Berlin and the Tragic Tolstoj

Hugh McLean, University of California, Berkeley

Like many others, I have long been struck by the majestic closing sentence of Berlin's celebrated "The Hedgehog and the Fox":

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 civilised world, and yet almost wholly isolated, he [Tolstoj] is the most tragic of the great writers, a desperate old man, beyond human aid, wandering self-blinded at Colonus.

This view of the "tragic Tolstoj" has naturally been disputed, especially by Tolstoyans, who see in the old Tolstoj a much better integrated, composed, fundamentally tranquil personality. They admit that he may still have sometimes been rent by conflicting passions and perhaps doubts, but they believe he had achieved a basic mastery over himself. Intellectually, he had arrived at a system of religious and philosophical views which satisfied him wholly, so much so that he was energetically engaged in prescribing his doctrines as a solution to the ills of the world. He was not at all isolated (as even Berlin in effect admits); he was a thinker and leader whose ideas, had they been adopted and followed, might have saved humankind from many of the horrors of the twentieth century, ideas that are as valid now as they were then.

On the other hand, there is much to be said for Berlin's point of view. Though mostly hidden and unacknowledged, there are many tell-tale cracks in the perfect facade of the Tolstojan Tolstoj.

I propose to reexamine the question of the "tragic Tolstoj" in the light of biographical materials--diaries, letters, and other writings--mostly from the last decades of Tolstoj's life. Was Berlin right or not?

Some further interesting parallels and paradoxes present themselves. Berlin's perception of Tolstoj as "fox" was obviously an image he found personally congenial, one that fitted equally well his own personality, which moved so easily and gracefully over so many varied topics, always skeptical of unitary systems and dogmatic doctrines, constant only in his commitment to pluralism, to freedom of choice. Tolstoj, however, Berlin had identified as a natural fox who spent decades trying to forcibly to reshape himself into a "hedgehog," imposing on himself unity of doctrine and purpose; this was the root of his tragedy. Berlin himself, on the other hand, was content to remain an unrepentant fox.