They defined the truth and stood up for wisdom!

There were a heady mix of  great minds,in several  disciplines. Of course, philosophers came first and they were in good number,some of the top names who still dominate the world thought. Then came the political and social philosophers, it was time when politics took a back seat with the Second World War over and the mood with Hitler vanquished and Stalin looming large with the Kruschev disclosures started making disturbing impact on the Marxist-Communist camps,it was social theories, the questions about our freedoms, individual freedoms that took  centre-stage.

Economists were very much at the forefront of policy making and some of the basic economic theories were set out and tested, in the post-Keynesian time with some of the living Keynesians like Sir Roy Harrod (who taught me)and Nicholas Kaldor evolving new Keynesian solutions to the changed world. Kaldor was adviser to the Indian government and Harrod came out with what was called then Harrod-Dommar dynamic economics,a new development model.

There were great scholars, like Sir Maurice Bowra and Lord David Cecil, the great literary minds, there were others, in International Law and Chemistry, Nobel Prize Winners and others with whom it was my fortune to come into contact.  It was certainly a heady time when I was drawn into such high intellectual noon and they now continue to inspire me in my years in India.
I have written elsewhere,some time ago, about the number of persons who influenced my thought and also the way I think about issues. Those whom I didn’t not know personally but whose books influenced me form one set of such persons. These range from poets to philosophers,journalists, men like Boris Pasternak and other poets and writers, Y.B.Yeats and James Joyce and many others, of my own times and also from the past. Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats among the older poetical generation, T.S.Eliot and the Thirties poets, Stephen Spender (whom I had met once at the Oxford Poetry Club meeting) and the names can  go on and on!

Among the philosophers there is a long list again. But Bertrand Russell and his contemporaries, in particular A.J.Ayer and Isaiah Berlin are important. Ayer’s first book,Language Truth and Logic  was the first one I bought from an Oxford bookshop. At that point of time I knew that I was staying in New College where Ayer also had his residence but I had not yet seen him.
It was after hearing about his reputation I bought the book but the impact of the book was much more deeper than what the man himself actually made on me. I used to attend Ayer’s philosophy lectures, his own  weekly seminars at a New College room.  I attended not regularly but occasionally to keep up with the expectations of my other tutors, notably (now) Lord  Quinton, a big name now in the British intellectual establishment ( I still keep corresponding with him and hope to meet him during my next visit to London) Peter Wiles, my economics tutor. Quinton even now writes and he was even then a formidable teacher of philosophy. It was he who first put me to an, unsuspect, grinding by asking me straightaway to write an essay on “Certainty”. That simply floored me! I was at my wits! He also gave me a list of books to read, all first, original editions of heavy philosophical texts,Descartes, Aristotle etc!

Isaiah Berlin

Now,about Isaiah Berlin there is much to write about. He was born in Russia, in fact what was then Latvia, under Russian occupation (now a free country) to Russian parents. He was a jew and this coloured his view of the world. He came from a  properous family and when the Russian Revolution came along, he was taken out of Russia by his parents and the family or he had lived all his life in England, all his time at Oxford. When I saw him he was a professor of social and poltiical theory and I attended his lectures rather regularly.

John Petrov Plamenatz

John Petrov Plamenatz ( 1912-1975) When I was studying for my PPE (Philosophy,Politics and Economics) one of my lecturers in politics was John Plamenatz. He was not yet a professor and it was after I left Oxford I read about his elevation to the chair just then vacated by Isiah Berlin! He was born in Cetinje, the  capital of Montenegro. I read now with so much happiness that he was born to parents, both of them belonging to the ruling families of the old, pre-industrial, half- pastoral society, as Berlin writes about his colleague in an obituary lecture.

Montenegro, Indian readers must be knowing is now part of the much tortured breakaway former Yugoslavia and now, I think, part of the Serbia that was carved out of such ferocious bloodshed. Anyway, now as for Plamenatz’s family background he was very much like Berlin’s, taken away by his parents to France and later to England and put to an English school. He stayed in England all his life and went up to Oxford and later elected a Fellow of All Souls, a great distinction. When I knew him he looked different from other Oxford dons, he seemed remote, always with a distant look which I mistook for his reservedness Now I realise it was his childhood emigration to an alien land and his long years of separation from parents, he spent so many years in a boarding school, not seeing his parents often and this gave him a solitude, says Berlin.

