Sir Isaiah Berlin
Sir Isaiah Berlin; drawing by David Levine

In a brief preface to this book, Isaiah Berlin seems to show some reluctance about its publication. “The essays collected in this volume,” he writes, “the first of four, were written or delivered as lectures, on various occasions over almost thirty years, and therefore possess less unity of theme than if they had been conceived in relation to one another.” If this remark represents a serious scruple, the editors must be congratulated for having overcome it and made more easily available these eloquent, masterful essays, hitherto scattered in periodicals, anthologies, and introductions to others’ books.

These essays have to do with men’s ideas and the effect of these ideas on social and political events, more specifically with Russian liberal thought in the nineteenth century and its effect on events in the twentieth—they make a wonderfully penetrating study of an intellectual trend that has commanded much of modern history. However disconnected originally, once brought together they are perfectly unified around this central, though implicit, theme, splendidly illustrating Isaiah Berlin’s belief that “great ideas do have great influence.” The theme is implicit. It is not discussed in itself. It is, perhaps, more accurately Berlin’s basic presupposition rather than his major theme. But by whatever name, the concept is central, and its very implicitness is characteristic.

The entire burden of these collected essays,” Berlin says, “so far as they can be said to display any single tendency, is distrust of all claims to the possession of incorrigible knowledge about issues of fact or principle in any sphere of human behaviour.” The least dogmatic of thinkers, Berlin lays no claim to absolute correctness, nor does he invoke absolutes of any kind. He is a thinker for whom generalities are abhorrent, and is for this reason exceptional as philosopher, historian, and literary critic. He is all three of these. But his concern, as a philosopher, is with concepts in their bearing on human affairs, not as systematized abstractions; as a historian, with the interplay between ideas and events, that is, with how social, political, and moral forces shape ideas and how ideas them; as a literary critic, with the reflection in a work of art of the artist’s thought and character. His major preoccupation is the minds of men. And it is this that unifies his many-sided work with its mastery of several disciplines and his undoctrinaire commitment not to any one of them, but to the essentially human factor that underlies them all.

The heart of the collection is a section called “A Remarkable Decade,” the title borrowed from the memoirs of “an agreeable, intelligent, and exceedingly civilized man,” Pavel Annenkov, who was describing his friends, “the founders of the Russian intelligentsia” between the years 1838 and 1848. Berlin presents the outstanding members of this group, Herzen, Belinsky, Bakunin, Turgenev, with great understanding and sympathy, sketching their characters, explaining the evolution of their beliefs, discussing the place their ideas occupied in their own time and their influence afterward. These thinkers emerge as both victims and beneficiaries of the political and social circumstances against which they rebelled and which they attempted to change. They were victims of an oppressive autocracy and beneficiaries of this very oppression, inasmuch as it drove them to formulate their protests and their theories.

Socially, politically, culturally, Russia was a disjointed country, divided between a small, educated minority and a vast, illiterate population, and within the educated group, between those who advocated the virtues of the traditional, native culture, the Slavophiles, and those who admired the West and were increasingly aware of the enormous distance between Western civilization and their own. The government, ever since the reforms of Peter the Great in the seventeenth century, sought to emulate the West but also feared it, with the result that its policy was “one of alternate repression and liberalization.” In the eighteenth century, the civilized minority, too weak or too depressed to oppose the barbarous regime it despised, withdrew into itself and endured. But the war with Napoleon, with its surge of patriotic fervor, roused it to a sense of responsibility “for the chaos, the squalor, the poverty, the inefficiency, the brutality, the appalling disorder in Russia,” and awakened feelings of guilt toward the maltreated, inarticulate, valorous masses who had saved the country.

The government was wary of this awakening and sensitive to revolutionary stirrings abroad. In the Thirties it forbade travel to France, the hotbed of revolutions, but not to Germany, which seemed less dangerous. And so the “astonishingly impressionable” Russians, “with an unheard of capacity for absorbing ideas,” now journeyed to Berlin and nourished their minds on German romanticism, imbibing modes of thinking that were the reverse of those most typical of eighteenth-century French Enlightenment, in which their fathers were steeped. Interest in empirical data was dethroned by a striving for the Absolute, a yearning for the concealed, profound, impalpable, unitary Principle of Life, of which empirical phenomena were but superficial manifestations; scientific analysis gave place to intuition. “Imagine, then, a group of young men,” writes Berlin, “living under the petrified regime of Nicholas I—men with a degree of passion for ideas perhaps never equalled in a European society, seizing upon ideas as they come from the West with unconscionable enthusiasm, and making plans to translate them swiftly into practice—and you will have some notion of what the early members of the intelligentsia were like.”


