted that he was not an English philosopher, but would forever be a Russian Jew: “I am a Russian Jew from Riga, and all my years in England cannot change this. I love England, I have been well treated here, and I cherish many things about English life, but I am a Russian Jew; that is how I was born and that is who I will be to the end of my life.”
Berlin was educated at St Paul’s School in London. According to Michael Bonavia, a British author who was at school with him, he
made astonishing feats in the school’s Junior Debating Society and the School Union Society. The rapid, even flow of his ideas, the succession of confident references to authors whom most of his contemporaries had never heard, left them mildly stupefied. Yet there was no backlash, no resentment at these breathless marathons, because Berlin’s essential modesty and good manners eliminated jealousy and disarmed hostility.
After leaving St Paul’s, Berlin applied to Balliol College, Oxford, but was denied admission after a chaotic interview. Berlin decided to apply again, only to a different college: Corpus Christi College, Oxford. Berlin was admitted and commenced his literae humaniores degree. He graduated in 1928, taking first-class honours in his final examinations and winning the John Locke Prize for his performance in the philosophy papers, in which he outscored A. J. Ayer. He subsequently took another degree at Oxford in philosophy, politics and economics, again taking first-class honours after less than a year on the course. He was appointed a tutor in philosophy at New College, Oxford, and soon afterwards was elected to a prize fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford, the first unconverted Jew to achieve this fellowship at All Souls.
While still a student, he befriended Ayer (with whom he was to share a lifelong amicable rivalry), Stuart Hampshire, Richard Wollheim, Maurice Bowra, Stephen Spender, Inez Pearn, J. L. Austin and Nicolas Nabokov. In 1940, he presented a philosophical paper on other minds to a meeting attended by Ludwig Wittgenstein at Cambridge University. Wittgenstein rejected the argument of his paper in discussion but praised Berlin for his intellectual honesty and integrity. Berlin was to remain at Oxford for the rest of his life, apart from a period working for British Information Services (BIS) in New York from 1940 to 1942 and for the British embassies in Washington, DC, and Moscow from then until 1946. Before crossing the Atlantic in 1940, Berlin took rest in Portugal for a few days. He stayed in Estoril, at the Hotel Palácio, between 19 and 24 October 1940. Prior to this service, however, Berlin was barred from participation in the British war effort as a result of his being born in Latvia, and because his left arm had been damaged at birth. In April 1943 he wrote a confidential analysis of members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for the Foreign Office; he described Senator Arthur Capper from Kansas as a solid, stolid, 78-year-old reactionary from the corn belt, who is the very voice of Mid-Western “grass root” isolationism. For his services, he was appointed a CBE in the 1946 New Year Honours. Meetings with Anna Akhmatova in Leningrad in November 1945 and January 1946 had a powerful effect on both of them, and serious repercussions for Akhmatova (who immortalised the meetings in her poetry).
In 1956 Berlin married Aline Halban, née de Gunzbourg (1915–2014) who was the former wife of an Oxford colleague and a former winner of the ladies’ golf championship of France. She was from an exiled half Russian-aristocratic and half ennobled-Jewish banking and petroleum family (her mother was Yvonne Deutsch de la Meurthe, granddaughter of Henri Deutsch de la Meurthe) based in Paris.
He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1959. He was instrumental in the founding, in 1966, of a new graduate college at Oxford University: Wolfson College. The college was founded to be a centre of academic excellence which, unlike many other colleges at Oxford, would also be based on a strong egalitarian and democratic ethos. Berlin was a member of the Founding Council of the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford University. As later revealed, when he was asked to evaluate the academic credentials of Isaac Deutscher, Isaiah Berlin argued against a promotion, because of the profoundly pro-communist militancy of the candidate.
Berlin died in Oxford on 5 November 1997, aged 88. He is buried there in Wolvercote Cemetery. On his death, the obituarist of The Independent wrote: “he was a man of formidable intellectual power with a rare gift for understanding a wide range of human motives, hopes and fears, and a prodigiously energetic capacity for enjoyment – of life, of people in all their variety, of their ideas and idiosyncrasies, of literature, of music, of art”. The same publication reported: “Isaiah Berlin was often described, especially in his old age, by means of superlatives: the world’s greatest talker, the century’s most inspired reader, one of the finest minds of our time. There is no doubt that he showed in more than one direction the unexpectedly large possibilities open to us at the top end of the range of human potential.” The front page of The New York Times concluded: “His was an exuberant life crowded with joys – the joy of thought, the joy of music, the joy of good friends. … The theme that runs throughout his work is his concern with liberty and the dignity of human beings …. Sir Isaiah radiated well-being.”