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The Hedgehog and the Fox, Isaiah Berlin

This a fascinating essay by Isaiah Berlin, on the topic of “Tolstoy’s View of History”. The unusual title comes from a saying of the Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”, which Berlin uses to divide thinkers between the hedgehogs, who seek one unifying principle, and the foxes, who pursue many ends, which may be unrelated or contradictory.  In this essay, he seeks to answer the question, is Tolstoy a fox, like Aristotle, Pushkin or Shakespeare; or is he a hedgehog, like Dante, Plato or Dostoevsky? The particular focus is on War and Peace, both the story and the sections discussing his philosophy of history.

Berlin presents Tolstoy as a critic of the dominant models of history at his time. He thinks that the current study of history does not reveal causes, but is only recording a succession of events. He does not think history can be considered a science, with laws to be discovered to explain history. This is partly because history is too complex and with too many factors for one to comprehend; and he rejects when historians pick a few factors and think they can explain things; for example the sociological, or political factors; or identifying one or several significant people as drivers of events.

Considering the great leaders, or military generals, Tolstoy would not attribute success in battle to them. He sees in battle, and shows in War and Peace, that the military leader has no idea what is really going on in the battle; and how could he, when even each soldier barely knows what is happening. The result of a battle is the result of such a vast number of individual events. No one person could possibly understand or control these events.

So the task of the historian must include understanding real people and events and not just certain people. However, to have an idea of how these all fit together would then require “integrating” all these “infinitesimals of history”.

We should observe and learn, while being careful as knowledge can fill us with wrong theories which then stops us understanding. The simple people, peasants in the case of Tolstoy’s view, can have a better understanding of reality because they aren’t filled with knowledge of the wrong theories.  An example here can be Levin, in Anna Karenina, when he labours in the field with the peasants.

While Tolstoy deconstructs the existing theories of history, and sees this view of history instead, he still cannot quite grasp the one idea that unifies everything. As Berlin describes, Tolstoy is a “devastatingly destructive” genius by destroying expressible falsehoods, as in the theories of the foxes, but he cannot positive express his view, “Like Moses, he must halt at the borders of the Promised Land”.

Berlin brings in some of those who influenced Tolstoy, including Joseph de Maitre who had spent time in Russia in the early 19th Century, and left a significant volume of writings, which Tolstoy read when writing War and Peace. Maitre had a similar view of history to Tolstoy, also always seeking the first cause of events. He also thought that people need a superhuman understanding to understand the course of events, coming from faith, revelation or tradition. He thought the wisest Greeks, Romans, Church Fathers & Doctors had this.

Only God is omniscient but by immersing ourselves in his word and theology then we can learn wisdom and get to this true “sense of reality” as those did. We have to learn to submit to universal nature of human life, and submit to the fact that we are part of a much larger scheme of things than we can comprehend. The lesson of Job may be appropriate here, and also as an example that this learning and submission may require suffering.

In conclusion, this is a highly recommended essay, and having read it I now understand why it often appears in lists of the greatest works of non-fiction. You can learn a great deal from it, and while familiarity with Tolstoy is very helpful in understanding some of the references, I expect even without this it would still be a worthwhile read.

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This entry was posted on December 30, 2016 by in Book review and tagged , , , , .
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