Hedgehogs and Foxes

January 27, 2021

I’ve reread “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” Isaiah Berlin’s essay about Tolstoy’s view of history.  I had read it in the mid-90s, but without reading any of Tolstoy apart from the historical essay that ends “War and Peace” (the second half of the epilogue). 

A description of Berlin’s essay, from kobo.com:

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” This ancient Greek aphorism, preserved in a fragment from the poet Archilochus, describes the central thesis of Isaiah Berlin’s masterly essay on Leo Tolstoy and the philosophy of history, the subject of the epilogue to War and Peace. Although there have been many interpretations of the adage, Berlin uses it to mark a fundamental distinction between human beings who are fascinated by the infinite variety of things and those who relate everything to a central, all-embracing system. Applied to Tolstoy, the saying illuminates a paradox that helps explain his philosophy of history: Tolstoy was a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog. One of Berlin’s most celebrated works, this extraordinary essay offers profound insights about Tolstoy, historical understanding, and human psychology.

Berlin writes:

Tolstoy himself, too, knows that the truth is there, and not ‘here’ — not in the regions susceptible to observation, discrimination, constructive imagination, not in the power of microscopic perception and analysis of which he is so much the greatest master of our time; but he has not, himself, seen it face to face; for he has not, do what he might, a vision of the whole; he is not, he is remote from being, a hedgehog; and what he sees is not the one, but always, with an ever growing minuteness, in all its teeming individuality, with an obsessive, inescapable, incorruptible, all-penetrating lucidity which maddens him, the many.

And elsewhere in the essay:

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 and conveyed with a degree of directness and a precision of concrete imagery to be found in no other writer.

When I first read these passages some 25 years ago, I did not know, and did not find out, how exactly Tolstoy’s novel presented that detail of life.  I read the epilogue; and I assumed that the novelistic passages would be brimming with something like physical detail, in admirable objectivity.  Plainly, from what Berlin wrote, Tolstoy had an immense power to depict life as it was, rather than as it might be.  I didn’t take that to mean that Tolstoy’s novel would be busy with minor physical details, like a verbal painter of life.  Berlin mentions Tolstoy’s “great public scenes,” and I took that to mean great crowd scenes – and I expected Tolstoy would be something like a great movie director, taking you vigorously from one person or group in the crowd to another, swimming in the current of life and letting the reader see it unforgettably.  I thought, in short, that Tolstoy was a magnificently physical writer – a painter of people and crowds and war rather than a painter of topography, but a physical writer all the same.

I was so busy reading many things at once in those days, and most of it nonfiction, that I decided not to take on Tolstoy’s novel just yet – but I planted in my mind an almost mystical idea of his power to describe.  I felt that I was a hedgehog myself; that the authors I liked best, e.g., Melville, were probably hedgehogs; and that Tolstoy’s power to see the world objectively was something that I needed to take on one day.

I thought then that hedgehogs would tend to be introverts (like myself), and that foxes would be extroverts.  I was reading Jung heavily in those days; and I took seriously the possibility that extroverts had an ability to see the physical world, and even people, more objectively than introverts, who I thought had the hedgehog’s ability to see things as they could be.

Having read “War and Peace” in full last summer, I can agree with my old self that Tolstoy is great with physical action and with large public scenes.  But for me, and it seems for most readers of “War and Peace,” what is most astounding is just how much Tolstoy sees of the inner life, even in those public scenes.  Yes he gives us the externals of war and peace, but we get the interior life of every kind of person, and he leads us through virtually every emotion imaginable.  He can speak about the battlefield and about Anna Pavlovna’s soirees; about men and women, whether young, married or “other”; from the thoughts of a hunted wolf, to those of Napoleon; he gives us the city and the life of the country with equal ease; shares the thoughts of an expectant father who is surprised to hear his baby’s first cries; goes deep into the last moments of the dying.  And this list of what he can do is pitifully short; the enormity of what he sees will defeat any list.

And Tolstoy sees all this with thorough honesty, which may be why all his variety of life sticks to you.  It convinces.  The people in the novel are not just diverse but flawed.  No character is sentimentalized – but Tolstoy allows them to struggle morally and in some cases even to make progress, which only adds to the realism.  He has no fixed idea of humans, either good or bad; they simply live, vividly and messily.

Any author can write about many things; but Tolstoy gives us these things in such a way that they always convince.  Hence his detail is really life-detailed, life-depicted, not merely verbal busyness or an overflow of detail.

So this is why Berlin writes that Tolstoy, the fox who saw everything perceptively, could not abide too-easy answers such as most hedgehogs wished to give, though he wished himself to be a successful hedgehog; he felt that there had to be a unifying vision somehow; he just couldn’t find it, at least not one that satisfied him.

The philosophical chapters in “War and Peace” usually strike readers as digressions or interruptions, and to some degree that even how I read them last summer.  But now I can see how they connect to the novelistic chapters.  As Berlin says, for Tolstoy the historical questions he was raising were the very heart of his novel.

It’s really a simple connection, though Tolstoy never stoops to spelling it out.  In the mini-essays, he’s arguing that the history in front of us is not to be found in the “great men” and leaders but in the sum total of human action, experience, and thought – not at the top of the pyramid of human life but in its body, especially at the base, where the common people live and work.  The fictional portions are where he depicts this total life in all its variety and importance, and flaws.  The philosophical chapters are where he states all this abstractly, with analysis, emphasis, argument and emotion.

In the essays he argues for an inescapable unity to the world that is difficult to find: “a dependence of which we are not conscious.”  In the novel he shows some human beings struggling to find it (Pierre), others perhaps flouting it (Napoleon), a few making peace with it (Kutuzov), and countless individuals, to various degrees, ignoring it but still under its influence. 

Someday I’ll have to re-read the historical essays in W&P with that emphasis in mind.

The hedgehog/fox division is ridiculously fun to think about, though it’s not always crystal clear in my mind.  Berlin listed certain writers as hedgehogs or foxes in his essay, but his brief list didn’t give me much further understanding of how the idea occupied his mind.  I had read only short passages from most of the authors he named.  He names as foxes, Shakespeare, Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Moliere, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, Joyce, and Joseph de Maistre; as hedgehogs, Dante, Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, and Proust.  Bolded are the ones I’d read full works from.  Since then, I’ve read Proust, but I’m still not sure about him.  Really, you have to read several works by an author to know if they always return, hedgehog-like, to the same idea.

Incidentally, I picked up “The Hedgehog and the Fox” again after so many years because I’d recently read David Epstein’s “Range,” in which the whole hedgehog/fox idea gets in the game.

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