From Nicola Lacey's engaging new biography of H.L.A. Hart (pp. 117-8) comes this striking "letter of recommendation" written by Berlin for Hart, who right at the end of WWII, was being considered for a tutorial appointment at New College, Oxford. We have remarked before, of course, on the understated nature of recommendations by Brits (and follow the links therein), though plainly sixty years ago "understated" barely begins to describe the kinds of letters that were deemed acceptable. Here is what Berlin wrote about the individual who became the preeminent English-speaking legal philosopher of the 20th-century (and, of course, a far more important philosopher than Berlin):
I have known Herbert Hart for the last twelve years and do not really know quite what to say. He is a man, as you say, of very first-rate ability and philosophical capacity. The main advantages seem to me to be:
(a) That he has a generally good, tough, formidable mind and a capacity for clear exposition...He has not really kept up terribly much since [he was an undergraduate] and is very modest and self-distrustful about this himself....What he is tortured by is the thought that he will never be better than [A.C.] Ewing [of Cambridge] and will never hold other views than Ewing. He realizes himself that this is not a very exciting state of mind to be in....Nevertheless, even given all this, he cannot be worse than Ewing, who, after all, is...in his own way, not contemptible....Now: if I am gradually to evaporate as a full-time philosopher...perhaps the person elected in my place in, say, two or three years' time...might be a really distinguished epistemologico-logical highbrow, so to speak, someone who would both lecture and write in a manner worthy of the traditions of the College, which are not, I grant you, to be far advanced, even if they are not in any way lowered, by Herbert Hart. But I do think that Hart will...make a very admirable teacher of the staple diet, without attaining to heights or Indian rope-tricks of any kind. I do not mean to convey that he will merely be a hack of even the highest order, although I suppose that even such persons are not to be despised....If Hart is willing...to teach these extra logical subjects and, secondly, to acquire at any rate the rudiments of the Russell "positivist" language...he would be, I feel sure, the best man the College can get for this purpose if it wishes to elect before the end of the War and the return of the armed forces.
(b) Hart would, of course, make an admirable colleague, College tutor, etc., being a born dean with much of the required gravitas. What I do doubt is whether he would remain at the University during the rest of his working life, and equally whether he would write anything very memorable (far be it for me to cast scorn on that myself, who has not done it either)....The late Mr. Justice Homes once divided good lawyers into "razors" and "good kitchen knives"....Under that classification Herbert Hart is a slender bread-knife, and any work he produces will resemble the solid pedestrian tramp of Ewing or [C.D.] Broad [of Cambridge] and will not provide glimpses of something new and exciting....
There are many ironies in this letter, not least of which is that, with the benefit of hindsight, philosophers now recognize Berlin as the "slender bread-knife" (perhaps a plastic one!), not Hart! Most remarkably, to be sure, is that a letter full of so many left-handed compliments, caveats, and demeaning asides could actually have helped secure Hart the post at New College, which he did take up.