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The Hedgehog and the Fox Isaiah Berlin

Extended Book Review

”The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

This metaphor for creative and conventional applies in our time, just as it did in the eras of Tolstoy and Berlin. In employing this metaphor, Berlin pays brilliant homage to Tolstoy’s greatness in this little book of just 81 pages of text. Berlin’s little book became a classic in its own time; it is a masterful presentation of Tolstoy’s views on history. Tolstoy was ahead of his times, yet we wonder what he would think today--faced with the huge advances in physics, bioscience, and psychology. What would he think of a world that is probabilistic at its core, where biochemists are on the verge of creating life from inert matter, and where the psyche has been deciphered,


  • PHYSICS: Michelson and Morely through Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, and Fermi to Feynman created an explosive world-view where scientific determinism disappears at the most fundamental levels where probability reigns supreme, and the universe itself is warped and would seem unimaginably ancient to Tolstoy in his day.
  • BIOCSCIENCE; Darwin, through Mendel, Watson and Crick to Ventner created an all-new world-view of life and the biosphere.
  • PSYCHOLOGY: Sigmund and Anna Freud, through Adorno, Milgram, and Skinner to Zimbardo, showed conclusively how thin the barriers are between violent and peaceful living inmost of us. Stout, and Hare added the violent and aberrant elements, which too often co-opt otherwise peaceful movements and organizations without respect for ethnicity or religion.

What would Tolstoy make today of these three threads of history? We shall never know, but Berlin makes it clear that Tolstoy was an objective thinker for whom only methodological inquiry provides new insight and philosophy. Tolstoy was also one of the most insightful of philosophers of the 19th Century; he saw beneath the surface what others never chose to look for or could see. He was not just scientific, he was wise to the ways of humankind and history.

Tolstoy and most of his contemporaries considered violence and war as simply part of the human condition--they were right about that. They were, however, more pessimistic about changing that fact than we are in our times--barring nuclear Armageddon that is!

Berlin hypothesized that Tolstoy was more fox than hedgehog and he makes that case. To summarize the traits briefly:

Hedgehog Fox
Single Central Vision Multiple Visions
One System, Connected Many Concepts, Not Connected
Centripetal, Inward Looking Centrifugal, Outward Looking

These are not hard and fast observations, but the hedgehog smacks of the obedient and conventional Authoritarian Personality while the fox, who thinks for him/he-self and acts independently. The fox is “rebel” in Milgram’s Experiments--among the spare 15-35% of many cohorts off the streets of New Haven, Connecticut. These folks refused to blindly obey a professor in an experiment simulating corporal punishment. That analogy is not perfect since there are likely to be co-factors.

Tolstoy had strong reason to focus on Napoleon to reach some understanding of how he did so much with so little only to ultimately reach an ignominious end, as Hitler did in the next century. About Napoleon, Berlin reports Tolstoy’s belief:

    “The harshest judgment is accordingly reserved for the master theorist himself, the Great Napoleon, who acts upon and hypnotizes others into believing, the assumption that he understands and controls by his superior intellect, or by flashes of intuition, or by otherwise succeeding in answering correctly the questions posed by history. The greater the claim, the greater the lie: Napoleon is consequently the most pitiable, the most contemptible of the great actors in the Greek tragedy. “

In other words Adorno’s authoritarians, Milgram’s sheep, fall in line behind the charismatic sociopath in power. Their instincts for aggression, obedience and conventionalism, to use Altemeyer’s formulation, combine to overwhelm all but the most independent of thinkers and actors in a populace. The same thing happened in WWII and later in Rwanda, where even priests and nuns joined the frenzy of killing at the behest of Bagasora. This is just one example of Tolstoy’s greatness. His formulation stood the test of time, especially when one considers the holds Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot had on their people in other killing fields. Tolstoy did not know the psychology we do today; he was accurate in realizing there are psychological effects in history.

”Because of this, in the whole of France, people began to drown and slaughter each other. - Tolstoy

Berlin paraphrases Tolstoy: “The power of historical movement is directly connected with the ‘power’ some men exercise over others: but what is power? How does one acquire it? Can it be transferred from one man to another? Surely it is not merely physical strength that is meant? Nor moral strength? Did Napoleon possess either of these?”

Tolstoy asked all the right questions. That puts him up there with the great Grecian philosphers: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

Adorno’s ground-breaking work was completed about the time Berlin’s book came out in its revised second edition. Adorno’s work could not be fully appreciated until Milgram showed its generality--later confirmed by others and simplified by Altemeyer.

Berlin’s little book is a giant among giants. It is passages like the above that led us to ask the questions leading in this page. The history section of Tolstoy’s classic ”War and Peace” was Berlin’s primary focus. Both books deserve study by those who would understand the violence inherent in humanity. Neither provides answers. Both provide insights into the history and perspectives of violence.


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