George Cunningham's Reviews > The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History

The Hedgehog and the Fox by Isaiah Berlin
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Read 2 times. Last read December 2019.

The Hedgehog and the Fox

I’ve never been a fan of Russian literature, mainly because the characters have really long, hard-to-remember names and the further you get in the book, the harder it is to keep all the characters straight. That’s a silly reason, and I could perhaps make up a better, more intellectual argument about narratives and themes, but it would be a lie.

The Hedgehog and the Fox, first published in 1953, was written by professor, philosopher and author Isaiah Berlin. It is basically a literary and biographical analysis of Russian author Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, most famous for the great Russian novel, War and Peace.

The device Berlin uses is his analysis if the idea that the world is divided intellectually into two kinds of personalities, which he calls the Hedgehog and the Fox.

The Hedgehog, Berlin wrote, believes in one big truth that governs everything and will do everything possible to force the world into that mold. People such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were all hedgehogs. The Fox, on the other hand, understands that the world is too complex for there to be one big truth. Foxes believe in many smaller truths, some of them contradictory.

Although the hedgehog-fox analogy was little more than a brief introduction to the book, it was the most interesting part. The biographical and literary bulk of the book for me was “ehhh.”

Berlin concluded that Tolstoy was a man who wanted to be a hedgehog. Tolstoy was seeking the ultimate truth that would allow everybody to live in peace and harmony. He failed because in real life the ultimate truth was too elusive to ever pin down. In real life Tolstoy was a fox. He liked people, and he was comfortable with people who had a different ideas than his own.

He died an unhappy man.

More interesting to me than Tolstoy is Berlin himself, who grew up as a member of a prominent Jewish family in Riga. His father was a well-to-do timber trader. The family, forced to flee Russia after the Communist Revolution, relocated to England when he was 10 years old.

Despite spending most of his life in England, and expressing great love for his adopted country, he remained a Russian at heart. He married at 47 to Aline Halban, a Jewish widow and mother of one son, who had fled France in 1941 when the Nazis took over.

Berlin died in Oxford in 1997 at 88 years old.

“I don’t mind death,” he said, “but I find dying a nuisance. I object to it. I’d rather it did not happen… I’m terribly curious. I’d like to live forever.”

Me too.

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Reading Progress

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December, 2019 – Finished Reading
March 13, 2020 – Shelved

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