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Thursday, November 6, 1997 Published at 19:09 GMT

World: Analysis

Sir Isaiah Berlin - the hedgehog who outpaced the foxes

The philosopher and historian of ideas Sir Isaiah Berlin died in Oxford onWednesday aged 88. Thought by many to be the dominant scholar of his generation this extraordinary, life-loving man with a mind like an encyclopaedia, leaves a hole in the intellectual life of Britain impossible to fill.

In 1953 Isaiah Berlin published a book called 'The Hedgehog and the Fox'. Foxes, said this book, are people who know many things; hedgehogs know one big thing. It was in part a study of Berlin's literary hero, Tolstoy, whom he described as a fox who wished at times that he was a hedgehog. Isaiah Berlin was perhaps also a fox, intrigued by many ideas, unendingly curious, open-minded and pleading above all for tolerance.

He was born into a Jewish family in 1909 in the Latvian capital Riga. Witnessing a man being overpowered by police and dragged away during the Russian Revolution made him a convinced anti-communist, although he was never strident in any of his criticisms. When he was ten the family came to live in Britain which, he believed, was the best country for him.

Berlin said: "I think on the whole, so to speak, people are more tolerant. And if liberal civilization is what we're in favour of, then I think of the great countries of the world, I think, perhaps, it comes top of that."

Liberal civilization was certainly what Isaiah Berlin was in favour of and he argued in lectures, essays and broadcasts for a greater understanding of pluralism in ideas. His passion for freedom meant that one must have tolerance, compassion and understanding for one's adversaries. Ideologies and absolute certainties frightened him; utopian dreams he considered simply impossible.~ "Complete equality means people above other people have to be kept down in order to promote chances for everybody," he said. "The two things can't be had together but are both perfectly noble ultimate ends. And one has to choose in the end. Now the idea that all values - not all, but some values are incompatible, leads to the idea that utopias are intrinsically unattainable, not merely in practice but even in concept."

Berlin went to school in London and to unversity at Oxford. The family spoke English at home but he read his way through his father's library of Russian literature, and later was to lecture in a number of languages. During the Second World War he served in the British Embassy in Washington providing Winston Churchill with a weekly summary of American opinion which was said to be Churchill's favourite reading. After the war he was seconded to the embassy in Moscow where he met the poet and novelist Boris Pasternak and the poet Anna Akhmatova. This meeting became the subject of one of his most moving and memorable essays in a selection called 'Personal Impressions.'~

He had professorships at Harvard and Oxford, honorary doctorates at universities all over Britain; he wrote books and essays on the ideas behind politics and philosophy - a short work on Marx published in 1939 is still one of the most readable there is on the subject; and he gave public lectures that people queued to attend. He spoke at incredible speed because, some said, his mind worked so fast. He himself put it down to nerves, maintaining that all he wanted was to get to the end as quickly as he could. He insisted that it should be possible to express any idea, no matter how complex, in simple terms and direct language.

Professor Jerry Cohen is the current Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford University, a position which Berlin himself held for many years. He remembers the great thinker as a man who was more alive than any human being he has ever known Cohen. Act as above~ "He loved life," said Professor Cohen. "He radiated life out from himself. He was the most effervescent person one could ever know. He was always bubbling and everybody around him couldn't but rejoice in that."

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