Posted by: davidlarkin | January 12, 2012

An Elegy for Lifelong Friendship

Isaiah Berlin by Lucian Freud

Isaiah Berlin, portrait by Lucien Freud

Isaiah Berlin was a 20th century (1909-1997) Russian-born Oxford Don, philosopher, historian of ideas, and conversationalist extraordinaire. He is most famous for his essay Two Concepts of Liberty. The two concepts are referred to by Berlin as negative and positive liberty or freedom. Simply stated, negative liberty is the freedom from interference with individual choice of conduct, the freedom of the libertarian, and positive liberty is the freedom of the traditional liberal, freedom to flourish with the aid of rational collective action, e.g., traffic signals limiting the freedom to freely drive through an intersection. The traffic signals are collective recognition that limiting the freedom to drive also prevents harm from accidents which may interfere with an individual’s freedom to flourish, especially if the individual loses his or her life in an accident from an unregulated intersection.

Berlin’s biography, Isaiah Berlin, a Life, was written by Michael Ignatieff, Canadian writer, Oxford and Cambridge academic, and former politician (the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and Leader of the Official Opposition from 2008 until 2011). Berlin, a Russian-Jewish British immigrant, had an incredible life, a friend of international scholars, artists, poets, politicians, and aristocrats. During the 40s, Berlin was a confidante and intermediary between Zionist leaders Chaim Weitzman and David Ben Gurion during the movement which established the nation of Israel. Berlin died in 1997. I refer you to the biography for his life.

At the end of his life, poet Stephen Spender, a lifelong friend from Oxford who died in 1993, sent Berlin a poem by a ninth-century Chinese poet, “which was an elegy for their lifelong friendship”:

We are growing old together, you and I
Let us ask ourselves, what is age like?
The idle head, still uncombed at noon.
Propped on a staff, sometimes a walk abroad;
Or all day sitting with closed doors.
One dares not look in the mirror’s polished face;
One cannot read small-letter books.
Deeper and deeper, one’s love of old friends;
Fewer and fewer, one’s dealings with young men.
One thing only, the pleasure of idle talk,
Is great as ever, when you and I meet.

Isaiah Berlin, A Life p. 287-88.

Idle talk between old friends is certainly exempt from any moral consequence, a fleet passing pleasure of conflict free company and is “great as ever” — even by facebook and email.


Click here for my post Lucien Freud Paints Isaiah Berlin

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