Sometimes Isaiah Berlin Felt Like a Fox, Sometimes He Felt Like a Hedgehog

On the 60th Anniversary of the Philosopher's Influential Essay

Was He A Fox Or A Hedgehog?: Isaiah Berlin, seen here in 1959, debates the finer points of human behavior.
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Was He A Fox Or A Hedgehog?: Isaiah Berlin, seen here in 1959, debates the finer points of human behavior.

By Robert Zaretsky

Published March 01, 2013, issue of March 08, 2013.
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‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Rarely have so few words — a fragment of poetry from the sixth-century Greek poet Archilochus — come to mean so much. Sixty years ago, with the publication of his essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” Isaiah Berlin yoked these little critters to large symbols. Their tracks lead us not just to the great thinkers Berlin pursued during his life, but also back to this most English of Russian-born intellectuals and his elusive relationship to Judaism.

The subject of Berlin’s essay is Leo Tolstoy’s view of history. But this is too modest. One might as well describe “War and Peace” as a novel about, well, war and peace. Berlin’s subject matter is nothing less than history in all its breathtaking confusion, and our vain efforts to master it.

Enter the hedgehog and the fox. The one relates “everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel,” while the other pursues “many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory [and] related by no single moral or aesthetic principle.” Tolstoy, Berlin suggests, was born a fox but desperately wished to be a hedgehog. Tolstoy the novelist fully re-created the flux of history as we live it: “the colors, smells, tastes, sounds and movements, the jealousies, loves, hatreds, passions, the rare flashes of insight, the transforming moments, the ordinary day-to-day succession of private data which constitute all there is.”

Yet behind this vast panorama of human desires and actions, Tolstoy the thinker claimed that there is a single law that wholly determines our lives. Our assumption that we guide our lives and make our decisions as free agents is sheer fantasy. This conviction is underscored in Tolstoy’s memorably brutal portrait of Napoleon, who “acts upon, and has hypnotized others into believing, the assumption that he understands and controls events” when he is in reality a pitiable marionette incapable of mastering his own delusions, much less the march of events. But in the end, it applies to everyone who entertains the same illusion, shielding them from “the spectacle of human impotence and irrelevance.”

Time and again, Tolstoy interrupts his story in order to remind us that each and every event, no matter how small or silly, has been determined by everything that preceded that very moment. Yet each and every character in this epic work, so alive and so real, gives the lie to this claim. That readers loved “War and Peace” for its magical re-creation of the social and inner lives of its characters was, for its creator, a source of despair, for the actions and words of these same characters were the ephemeral “flowers” of life, not the “roots.” As Berlin announces, “No author who has ever lived has shown such powers of insight into the variety of life — the differences, the contrasts, the collisions of persons and things and situations, each apprehended in its absolute uniqueness.”

Tolstoy, in Berlin’s telling, was torn between the hedgehog’s quest for a single truth and the fox’s acceptance of many and, at times, incommensurable truths. He is like a third animal — not one from Archilochus, but instead from the menagerie of Dr. Dolittle: the pushmi-pullyu. One head, fixed as only a monist’s can be, pulls in one direction, while the other head, marveling at the panorama of pluralism, pulls no less mightily in the opposite direction. One half of Tolstoy was at home in a world teeming with many truths, while the other half clambered up the nearest slope, seeking a glimpse of a single truth.

By the end of his life, this tension had become nearly intolerable. Tolstoy could not help but see, and make others see, an infinitely faceted and complex world. But this very ability drove him, if only intellectually, to gouge out his eyes in his pursuit of a purified form of Christianity. In his concluding image, Berlin in fact turns to Oedipus, describing Tolstoy as the “most tragic of the great writers, a desperate old man, beyond human aid, wandering self-blinded at Colonus.”


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