Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History ()

Modern Library Top 100 Non-Fiction Books of the 20th Century

    The fox knows many things; the hedgehog knows one big thing
        -Archilochus,  8th century BC

Never have the readers of the New York Times been more humbled and mystified than the November day in 1997 when the paper ran a front page obituary for the Latvian-born British philosopher Isaiah Berlin.  You could hear the collective gasp and feel the pull of the intake of breath as thousands of folks who pride themselves on being "in the know" turned to one another and asked, across a table laid with grapefruit halves and bran cereal,, "Was I supposed to know who Isaiah Berlin was?  I've never heard of him."  The answer is that there was no real reason most of us would have heard of him, though we'd likely read a couple of his book reviews.  He was after all a philosopher who never produced a magnum opus summarizing his worldview.  His reputation really rested on a couple of amusing anecdotes, one oft-cited essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox, and on his talents as a conversationalist, which would obviously only have been known to an elite few.  Oddly enough, he has experienced a significant revival of interest since his death, but he is basically still just known for this essay.

If, like me, you finally forced yourself to read War and Peace and were simply mystified by several of the historic and battle scenes, this essay is a godsend.  Though many critics, and would would assume almost all readers, have tended to just ignore these sections of the book, Berlin examines them in light of Tolstoy's philosophy of history and makes a compelling case that Tolstoy intended the action of these scenes to be confusing.  As Berlin uses the fox and hedgehog analogy, a hedgehog is an author who has a unified vision which he follows in his writing ("...a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance...") , a fox has no central vision nor organizing principle; his writings are varied, even contradictory.  Berlin argues that Tolstoy was a fox who wanted to be a hedgehog, that he longed for a central idea to organize around, but so distrusted the capacity of human reason to discern such an idea, that he ended up knocking down what he saw as faulty ideas, without ever settling on one of his own.

According to Berlin, in War and Peace, Tolstoy used the chaotic swirl of events to dispel a "great illusion" : "that individuals can, by the use of their own resources, understand and control the course of events."  Or as he puts it later, Tolstoy perceived a "central tragedy" of human life :

     ...if only men would learn how little the cleverest and most gifted among them can control, how
    little they can know of all the multitude of factors the orderly movement of which is the history of
    the world...

This idea is strikingly similar to the argument that F. A. Hayek made almost a century later in his great book The Road to Serfdom, though Hayek made it in opposition to centralized government planning.  Tolstoy's earlier development of this theme makes him a pivotal figure in the critique of reason and a much more significant figure than I'd ever realized in the history of conservative thought.

I'd liked War and Peace more than I expected to when I first read it--despite not grasping what he was about in these sections of the book--and I'm quite anxious to reread it now in light of Berlin's really enlightening analysis.  I've no idea how to judge the rest of Berlin's work or how he ranks as a philosopher, but you can't ask more of literary criticism than that it explain murky bits, that it engender or rekindle interest in an otherwise musty-seeming work, and that it take a potentially dated book and make us realize that it is still relevant.  This essay succeeds on all those levels.  In this instance at least, Isaiah Berlin warrants his hefty reputation.


Grade: (A+)


Sir Isaiah Berlin Links:

