It is hard to say for sure, but I might be the only person in my neighborhood who owns a Tolstoy t-shirt. While putting it on a couple of days ago, it got me thinking about Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox.”

In the essay, Berlin discusses the broad philosophical and didactic strengths of the worldview of a variety of writers. Using the premise of the Greek poet Archilochus, he sets out to name whether a writer is a fox, who knows many things, or a hedgehog who knows one big thing. Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin, and Aristotle are foxes. Dostoevsky, Plato, Nietzsche, and Pascal are hedgehogs.

The bulk of the essay is a discussion determining where Tolstoy fits in. Primarily, the goal is to dissect his view of history. Tolstoy’s individualized view stands in direct contrast with many of his contemporaries. He rejects the historical approach that major world events are carved out by larger than life figures. Rather, it is the ordinary, everyday person who creates meaning and trajectory out of the minutiae. Berlin subsequently decides the great Russian writer is naturally a fox, but is frustrated by his determination to be a hedgehog.

I am not going to take the time here to flesh out Tolstoy’s changing view of art, his rejection of the Orthodox faith, his attitude toward the Russian peasants, that is, his version of the “noble savage,” or as the Russians express it, the “holy fool.” We might talk about his iconoclast lifestyle and the antagonism and abandonment his family endured because of the way he chose to live out his life. He was an anomaly and deeply troubled. This author of such monoliths of world literature as War and Peace and Anna Karenina seemed to have an uncanny understanding of human nature. His characters were sympathetic and full of pathos, but he himself, seemed to lack the empathy for those closest to him.

But if we believe in inspiration in any sense, we know that any author’s work is always wiser and deeper that the actual flesh and blood human. Tolstoy’s artistic and pedagogical ideas were constantly in conflict with his relational or incarnational ways of being. He was never able to live up to what he taught through his novels, his short stories, or his essays. He was a disappointed man. A man who lived with high ideals, but without grace for others or for himself. That may sound harsh, but it is hard to feel generous toward a man who is so exacting, who lived in close proximity to his family, and yet so emotionally removed from them.

It forces me to draw in my breath when I wonder how I am living out my days. How big of a disparity is there between the needs I see right in front of me and my otherworldly ideals? What is that place of grace and understanding within the so-called “thin places” of the physical and spiritual worlds, the now and the not yet?

When I look at Berlin’s list of the foxes and the hedgehogs, I can’t help notice I am immediately drawn more to the hedgehogs, even to the ones I don’t necessarily agree with. I feel Tolstoy’s dilemma. After so much striving, wouldn’t it be satisfying that you at least knew one big thing? This puts me in mind of the apostle Paul, who was well educated and extremely focused. Yet he claimed,

I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. My speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not be based on human wisdom but on God’s power.

I Corinthians 2:2-5 (CSB)

Paul acknowledged his own baseness. He placed his confidence in the grace and wisdom of the Holy Spirit. With all Tolstoy had going for him, it hurts me to think he never knew that joy. Even at his death in a remote train station, running away from home at the age of 82, he was still trying to do it all himself, and knew he was failing.

What about you, are you drawn to reading foxes or hedgehogs?

Are you a fox or a hedgehog?

What do you think of Tolstoy’s attempts to live by his ideals?

“I’ll get angry in the same way with the coachman Ivan, argue in the same way, speak in my mind inappropriately, there will be the same wall between my soul’s holy of holies and other people, even my wife, I’ll accuse her in the same way of my own fear and regret it, I’ll fail in the same way to understand with my reason why I pray, and yet I will pray – but my life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it!”

-Levin in Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s