Yes,he had always felt  this sense of  alienation,”the pride and independence of a noble exile”. He was reserved and reticent and never had I seen him come out with a view of his own, never put himself forward or impose  his personality, observes Berlin.” He spoke his mind with condour and precision”. Yes, this was the character of many other Oxford dons too. “He showed the kind of tolerance that only deeply civilised or saintly people can achieve”. “He  disliked shoddiness, triviality, ostentation, stridency, vulgarity and opportunism” “He was upset by lack of manners”. “He disliked the noise, the jokes, the rivalry, the repartree, the high spirits”. “The word integrity might have been invented for him”.

His well-known book,as far as I had read, is the one on “German Marxism and Russian Communism”(1954). This was a text for us, his students in his lectures hall and I should say I vaguely remember that I was exposed for the first time to what constituted Marxism and how it was twisted and shaped to suit the Bolshevik Communism. Of course, I had come a long way since those days but one thing that stayed firm with me was that I had never come nearer to believe in Marxism, in its various formulations. Of course, all the Oxford philosophers in those days somehow had connections with Soviet Russia, A.J.Ayer and Isaiah Berlin, both  came from European parentage and Berlin was born in Latvia and was eyewitness to the October Revolution. The family fled Russia.

There were others like the great philosopher Witgenstein, the Austrian born genius who was at Cambridge and became the disciple of Bertrand Russell. The other, Karl Popper,another Austrian Jew, as most others who too fled  Austria in the wake of Hitler’s rise and he came to England and made his home and also established his reputation as one of the serious  original thinkers. The political philosophy we learnt or we were taught was somewhat derived from the exeriences from the Second World War, also from the Russian Communist experiment and also from the Hitler’s war, a very topical issue and still Hitler continues to haunt the Western European scholars.

German Marxism at least had some pedigree, Hegel and later other philosophers and Karl Marx himself started as a disciple of Hegel. So,there was much attack on metaphysical philosophy and when I went to Oxford the old Hegelian metaphysics was discarded and what was presented to us was what is called verification principle, the thesis developed in Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic, the book itself was developed out of Ayer’s own stay in Vienna and his close association with what was called the Vienna Circle.

No modern philosophy can be understood unless one studies the Vienna Circle which integrated scientific methods and the logical methods of arguments. Perhaps,the best exponent is Karl Popper, who was otherwise became a popular author with his famous book, Open Society and its Enemies, the book sought to show how Hegel and Marx established an absolute political belief system. In this he added Plato also.

Anyway, the atmosphere at Oxford was just right for such a topic and we, the students were instantly drawn towards such scepticism about the claims of Marxism, any trace of Marxist position was dismissed by our practice of logical arguments, in fact, our philosophical basis was also once termed as Logical Positivism. Isaiah Berlin’s inaugural lecture as a professor was titled; “Two Concepts of Liberty”. This was also a sort of minor Bible for us. The two concepts were, the positive and negative liberty. Negative liberty, against all obstacles and state and other oppressions to my sense of liberty. Positive liberty, for all the conditions and state policies that are needed to ensure and safeguard my status as a free individual.
Isaiah Berlin, seen from this distrance of time and place, from India, after the shrinkage of Britain as a power, is primarily a philosopher of ideas, he always pleaded for pluralism, he never believed that one single idea is possible or good for any society.

In a last interview to the Israel Broadcasting Service in 1979 (when he was awarded Jerusalam Prize), he set out the three strands in his life (Personal Impressions,1998) he says that his Russian origin, his country’s fascination for abstract  theories, Communism, led to Stalin and the consequences on the world is for good or evil enormous. So his outlook on history and society shaped by his Russian origins and the Russian experiences. His British domicile also shaped his outlook as to the freedom of the individual as paramount. His favourite quotation is of Immanuel Kant, ‘Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made’. He also quotes another German Jewish physicist, Max Born,”I believe that ideas such as absolute certainty, absolute exactness, final truth and so on are figments of imagination”.

