Inspired by “Tolstoy’s Philosophy of History: Reading Isaiah Berlin: Part 1 (w/ Davood Gozli & John David)
A Late Letter to Tolstoy
On “The Hedgehog and the Fox” As Seeking a Philosophy Which Would Have Saved Leo From Himself
If you’ve heard of Isaiah Berlin, you probably know about his famous division between hedgehogs and foxes. “The Hedgehog and the Fox” is his most famous essay, though goodness did he write a lot of extraordinary works. Literary, practical, politically savvy, philosophical, loved — Isaiah Berlin was a truly remarkable individual. I could shower him with praises for pages, but I will resist.
My favorite thinkers are tragic, and Berlin believed in government but also feared it. He believed in ideas but also knew that ideas naturally cared more about themselves than people. He respected the great geniuses but realized their brilliance could blind us from observing other geniuses we needed to see. He looked people in the eyes, but also did not take things at face value. He found truth in the blood, pumping between the heart and mind, giving life to both.
Berlin tells us that a hedgehog is guided by ‘a single, universal, organizing principle,’ and he associates Dante and Dostoevsky with hedgehogs.¹ A fox ‘pursue[s] many ends,” and Berlin sees Shakespeare and Tolstoy as foxes.² But Tolstoy is also tragic, and reading Berlin’s essay again after so many years, I can’t help but see Berlin’s entire philosophy of Pluralism (and his strong stance against “theories of everything,” what I call “monotheories”) as partially an effort to save future artists from falling into similar fates. Tolstoy should have ended up better, I feel Berlin suggesting, and I feel in Berlin a rising commitment to assure future Tolstoys don’t devour themselves.
To assure of this, Berlin works to balance the Enlightenment with work praising the Counter Enlightenment; Berlin works to stop new “monotheories” from arising and making people feel like they need a monotheory of their own to create any real value. At the same time, Berlin realizes that we need “form” to organize our world and to understand our lives, which is why his doctrine of Pluralism, which he successfully defines as distinct from Relativism, is so brilliant. In Pluralism, we are given a doctrine that is open to difference but not a world where “anything goes.” If it is raining outside, it is rational for me to stay inside and rational for you to get an umbrella. Both actions are rational — they are unified by rationality — and yet we make different conclusions. There is difference, and yet there is unity.
A hedgehog is someone who generally only sees value in something to the degree it fits within “their system”: if it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t matter. According to Berlin, the tragedy of Tolstoy is that he couldn’t see value in his own genius, because his genius was the genius of the fox, yet his values were the values of a hedgehog. Tolstoy could not value himself, and so it begins to make sense why he could abandon writing so easily. As Berlin puts it, ‘Tolstoy was by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog […] his gifts and achievements [were] one thing, and his beliefs, and consequently his interpretation of his own achievement, another.’³
Again, I now see in Isaiah Berlin someone who was devoted to assuring no one else ended up like Tolstoy. His famous essay was published in the 50s, and he published on Marx as early as 1939, but Berlin lived until 1997, and many of his works like “Four Essays on Liberty,” “Vico and Herder” — his most passionate corrections of “monotheories” — strike me as coming after “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” I cannot say for sure that the bibliography perfectly lines up, but I cannot help but feel as if the tragedy of Tolstoy is something that Berlin felt deep in his bones, perhaps long before he articulated the tragedy in his masterful essay. I don’t know, but I see Berlin as wanting to make sure that the world never lost a Tolstoy again.
There is an argument to be made that the conflict inside of Tolstoy was a secret to a genius, and perhaps Tolstoy needed to be a “fox who wanted to be a hedgehog” to develop War and Peace. Perhaps, but there is a difference between needing an “inner tension” to develop genius and a conflict that leads us to not valuing what we do, and the tension Berlin locates might be more of one that lead Tolstoy to going too far. The sheer seeing like Tolstoy was capable of was easily enough to give the world War and Peace, and alternatively even if Tolstoy felt the need for “a great theory” to justify his work, had Tolstoy been born after Isaiah Berlin, he may not have felt the same need to stuff it into his legendary novel. Tolstoy could have kept the metaphysics and philosophizing outside the text, turning to it externally when he needed tension. More importantly, had Tolstoy been born after Berlin, he may not have ever fallen into believing his work was dust.
Isaiah Berlin describes to us how the characters at the end of War and Peace find a level of contentment and peace. What is this peace, exactly? ‘Like Augustine, Tolstoy can say only what it is not. His genius is devastatingly destructive.’⁴ Personally, I cannot help but think of Tolstoy as incapable of finding for himself the peace he shows in his characters: because Tolstoy believed he needed to find “the ultimate theory” to have peace and serenity, he could not give to himself what he depicted in his characters. We are thus as readers encouraged to be like Tolstoy’s characters more than like Tolstoy, but that is not an option for us if we continue to ascribe to the need for “a theory of everything” like the Enlightenment could leave us seeking (as warned about by Hume). That idea burdened Tolstoy, and we can view Berlin as creating a philosophy and way of thinking that could save us from ending up like Tolstoy. After studying Tolstoy, we can envision Berlin as taking a vow.
Berlin in his career focuses on the Counter Enlightenment, on defending Pluralism, on praising different ways of knowing, and much more. In such “ways of thinking,” we might find the peace and beauty that Tolstoy saw but couldn’t believe in. I have in mind here the scene of Constantine Levin joining his workers to mow the fields in Anne Karenina, one of my favorite scenes in all of literature, a scene I cannot even bear to let myself quote lest I tear a piece out of the tapestry. The scene must be written whole and left whole. It is a wonder.
That was the secret. That was what Tolstoy sought that his characters “knew” but couldn’t speak, because it could not be put into thought, and it could not be found in a great system. It had to be lived, but in Tolstoy believing that a great system was necessary for validation, Tolstoy could not let himself step outside and mow with the people and find what he knew was out there. As Hamlet was torn between Athens and Jerusalem, Tolstoy was torn between the fox and the hedgehog, and Isaiah Berlin would not have it happen again. By fighting and “correcting” the overfitting of the Enlightenment, Berlin worked to assure that the next Tolstoy would mow the fields. Never again, Berlin perhaps whispered to himself, would a Tolstoy be tortured by an Enlightenment dream and miss out on living his vision.
¹Berlin, Isaiah. The Proper Study of Mankind. “The Hedgehog and the Fox” Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York, NY: 2000: 426.
²Berlin, Isaiah. The Proper Study of Mankind. “The Hedgehog and the Fox” Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York, NY: 2000: 436.
³Berlin, Isaiah. The Proper Study of Mankind. “The Hedgehog and the Fox” Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York, NY: 2000: 438.
⁴Berlin, Isaiah. The Proper Study of Mankind. “The Hedgehog and the Fox” Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York, NY: 2000: 494.
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