As philosophers, they were not original: “I do not think that Russia has contributed a single new social or political idea: nothing that was not traceable, not only to some ultimate western root, but to some doctrine discoverable in the west eight or ten or twelve years earlier than its first appearance in Russia.” Their fascination is not their intellectual inventiveness but the intensity of their moral concern and their passion for ideas. They had a realistic vision of their country’s needs and were ready to enlist whatever doctrine might serve these needs. And it is what they made of their borrowings that is historically, politically, and, above all, humanly significant.

Isaiah Berlin treats their intellectual confusions, their bewildered strivings, their doubts, the often cruel rift between their emotions and their minds admiringly and appreciatively. He examines Belinsky’s ardent adoption, and equally ardent rejection, of one philosophical scheme after another; the incompatibility of Herzen’s passionate temperament and his “ideal of detachment”; the profound duality at the core of Tolstoy’s genius. All three were men of reason, whose very reasoning sometimes betrayed them through excess, for “far from being liable to irrationalism or neurotic self-absorption, what they possessed in a high, perhaps excessive, degree was extremely developed powers of reasoning, extreme logic and lucidity.”

The year 1848 was crucial. The tsarist government, in reaction to the revolutions in Europe, not only put an end to all plans for reform and stamped out all possible subversion, but determined to suppress thought itself, going so far as to prohibit the teaching of philosophy in the universities. “1848 to 1855 is the darkest hour in the night of Russian obscurantism in the nineteenth century,” says Berlin. Nevertheless, as Herzen saw, this dark period had its positive side. Tyrannical suppression convinced most thinking Russians, whether Westernists or Slavophiles, that there was no possibility of coming to terms with the government, while the disappointment of the liberals in the failure of the revolution in France had the effect of turning their attention to specifically national problems. Barred from Europe and disillusioned in it, Russians began to think for themselves. “Russia, which a decade or two earlier was in considerable danger of becoming a permanent intellectual dependency of Berlin or of Paris, was forced by this insulation to develop a native social and political outlook of her own.”

In essence, this outlook was a rebellion against metaphysical abstractions. Like Tolstoy’s hero, Pierre Bezukhov, at the end of War and Peace, the ambitious Russian thinkers threw away “the telescope of intellect” and discovered reality under their feet. The basic assumption of “French and German historical romanticism,” that “the world obeyed intelligible laws,” struck Herzen as “morally revolting…intellectually specious and aesthetically tawdry…an attempt to force nature into a straitjacket.” In “his own ethical and philosophical beliefs” he held to the view that “nature obeys no plan,” that “history follows no libretto,” that “no single key, no formula can, in principle, solve the problems of individuals or societies,” that “general solutions are no solutions” and “universal ends are never real ends.”

“At a time when general nostrums, vast systems and simple solutions were in the air,” Berlin writes admiringly, “Herzen retained his incorruptible sense of reality…. In his view all that is ultimately valuable are the particular purposes of particular persons.” This is a position that is most congenial to Berlin himself, as Dr. Aileen Kelly indicates in her admirable introduction, where she discusses the relation of these Russian essays to Sir Isaiah’s own political and moral philosophy, the heart of which is a firm respect for the individual and particular, and a scornful distrust of “vast imaginary symmetries,” as he calls them, like those of Hegel, Marx, or Toynbee.

He thus deals sympathetically with Vissarion Belinsky, “the perplexed idealist, the touchingly naïve, over-enthusiastic, pure-hearted man,” who, in his search for truth, subscribed to a variety of doctrines, but “abandoned no view…until he had tried it on himself…had ‘lived himself’ through it, and paid the price in nervous waste and a sense of inadequacy, and sometimes total failure,” and who “in his final phase,” having rejected the philosophic abstractions that had once captivated him, was “a humanist, an enemy of theology and metaphysics and a radical democrat.”


Turgenev, Berlin-emphasizes, was not in the least “a pure artist drawn into political strife against his will,” but as “concerned with social analysis,” though not so “deeply and passionately committed,” as Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Turgenev, like Herzen, was repelled by the “dangerous idolatry” of “all that was general, abstract, absolute,” and for this reason was, also like Herzen, a truthful witness to the confusions of his day. “His vision remained delicate, sharp, concrete, and incurably realistic.” He “refused to preach,” to propound solutions to problems that were insoluble, leaving “for the most part…unanswered” the questions he raised in his novels, and thus bringing upon himself charges of “vacillation, temporizing, infirmity of purpose.” He was a more dispassionate observer than Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, “the great, tormented Laocoöns,” or Belinsky, “the Savonarola of his generation,” or even Herzen, whose ideals were sometimes at odds with his emotions. His “sober realism never deserted him,” so that his “novels, especially Fathers and Children, quite apart from their literary qualities, are as basic a document for the understanding of the Russian past and of our present as the plays of Aristophanes for the understanding of classical Athens, or Cicero’s letters, or novels by Dickens or George Elliot, for the understanding of Rome and Victorian England.”

