Isaiah Berlin was born in Riga, now capital of Latvia, in 1909. When he was six, his family moved to Russia, and in Petrograd in 1917 Berlin witnessed both Revolutions - Social Democratic and Bolshevik. In 1921 he and his parents emigrated to England, where he was educated at St Paul's School, London, and Corpus Christi College, Oxford. Apart from his war service in New York, Washington, Moscow and Leningrad, he remained at Oxford thereafter - as a Fellow of All Souls, then of New College, as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory, and as founding President of Wolfson College. He also held the Presidency of the British Academy. His published work includes Karl Marx, Russian Thinkers, Concepts and Categories, Against the Current, Personal Impressions, The Sense of Reality, The Proper Study of Mankind, The Roots of Romanticism, The Power of Ideas, Three Critics of the Enlightenment, Freedom and Its Betrayal, Liberty, The Soviet Mind and Political Ideas in the Romantic Age. As an exponent of the history of ideas he was awarded the Erasmus, Lippincott and Agnelli Prizes; he also received the Jerusalem Prize for his lifelong defence of civil liberties. He died in 1997.
Though some of Sir Isaiah's best-known essays were included in the previous two volumes of his collected essays (Russian Thinkers and Concepts and Categories), this third of four scheduled volumes contains the essence of Berlin's scholarly contribution because all his writing is deeply involved with the history of ideas. If he has a single guiding principle, it is that the search for a final truth is illusory and dangerous, and that human existence is culturally, historically, and therefore relatively constituted. Not surprisingly, then, his touchstone is Vico, the 18th-century Italian philosopher who rejected the notion that the methods of the natural sciences - particularly mathematics - could yield definitive results when applied to the realm of social life, where what is true for one culture and historical epoch is not necessarily true for another. Aside from two essays specifically on Vico, Berlin explores the same theme in pieces on Machiavelli, Montesquieu, and various lesser-known thinkers of the counter-Enlightenment. In all of these, Berlin treads a narrow path bordered by various irrationalist currents, but his step is sure and he knows just where he is going in extolling the virtues of intellectual temperance and pluralism against the excesses of pseudo-scientific rigidity. Other essays deal with problems of Jewish identity, centering on the writings of Moses Hess, a 19th-century socialist and Zionist, and on a comparison of the existential similarities of Benjamin Disraeli and Karl Marx. The issue of cultural identity is also taken up in essays on Alexander Herzen and George Sorel, and in a final piece on nationalism as a force to be reckoned with. Throughout, Sir Isaiah is mapping our own cultural and historical relatedness and showing us the implicit relevance of the history of ideas to our time. The essays are elegantly written, one and all, by a master of the genre who is also one of the true intellectuals living today. (Kirkus Reviews)