The Hedgehog and the Fox

Over six hundred years ago Oxford University had its first library – in an upper room in the University church of St Mary the Virgin (now, less grandiosely, above the café in the church). Just over sixty years ago a group of people met together in the same room to form the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief – Oxfam. Both institutions have been beacons of freedom – freedom of thought, and freedom from hunger. Oxfam bookshops remarkably help the latter by spreading the former. We’ll be celebrating Oxford’s role in promoting freedom of thought and expression in one of our major themes if we win the World Book Capital nomination. There will be a public event based on Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, in which in a book-burning future society people ‘become’ books by learning them by heart. Part of my own background has involved studying that bastion of repression the Soviet Union – very much the kind of society described by Bradbury – and by a roundabout course of events that led me up Headington Hill for most weekends in a two- or three-year period in the 1970s to catalogue Sir Isaiah Berlin’s personal library. Berlin was the intellectual giant of liberal philosophy in the twentieth century, and it is perhaps not a coincidence that his family fled Russia when he was a child to escape the repression of the Soviet regime, nor that much of his philosophy can be traced back to the Russian intellectual ferment of the nineteenth century. His library – there must have been ten thousand books, and he had probably given away as many again – was dominated by works on Russian literature, history and political philosophy. I started in the library room and worked my way round into the adjacent study. Time and again, when I thought I was getting near the end, Sir Isaiah would lead me to another room where there were yet more books.

The mundane correspondence we had about my terms of employment is now, I think, in the collection of his papers in the Bodleian, where no doubt it sits alongside his correspondence on much weightier topics with much weightier minds. I think I was too young then to appreciate fully what a privilege it was to be able to wander, as it were, through the nooks and crannies of Sir Isaiah’s literary mind. But by looking at, and spending at least a few moments thinking about, every one of those books (each of which seemed well used and much read), I did get a sense of the enormous breadth of his knowledge and understanding.

The Hedgehog and the Fox? It’s the title of one of his most popular essays. I think Isaiah Berlin was a fox. It’s the foxes who give us the freedom and the ability to think and speak and write a diversity of views, and it will be good to celebrate that. Me? I’m a hedgehog, but Isaiah Berlin would say we need both, thank heaven!

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