A marvelous raconteur famed for his opulent intellect and brilliant wit, Isaiah Berlin could easily give the impression of being an intellectual dilettante. He often endorsed such criticism self-mockingly; asked by his biographer about the source of his serene well-being, he replied that he was happy because he was superficial. In a letter to a close friend he presents a very different self-image:
The only truth which I have ever found out for myself is, I think, this one: of the unavoidability of conflicting ends…. The contrast between my cheerful and feckless façade, and unquiet constant perturbations and apprehension within, is too odd.
This truth became the basis of a liberalism deviating sharply from the Anglo-American tradition. What the philosopher John Gray has termed Berlin’s “tragic liberalism” inspired his seminal Four Essays on Liberty, directed against the faith (common to liberal and radical doctrines founded on European Enlightenment optimism) that all rational goals can ultimately be harmonized. To this monistic vision he opposed the notion of value pluralism: the necessity of difficult choices between ultimate ends equally good but incommensurable and often irreconcilable.
Writing in 1994, Gray argued that the full originality and subversiveness of this view had yet to be appreciated. The process continues even sixteen years after Berlin’s death...