Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Wilson, A. N. "Isaiah Berlin: the Dictaphone Don." TIMES July 15, 2009.

  • Berlin, Isaiah. Enlightening: Letters 1946-1960. Ed. Henry Hardy, Jennifer Holmes and Serena Moore. London: Chatto & Windus, 2009.
  • Hardy, Henry, ed. The Book of Isaiah: Personal impressions of Isaiah Berlin. Rochester: Boydell and Brewer, 2009.

Isaiah Berlin’s best work is contained in the form of essays and lectures on the history of ideas. Many will have read his short monograph The Hedgehog and the Fox (1953), a book which has some of the qualities of good conversation. It takes as its starting point a Greek fragment by Archilochus (quoted to Berlin by Lord Oxford) which states that “The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing”. Berlin then sweeps off into one of his favourite devices – the list. Thinkers or writers who were obvious hedgehogs, he believed, were Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen and Proust. Shakespeare leads the foxes in to bat, with an impressive team of Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac and, a little oddly, Joyce. But which was Tolstoy? Tolstoy, according to Berlin, was a fox who spent his life wishing he was a hedgehog.

The Hedgehog and the Fox survives as an after-dinner game more than a serious theory. If it is read slowly, it comes apart at the seams. . . .

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