04 November 2022

Remembering Isaiah Berlin,
Jewish philosopher and opponent
of extremism and fanaticism

A plaque honouring the philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin in the cloister in All Souls Collge Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

In recent days, I have been writing about All Souls College, Oxford, including its chapel, its library, and how is responding to the legacy of slavery. In the cloister that links the chapel and the library, there are plaques honouring many fellows of All Souls College, including the philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin, who died 25 years tomorrow, on 5 November 1997.

Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) was a philosopher, historian of ideas, political theorist, educator, public intellectual and moralist, and essayist. He was renowned for his conversational brilliance, his defence of liberalism and pluralism, his opposition to political extremism and intellectual fanaticism, and his accessible writings on people and ideas.

His essay Two Concepts of Liberty (1958) contributed to a revival of interest in political theory in the English-speaking world, and remains one of the most influential and widely discussed texts in that field: admirers and critics agree that Berlin’s distinction between positive and negative liberty remains a basic starting point for discussions of the meaning and value of political freedom.

Although he became increasingly averse to writing for publication, his improvised lectures and talks were sometimes recorded and transcribed, and many of his spoken words were converted into published essays and books, both by himself and by others, especially his principal editor from 1974, Henry Hardy

He was born on 6 June 1909 in Riga, now the capital of Latvia but then a part of the Russian Empire. He moved to Petrograd, Russia, at the age of six, where he witnessed the revolutions of 1917. In 1921, his family moved to the England, and he was educated at Saint Paul’s School, London, and Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

In 1932, at the age of 23, Berlin was elected to a prize fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford, considered one of the highest accolades in British academic life. He was the first unconverted Jew to achieve this fellowship at All Souls. In addition to his own prolific output, he translated works by Ivan Turgenev from Russian into English, and during World War II he worked for the British Diplomatic Service in New York and Washington.

His election to a research fellowship at All Souls in 1950 allowed him to devote himself more fully to his historical, political and literary interests, which lay well outside the mainstream of philosophy as it was then practised and taught at Oxford.

He was Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford from 1957 to 1967. He was president of the Aristotelian Society in 1963-1964. In 1966, he played a critical role in creating Wolfson College, Oxford, and became its founding President. Berlin was appointed a CBE in 1946, knighted in 1957, and appointed to the Order of Merit in 1971. He was President of the British Academy in 1974-1978.

He also received the 1979 Jerusalem Prize for his lifelong defence of civil liberties. When he received the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws at the University of Toronto in 1994, he prepared a ‘short credo’ – as he called it in a letter to a friend – now known as ‘A Message to the Twenty-First Century’, to be read on his behalf at the ceremony.

Berlin’s work on liberal theory and on value pluralism, as well as his opposition to Marxism and Communism, has had a lasting influence. He was more sensitive than many classical liberal or libertarian thinkers to the fact that genuine liberty may conflict with genuine equality, or justice, or public order, or security, or efficiency, or happiness, and therefore must be balanced against, and sometimes sacrificed in favour of, other values.

His liberalism includes both a conservative or pragmatic appreciation of the importance of maintaining a balance between different values, and a social-democratic appreciation of the need to restrict liberty in some cases so as to promote equality and justice, and to protect the weak against victimisation by the strong.

An annual Isaiah Berlin Lecture is held at the Hampstead Synagogue, at Wolfson College, Oxford, at the British Academy, and in Riga.

Professor BĂ©atrice Longuenesse of New York University is delivering the 2022 Isaiah Berlin Lectures in Oxford. Her four lectures are on the theme of ‘Kant and Freud on the Mind,’ with the first lecture next Wednesday (9 November 2022) on ‘Conflicting Logics of the Mind.’ Her other lectures are: ‘Kant on Consciousness and its Limits’ (16 November), ‘Freud’s Concept of the Unconscious’ (17 November), and ‘The “Morality System”’ (24 November).

The 20th Isaiah Berlin Annual Lecture at Hampstead United Synagogue was delivered on Sunday 11 September by Professor Michael Sandel of Harvard University, on the theme of ‘The Tyranny of Merit: What’s become of the common good?’

The focus of his lecture was a critique of meritocracy: ‘The principle that says “if chances are equal the winners deserve their winnings”.’ For Professor Sandel this is ‘the heart of the meritocratic ideal.’ He went on to show how chances are far from being equal in society today, and then examined the far-reaching consequences of this inequality – political, societal, and economic.

Previous lecturers have include Gordon Brown, Philippe Sands, Baroness Hale and the former Chief Rabbi, the late Lord (Jonathan) Sacks.

