…they just keep on publishing. Adrian Wooldridge explores the unstoppable legacies of Isaiah Berlin and Hugh Trevor-Roper


From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, July/August 2012

“AND DEATH SHALL have no dominion,” Dylan Thomas wrote in one of his better poems. It has certainly had little sway over the careers of two of Oxford’s finest minds. Isaiah Berlin, the political philosopher, died in 1997, aged 88; Hugh Trevor-Roper, the historian, died in 2003, aged 89. But in death both men have been more prolific than when they were alive.

Berlin has published four new books on the history of ideas, “The Roots of Romanticism”, “Three Critics of the Enlightenment”, “Freedom and its Betrayal” and “Political Ideas in the Romantic Age”. He has also produced a study of Soviet Communism, “The Soviet Mind”, and two thick volumes of letters, with two more still to come. Several of his classic essays have been republished, some in expanded form, and there is still more unpublished material in the Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library (berlin.wolf.ox.ac.uk).

Trevor-Roper has produced a magnificent monograph on a Renaissance doctor, “Europe’s Physician: The Various Life of Sir Theodore De Mayerne”. “Great history books are few and far between,” the Times Literary Supplement wrote. “This is one.” He has also published a delightfully subversive book on Scottish nationalism, “The Invention of Scotland”; a formidable collection of essays, “History and the Enlightenment”; a volume of letters to the art historian Bernard Berenson; and his wartime journals. And there is more to come: a volume on Britain’s Secret Intelligence Services during the war (which will include his short book on Kim Philby), a volume on Nazi Germany, and, if all goes well, a collection of letters to such luminaries as Noel Annan, the leading historian of the British intelligentsia, and Alan Clark, the gloriously badly behaved Tory politician.

We owe this windfall to wonderful work by the two men’s friends and pupils—notably Henry Hardy, Berlin’s indefatigable amanuensis, and Blair Worden, Trevor-Roper’s literary executor. But the windfall raises deeper questions. Why do Berlin and Trevor-Roper command eager audiences among people who never met them? Why did they leave so much of their best work unpublished? And what does the cult of these antique figures—one born in 1909, the other in 1914—tell us about the relative merits of the academic world that they adorned and the one we have inherited? For it is hard to think of any modern academics who will command such attention after their deaths—or leave such a treasure trove behind them.

TREVOR-ROPER AND BERLIN were not bosom buddies. Berlin spent much of his career at All Souls, Oxford’s most gilded cage, where I had the privilege of getting to know him as a young prize fellow; Trevor-Roper loathed All Souls because it had (foolishly) rejected him for a prize fellowship, the only snub in an otherwise pluperfect undergraduate career. They had very different temperaments. Berlin was a people-pleaser. Trevor-Roper could be aloof—“a robot, without human experience, with no girls, no real friends, no capacity for intimacy and no desire to like or be liked” in Maurice Bowra’s phrase. This was unkind: he could be generous to the oddest of people and, like any good Christ Church man, he delighted in the sound of broken glass. Richard Davenport-Hines gets closer to the bone when he describes him as “a gregarious introvert”.

Berlin was one of the great talkers of his age. As a young man in the 1930s he often started a conversation with J.L. Austin, his fellow philosopher, over breakfast in All Souls and continued until lunch. Trevor-Roper preferred the solitude of the study and the discipline of the pen (“the beauty of conversation”, he confided to his journals, “consists of the mute, attentive faces of one’s fellow talkers”). Still they were on friendly terms, belonged to the same charmed world of Oxford colleges, country houses and smart London salons, wrote for the same periodicals, supped with the same BBC producers, and shared a passion for poking fun at pedants, bores and second-raters.

Both men lived remarkable lives: remarkable enough to justify a pair of biographies, Michael Ignatieff’s “Isaiah Berlin: a Life” (1999) and Adam Sisman’s “Hugh Trevor-Roper” (2010; American title “An Honourable Englishman”). Berlin was brought up in Riga, in Russian-controlled Latvia, and St Petersburg, or Petrograd as it then was, witnessing both the Social Democratic and the Bolshevik revolutions before fleeing the latter’s horrific consequences. He worked at the British Embassy in Washington during the war, in charge of monitoring the changing political winds in Britain’s most important ally, and at the embassy in Moscow immediately thereafter, meeting Anna Akhmatova (who wrote a poem about him) and Boris Pasternak (who gave him a copy of “Doctor Zhivago” to smuggle out of the country).

Trevor-Roper worked for the Secret Intelligence Service in the war. He teamed up with a group of brilliant Oxford friends, including the philosophers Gilbert Ryle and Stuart Hampshire, succeeded in cracking the radio codes of Hitler’s secret service, the Abwehr, and, much to the fury of the old guard, rose up the ranks, ending up as a major. A three-bottle lunch with Dick White, the head of British intelligence in Berlin, led to one of his greatest works. The Soviets had circulated the rumour that Hitler had escaped from his bunker and was living in the West. White suggested that Trevor-Roper use his forensic skills to prove beyond doubt that Hitler had died in his bunker. The resulting book, “The Last Days of Hitler”, turned Trevor-Roper into a celebrity and kept him in funds. “An infinite, endless, golden shower of American dollars flows ceaselessly into my pockets,” he wrote at the time.

Both men were at the heart of the British establishment. Berlin’s honours included a knighthood, the order of merit (limited to 24 people at a time), and the presidency of the British Academy; he was a director of the Royal Opera and a trustee of the National Gallery. Trevor-Roper was the regius professor of modern history at Oxford and, thanks to Margaret Thatcher, sat in the House of Lords as Lord Dacre of Glanton, thereby gaining a second unwieldy name. He spent an unhappy period as master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, fighting a nest of Tory reactionaries who offended his Whiggish commitment to ordered progress.

Both men embodied a certain idea of Englishness. Trevor-Roper married the daughter of Field Marshal Haig, the British commander in the first world war. He drove a Bentley, hunted to hounds and spent the advance of his first book, “Archbishop Laud”, on a horse called Rubberneck. Berlin loved England—“the best country in the world”, he was fond of saying—and would have relished William Waldegrave’s description of him, at his memorial service, as the perfect embodiment of the English gentleman. Yet neither man was an establishment clone.

Berlin saw himself as a Russian and a Jew as well as an Englishman. Trevor-Roper had no time for the Anglocentric navel-gazing of his Oxford colleagues: he revolutionised the debate about the English civil war simply by pointing out that it was part of a wider European convulsion. He was a mischief-maker in conservative dress. Charterhouse, his public school, was a thought-free zone, he claimed. The intelligence services were dominated by dullards—he described one of his superiors as a “purblind, disastrous megalomaniac” and another as a “farting exhibitionist”. (He made an exception for Philby, who later turned out to be a Soviet agent.) He declared that K.B. McFarlane, a revered Oxford medievalist who populated the Oxford history faculty with his acolytes, was “only capable of producing turds the shape of his own arsehole”.

Both men specialised in mixing history and philosophy. Berlin abandoned the analytic philosophy of 1930s Oxford for the history of ideas. He wanted to explore the great issues at the heart of political theory by interrogating the great thinkers rather than play games with words. Trevor-Roper believed, like the 18th-century historians who were his models, that “history is philosophy teaching by example”. He argued that historians should study problems that illuminated the human condition, such as the relationship between religion and social change or the state and the society that supported it. And he believed that historians can make a unique contribution to studying these problems by escaping the tyranny of time and place: he viewed Nazi Germany through the eyes of Tacitus, and McCarthyite America through the eyes of Erasmus.

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