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Living far away from home sheds new light on the value friends and family have for a full life. To viscerally miss someone(s), although painful and even harmful, is quite an educational undertaking.

Its this realization, I suppose, that led a particular quote from one of Isaiah Berlin’s letters to jump out at me recently.

Isaiah Berlin was a British diplomat and philosopher during the mid 20th century. Some would call him the century’s preeminent thinker. I’m not yet convinced of that, but this doesn’t take away from the joy that comes with reading his letters. In an age where curt emails dominate written discourse, its fun to think about someone spending so much time writing thoughtful letters.

The quote that caught my attention came from a letter Berlin wrote to a news correspondent named Morton White in 1970. According to the editor of Berlin’s letters, Henry Hardy of Oxford College, Berlin wrote that “Life is not worth living unless one can be indiscreet to intimate friends.”

After reading this on a Google Books version of Hardy’s volume, admittedly, I grabbed for my dictionary. Indiscreet is one of those words I know the approximate meaning for, but not the precise one. My Mac dictionary tells me that it literally means showing too great a readiness to reveal things that should remain in secret.

Good point, Isaiah, I thought after checking the meaning. The value of old, close acquaintances is that they give you the benefit of the doubt. There is a basis of trust that comes only from history which allows you to say things you may not fully mean or haven’t fully thought through. I think the value Berlin sees in this is that people have an intrinsic need to “think out loud” among trusted others…it allows us to sort ourselves out and practice becoming in the context of a community.

As I often do after reading something that gives me pause, I did a google search for “Berlin indiscreet friends” to see if anyone had written more commentary on the quote. Doing so revealed something interesting. Depending on the source, Berlin’s quote is written using either indiscreet or indiscrete. Which is correct, I thought? Quickly realizing I would probably need more than an internet connection to answer that question, I started to think about what the second use, indiscrete meant. On this, my Mac gives the literal definition of not divided into distinct parts.

Mmm. Well, whether or not Berlin meant to, I think he provides us with a double entendre that pretty accurately sums up the value of intimate friends. They allow you to be fully open (indiscreet), and fully whole (indiscrete). In short, they allow you to be free. And since freedom is intrinsically valuable beyond measure, I think Berlin is quite right to say that “Life is not worth living unless one can be indiscreet/indiscrete to intimate friends.”


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