Meanwhile, Weidenfeld & Nicolson have published a new edition of The Hedgehog and the Fox, Berlin’s 1953 essay ‘on Tolstoy's view of history.’ It is edited by Henry Hardy, with an introduction by Michael Ignatieff, who writes:

‘This essay asks basic questions of anyone who reads it: What can we know? What does our ‘sense of reality’ tell us? Are we reconciled to the limits of human vision? Or do we long for something more? If so, what certainty can we hope to achieve one day? Because these are enduring questions of human existence, this great essay will last as long as people come seeking answers.’

Whenever Isaiah Berlin was described as an English philosopher, he always insisted that he was not an English philosopher, but would forever be a Russian Jew: ‘I am a Russian Jew from Riga, and all my years in England cannot change this. I love England, I have been well treated here, and I cherish many things about English life, but I am a Russian Jew; that is how I was born and that is who I will be to the end of my life.’

Shabbat Shalom

The cloister links the chapel and the library in All Souls College, Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Praying in Ordinary Time with USPG:
Friday 4 November 2022

The ornate portico in First Quad in Oriel College, Oxford, leads into the hall, with a doors on the right leading to the chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Before this day gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for reading, prayer and reflection.

Throughout this week, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, One of the readings for the morning;

2, A reflection based on seven more churches or chapels in Oxford I have visited recently;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

Oriel College, Oxford, was founded in 1324 as the House of the Blessed Mary at Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Luke 16: 1-8 (NRSVA):

1 Then Jesus said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2 So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” 3 Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” 6 He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” 7 Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?” He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.” 8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.’

Inside the Chapel of Oriel College, Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The Chapel of Oriel College, Oxford:

Oriel College, on Oriel Square, is the oldest royal foundation in Oxford. In the past, the college has also been known as King’s College and King’s Hall, and the reigning monarch, Charles III, is the official visitor. Among its former members are two saints, Thomas More and John Henry Newman.

The original mediaeval foundation established in 1324 by Adam de Brome, under the patronage of Edward II, was the House of the Blessed Mary at Oxford, and the college received a royal charter in 1326. Oriel was the first college in Oxford to be founded in honour of the Virgin Mary.

An additional royal grant in 1329 of a manor house, La Oriole, eventually gave rise to its common name. The main site of the college incorporates four mediaeval halls: Bedel Hall, Saint Mary Hall, Saint Martin Hall, and Tackley’s Inn, the last being the oldest standing mediaeval hall in Oxford.

The first proposals allowed for a provost and ten fellows, called scholars, and the college remained a small body of graduate fellows until the 16th century, when it started to admit undergraduates.

The Provost of Oriel, Thomas Ware was one of the first to embrace the Reformation in the 16th century.

During the English Civil War, Oriel played host to high-ranking members of the king's Oxford Parliament.

The college has almost 40 fellows, about 300 undergraduates and some 250 graduates. Notable Oriel alumni include two Nobel laureates, and prominent fellows have included founders of the Oxford Movement.

The chapel has been a place of prayer and learning at the heart of Oriel since it was founded. The current chapel in the Front Quad or First Quad is Oriel’s third college. The ornate portico in the centre In the east range of First Quad leads into a hall, where doors on either side lead to the undercroft (left) and the chapel (right).

The first chapel was built around 1373 on the north side of First Quad. By 1566, during a visit by Queen Elizabeth I, the chapel was located on the south side of the quad. Little is known of those early chapels, although the college records refer to a ‘high altar’, ‘nave’, and ‘chancel’ and various furnishings.

The present chapel was consecrated in 1641, and despite restorations in the succeeding centuries, it largely retains its original appearance.

The bronze lectern was given to the college in 1654. The black and white marble paving dates from 1677 to 1678. Except for the pews on the west, dating from 1884, the panelling, stalls and screens are all 17th-century, as are the altar and carved communion rails.

Behind the altar is the oil-on-panel painting, ‘The Carrying of the Cross,’ also titled ‘Christ Falls, with the Cross, before a City Gate,’ by the Flemish Renaissance painter Bernard van Orley. The organ case dates from 1716. It was originally designed by Christopher Schreider for Saint Mary Abbots Church, Kensington, and was acquired by Oriel in 1884.

The oriel above the chapel entrance once formed part of a set of rooms occupied by Archbishop Richard Whately and by Cardinal John Henry Newman (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Above the entrance to the chapel is an oriel that, until the 1880s, was a room on the first floor that formed part of a set of rooms occupied by Richard Whately (1787-1863), and later by John Henry Newman (1801-1890).

