Page from Jonathan Rée's piece on Isaiah BerlinWhen Isaiah Berlin died in 1997, at the age of 88, BBC News described him as "the dominant scholar of his generation", and the Independent mourned the loss of "one of the most remarkable men of his time" - not only a gregarious Oxford don, but also "our greatest thinker". He did well on the other side of the Atlantic too, with a front-page obituary in the New York Times, where he was presented as "possibly the most brilliant and engaging intellect of our time".

What a difference a decade makes. The 100th anniversary of Berlin's birth is being commemorated this year, but the celebrants will be old friends and intimate colleagues rather than new recruits to the ranks of his disciples. He seems to have been one of those intellectuals who achieve celebrity through the allure of a fascinating personality rather than the lasting power, incisiveness or luminosity of their doctrines.

Berlin made his scholarly reputation in the field of intellectual history before it became institutionalised as an academic discipline, and his forays into the political ideas of the past are too anecdotal, impressionistic, eccentric and inexact to pass muster amongst his hyper-professional successors. And despite his fabled linguistic range - Hebrew and Italian as well as German, English, French and above all Russian - his thematic repertory now looks extraordinarily cramped and narrow.

He never managed to put together a substantial book, and the essays, lectures and reviews that he produced in reckless profusion are structured round endless retellings of the same historical just-so story. The 18th century, for Berlin, was characterised by something called The Enlightenment, which started as a noble battle for the rights of scientific reason but then went too far in the direction of fanatical monistic rationalism and eventually led to the excesses of the French Revolution. The reaction that followed took the form of Romanticism, which unfortunately went too far in the opposite direction, opening the way to the various subjectivisms and irrationalisms that disfigured the 20th century.

The moral of the story was that we should learn to be grown-up liberal pluralists - to recognise that the values people live by are numerous, variegated and irreducible, that conflict between them is unavoidable, and that if we are to avoid relativistic cynicism we had better strive to be as docile and tolerant as possible.

Berlin's best-known work is a 1958 lecture on "Two Concepts of Liberty", in which he drew a broad distinction between negative and positive freedom, the former being liberal, sceptical, permissive and good, the latter absolutist, totalitarian, coercive and bad. Leftists saw it as a piece of pro-American cold war propaganda, and - though the accusation may seem less damaging now than it did at the time - they were not entirely wrong. Berlin had indeed spent the war years working for the Foreign Office in New York and Washington, and often felt obliged to defend American democracy from the enormous condescension of Europeans, whether socialist, conservative or - as he often found in Oxford - some strange hybrid of the two.

Politically, Berlin's sympathies lay with the left - with progress, secularism and equality. But he did not set much store by principles, except perhaps the principle that the most important things in politics are personality, humour and good judgement. The decent, gifted and upright Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell struck him as "priggish", whereas the roguish Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was "charming": "firstly I like his face", Berlin said, and "secondly, I like the fact that he enjoys his position so much and governs the country with such aplomb." When he was invited for lunch with the Queen in Buckingham Palace she impressed him as "quite jolly: denounced tyrants, in particular Peron . . . and the Trooping the Colour"; and he returned the compliment, or so he recalled, by recommending Lolita to her, "despite the frowns of the somewhat puritan members of the left wing of the Labour Party amongst whom I was somewhat incongruously included."

The superb new volume of letters from Berlin's middle years offers vivid impressions of a lost academic world. Berlin and the other leading Oxford dons of the 1950s seem to have been giggly, light-headed socialites, wearing their learning lightly, constantly dining in London with the "smart set", spending weekends in grand country houses, and vacations in villas and grand hotels in Italy, Switzerland or the South of France. They were media celebrities too, and the quarrels and cabals of college high tables were liable to be served up next morning in the gossip columns of the London press. The Sunday Times, for instance, stirred up a storm by quoting an apparently catty remark addressed to Berlin by one of his colleagues. "How clever you must be," the historian Lewis Namier said, "to understand what you write", and the hapless Namier had to write to the paper to explain that his comment was absurdly sincere, and he had spoken (to his shame) without ironic or malicious intent.

