Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Tolstoy: The Fox Who Tried to Become a Hedgehog

In his essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” Isaiah Berlin divides thinkers into hedgehogs and foxes—the hedgehogs are those who know one big thing, like Aquinas and Dostoevsky, while the foxes are those who know many things, like Hume and Turgenev. Berlin posits that Tolstoy was a natural fox who tried to become a hedgehog. He says that being a natural fox Tolstoy had the capacity to slice through all kinds of illusions and enter the minds of the most unpleasant characters, but he aspired to have a big vision too, and that led to the destruction of his sense of reality. Berlin ends his essay with these devastating lines:

“Tolstoy’s sense of reality was until the end too devastating to be compatible with any moral ideal which he was able to construct out of the fragments into which his intellect shivered the world, and he dedicated all of his vast strength of mind and will to the lifelong denial of this fact. At once insanely proud and filled with self-hatred, omniscient and doubting everything, cold and violently passionate, contemptuous and self-abasing, tormented and detached, surrounded by an adoring family, by devoted followers, by the admiration of the entire civilised world, and yet almost wholly isolated, he is the most tragic of the great writers, a desperate old man, beyond human aid, wandering self-blinded at Colonus.”

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