Whately was a fellow of Oriel (1811-1821) and Drummond Professor of Political Economy in Oxford (1830-1831) before becoming Archbishop of Dublin (1831-1863). He is said to have used the space as a larder. He was a mentor of and later an opponent Newman, who is said to have used the same space for his private prayers.

John Henry Newman is among the most renowned figures associated with Oriel. He was a fellow of Oriel from 1822 to 1845. During these years he was also the college chaplain (1826-1831, 1833-1835) and Vicar of the University Church of Saint Mary the Virgin (1828-1843).

Newman was the driving force behind the Oxford Movement, alongside John Keble (1792-1866) and Edward Bouverie Pusey (1800-1882), and Oriel is pre-eminently the college of the Oxford Movement, the first phase of which lasted from 1833-1845. Its proponents produced the Tracts for the Times, a series of 90 tracts on a wide range of religious subjects. This in turn gave them the name ‘Tractarians’.

Besides Newman, Keble and Pusey, other figures of the movement associated with Oriel included Robert Wilberforce (1802-1857), Richard Hurrell Froude (1803-36), GA Denison (1805-1896), Thomas Mozley (1806-1893), Charles Marriott (1811-1858) and RW Church (1815-1890).

Keble was a fellow 1811-1835, chaplain 1817-1823, and Professor of Poetry. Pusey was a fellow 1823-1828, Regius Professor of Hebrew and a canon of Christ Church. Samuel Wilberforce (1805-1873), an undergraduate of Oriel, Bishop of Oxford and then Winchester, was the founder of Cuddesdon Theological College (1854), now Ripon College Cuddesdon.

On the other hand, Thomas Arnold (1795-1842), fellow 1815-1827, headmaster of Rugby, then Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, was a supporter of the Broad Church movement.

The legacy of the Oxford Movement continues to inform life at Oriel. The college traditions include singing the ancient hymn Phos Hilaron (‘Hail Gladdening Light’) on feast days and other special occasions. The translation was produced by John Keble for Lyra apostolica, a collection of poems published in 1836.

When the organ was installed in 1884, the space once used by Whately and Newman was used for the blower. The wall that once separated the room from the ante-chapel was removed, making it accessible from the chapel. The organ was built by JW Walker & Sons in 1988.

The space behind the organ was rebuilt in 1991 as an oratory and memorial to Newman and the Oxford Movement. A new stained-glass window designed by Vivienne Haig and realised by Douglas Hogg was installed in 2001.

The chapel was last restored in the 1980s with the assistance of donations from Norma, Lady Dalrymple-Champneys. During this work, the chandelier was put back in place, the organ was restored, the painting mounted behind the altar, and the chapel repainted. A list of former chaplains and organ scholars was erected in the ante-chapel.

Recent Church figures associated with Oriel have also include Canon John Collins (1905-1982), chaplain 1937-1948, founder of Christian Action and a leading figure in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and the Anti-Apartheid Movement; John Hick (1922-2012), theologian and editor of The Myth of God Incarnate (1977); and John Baker (1928-2014), who was the principal author of the report The Church and the Bomb (1983).

• The Chaplain of Oriel College, the Revd Dr Rob Wainwright, is also a tutor in theology. The regular chapel services include: Sundays, Choral Evensong, 6 pm; Monday to Friday, Morning Prayer 8 am, Evening Prayer 6 pm; Wednesdays, Holy Communion 6 pm; Thursdays, Compline 9:30 pm. .

The Adoration of the Shepherds and the Magi depicted in a stained-glass window in the chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Today’s Prayer (Friday 4 November 2022):

The Collect:

Almighty and eternal God,
you have kindled the flame of love
in the hearts of the saints:
grant to us the same faith and power of love,
that, as we rejoice in their triumphs,
we may be sustained by their example and fellowship;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

Lord of heaven,
in this eucharist you have brought us near
to an innumerable company of angels
and to the spirits of the saints made perfect:
as in this food of our earthly pilgrimage
we have shared their fellowship,
so may we come to share their joy in heaven;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week is ‘Behold, I make all things new.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by the Revd David Rajiah, Diocesan Prayer Co-ordinator for the Diocese of West Malaysia.

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

We pray for countries like Malaysia, where Christianity is a minority religion. May everyone be treated respectfully and have their freedom of religion and belief protected.

Yesterday’s reflection tomorrow

Continued tomorrow</b>

Evening light pours into the chapel in Oriel College, Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Oriel College is pre-eminently the college of the first phase of the Oxford Movement (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)