But the most complex instance of the opposition between the absolute and the relative, between monism and pluralism, between the unitary, all-embracing vision and realistic observation, is Tolstoy, whose entire work may be seen in the light of this discord. Isaiah Berlin examines it brilliantly here in his celebrated essay, first published in 1953, on Tolstoy’s theory of history, “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” the title taken from a line of the Greek poet Archilochus, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin interpreted the saying figuratively as a definition of a basic difference between human beings, “those who relate everything to a single central vision…a single organizing principle,” the hedgehogs, and “those who pursue many ends…related by no moral or aesthetic principle…seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects,” the foxes. Dante, Plato, Pascal, Dostoevsky were hedgehogs; Shakespeare, Aristotle, Montaigne, Molière, Pushkin—foxes.

Tolstoy could not be fitted into either category. He was “by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog…his gifts and achievements are one thing, and his beliefs…another,” and nowhere is this conflict more clearly evident than in his view of history, which, according to Sir Isaiah, has never been considered seriously enough, “whether as an intrinsically interesting view, or as an occurrence in the history of ideas, or even as an element in the development of Tolstoy himself.” For his part, he examines it “for the light it casts on a single man of genius.” One passage is of such splendid eloquence and precise definition of Tolstoy’s genius that it demands to be quoted in full:

No author who has ever lived has shown such powers of insight into the variety of life—the differences, the contrasts, the collisions of persons and things and situations, each apprehended in its absolute uniqueness and conveyed with a degree of directness and a precision of concrete imagery to be found in no other writer. No one has ever excelled Tolstoy in expressing the specific flavor, the exact quality of a feeling—the degree of its “oscillation,” the ebb and flow, the minute movements (which Turgenev mocked as a mere trick on his part)—the inner and outer texture and “feel” of a look, a thought, a pang of sentiment, no less than of a specific situation, of an entire period, of the lives of individuals, families, communities, entire nations. The celebrated life-likeness of every object and every person in his world derives from this astonishing capacity of presenting every ingredient of it in its fullest individual essence, in all its many dimensions, as it were; never as a mere datum, however vivid, within some stream of consciousness, with blurred edges, an outline, a shadow, an impressionistic representation: nor yet calling for, and dependent on, some process of reasoning in the mind of the reader; but always as a solid object, seen simultaneously from near and far, in natural, unaltering daylight, from all possible angles of vision, set in an absolutely specific context in time and space—an event fully present to the senses or the imagination in all its facets, with every nuance sharply and firmly articulated.

Such was Tolstoy’s gift as a fox. “Yet what he believed in was the opposite. He advocated a single embracing vision; he preached not variety but simplicity, not many levels of consciousness but reduction to some single level….” And this he was determined to achieve without compromising his sense of reality. No superstition, fantasy, or impression “with blurred edges” could satisfy or attract him. He belonged, as Berlin points out, to the tradition of “the great anti-theological and anti-metaphysical thinkers of the eighteenth century.” He rejected Hegel as “unintelligible gibberish interspersed with platitudes,” and ridiculed the “revealed truths” and the mysticism of the Russian Church. He would know why events occurred, but without abandoning a jot of his realistic grasp of them as they occurred. If this could not be done, he would rather admit the mind’s limitations and set boundaries to knowledge than embrace as true any solution beyond the capacity of reason or the reach of his clear and exact perceptiveness.

Nevertheless, history, he argued, was not, and could not be, a science. No laws could possibly contain the infinite diversity of life, nor any theories “fit the immense variety of possible human behavior, the vast multiplicity of minute, undiscoverable causes and effects.” “If we allow that human life can be ruled by reason,” he said, “the possibility of life is destroyed.” There was an enormous gap between the reality of an event and any possible reports of it, however well-meaning and truthful they might be, and an even greater gap between an event as it might be planned in advance, such as the plans of generals on the eve of battle, and the way it actually occurred. “Only unconscious activity bears fruit,” he said with reference to the burning of Moscow, which he described as the unforeseen outcome of countless individual, unplanned, and unconsidered acts, contradicting the usual opinion that it was brought about intentionally through the concerted action of patriotic Russians.

He believed that human beings were deluded in thinking that they were free to shape their lives or the course of history; and his “central thesis,” in Berlin’s words, was “that there is a natural law whereby the lives of human beings no less than that of nature are determined; but that men, unable to face this inexorable process, seek to represent it as a succession of free choices.” But if there are no absolutely free choices, neither is there absolute determinism. Within the broad frame of natural, deterministic law, men have a certain limited freedom to choose and act, and it is on this limited freedom that their sense of individual responsibility depends; without it, morality could not exist.

