Isaiah Berlin and Meyer Schapiro: An Exchange

Isaiah Berlin photo by Steve Pyke (1987).

Isaiah Berlin and Meyer Schapiro, the eminent philosopher and the great art historian, first met in the 1940s, either at one of Schapiro’s invited lectures at Oxford or during Berlin’s brief employment with the British government’s Information Services in Washington, D.C. Schapiro had later attended Berlin’s six famous Mellon Lectures on Romanticism at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1965.

As one would expect, the two men were immediately attracted to each other, and soon found themselves involved in intense discussions on the many subjects of their common interest, particularly philosophy, art, literature, and the history of ideas. The friendship evolved for over a half a century. Schapiro died in 1996, Berlin in 1997.

The following exchange of letters was occasioned by the publication of a critical essay by Schapiro on Bernard Berenson, the world-renowned art historian from the preceding generation. Entitled “Mr. Berenson’s Values,” the essay was published in Encounter in January 1961. The Rail is grateful to both Berlin’s and Schapiro’s literary estates for their permission to publish the exchange.
It began with Berlin’s letter dated January 21 in response to Schapiro’s article. Berlin had some reservations about his views, and their likely reception by Schapiro, and therefore sent it with a covering letter to his friend, dated January 23, before sending it to Encounter. Schapiro quickly, in his own defense, but without vexation of spirit, wrote the passionate letter of January 31 which convinced Berlin to withhold publication of his letter, as explained in Berlin’s final, charming letter of February 13. However conflicting their respective views might appear at first, after careful reflection on either side, they arrived at a consensus which demonstrates the way that intellectual clarity can be achieved through objective reasoning without the fear of damaging a friendship. On the contrary, these important and exemplary exchanges deepened the bond between Isaiah Berlin and Meyer Schapiro.


23 January 1961

Dear Meyer,

I feel impelled to send this letter to Encounter, but will not if you think it improper or unjust or simply do not like it. I owe something to the memory of my friend B.B., but not anything that might in any way upset or annoy yourself, with whom my friendship is far deeper. So please let me know.

Yours ever, Isaiah


21 January 1961

[To Encounter]

I did not know Bernard Berenson well, but I visited him on half a dozen occasions during the last years of his life. Had I not done so, I might well have accepted the low estimate of his personality made by my friend Meyer Schapiro, if only because of the great respect that I have for Mr Schapiro’s opinions. As it is, I consider it mistaken. About Berenson’s values and achievement as a historian and critic of art I am not competent to speak. But the total impression of Berenson’s character, which Mr Schapiro’s indignant words convey, seems to me profoundly unjust.

Berenson possessed a very powerful intellectual personality, and when he was interested in a subject or in a visitor (he was infinitely sensitive to nuances both of persons and of ideas—about works of art I cannot speak), his conversation was sharp and arresting. His views were original and first-hand, and the ratio of thought to words was uncommonly high, so that one’s own mind was made to race. My first impression was that of a polished, mannered and highly self-conscious aesthete; but presently I became aware that I was in the presence of a man of extraordinary breadth and precision of knowledge, of acute ironical and deeply civilised intelligence, but above all of a man who possessed the unique vitality and distinction (if not the creative gifts) of a man of genius.

The quality and effect of his conversation is difficult to convey—at any rate I will not attempt to do so: the only persons in my experience in whose talk, ideas, and images mingled with a similar ‘life-enhancing’ effect were Pasternak, Keynes, and Freud. Mr Schapiro conveys the impression of a personality so deeply flawed that whatever it might once have been it had become hopelessly corrupted into triviality, snobbery, pretence—into a character clever, meretricious, venal, and false. I can testify, without fear of contradiction, that when Berenson talked with sympathetic persons about ideas, books or people, the precise opposite was true.

Mr Schapiro speaks of his attitude to the Jews. Berenson spoke to me about it often. Like Heine (with whom he felt an affinity) and perhaps Marx (the analogy with St Paul and Spinoza was a very characteristic jeu d’esprit and no more), he broke away from his East European Jewish milieu early in life, and was clearly in his youth determined to place the maximum distance between himself and the detested Pale of Settlement; he probably felt at one time that he had succeeded in this, but towards the end of his life this goal seemed to him at once less attainable and less desirable. I do not think that he was embarrassed by his origins: but he had revolted against them, and bitterly attacked them and the national feelings they inspired in others. By the time I came to know him he discussed this difficult—as it seemed to him—relationship freely and openly, nor did the presence of non-Jews deter him in the least. On this entire topic I disagreed with him very sharply (as I suspect that I do, for different reasons, with Mr Schapiro) and said what I thought. He argued courteously, firmly, with great perspicacity and knowledge and a kind of sardonic gaiety; and I see no reason to doubt his sincerity. His point of view was similar to, and in my view as deluded as, that of Pasternak in Dr Zhivago.

