Our Society has from time to time seen fit to honour with its presidency men whose eminence in their respective professions has been complemented by the leadership which they have afforded to the Anglo-Jewish community. When Sir Isaiah Berlin accepted our offer of the chair, it was the Society that was hon- oured. This is not the occasion for any detailed obituary chronicle: his fellowship of All Souls’, his distinguished contribution to the war effort as a temporary First Secretary in the British embassy at Washington, the Chichele chair at Oxford, his presidency of Wolfson College - of which he had been effectively the founder - and of the British Academy, and the Queen’s bestowal upon him of the Order of Merit - these say it all. We should rather devote a few moments to considering his significance, his legacy and indeed his challenge.
His two outstanding characteristics - and they were surely interconnected were his perceptiveness and his capacity for friendship. The academic world in which he spent his life is peopled by scholars and scientists who, despite their informed command of their own specialisms, are far from homogeneous either in depth of mind or broadness of outlook; and, regrettably, the republic of letters has not yet discovered how to immunize its citizens against prejudice. From his undergraduate days onwards, Isaiah’s company was sought out, for its stimulus: and, without condescension, he could appreciate both the sincerity, and the positive contribution, of those possessed of a liberal tolerance and breadth of mind even though they were not in his intellectual league; and their particular ideals or scale of values were ones to which he himself subscribed either with a lesser intensity, or not at all.
As a student of philosophy Isaiah Berlin was particularly devoted to the understanding of government, and of the endeavour to accommodate the con- flicting needs, aspirations, convictions and obsessions that are inherent in the human condition; as a political philosopher, he dwarfed politicians. But he was much more than that. Several obituarists have remarked on the extent to which he opened windows, enabling those concerned with other disciplines (psychologists among them) to view their own subject in a new and fructifying light. In this respect, he invites comparison with Socrates - to whom, in a way, he bore some physical likeness; for Socrates laid claim to no skill beyond that of intellectual midwifery to other men’s thinking (Plato, Theaetetus, 161e). Socrates’ medium was the arresting dialogue, Berlin’s the fascinating monologue, and I doubt that he considered Socrates his master: yet, in another way, too, he resembled him. I refer to the celebrated capacity for concentration that was a feature of each. The story is fairly well known of Isaiah’s discussion, in Russia, with the poetess Anna Akhmatova, which continued unbroken for some twelve hours. It calls to mind an incident when Socrates, serving in the Athenian army besieging Potidaea, was noticed standing, deep in contemplation of a problem, from one dawn until the next, when, after