Berlin admits that Tolstoy’s position is ambiguous: “Since we are not, in fact, free, but could not live without the conviction that we are, what are we to do? Tolstoy arrives at no clear conclusion….” It is an unresolved conflict that reflects the clash between “his own gifts as a writer and as a man and…his ideals,” between the fox in him and the hedgehog. It mirrors the duality at the heart of this great, tragic man, as he appears in the essay’s deeply moving conclusion:

At once insanely proud and filled with self-hatred, omniscient and doubting everything, cold and violently passionate, contemptuous and self-abasing, tormented and detached, surrounded by an adoring family, by devoted followers, by the admiration of the entire civilized world, and yet almost wholly isolated, he is the most tragic of the great writers, a desperate old man, beyond human aid, wandering self-blinded at Colonus.

Tolstoy is, of course, unique. Nonetheless, one is tempted to see him as an epitome, or paradigm, of the other sincere and ardent thinkers in Berlin’s gallery of portraits, the “superfluous men,” the Don Quixotes, the Voltaires in exile, the Savonarolas in search of a creed, tormented by the “accursed problems,” as Dostoevsky called them, that cry out for solution and cannot be solved. The questions they raised were all-important, and their attempts, their victories and failures, as Berlin indicates time and time again, have a terrible, often ironic relevance for the world today.

To Berlin, Herzen’s “analysis of the forces at work in his day, of the individuals in whom they were embodied, of the moral presuppositions of their creeds and words, and of his own principles, remains to this day one of the most penetrating, moving, and morally formidable indictments of the great evils which have grown to maturity in our time.” The most independent of spirits, “not enslaved by any formula or any political doctrine,” he waged “war on two, and often more, fronts” against any and all factions—liberals, conservatives, revolutionaries—“wherever and whoever the enemies of freedom might turn out to be,” defending those supreme values that are today too often, and too blatantly, disregarded: “the claims of life and art, human decency, equality and dignity, with the advocacy of a society in which human beings shall not exploit or trample on one another even in the name of justice or progress or civilization or democracy or other abstractions.”

Now, through “a singular irony of history,” this man “who wanted individual liberty more than happiness, or efficiency, or justice, who denounced organized planning, economic centralization, governmental authority,” finds himself today, “in virtue of a casual phrase patronizingly dropped by Lenin,” enthroned “in the holy of holies of the Soviet pantheon, placed there by a government, the genesis of which he understood better and feared more deeply than Dostoevsky, and whose words and acts are a continuous insult to all that he believed and was.”

Berlin also shows the irony of the Populist movement, which, inspired in large part by Herzen, and supported with religious dedication by men who “believed in Socialism not because it was inevitable, nor because it was effective, not even because it was rational, but because it was just,” has been used by the communists, who, after October 1917, adapted its revolutionary technique “with conspicuous success to serve the precise purpose which it had been invented to resist.”

There is a significant lack of such irony in Berlin’s account of Bakunin. “The official friend of absolute liberty, [he] has not bequeathed a single idea worth considering for its own sake,” and remains “a historical figure, …morally careless, intellectually irresponsible, a man who, in his love for humanity in the abstract, was prepared, like Robespierre, to wade through seas of blood; and thereby constitutes a link in the tradition of cynical terrorism and unconcern for individual human beings, the practice of which is the main contribution of our century, thus far, to political thought.”

Although this book was not conceived as a unit, and is not organized on a plan of chronological development, it is actually a history of Russian liberal thought from its origins in the seventeenth century, through its flowering in 1838 to 1848, its persecution and survival underground in the oppressive years after 1848, its re-emergence in the Populist movement of the Sixties and Seventies, and its virtual destruction in the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. And although now and then the book contains unavoidable repetitions and is not perfectly balanced as a consecutive history might have been, it is unified by Isaiah Berlin’s steadfast principles and convictions, and emerges, in unmistakable grandeur, as a drama of the mind and spirit in modern times, a drama of noble protagonists and powerful adversaries, which ends in the way of classical tragedy on a note that is profoundly ironic.

It is a drama of high ideals that have come to grief in their own land, but that, however poignant the defeat, remain, as in all great tragedy, intact and triumphant. Such are the implications of the story, as it is told by a historian of philosophy who is a humanist in mind and heart, and knows, therefore, how to honor the ardor and the agony of the struggle he describes and to appreciate its significance, not only in its own day but also in other times and for other men, re-creating a drama of which the particular circumstances have universal scope.

This Issue

June 15, 1978