Here the figure of Hitler looms largely in front of us, the final solution Hitler sought had devastated the modern civilization. The third strand of Isaiah Berlin,he says was his Jewish roots. This he identifies with his own identification with the Jewish heritage, the two thousand years of longing to return to  their own homeland. Here he seems to be saying that ultimately, we all have to live our national identities but we have to move towards a more closer and co-operative and emotional bonds of modern man with fellow men, a new brotherhood or whatever we choose to call it.

Indians now

As far as I can see now, we in India have to learn to play our role in the making of the modern world. With all  their intellectual brilliance, the philospophers and in particular, the social and economic and political philosophers saw the world in their times, as one that was largely Euro-centric. Berlin himself didn’t care or say anything about the world outside the British empire or the world outside the US  perspective.


He  and his peers have much to say about Marxism, its flaws as it was put to experiment in the then Soviet Russia and elsewhere  and they of course stopped with warnings about what Stalin and Hitler did. But today the world had  moved on. We live in a unipolar world. Russia is a weak nation. China is growing fast but it is the only  Communist dictatorship in the world. While India is a very strong contrast for its long adherence to democratic government.

We have to do much to come out with  new political ideas and political alternatives to engage the modern world with the rise of terrorism, the militancy of Muslim terrrorists, the US hegemony in a world that badly seeks a stability through some international co-operation. International institutions are many and modern world can’t exist in a peaceful manner without these institutions are functioning in a democratic manner.

Abstract ideas

No amount of abstract ideas is a substitute for conviction and commitment for action. It is here, the very abstract ideas cease to interest us and the application of such ideas to the current challenges call for  new type of  individuals and organisations, peoples’ movements that could be directed towards purposive action by applying what we learnt in the university campuses. That is a task that needs much new thinking and institution building.

Sir Maurice Bowra

C.M.Bowra was a great Greek scholar and his books on Greek history and life were sources of inspiration for me and my generation. I was particularly drawn first by his collection of essays, The Romantic Imagination (OUP), that opened my eyes to the subtle beauties of the  poetry of Keats and Shelley. Besides other great English poets of the Romantic era. I got to know Bowra through an unexpected reading of one of his essays on the Russian poet ,Boris Pasternak. It was the time when the news of the Nobel Prize for Literature for the Russian poet came out amidst great controversy in Russia. My College Warden, Sir William Hayter was a former Ambassador to Soviet Russia and I met him one day to ask about the Kruschev revelations on Stalin’s atrocities. He confirmed that what Kruschev had said was mostly true and the Pasternak controversy also added to my curiosity to know the truth. It was at this point that I read Bowra’s beautiful essay on Pasternak along with some translations of the Russian poet from the Russian original.

Bowra was one in England who knew Russian and it was a pleasure to get the acquaintance of Pasternak’s moving poetry through such a great scholar. The oration ranged from Homer to modern poets and in between Bowra, I remember also brought in the name of Dom Moraes, my friend, who had just then won a great prize and as such Bowra had all praise for the young Indian and he let me go only after a long conversation. I didn’t know then that it was this trait of Bowra, an interest to inspire youngsters that made him so famous. Of course, I became his disciple in matters of literature. I became in fact a more convinced Greek lover, his books only reinforced my latent interets.

Now, I read from Isiah Berlin’s obiturary speech he made on Bowra’s passing away and greatly touched by the nice words Berlin gives on the great scholar. He was born in Cheltenham and he came to Oxford and also served at New College! I learn that Bowra knew all the European language poets, Pasternak, Quasimodo, Neruda(all Nobel Winners) and many others. He read French, German, Italian and Spanish, besides Russian languages and literature.

The professorship of Greek chair must have come to him, it was his due, but it didn’t and this was a disappointment for him. But the Wadham Warden job was a great source of statisfaction for him, we are told. Bowra was also Vice-Chancellor of Oxford and also the President of British Academy, great honours for any academic scholar. Says Berlin: “In his time, Bowra was the most discussed Oxford personality since Jowett..”. I can testify to the truth as I was eye-witness to this when I was there at Oxford.    

