From Riga to Oxford ~ 1909-1997
In 2009, with the 50th Anniversary of the foundation of Wolfson College on the horizon, Dame Hermione Lee, President of Wolfson 2008-17, reflected on the College's Founding President, Sir Isaiah Berlin. She captured the essence of his character, describing him as: 'the Oxford philosopher and historian of ideas, the European Jewish immigrant and Zionist, the wartime Government employee in the US, the expert on Russian literary and political culture, the music lover, the cosmopolitan socialite, the famous speaker and lecturer, the humanist and liberal, and one of the most idiosyncratic, vigorous, quick witted and interesting intellectuals of his time.'
Alan Ryan's article in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is the best concise biography of Berlin, and it can be accessed free through this link. Berlin's life is further examined in the six chronologically-ordered sections below.
Berlin's early life, from his birth in Riga in 1909 to his admission to All Souls in 1932.
The foundation stone of Berlin's later academic career, a period bookended by his admission to All Souls in 1932, and the publication of his biography of Karl Marx in 1939.
Berlin's war years, spent mostly in the United States, and followed by a memorable visit to the Soviet Union from September 1945 to January 1946, which presaged a return to post-war Oxford, and the responsibilities of a philosophy don at New College.
The defining years in Berlin's life, beginning with his return to All Souls in 1950; his marriage to Aline Halban, in 1956; his appointment to the Chichele chair in Social and Political Theory in 1957; and his decision to leave All Souls for the Presidency of what would become Wolfson College in 1965.
In 1965 Berlin decided to leave the security and comfort of All Souls, and risk his reputation in an ambitious plan to transform the fledgling and tiny Iffley College into Wolfson College, Oxford's largest graduate institution. He left All Souls with the warnings of his friends ringing in his ears, but his gamble paid off, and his Presidency of Wolfson is one of the more unexpected episodes in his long career. He returned to All Souls in 1975 having helped propel Oxford into the technological and scientific age.
The return to All Souls, from Wolfson, and gradual retirement from academe, although not from engagement with the ideas and interests that had shaped and defined a long life.
A consolidated chronology of Berlin's life and times, 1909-1997, will be made accessible here in PDF format.
'Would you like to live for ever? I would. If somebody said to me that by drinking this drink I would live for ever, if I was guaranteed against acute physical pain [...] I think I would drink. Most people would refuse. All one’s friends would die round one. But I am so consumed with curiosity – what will happen in Russia, what in the Middle East, what, indeed, in this country? – that I am maddened by the thought that the twenty-third century will see me dead' (IB to John Hilton, 14 October 1991).