Bintel Blog

Isaiah Berlin at 100

By Benjamin Ivry

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Commemorations continue apace for the hundredth birthday of the historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin (1909–1997). Born in Riga to a Russian Jewish family, he is being honored by the American Political Science Association Annual Meeting in Toronto (Sept 3-6); a Harvard conference from September 25-26 and other academic events. Yet much remains also for general readers, many of whose imaginations Berlin snared with his captivating study “The Hedgehog and the Fox” (1953), which divides writers and thinkers into two categories, citing an ancient Greek maxim: “The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

New books which prove that Berlin himself was a fox include “The Book of Isaiah: Personal Impressions of Isaiah Berlin” (Boydell Press) which includes a telling chapter, “Isaiah the Jew” by the Polish-born Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri, pointing to how Berlin’s clear-eyed scrutiny of such Jews as Karl Marx, Benjamin Disraeli, and Moses Hess owed much to his own heritage, citing Berlin’s oft-stated comment: “The Jews are like everybody else, only more so.”

Further lapidary insights may be experienced in “Enlightening: Letters 1946-1960” (Chatto & Windus), the latest in an ongoing series, printing Berlin’s correspondence with friends like Chaim and Vera Weizmann, as well as Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, who is warned in a typically gossipy missive from 1958 about a Romanian Jewish balabosta on her way to Israel, whose former husband was “killed in the war, and at whom she used to throw soup plates, perhaps death was a better alternative.”

To hear Isaiah Berlin himself, in unmistakable clipped British tones, refuting the claims of the romantic movement and presenting a fascinating lecture on the relationship of virtue to knowledge go to the Centenary Site



Comments
Thomas Beck Sun. Sep 6, 2009

I thought the quote was from Heine: "The Jews are like those among whom they live - only more so." (Or is that another one of those infamous apocryphal quote attributed to famous people that they can't be proven to have actually said?)

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