Foxy Metaphors: Isaiah Berlin’s Playful Binaries

Foxy Metaphors: Isaiah Berlin’s Playful Binaries

Isaiah Berlin’s classic study of Tolstoy, The Hedgehog and the Fox (1953), is too short and just right at the same time. The title and premise are taken from a line by the Greek poet Archilochus, which reads (at least in one translation), “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” From that line, Berlin plays with dichotomies and various binaries, without taking himself too seriously. He puts writers and thinkers in two camps, and throws us some curve-balls along the way. The biggest, perhaps, is the idea that a person can be a fox, in “reality,” but desires the focus and mission of a hedgehog.

This is how Berlin sees Tolstoy, and he shows us why. It helps his case that the prose is crisp, precise, and accessible, and free of jargon and scholar-to-scholar formalism. In the Princeton edition (2013), there is some scholar-to-scholar talk in the added appendices, but these maintain the accessible nature of Berlin’s essay, and extend and amplify its points in interesting ways**.

The two camps, of course, are not set in stone, and no one has both feet planted in either, at least not permanently. It’s more a matter of degree, time, and place. Does a writer or thinker see the world primarily through one, big, defining idea, or through a myriad of lenses, experiences, and points of view? Berlin, as a suggested starting point, places Dante, Pascal, Plato, Nietzsche and Proust in the hedgehog camp, and Shakespeare, Goethe, Aristotle and James Joyce among the foxes. As far as Russian literature goes, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are at odds, but Berlin sees inner conflicts wracking the spirits of both men. Blending, fraying, evolution, internal arguments and so on.

In short, it’s (delightfully) complicated.


** In those appendices, a certain John Bowle is given voice. I had never heard of him before. But his prose style is remarkable. Beautifully contrapuntal, and fully aware of the ways word-sounds best fit together, like a painter who knows her colors inside and out. Berlin also gets his chance to respond to responses, and these make this short work even better. The appendices also reminded me of Nabokov’s (mock) commentary in his Pale Fire. That novel needs a reread too.

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