Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

While Isaiah Berlin’s writings have dealt primarily with political philosophy and the history of ideas, at times such categories have been broadly defined. Moreover, though problems and patterns in British and European thought have been his most prominent concerns, issues affecting Russia’s position in the wider context of Western intellectual life have fascinated him as well. Some of Berlin’s most celebrated and provocative pronouncements have dealt specifically with matters of this sort, where the ideas of Russian thinkers took on a wider significance largely through the operation of theoretical conceptions in unusual but appropriate settings.

The essays collected in Russian Thinkers were delivered or published between 1948 and 1970; several of them originally were public lectures, while others appeared as articles in academic journals or in other published formats. There is much continuity among the various works in this collection, while editorial selection has limited any effects of repetition or undue prolixity.

Many of the traits commonly associated with Berlin’s writing are in evidence in these essays. From outwardly modest beginnings major ideas take hold and sentences build breathlessly upon one another as new images and thoughts are constructed in what at times seems to be a tumultuous array of facts and concepts; the more informal though no less complex delivery found in his lectures has been preserved in those essays that have been taken from that format. At times Berlin appears attentive to the interests of his audience; some statements resound with dramatic effect, while others provide color and vividness to what otherwise might have been rather recondite matters. There is also a kind of boldness, and a willingness to take on vast and challenging topics; indeed, the author was hardly daunted by the large and perplexing tasks that he had set for himself. There are few reservations or modifications that he has felt constrained to make even amid sweeping judgments that go beyond the received wisdom about intellectual change in Russia. Still, Berlin displays a certain specific charm and an active sense of sympathy, where it is due, for the historical personages he treats.

Russian Thinkers

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)
ph_0111207219-Berlin.jpg Isaiah Berlin Published by Salem Press, Inc.

The social and political revolution that occurred in Russia in 1917 was the direct product of a society torn apart by participation in a disastrous World War, an economy in near shambles, and an autocratic and reactionary Czarist regime with virtually no popular support. The men who came to the forefront of the revolutionary forces were all the direct inheritors of the great intellectual and political debates which dominated Russian intellectual history throughout the nineteenth century, a period in which the social pendulum swung back and forth between absolute reaction and the mildest of political reforms. These debates form the subject of the first of a projected four volume collection of Sir Isaiah Berlin’s selected writings on philosophy and cultural history, edited by Henry Hardy and with a lucid Introduction by Berlin’s former student, Aileen Kelly. Russian Thinkers treats those Russian intellectuals who dominated their country’s thought in the mid-nineteenth century: Leo Tolstoy, the brilliant historical novelist and short story writer; Alexander Herzen, the exiled advocate of social revolution in Czarist Russia; Mikhail Bakunin, the spiritual father of Russian and European anarchism; Ivan Turgenev, the novelist and social critic; and Vissarion Belinsky, the liberal literary critic and mentor to so many Russian writers.

One cannot begin to appreciate the vagaries of the Russian intellectual tradition without coming to terms with the definitions that Sir Isaiah Berlin has applied to the work of those writers whose ideas permeated the consciousness of the Russian nineteenth century. In a famous essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” first published in 1953 and here reprinted as the opening essay, the cultural historian set out to analyze Tolstoy’s philosophy of history as it was reflected in the great novelist’s works. Taking his title from a fragment of a poem by the Greek poet Archilochus (“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows only one big thing”), Berlin sought to construct a paradigm for understanding the role that ideas about history play in the mature development of a writer’s world view. Those writers who perceive life as the product of diverse influences, ascribing no one cause to historical development, are, for Berlin, “foxes”; while those who see life and history as dominated by a central controlling vision are “hedgehogs.” The paradox of Tolstoy’s creative life, Berlin believes, was that he sought to become a fox, embracing in his work a feeling for history as a product of chance, circumstance, and human passions, while at the same time, feeling an equally strong need to heed the dictates of a monistic vision. Berlin suggests that Tolstoy embodied in his work many of the contradictions inherent in this paradox. In his lifelong attempt to define his position—for himself as well as for his international audience—Tolstoy’s works became as complex and rich in meanings as the historical era he dealt with throughout his life. Tolstoy was a giant within the Russian intellectual tradition, and Berlin, the cultural historian fascinated by the impact of ideas upon history, notes how the writer’s work provided the base upon which others would build. Tolstoy sought suggestive nuances and trends from the study of history and thus came to understand many of the social, political, and philosophical contradictions of his own Russian world: the conflict between the individual and the state, between man and God, and between man and man.

The dynamics of Russian social and intellectual life during the nineteenth century owed much of its vitality to those intellectuals and political theorists who, like Alexander Herzen, disavowed the prevailing social orthodoxies. Herzen, the illegitimate son of a Russian aristocrat close to the Royal Court, financially provided for by his loving and tolerant father, chose to exile himself and his family from a land that he felt to be inhumane and devoid of any sense of social justice. Herzen devoted his life and most of his extensive fortune to the overthrow of autocracy in Russia. He was a rebel with a fervent belief that justice would triumph if only Russia could be rid of the incredibly brutal rulers who were leading his country to ruin. Herzen knew almost all of the major revolutionary figures of the century, and his detailed, vividly written autobiography, My Past and Thoughts, has become a classic in Russian literature, as well as in the canons of revolutionary thought in general.

For Berlin, Alexander Herzen was a seminal figure. He saw many of the inherent contradictions noted by Tolstoy; yet, as an intellectual who was as much at home in the greater European society as he was within the traditions of Russian thought, he was capable of seeing that the road to revolution was mired in death,...

(The entire section is 1974 words.)

Russian Thinkers Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The Christian Science Monitor. Review. June 28, 1978, p. 19.

Hausheer, Roger. “Isaiah Berlin and the Emergence of Liberal Pluralism,” in European Liberty: Four Essays on the Occasion of the Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the Erasmus Prize Foundation, 1983.

The New Leader. Review. LXI (September 25, 1978), p. 17.

Ryan, Alan, ed. The Idea of Freedom: Essays in Honour of Isaiah Berlin, 1979.

The Times Educational Supplement. Review. July 7, 1978, p. 28.

The Washington Post Book World. Review. June 18, 1978, p. E6.