Mr Schapiro says that the motive of both his conversions was desire for social ease and advancement. I do not believe this, and cannot see how anyone who did not know him intimately can be in a position to judge. He was worldly, pleasure-loving and, unlike his ancestors, in harmony with physical nature. He understood himself and others, and wished to obtain from life all it could give: occasionally he wondered whether, in this remorseless pursuit, he had squandered too many of the gifts he knew himself to possess. I am glad to have known him; apart from the pleasure of friendship, it enlarged my conception of what a man endowed with unusual power of will can do to achieve moral and intellectual independence. Mr Schapiro sees him as a slave to squalid social values. The man I knew, whatever he may have been in earlier years, seemed to me rational, morally untroubled, and free.


Meyer Schapiro photo by Richard Sandler (1983).

January 31, 1961

Dear Isaiah,

I appreciate very much your sending me the letter on Berenson before publication. You are a good friend to Berenson and me.

Of course you must publish it. I have said what I think and your friends in England and America undoubtedly wish to know your opinion. It is surely significant that Berenson seemed to you, in his conversation, the equal of Pasternak, Keynes and Freud. Any future biographer of Berenson will have to take your judgment into account. For me his conversation was not so life-enhancing when I met him over 30 years ago. Some day you will hear the details.

The difference between our views is perhaps due to a difference in approach. You see him through his conversation; I give more weight to his actions and writings. I had also some face-to-face experience of the man, though shorter than yours and at a time when he had another role. You say I’m unjust to Berenson. That is possible and I’m ready to admit that my account of him may be mistaken. A fuller and deeper knowledge of Berenson may lead to other estimates. But I think you are unjust to my article which lies before you. I wish you would read it again and tell me where it is I say that B. is “hopelessly corrupted.…etc.”, or “deeply flawed” or a “slave to squalid social values”; or that the “motive of both his conversions was desire for social ease and advancement”? I think this is a misleading reduction of my words which are closely bound to B.’s own statements and those of his wife. It is the whole of his remarks about religion that makes one suspect the genuineness of his conversions.—I do not write “indignant words” or deny B’s superior qualities, but I try to see him whole. I cannot imagine a serious biographer or novelist accepting a description of B’s gifts and brilliant conversation as an adequate insight into so complex and problematic a being. I have tried at least to show the conflict and pathos of his upward struggle and its effects, the cost of his “success.”

I know that you base your remarks on a “total impression” conveyed to you by the article. Others, including people I have never met and who were old friends of Berenson, have had a very different “total impression,” much less negative than yours. I feel regret, as you do, for Pasternak’s remarks on the Jews in Dr. Zhivago. I can’t overlook that the novel appeared at a time when the Jews were (as they still are) a persecuted minority in Russia; it is not the Jews who are stubbornly backward, but the government that will allow the Jews neither to assimilate nor to retain their group identity (nor even to leave the country). But I’m puzzled by your reference to my unknown views in that context and what your readers are supposed to make of that. We last talked about Zionism in 1942 and much has happened since then that has led me to change my views. I have always been concerned with Zionism since I was a boy of ten. But I’m not a Zionist and some of my old apprehensions about Palestine, which go back to my experiences there as a student, have been confirmed. Yet I’m glad there’s a place where our people have a strong community of their own, one which is forward-looking and grows and to which homeless Jews may turn.

To come back to Berenson—have you read the Sprigge book? I wonder what impression it makes on you? Does she picture B. as “hopelessly corrupt.…etc.”? Yet the disturbing texts that I quote come mainly from her book, and there are others, equally disturbing and revealing, that I ignore. I believe that in my account Berenson is more intelligible, more human than in hers. And although I reject certain of his values, I admire his positive achievement, his gifts and his personal strength.

Trevor-Roper has written a really angry reply, which will be published in Encounter. He thinks that I’m a pious Jew who believes that any contact with money defiles utterly, and also that I’m a bloody specialist who can’t appreciate the breadth of B’s interests. Hence my “total denial” of any of B’s qualities and accomplishments. This is not just a paraphrase. His letter will at least prove that B. was wrong in lamenting that he never won the confidence of others; he was able to inspire in Trevor-Roper a passionate loyalty.

