Russian Thinkers Critical Essays

Isaiah Berlin


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The first article reproduced in Russian Thinkers considers the position of Russia during the revolutionary year of 1848. While major outbreaks swept over much of continental Europe, Russia remained unmoved; the seemingly unshakable power of the autocracy left many authors and journalists in despair. For a time, it had been possible for ideas to be discussed openly in Russian cities. Some interest was expressed in French utopian socialism; other stances critical of the existing order had been addressed as well. Russian writers had, during much of the 1830’s and 1840’s, turned away from the stultifying versions of official ideology that were promoted under government auspices. By 1848, with the czarist regime’s stern and unyielding reaction to unrest elsewhere on the Continent, a spirit of resignation descended upon the nation’s writers. In the absence of any appreciable social basis for the support of liberal or radical ideas, in a society where the peasantry had little political power and industrial growth had scarcely begun, few expectations for social transformation existed in any immediate sense. Subsequently, even with the advent of relatively new and different ideological trends, pronounced and long-lasting divisions set in; many important figures embraced values that were grounded in national and religious ideals, while others turned toward increasingly radical and intransigent postures. Thus, paradoxically, the weakness or absence of any significant revolutionary or reform movement during the middle of the nineteenth century foreshadowed the mounting polarization of educated public opinion that later was characteristic of Russian politics and social thought. Moreover, even earlier literary controversies had assumed much wider implications, and problems of values and ideas arose repeatedly in connection with later concerns.

The most famous of Berlin’s Russian essays is “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” in which the theory of history implicit in Leo Tolstoy’s major fiction is discussed in relation to problems of systematic thought in a number of leading figures. Enlarging upon a phrase taken from a verse fragment by the classical Greek poet Archilochus, Berlin posits distinctions among creative and critical thinkers which would divide those from many traditions and historical periods into two groups. This distinction has been received readily and applied in many places beyond those where Berlin originally employed it. For Berlin, some individuals conceive of ultimate facts as embraced within a single system; others regard essential reality as evading such rigid criteria. Any effort to formulate all-encompassing rules that would apply to experience is subject to modifications and exceptions. Among those who belong to the first category, of hedgehogs, are Plato, Dante, G.W.F. Hegel, and Fyodor Dostoevski; Herodotus, Aristotle, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Alexander Pushkin, and James Joyce are cited as outstanding examples of foxes. This schema is not merely intended to distinguish between those who, on philosophical grounds, could be regarded as monists or pluralists, though the differences may be envisaged partly in this sense.

A peculiar and fascinating feature of Tolstoy’s thought, as expressed primarily in his great novels, is that by attempting to demonstrate the validity of one single truth he reached results of a rather different order. In Voyna i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886), problems of historical meaning led to wider concerns with issues of causation that were examined at many points in Tolstoy’s research and writing. The tension between individual experience and human action on a grand scale was reflected in the contrasts he drew between the inner lives of his protagonists and the political careers of historical characters, such as Napoleon and Alexander I, who could be taken as exemplifying both personal and national influences upon the historical process. Whether history was subject to impersonal laws, and whether it could, or indeed should, attain the status of an exact science, were questions that would affect his handling of major historical events.

In certain respects Tolstoy was inclined to take liberties with the historical record which had formed the basis for his original research—in his novel he transformed the Russian commander Mikhail Kutuzov into a heroic figure who was depicted in somewhat more grandiose terms than was warranted for his real-life counterpart. Tolstoy’s views on historical matters owed much as well to other thinkers; he read the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the French social and political philosopher, and he had perused Stendhal’s fiction, partly for the sake of its literary evocation of actions...

(The entire section is 1933 words.)