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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Book Review – “We Should All Be Feminists” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

For some time now, I’ve been thinking of reading up on the topic of feminism. I’ve always believed in the equality of the sexes and strongly disapprove of any unfair action or behaviour that women have to put up with. But I had a couple of questions for myself: What precisely makes one a feminist? How do I show support to the idea of equality of the sexes?

In this powerful essay by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie answers those questions and more. Based on a TEDx talk she was invited to give, Chimamanda speaks about her own experiences while growing up in Nigeria and of some of her friends in Nigeria and America. These experiences, however, are Universal. Even as a man living in India, I found myself shaking my head at a couple of places, recalling the casual sexism that exists in our society.

This isn’t a scholarly work where the author enumerates the societal and economic costs of not treating men and women equally. This is a personal insight into the experienced injustices and frustrations that women all over the world have to deal with.

What is important to realise is that it would be foolish to assume that these do not affect the world of men. We share the same planet, remember?

My favourite part of the essay was when she listed one by one the reasons how we have over the years been normalising sexist behaviour, and follows that up with reasons why these justifications do not stand. “Why just feminism, why not human rights?”, “Look at the animal kingdom”, “But that is our culture” are some of the most commonly (and immensely flawed) arguments that people who do not want to challenge the status quo use. Like sexist behaviour, these justifications too seem to have a Universal presence.

In summary, this is a VERY important essay. I will argue that it is much more important that every *MAN* reads this essay than every woman. If we have to build a society whose culture is based on equality and meritocracy, we need to get the voices of women to be heard by the current establishment who will find it loath to let go of their comfortable seats.

Snippets:

  • “I am angry. We should all be angry.”
  • “There are far fewer guides for men about pleasing women.” Legit thinking of writing a post titled “A man’s guide to pleasing women.”

Read more about “We Should All be Feminists” on Goodreads. Buy the book here.

Title: We Should All Be Feminists

Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

First Published: 2014

Number of Pages: 64

Price: Paperback – Rs. 202 / Kindle – Rs. 148.15 (Amazon.in)

My Rating: 10 out of 10

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