I’d like to turn to a more agreeable subject—your very fine essay on Vico. It is one of your best writings. Here Vico’s genius gushes like a fountain, pure and miraculous in a waste, and your way of presenting him is perfectly con-genial.

I had read your article on History before the reprint came. On this I have some questions and I hope I’ll be able to write you at length about them before long. The contrast of the scientist as occupied with theory and the historian with particular facts seems to me overdrawn; only one scientist in a thousand contributes to theory and among the great historians few have not introduced a new conception of the totality with which they deal. I cannot quite reconcile your remark in a footnote about the unconnectedness of generalizations on history versus their connectedness in science, with the statement on the next page about the reason for rejecting the statement about your living on Mars. Much in scientific theory is changed without affecting the rest—the recent disproof of the principle of parity in physics has not shaken the whole of physics, and the acceptance of relativity and quantum theory has left unaltered large parts of classical physics.

The question of understanding versus explanation is more complicated, though not separate from theory. It would be helpful to analyze a particular historical work or even a chapter to determine the part of empathic “understanding”, for some empathic divinations contradict each other and many are hopelessly wrong. I believe “understanding” would turn out to depend more on facts, on assumed constancies of behavior and some general considerations of theory than your account suggests. In all this one should distinguish between the way in which one hits on a correct explanation or acceptable “understanding” and the criteria for correctness or acceptability. In science too it often happens that a single observation, the behavior of one animal, the process noted in one patient, seems to the scientist a sufficient ground for insight into hidden relationship, and he is confirmed by later study. Freud’s whole structure was built on a few cases; with the help of a minimum of theoretical concepts he was able to illuminate that centuries of empathic observation could not “understand”. Now everyone understands himself better or at least believes he does – thanks to Freud’s concepts. And individuality seems today richer in meaning, more complex and more dynamic than before.

Please give my warm regards to your wife (& William’s too). Perhaps we’ll see you both next time.

Yours ever, Meyer

PS. I’m going to Jerusalem in April to give several lectures at the University. And on the way back we plan to visit Greece, Italy & France. MS.


13 February 1961

Dear Meyer,

I was so deeply moved and delighted by your letter that I cannot now bring myself to send my own to Encounter. I shall keep it in a drawer and do nothing with it. If something monstrous appears in the correspondence with B.B. I shall hold myself free to write something. But I hope not to have to. I hate writing in any case, and letters to the press with a degree of acute loathing which I cannot begin to convey to you. I have done this very very seldom in my life and hope to do it even more seldom. But you wrote me a noble letter and I am most grateful to you for it. That I shall preserve much more carefully than my own (or any other article, I feel bound to add).

Now as to Science and History. I do not wish to say that the whole corpus of science is at present one seamless garment or rather a garment with such seams that any tremor in any part of it sends tremors down all the seams with varying degrees of strength. Nor surely did I say this? The example I took was that of an average science textbook, where the assertions, even if not mediated by links such as ‘because’ and ‘therefore’, nevertheless are meant to follow with some degree of logical rigour; which does not appear to me the case in narrative history, which, even if it were possible to do it, it would convert into something very strange (and less rich). Still do send me your proper letter. I have no doubt my article will be attacked in any case and I should be most grateful for your just and well-founded comments, even if they are stern and even fatal. I believe in your capacity for discovering the truth much more than in my own. Our love to you both, and if you are in Italy in April remember that we shall be in the Villa Cipressina, Portofino, Nr Santa Margherita, between about 11 and 19 April. I shall be with my mother before that, from 30 March to 10 April in the Ruhl Hotel, Nice, and back in France after the 19th in Paris in (I am ashamed to say) the Ritz Hotel, of which my wife is a hereditary Director. I am ashamed only because of its symbolic significance. I preferred—for that reason alone—my old uncomfortable, and towards the end insect-infested, room in the Hotel Madison, which you probably know, in which I stayed from 1930 to 1950, but I shall offer you a meal in the Ritz with the greatest possible pleasure, and you must come just to show that you are not ‘a religious Jew to whom money?’ etc. Anyway at one of these addresses surely you could get hold of me? The telephone of the Italian villa is under the name of Leadley in the Genoa—Santa Margherita telephone book—I have not got it by me at the present unfortunately. Do try to connect: it would be the greatest pleasure. Also I long to hear about your impressions of Jerusalem. Our disagreements about the Jews I believe to exist: but I admit that merely to make an oblique and obscure reference as I did was only a rhetorical—and unnecessary—piece of symmetry in the letter.

Yours, Isaiah


Letters from Isaiah Berlin ©The Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust 2004. Letters from Meyer Schapiro ©The Meyer Schapiro Literary Estate 2004.

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