So, I one day sent a hand-written note (then the fashion and the custom) to Sir Bowra expressing a wish to meet him. Prompt came another hand-written note from the Warden of Wadham College, yes, he was the Warden at that time, the College just across the road, the Holywell street from my own New Collge rooms. So,I went at the right time, the invitation was for tea and the conversation and the high tea with cakes and other things, was a heady mix for an oration on the poetry of the world.

Lord David Cecil

He was the literature man for us at Oxford and besides A.L.Rowse, it was Cecil’s books and articles I read when I was there. Indians only have just to contrast to life for a language and literature man in India! Here the choice of literature is a choice for a poverty-stricken life! But there in England it was just a matter of personal choice. And Cecil did make a mark in life.

Lord Cecil was not like any other literary pundit! He was the son of the fourth Marquess of Salisbury when many of his  relations, one cousin became the Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour and  others, cabinet ministers and other high political figures. His country home, Hatfield, was a political  hotspot of public personalities.

A son from such a high family must have gone into poltiics. He went to Eton and entered Christ Church, the training ground for future Prime Ministers! That was the natural pull. But this Cecil chose literature. At Oxford he was interested in history, more so the Tory Party, the modern-day Conservative party is its heir!

As a high born Tory family person, he exuded, says Isiah Berlin “natural charm combined with a nimble intelligence, both clear and hard-headed, critical of both what he read and what he wrote”. Why I remember him is that I used to see him often walking the High and one day he saw Dom Moraes and told the shy Indian poet: “Hey, you had just now won the Hawthorden Prize for your first book of poetry” of which he was one of the judges. This is again typical of the British culture. Where they see talent they recognise it, more so in such fields like poetry and literature.

Cecil was always conscious of his aristocratic origins and his social position in the very class conscious British society. He made the observation that it was difficult for English aristocrats to be original artists and writers, for they tended to become all things to all men. This, he said, was an obstacle to creative writing, the withdrawal and concentration are needed for artistic creation. He conceded that Tolstoy, Byron or Shelley were exceptions. One is not sure!

But in the case of Cecil, he didn’t produce any great literary work,creative or critical literature and all he wrote and the ones I read were insructive for their insights into British society’s attitudes to life and letters. He got a First in History at Oxford and attempted All Souls, but was not taken, though eventually he came there. He started his career as a tutor at New College (one more reason for me to remmeber!) and then a professor, from 1939 to 1970. So, English literature under him was taught and studied in a particular way. Until fashions changed, says Berlin, his lectures were vastly attended.

He had a definite doctrine of the proper aim of the study of literature. His approach was aesthetic, not historical or sociological etc. He was very much different and very opposed to the literary criticisms made famous in India by such scholar critics like I.A.Richards and F.R.Leavis. Like T.S.Eliot, he thought the works of art shone by their own radiances.
Of course, as a true blue blood English aristocrat he thought highly of Brontes sisters, and his true love of his life was, Jane Austen. His Portrait of Jane Austen was his most finished study of her. “Everything in her appealed to him”
Now,it is a rather long jump for me, writing here in India to recall how the times have changed and attitudes to English literature are changing in India.

V.S.Naipaul on Jane Austen

V.S.Naipaul, in a recent interview said: “What trouble I have with Jane Austen! Jane Austen is for those people who wish to be educated in English manners. Here,I am, a grown up man reading through about this terrible vapid woman and her so-called love life-she call it’love’. English writing is very much of England, for the people of England and is not meant to travel too far. Yes,it purely depends on the poltiical power in the world. If when your country is important, then Jane Austen is important. If the country had failed, no one  would have been reading Jane Austen. The books have been about failure..” Yes, I seem to have come round to this sort of view of English classics. Shakespeare is read so seriously in India. There is a Delhi University professor who edits a bi-annual journal called Hamlet journal! Yes, we Indians are yet to get out of our colonial hangups.

Image Source :

Post Navigation