Isaiah Berlin: Thinker of freedom

In 'The hedgehog and the fox' (*), the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, the author of the famous "Praise of freedom", wonders by rereading the work of Tolstoy on the causes of human destiny from a line from a Greek poet: 'The fox knows many things, the hedgehog knows only one, but great!' For the professor of Oxford, rather hedgehog, freedom is a fundamental value in the midst of an irreducible pluralism of values.

Les Belles-Lettres publishing house has just published the French translation of an essay by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin. He comments on the theory of history of the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. There is no better time to rush to this little book because, in this complicated period, what a joy to be in such good company! The author explores with originality and tenderness the personality of the famous author of War and Peace. As a bonus, the book offers us a luminous preface by Mario Vargas Llosa, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010.

Like other figures in history, Leo Tolstoy had captured the imagination of Isaiah Berlin in that he represented, for him, the triumphant example of an observer of life, keeping a necessary distance for this observation and, for all that, able to immerse yourself in it fully and fully. Isaiah Berlin will, moreover, make it his trademark: immersing himself in the writings of the authors who fascinated him in order to conduct his own philosophical research at the heart of the history of human values.

If Tolstoy participates in this research, it is because he is the typical example of a tormented soul, divided between what he cannot help but be and the ideal of what he would have wanted. be. It was in order to identify this characteristic in Tolstoy that Berlin introduced the difference between the hedgehog and the fox, the title of his essay.

Division between foxes and hedgehogs

He discovered this difference just before the Second World War, in a line by the Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, the hedgehog knows only one, but great! ". Berlin amused itself then by dividing the great authors between foxes and hedgehogs. Goethe would be a fox, while Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy would be hedgehogs. In 1951, while working on Leo Tolstoy and his theory of history (which can be found in particular in his novels), Berlin resorted to this metaphor. It allows him to detect a fundamental aspect of Tolstoy's personality, his vision, a focal point past which most of his contemporaries and critics have passed.

Because if Leo Tolstoy was an unequaled fox because of his ability to capture and describe with finesse "the real experience of real men and women in their relations with each other", he aspired - Berlin tells us - to be a hedgehog, able to relate “everything to a central vision; to a single system [...], an organizing principle, unique and universal ”.

It is within the framework of this almost obsessive research that we must read War and Peace. We can find there the moral dilemma of this fox in search of answers to "fundamental problems: problem of good and evil, of the origin and purpose of the universe and its inhabitants, of the causes of all that has location. "

All his life, Tolstoy aspired, without success, Berlin tells us to find the real causes of things and beings. Hence his immense interest in History, the many historical forays into his novels and ultimately his deep disillusionment on the subject. Unable to let go of his fox side - this deep belief that it is “the inner facts which, in the experience of human beings, are most real and most immediate; it is they, and they alone who, in the last resort, constitute life ”- he will never succeed in satisfying his ideal hedgehog, anxious to know what is the power which drives the destiny of peoples.

Isaiah Berlin dares within the framework of his essay a comparison with the French Savoyard author Joseph de Maistre, to whom he awarded the same dilemma. If the two authors were radically opposed in that one was "an apostle of the Gospel who preaches brotherhood between men, the other, the cold defender of the rights of violence, blind sacrifice, and suffering eternal ", the two were united by the impossibility of escaping the same tragic paradox:" they were observers who could in no way be deceived by [...] the unifying systems, beliefs and sciences, which served the superficial or desperate beings to hide chaos from themselves and hide it from others. Both were in search of a harmonious universe, but found everywhere only wars and disorder. "

The writer Mario Vargas Llosa, who gives us a useful preface to Isaiah Berlin's essay, does not appear to be a hedgehog. As an assumed fox, he asserts that real progress “has always been achieved through a biased, heterodox and distorted application of social theories. Social theories in the plural, which means that different ideological systems, sometimes irreconcilable, have determined identical or similar progress. A follower of practical reason, he proposes to come to terms with the contradictions inherent in the world as we live it.

Political compromise as a means of peaceful resolution

What can we conclude about the philosopher Isaiah Berlin himself? For his biographer Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin was a hedgehog who saw freedom as a fundamental value in the midst of an irreducible pluralism of values. At the origin of inevitable conflicts, Berlin saw political compromise as a necessary means of their peaceful resolution.

This pluralism has sometimes led to Isaiah Berlin being accused of relativism, probably without any real basis. Like this distinction between fox and hedgehog which has crossed the ages for more than 2,500 years, he saw a horizon common to the entire human species and the means of evaluating cultures according to certain ultimate standards. Still, diversity, including moral diversity, was also, for him, a constant of humanity. According to him, only rationalist arrogance could put it on the account of ignorance or superstition. Such differences must be respected and protected, as he tried to recognize in this essay on ambivalences and ambiguities by Leo Tolstoy.


(*) Isaiah Berlin The Hedgehog and the Fox: essay on Tolstoy's vision of History, Les Belles Lettres, 2020, 140 pages, 13.50 euros.

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