“The Hedgehog and the Fox” by Isaiah Berlin

Hedgehog and Fox

As with “War and Peace,” I feel a bit silly writing a review of such a classic work of literature and scholarship, but since I read it, by golly, I’m going to get a review out of it.

Berlin begins by arguing that there are two general classes of thinkers and artists: foxes (e.g., Pushkin, Joyce, Aristotle, Moliere, Goethe), and hedgehogs (Dostoevsky, Nitzsche, Plato, Hegel). “But,” he says, “when we come to Count Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, and ask this of him…there is no clear or immediate answer. The question does not, somehow, seem wholly appropriate; it seems to breed more darkness than it dispels.” This is particularly confounding since Tolstoy wrote extensively, and extensively about himself. If there is one author whom we should understand, Tolstoy should be that author. The problem lies in part because, Berlin claims, “Tolstoy was himself not unaware of the problem, and did his best to falsify the answer. The hypothesis I wish to offer is that Tolstoy was by a nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog.”

This may be one of the most illuminating sentences about Tolstoy ever written. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Tolstoy, and especially with his confounding, maddening masterpiece “War and Peace,” can see that Tolstoy is always writing one thing, and thinking another, even as he castigates himself for his errant thoughts, rather like Princess Marya, who is determined to devote herself to being a dutiful daughter but can’t help but dream of getting out from under the thumb of her tyrannical father and acquiring a husband and family, even though she believes she should believe that such a wish is wrong. To try to come up with some simple and elegant formula explaining Tolstoy’s seemingly simple and elegant style and arguments is to run slap-bang into the fact that it can’t be done, and the more you try, the more Tolstoy falls apart in your hands, like tissue paper doused with water. Berlin calls Pushkin an “arch-fox,” but Tolstoy may have outfoxed them all.

Having set up the problem, Berlin then provides a lucid discussion of Tolstoy’s conception of history in “War and Peace,” and its brilliance and its ultimately doomed nature. Tolstoy, Berlin says, and it is clear enough from his writings, “longed for a universal explanatory principle,” and went about destroying everyone else’s attempts at finding one, only to fall into “the suspicion that perhaps the quest was vain, that no core and no unifying principle would ever be discovered,” which led to “increasingly merciless and ingenious executions of more and more false claimants to the title of truth.” In the end, according to Berlin, Tolstoy’s was a destructive genius, able to see the falsities of others’ systems, but unable to create one of his own that could withstand his own assaults.

“The Hedgehog and the Fox” is a classic piece of criticism for a reason: not only is it a penetrating analysis of a near-impenetrable work, but it is also written in a clear and elegant yet vigorous prose style that, alas, modern academics could not get away with. It’s literary criticism that you might actually want to read. Academic scholarship has been under fire for a while, but, I think, increasingly so, for being out of touch with “the people,” and for engaging in a form of navel-gazing so refined that no one can understand it other than the navel-gazer herself. The truth, alas, is probably even more pernicious: academic writing is ground out grudgingly, under threat of unemployment, for the sole purpose of adding a line on the CV. Navel-gazing might at least lead the actual gazer to enlightenment; this is just busy-work stripped of all its function and meaning, which is much worse. Reading this insightful essay, which everyone with any interest in Tolstoy at all should read, inspires me to issue a call to action: scholars of the world, unite! Devote at least some of your time to writing things that other people might find interesting or useful, and that bring you pleasure! You have nothing to lose but your boredom.

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