OLD POLYMATHS NEVER DIE

...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 Several of his classic essays have been republished, some in expanded form, and there is still more unpublished material in the Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library (berlin.wolf.ox.ac.uk).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 Why did they leave so much of their best work unpublished?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”. 

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