Notes on "Russian Thinkers" by Isaiah Berlin
Overview
Russia in 1848
An essay about Tolstoy, and also Maistre. Hedgehogs know one big thing, foxes know lots of little things. Tolstory and Maistre were foxes who wanted the big thing as well. Perhaps Berlin is too, perhaps Berlin may be closer to being a hedgehog but still not as close as he would like to be.
Herzen and Bakunin on Individual Liberty
A Remarkable Decade
Russian Populism
Tolstoy and Enlightenment
Fathers and Children
The Hedgehog and the Fox
An essay about Tolstoy, and also Maistre. Hedgehogs know one big thing, foxes know lots of little things. Tolstory and Maistre were foxes who wanted the big thing as well. Perhaps Berlin is too, perhaps Berlin may be closer to being a hedgehog but still not as close as he would like to be.
I

According to the Greek poet Archilochus "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing". The interpretation of this is a matter of controversy, but the distinction around which this essay is built is that between two kinds of artisitic and literary personality, "one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers". The distinction is between those who "relate everything to one central vision", the hedgehogs, and those "who persue many ends, often unrelated or even contradictory", the foxes.

Berlin enumerates some examples of each ("in various degrees"):

  • hegehogs - Dante, Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevski, Nietzsche, Ibsen and Proust.
  • foxes - Shakespeare. Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus. Molière, Goethe, Puskin, Balzac and Joyce.
Tolstoy was, Berlin suggests, by nature a fox, but "believed in being a hedgehog", however, to assess the whole of Tolstoy's work against this dichotomy is beyond Berlin, who proposes to look more specifically at Tolstoy's philosophy of history.

IV
Here Berlin begin's his discussion of the roots of Tolstoy's philosophy of history. Among many others a major influence on Tolstoy was Rousseau. He owes a major literary debt to Stendhall, who he acknowledge with Rousseau as the two writers to whom he owed most, attributing his knowledge of war to Stendhall. Berlin, however. locates behind Stendhall another "to whom [Tolstoy] owed a debt deeper than is commonly supposed", Joseph de Maistre.
V

This is an extended first account of the similarities between Tolstoy and Maistre. It begins with more about their views on the complexity and unpredictability of war, and after chapter and verse on the falsity of conventional conceptions of the decisive factors in military victory goes on to their common view on the factors which really are decisive. These seem to be primarily psychological, a battle is lost when the vanquished believe they are defeated,

Incidentally, we also discover here that they shared a distrust of all "liberalism, positivism, rationalism" (inter alia), so I am far from clear what Berlin thought Tolstoy's position was vis-a-vis positivism.

VII
"Despite their deep dissimilarity ... Tolstoy's sceptical realism and Maistre's dogmatic authoritarianism are blood brothers. For both spring from an agonised belief in a single, serene vision, in which all problems are resolved..."
II
Tolstoy's philosophy of history, says Berlin, had not received the attention it deserved. He runs over some of the criticism here, and argues that at least some of it is way over the top and it deserves more serious consideration.
III

This section contains Berlin's main description of Tolstoy's philosophy of history. This is, for present purposes, just the philosophy which is articulated in "War and Peace", excluding consideration of Tolstoy's other relevant writings.

Tolstoy comes across here as, from an early age, a skeptic and a positivist (though a more concrete and less metaphysical positivist than comte!). His philosophy of history seems to have been a kind of positivism in which the real, rather than being, say sense data or experimental observations, is "the actual everyday 'live' experience of individuals", and the proscribed metaphysical excess is "the panoramic view conjured up by historians". Tolstoy applies to the historian's pretensions of explaining the events in history a caustic scepticism. Particularly notable of course are Tolstoy's descriptions of battles and of the gulfs, that between the illusion of control on the part of the senior figures and the chaotic reality and that between the reality experienced by the participants and their subsequent accounts.

Berlin suggests that Tolstoy anticipates by half a century views such as those of Virginia Wolf whose indictment of the public prophets of her generation he paraphrases thus:

blind materialists who did not begin to understand what it is that life truly consists of, who mistook its outer accidents, the unimportant aspects which lie outside the individual soul, the so-called social, economic, political realities - for that which alone is genuine, the individual experience, the specific relation of individuals to one another, the colours, tastes, smells, sounds, and movements, the jealousies, loves. hatreds, passions, the rare flashes of insight, the transforming moments, the ordinary day-to-day succession of private data which constitute all there is -which are reality.

VI
Now we look closer at the missing bit, what a hedgehog might supply.
"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 miroscopic 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."
VIII

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