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 know that I was staying in New College where Ayer also had his residence but I didn’t yet had seen him. It was after hearing about his reputation I bought the book but the impact of the book was much 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) and Peter Wiles, my economic 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, Des Cartes, Aristotle etc!
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 colored his view of the world. He came from a prosperous 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 political theory and I attended his lectures rather regularly.
John Plamenatz( 1912-1975)
When I was studying for my PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) one my lecturers in politics was John Plamenatz. He not yet a professor and it was after I left Oxford I read about his elevation to the chair just then vacated by Isaiah 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 know 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 realize 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 solitude, says Berlin. Yes, he was 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 candor and precision”. Yes, this was the character of many other Oxford Dons too.” He showed the kind of tolerance that only deeply civilized 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 repartee, and the high spirits”.” The word integrity might have been invented for him”.