1 JANUARY 1954, Page 30


BY REX WARNER THE writing of Isaiah Berlin reminds me of the admirable performance of some quick-firing gun. The target is accurately located and is then assailed by a stream of projectiles or of tracer-bullets, each one very like the next. The demolition or the illumination is a cumulative process. The thought does not move in waves but in a succession of fiery particles. It is not exactly that Mr. Berlin appears to believe that what he tells us three times is true; he ioften tells it to us more than three times, but each time e says it rather differently. To change the metaphor again, there are not many keen thrusts to the heart of the (natter; nor is there any groping in the dark; instead there are innumerable and vigorous proddings, all in the right direction. Take, for example, such a portion of a sentence as this : " to distinguish what is isolable, classifiable and capable of objective study and sometimes of precise measure- ment and manipulation, from the most permanent, ubiquitous, inescapable, intimately present features of our world, which, if anything, are over-familiar, so that their ' inexorable ' presence, being too much with us, is scarcely felt, hardly noticed, and cannot conceivably be observed in perspective, be an object of study." If this is a form of stuttering, it is the highly respectable form of one who is zealous for the truth and for precision, and who is determined that it will not be his fault if his hearers fail to grasp any portion of the truth that is evident to him and which he is concerned to express.

In discussing Tolstoy's view of history, with its bearings on Tolstoy's whole view of life, there are great difficulties both in discovering the truth and in rightly emphasising the various aspects of it; for the subject of the whole enquiry, the great analytical novelist in search of a synthesis, is capable of deceiving both himself and others.

Mr. Berlin starts off* with a useful distinction, though not, perhaps, for the whole extent of his survey, a wholly satis- factory one, between the fox and the hedgehog. According to Archilochus " the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." So according to Mr. Berlin, "there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision . ... and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory . . . " (The dots indicate a considerable amount of suppressed gun-fire.) Thus Dante and Lucretius are very obviously hedgehogs, Aristotle and Montaigne foxes.

Tolstoy, we are told, " was by nature a fox but believed in being a hedgehog," and, as the argument proceeds, we can observe that this is not only an interesting, but a tragic state in which to find oneself. He has the keenest of eyes for fact, or rather for facts—facts in their hundreds of thousands— and is never tired of exposing those facile generalisations which, while attempting to " explain," to impose unity on multiplicity, actually distort or deny the things that really happen. So in his view of history, as expressed in War and Peace, hp makes mincemeat of those historians who look for causes in such abstractions as " reason," " nationalism," " historic forces " or " heroes." In particular, of course, he assails the idea of the " hero " or " great man," and here he quite obviously exaggerates.

A sober estimate of Tolstoy as a philosopher of history was made in 1888 by Kareyev, and Mr. Berlin summarises here Kareyev's argument. But, reasonable as this argument is, it somehow, according to Mr. Berlin, misses the point; for Tolstoy's concern with history is only part of a deeper and a more private concern. What he is really concerned about is to find life worth lividg. to discover " a universal explanatory principle,"—some purpose, or at least some unity behind the facts of life which he sees so clearly and upon Which he is so determined to insist. Now the nearest that Tolstoy ever seems to come to this discovery for which he longs is in his descrip- tions of Kutuzov and of other characters or even situations where, in some peculiar way, strength and wisdom emerge from a kind of resignation. It is not that " the people " are better than anyone else; it is simply that they have not had the chance to be distracted. Kutuzov is not vain and self- opinionated and " brilliant," like Napoleon; he is therefore nearer to the essential nature of things; wisdom comes, or can come, as Aeschylus suggested, in letting things happen.

Yet, moving as are the passages in War and Peace, in Anna Karenitza and elsewhere, where, after stress and strain, we are introduced to a different, a calmer and a happier world (to the " one big thing "), the solution found occasionally in art never satisfied the artist himself. To quote Mr. Berlin : " he has not, do what he might, a vision of the whole; he is not, he is remote from being a hedgehog; and what he sees is not the one, but, always with an evergrowing minuteness, in all its teeming individuality, with an obsessive, inescapable, incorruptible, all penetrating lucidity which maddens him, the many."

In his accounts of war and battle what Tolstoy chiefly emphasises is the incomprehensibility of it all, and here he acknowledges his debt to Stendhal, and in particular to the scene in La Chartreuse de Parme where Fabrice takes part in the battle of Waterloo without having much more than the least idea of what is going on. A less known influence on Tolstoy, and one to whom Mr. Berlin devotes a number of interesting pages, is Joseph de Maistre, a violent and skilful opponent of democracy and liberalism, a firm believer in the absolute authority of the Roman Catholic Church and, because of his general view of human nature, a sceptic with regard to all kinds of "modern improvements." It is strange to find so close a connection between two thinkers who were, in some respects at least, diametrically opposed. And the connection is not simply that of " foxiness.' It goes deeper —into a fundamental and a destructive pessimism, though Maistre, with his religious faith, is preserved from the real despair which does seem to have afflicted. Tolstoy. To indicate and to explain this despair and the terrifyingly destructive quality in Tolstoy, which is both the cause and the effect of this despair, Mr. Berlin's symbols or categories of the hedgehog and the fox do not seem wholly adequate. Nor, I think, are Mr. Berlin's closing words, illuminating as they are, quite as pointed as they might be. Tolstoy is described in the end' as the most tragic of the great writers, a desperate old man, beyond human aid, wandering self-blinded at Colonus." But the real tragedy is that Tolstoy never got to Colonus; and, if he had got there, something would have caused him to suspect the offer of human hospitality or the possibility 'of divine guidance. The process of his development, or of his petrifaction, some aspects of which have been so admirably explained by Mr. Berlin, can be illustrated from the two short novels, Family Happiness and The Devil,f which have been recently published together in a new translation. The second of these was written thirty years later than the first. Both the differences and the similarities between the two are very remarkable. In each there is a world of sympathy and in each, or so it seems to me, a world of arrogance. After reading them I could not help wishing that Mr. Berlin, with the vigour and under- standing which he has shown in his short study, had seen fit to attempt an even more thoroughgoing examination of so great and so difficult a,subject.

*The Hedgehog and the Fox. By Isaiah Berlin. (Weidenfeld and Nicolson. 8s. 6d.) frhe Devil and Family Happiness. By Leo Tolstoy. Translated by April Fitz-Lyon. (Spearman and Calder. Ils. 6d.)