From time to time Berlin allows a fit of seriousness to break out, and in one striking letter he dissociates himself from the disdain for Jean-Paul Sartre which was then customary in Oxford. Sartre might be a "detestable" human being and the author of disagreeably "slimy" novels, but his unsentimental atheistical existentialism - his insistence that "all theories of life & morals ... are rationalistic alibis to justify one's own weaknesses, vices, misfortunes" - was, to Berlin, "most imaginative & bold & important". Sartre, Berlin concluded, "is a very clever man & his moral philosophy is what I think I ¾ believe."

As his attitude to Sartre shows, Berlin was not entirely at one with the Oxford of the '50s and '60s. Apart from his war years in America, he had been in Oxford continuously since the late 1920s, and if he loved it with extreme passion it was not because he was born to a world of effortless superiority, but because he could hardly believe his luck in having found his way into it. He may have dressed like a posh British eccentric or a member of the landed aristocracy, but the impression was quickly dispelled when he opened his mouth. He was by origin a Russian Jew from Riga who had witnessed the revolutions in Petrograd in 1917 and suffered anti-semitism in Latvia before arriving in England at the age of 11. He learned to speak English very fluently, or at least very fast, but with a strong accent and an air of singing one song to the tune of another. It was a remarkable triumph when this oriental blow-in was awarded a fellowship at All Souls twelve years later, the first Jew ever to receive such an honour.

The Oxford that Berlin fell in love with before the war was more Brideshead than egghead: nothing really mattered to him and his circle of brilliant young men except poetry, music and the arts of friendship and conversation. He moved in circles where people said "not but what" or "as it were" in cut-glass accents, and tossed away their bills and boring letters into the "wagger-pagger-bagger". Malicious humour was regarded as one of the supreme virtues, and earnestness as a distressing moral deformity - especially the socialistic Christian seriousness of the older generation of Oxford idealists.

When Berlin came back to Oxford in 1946, after an absence of five years, he was appalled to find it swarming with "grey nonentities & hacks" and "grim honourable social workers". Sometimes, he said ruefully, "I am made to feel like the old rakes of the Regency among the serious, earnest, sober and high-minded young men and women of the new age."

But he was always good at ambivalence, and confessed to one of his prewar playmates that he harboured "a hidden desire to improve mankind, though I denounce it in others" - a desire which would eventually bear fruit in the one achievement in which he allowed himself to take real pride: the visionary work as administrator and fundraiser that led to the foundation of a secular graduate institution in Oxford. Wolfson would have been the first College to be named after a Jew, he said, if it wasn't that creeping Jesus had got there first.

Berlin was ambivalent in his atheism too. He praised what he called "functionally organised religion" for "creating banisters which can be leant upon" in moments of bereavement and sorrow, and he noted with amusement that most 19th-century atheists needed a kind of "secularised religion" to provide them with a "bridge to secularism". For Berlin, I'm sorry to say, "humanism" was a ridiculous fudge, to be dismissed along with hot air about "the larger hope" and, as he put it, "silly nonsense generally".

What the world needed was better jokes, not better theories. He quite liked the one about Marxism as "the opium of the Marxists", suggesting that liberalism might also be "the opium of liberals", and positivism "the opium of positivists", and no doubt he could have added that "humanism is the opium of the humanists". But his best joke, to my mind, is a borrowed one about Richard Wagner as "the Puccini of music" - an ingenious, serious, slow-acting piece of witticism that manages to poke fun both at the most serious operatic composer of the 19th century and at the most popular one of the 20th. It left me groping for parallels: Magritte is the Dali of painting, perhaps, or Sarkozy is the Berlusconi of politics; or - God forbid - whatstheirname as the thingamybob of humanist philosophy?

Enlightening: Letters 1946-1960 by Isaiah Berlin, edited by Henry Hardy and Jennifer Holmes, is published by Chatto & Windus