Monday, May 3, 2010

The Hedgehog and the Fox

Are you a hedgehog or a fox?

Among the surviving fragments of lines of the Greek poet Archilochus (680 B.C. - 645 B.C.) is the following saying: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." These cryptic words have encouraged writers to debate the meaning behind the words, which may mean no more than that the cunning fox is defeated by the hedgehog’s one defense.

One famous interpretation of Archilochus' saying is Isaiah Berlin's The Hedgehog and the Fox (1953) in which Berlin attempts to divide writers and thinkers into two categories: hedgehogs, who view the world through a single lens of one defining idea and foxes who draw on a variety of experiences and for whom the world is not so simple. Examples of the former include Plato, Nietzsche, Rousseau, Joyce, Sartre. Examples of the foxes might include Aristotle, Erasmus, Shakespeare,Voltaire, and Franklin, and Whitman.  Berlin's essay focuses on Leo Tolstoy arguing that he has taken on the mantle of the omniscient, observing life as both hedgehog and fox. One example will suffice to support Berlin's claim.

In a famous passage dealing with the state of Moscow in 1812 Tolstoy observes that from the heroic achievements of Russia after the burning of Moscow one might infer that its inhabitants were absorbed entirely in acts of self-sacrifice – in saving their country or in lamenting its destruction, in heroism, martyrdom, despair – but that in fact this was not so. People were preoccupied by personal interests. Those who went about their ordinary business without feeling heroic emotions or thinking that they were actors upon the well-lighted stage of history were the most useful to their country and community, while those who tried to grasp the general course of events and wanted to take part in history, those who performed acts of incredible self-sacrifice or heroism, and participated in great events, were the most useless.
As Tolstoy observed, Archilochus's broad classifications of foxes and hedgehog can apply to the ordinary day to day activities of individuals as well as politicians, businessmen, and thinkers. Do we focus on the task at hand or on the broader implications of our actions? There is both an immediate effect of our actions and a long term effect to what we do. Again, a simple example suffices, a cigarette may gratify a craving for nicotine, but one day lead to lung cancer.A more positive example is that today's education leads to better paying jobs in the future.

Surely, Archilochus must have thought that we all have a role to play - fox or hedgehog. Each animal is successful in its own environment. Each animal has stood the test of time. Thus, in the long term it is not better to be one or the other. The occasion determines which personality is called for. In this sense Tolstoy was right. When war presented itself, the citizens of Moscow went about their lives doing what needed to be done in defense of their capital and country. When Napoleon was defeated, then Tolstoy could observe with dispassionate reflection the many roles of the participants that lead to victory.

A paradox exists in playing the dual roles of fox and hedgehog. Sometimes the basic need to survive conflicts with the altruistic need to spread kindness and goodness throughout the world. Tolstoy himself confronted this dilemma when he chose giving away his worldly possessions over the desires of his family. Hedgehog or fox, we can not always reconcile the role we must play and must resign ourselves to the inevitable conflict.

Also read Steve Wang's article about how the internet is turning the world into a pack of foxes.

No comments:

Post a Comment