Essay Review – “The Hedgehog and the Fox” by Isaiah Berlin

This essay was referenced to in a podcast that I heard a few weeks ago. The podcast was discussing the difference between public intellectuals and modern day experts of specific areas. The podcast referenced a famous line from this essay to explain the difference: “There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.’”

I was fascinated by this and immediately read up this essay. It was, to put it mildly, not quite what I was expecting. To be honest, I don’t know what I was expecting in the first place. Perhaps more insights from ancient Greece, or a detailed explanation of whether it is better to be a hedgehog or a fox.

What I got instead was a look at the intellectual mammoth that Leo Tolstoy was, and his thoughts about history. The essay is fascinating, not only because it captures some of the challenges with teaching history today, but it is also a lesson in history itself because it broadly discusses the tumultuous history of Europe in the 18th century.

What was very interesting was that some of Tolstoy’s concerns with how history is taught is very reflective of how we think about it even now. Sample this:

‘history will never reveal to us what connections there are, and at what times, between science, art and morality, between good and evil, religion and the civic virtues. What it will tell us (and that incorrectly) is where the Huns came from, where they lived, who laid the foundations of their power, etc.’

and:

‘History is nothing but a collection of fables and useless trifles, cluttered up with a mass of unnecessary figures and proper names.’

And why was Tolstoy so concerned about learning from history? Well, because he was somewhat like Elon Musk, in that he believed in breaking things down to the first principles and  living by them. Tolstoy believed that the only way to live is to find out the science and the principles that apply to humanity and live by the values and ideas that emerge out of them. And the only way to learn these ideas is by studying history itself.

The essay then goes on to trace why Tolstoy thought in this manner, especially when he was writing his epic War And Peace. Isaiah Berlin, the philosopher author of this essay, masterfully shines a light on Tolstoy’s correspondence and his research to try and find the answers that might benefit humanity as a whole.

This is a beautiful, if academic and densely filled with knowledge, essay that I was glad that I bumped into. Perfect reading for a weekend.

Read more about ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox’ on Goodreads. Buy a copy here.

Title: The Hedgehog and the Fox

Author: Isaiah Berlin

First Published: 1953

Number of Pages: 96

Price: Paperback – Rs. 599 / Kindle – Rs. 500 (Amazon.in)

My Rating: 8/10

(Disclosure: If you buy any book by clicking on the Amazon links above, you will NOT get charged extra. However, I will get a small commission, 100% of which will go to charity.)

 

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