Sir Isaiah Berlin, Founding President
Wolfson College would not be as it is today had its first President not been Isaiah Berlin.
Photograph acknowledgements: Isaiah Berlin in study by Clive Barda;
Sir Isaiah Berlin OM (1909–1997) was an extraordinary man – an unmatched friend, a charismatic teacher and leader, an approachable polymath who never used his formidable learning as a hostile weapon. Not only did he raise the large sums needed to build a worthy home for the College and to provide its endowment, he also had a definite vision of what kind of institution he wanted to found. It should be modern, open, democratic, multicultural, multidisciplinary, international, free of unnecessary hierarchy or fusty rituals. These were his own characteristics, and he made the College in his own image.
Life and Work
Born in Riga, he lived for part of his childhood in Russia (where he witnessed the 1917 Revolutions in Petrograd) and came to England in 1921. He referred to himself as a Russian Jew but became a central member of English society. He is famed as thinker, essayist, correspondent, talker and lecturer, and remembered as an unconventional and inspiring tutor. He made significant contributions to philosophy and the history of ideas, not least those of the nineteenth-century Russian thinkers to whom one of his books is devoted. His biography of Karl Marx is still in print over 70 years after it was first published, and his 1958 lecture on ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ is required reading for most courses in political philosophy. His central commitments, to freedom and diversity, continue to reverberate through informed discussion of what human beings can do and be.
Berlin’s academic career was always in Oxford. He won a scholarship to Corpus Christi College in 1928, took Firsts in Greats and PPE, and in 1932 became the first Jew to be elected to a Prize Fellowship at All Souls. During the war, he worked for the British Government in America and Russia and was valued by the Foreign Office as a perceptive analyst of local opinion. In Russia, he met and befriended the poets Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak. After the war, he was a regular visitor to leading US universities. He was a Director of Covent Garden for over 20 years and President of the British Academy in the mid-1970s.
In 1965, when he was Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory, Berlin was invited by the Fellows of what was then Iffley College to become their first President. He accepted this invitation and proceeded to transform the College and its prospects out of all recognition. His unique standing in American and British society enabled him to secure major funding from two great philanthropic bodies, the Ford Foundation and the Wolfson Foundation, and he remained President of the renamed Wolfson College until 1975. By this time its new buildings were safely finished and occupied, and its academic community was expanding rapidly. Berlin believed that the development of the natural sciences and technology was one of the principal factors that shaped human history in the twentieth century, ‘the greatest success story of our time’, and this gave him a natural empathy with a College that from its origins displayed a strong commitment to science.
Isaiah Berlin defined an intellectual as someone who wants ideas to be as interesting as possible. By this standard, he was a supreme intellectual, and the College is fortunate to have been born under his guidance. The College's continued openness and friendliness, its democratic ethos and its international and interdisciplinary nature are all testimony to Berlin's enduring legacy.