Thursday, April 04, 2013

Passionate History of Ideas

Russian Thinkers 
by Isaiah Berlin

"Every Russian writer was made conscious that he was on a public stage, testifying;  so that the smallest lapse on his part, a lie, a deception, an act of self-indulgence, lack of zeal for the truth, was a heinous crime. . . If this was your calling then you were bound by a Hippocratic oath to tell the truth and never to betray it, and to dedicate yourself selflessly to your goal." ("Birth of the Russian Intelligentsia", p 129)

Russian Thinkers is a classic work on Russian literature and ideas. Included in this excellent collection of essays Isaiah Berlin has a fascinating essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox. In this essay Berlin uses the distinction found in a fragment of the poet Archilocus that argues that there are two types of thinkers: Hedgehogs, who know one big thing and foxes, who know many things. Berlin goes on to categorize the great thinkers of the ages into groups based on this distinction. Hedgehogs like Dante, Plato, Lucretius, Pascal and Dostoevsky versus foxes like Shakespeare, Herodotus, Aristotle, Goethe and Balzac. He goes on to attempt to classify Tolstoy and analyze his view of history. It is a worthy task and I will recommend to all that they read the essay and decide for themselves what Berlin succeeds in accomplishing with all his analysis. It is essays like this one that document the seriousness of the thought of Isaiah Berlin.
This collection of essays also include discussion of other Russian luminaries, including Alexander Herzen, Belinsky, Tolstoy, Bakunin, and the populists (including Chernyshevsky). Four essays in particular document the birth and development of the Russian Intelligentsia in the Nineteenth Century. These provide a valuable introduction to ideas that eventually, after much more development, led to the ultimate demise of Czarist Russia and the Bolshevik Revolution. Combined with Berlin's insight into literary writers like Turgenev the result is a magnificent tome--both a rewarding and delightful collection of essays.

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