    -ESSAY: Modernising the two ideas of liberty (George Weigel, 15/05/02, Online Opinion)
    -REVIEW: of Letters 1928-1946 By Isaiah Berlin Edited by Henry Hardy (Simon Schama, New Republic)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) (kirjasto)
    -FEATURED AUTHOR : Isaiah Berlin (NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY : May 14, 1998 Isaiah Berlin: The First and the Last  (NY Review of Books)
    -EXCERPT : from The Hedgehog and the Fox by Isaiah Berlin
    -EXCERPT : Isaiah Berlin on the state of hostility existing between the Romantic Movement and the Enlightenment Project in the recent cultural history of the West (From: Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism)
    -INTERVIEW : Isaiah Berlin on  Edmund Wilson (An interview by Lewis M. Dabney, Wilson Quarterly)
    -ESSAY :   BOOKEND :  The Philosopher and the Critic (LEWIS M. DABNEY, NY Times Book Review, November 29, 1998)
    -BOOKNOTES : Sunday January 24, 1999 Title: Isaiah Berlin: A Life  Author: Michael Ignatieff (CSPAN)
    -ARCHIVES : "isaiah Berlin" (
    -ARCHIVES : "isaiah berlin" (NY Review of Books)
    -POEM : The Guest from the Future : A poem by Jon Stallworthy, recalling a momentous meeting between Isaiah Berlin  and the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, and its consequences.   (Wolfson College, Oxford)
    -OBIT : Isaiah Berlin, Philosopher and Pluralist, Is Dead at 88 (Martin Berger, NY Times, November 7, 1997)
    -TRIBUTE : An Appreciation: Memories of a Captivating Conversationalist (Alan Ryan, NY Times, November 8, 1997)
    -TRIBUTE : A Low-Risk Philosopher (Paul Johnson, NY Times, November 12, 1997)
    -TRIBUTE :  Michael Ignatieff; Stuart Hampshire; Alfred Brendel; Aileen Kelly: On Isaiah Berlin (1909 - 1997) (NY Review of Books)
    -TRIBUTE : Isaiah Berlin - One of the most remarkable men of his time (Henry Hardy, Sunday Observer)
    -TRIBUTE : S I R   I S A I A H   B E R L I N   (1 9 0 9   -   1 9 9 7)(Wolfson College, Oxford)
    -TRIBUTE : "A Great Man in a Grim Time" by Arthur Schlesinger
    -TRIBUTE : Isaiah Berlin: Man of brilliance, laughter and faith  (AN APPRECIATION by ABBA EBAN, Jerusalem Post)
    -TRIBUTE : Isaiah Berlin, 1909-1997  "WHEN A SAGE DIES, ALL ARE HIS KIN" (Leon Wieseltier, New Republic)
    -ESSAY : Fresh Debates on the Legacy of Isaiah Berlin (Edward Rothstein, NY Times, November 14, 1998)
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of Isaiah Berlin : A Life by Michael Ignatieff
    -ESSAY : The devil and the deep red sea :  Jack Straw has dismissed liberals as 'woolly-minded'. The late philosopher Isaiah Berlin, patron saint of liberalism, has been attacked by left and right. Michael Ignatieff defends moderation (Guardian,  Saturday January 22, 2000)
    -ESSAY : David Greenberg on Isaiah Berlin (CivNet Journal)
    -ESSAY : A Dissent on Isaiah Berlin (Norman Podhoretz, Commentary)
    -ESSAY : My dinners with Isaiah: the music of a philosopher's life (Ned O'Gorman, Commonweal)
    -ESSAY : How Persuasive is Berlin's distinction between positive and negative liberty? (Alan James Edwards)
    -ESSAY : Isaiah Berlin and the Jewish Question (Jean Laves)
    -ESSAY : The Operating Folklore of the Governing Class: Hegel, Bonaparte, Tolstoy and Isaiah Berlin (John Crouch)
    -REVIEW : of The Hedgehog and the Fox (William Barrett, NY Times, February 14, 1954)
    -REVIEW: of Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty By Isaiah Berlin Editor Henry Hardy (PETER BERKOWITZ, Forward)
    -REVIEW :  Alan Ryan: Wise Man, NY Review of Books
       Isaiah Berlin: A Life by Michael Ignatieff
       The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays by Isaiah Berlin
    -REVIEW : of The Roots of Romanticism.(Frank Mclynn, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW : of The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and Their History by Isaiah Berlin (Charles Larmore, Boston Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and Their History by Isaiah Berlin (SCOTT McLEMEE, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of THE FIRST AND THE LAST by Isaiah Berlin (Meir Ronnen, Jerusalem Post)
    -REVIEW : of The Guest from the Future: Anna Akhmatova and Isaiah Berlin  By Gyorgy Dalos (The Complete Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Guest from the Future: Anna Akhmatova and Isaiah Berlin  By Gyorgy Dalos (RONALD LITKE, The Daily Page)
    -REVIEW : of The Guest from the Future: Anna Akhmatova and Isaiah Berlin  By Gyorgy Dalos (Scott Blackwood, Austin Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of ISAIAH BERLIN: A Life by Michael Ignatieff  Summing up Isaiah Berlin (HEATHER MALLICK -- Toronto Sun)
    -REVIEW : of Isaiah Berlin: A Life (Stanley Hoffmann, Foreign Affairs)
    -REVIEW : of Isaiah Berlin By Michael Ignatieff (Noel Annan, Literary Review)
    -REVIEW : of ISAIAH BERLIN : A Life By Michael Ignatieff (Carlin Romano, Philadelphis Inquirer)
    -REVIEW : of Isaiah Berlin: A Life by Michael Ignatieff  and Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind by David Cesarani  (Free Life, Dennis O'Keeffe )
    -REVIEW : of Isaiah Berlin , by John Gray (Chandran Kukathas, Reason)
    -REVIEW : of Isaiah Berlin. By John Gray (Peter Cline, The Historian)
    -BOOK LIST : THE 100 BEST NON-FICTION BOOKS OF THE CENTURY 65. The Hedgehog and the Fox, Isaiah Berlin (National Review)

    -ESSAY : Minds wide shut :  A new book makes the CIA's Cold War skulduggery look upright compared with the self-deceptions of the intellectuals who were on the agency's payroll. (ROBERT S. BOYNTON, Salon)
    -ESSAY : TOLERANCE AND THE CHARACTER OF PLURALISM (Dr. Catriona McKinnon, University of Exeter, Politics)
    -ESSAY : Back from Chaos :   Enlightenment thinkers knew a lot about everything, today's specialists know a lot about a little, and postmodernists doubt that we can know anything at all. One of the century's most important scientists argues, against fashion, that we can know what we need to know, and that we will discover underlying all forms of knowledge a fundamental unity (Edward O. Wilson, Atlkantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY :   The Liberalism that We Need (Maciej Zieba, First Things)

    -ESSAY: Birth, death, balls and battles: It has no clear beginning, middle or end, but the first translation of War and Peace for 50 years reaffirms its greatness. Tolstoy brilliantly interweaves the historical and the personal (Orlando Figes, 8/27/05, Times of London)