The Fox and the Hedgehog

For tomorrow’s Preceptorial we read The Fox and the Hedgehog, an essay on Tolstoy (especially This philosophy of history) by Isaiah Berlin. It begins:

There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.’ Scholars have differed about the correct interpretation of these dark words, which may mean no more than that the fox, for all his cunning, is defeated by the hedgehog’s one defense. But, taken figuratively, the words can be made to yeild a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and it may be, human beings in general. There exists a great chasm between those who, on the one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent and articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel — a single, universal organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they say and are has significance — and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related to no moral or aesthetic principle.

Among Russian writers, for instance, Dostoyevsky is an archetypal hedgehog, and Pushkin is very much a fox. Likewise Berlin calls Plato a hedgehog and Aristotle a fox. Tolstoy is a brilliant fox desperately intent on seeing like a hedgehog. When Dostoyevsky wrote about Pushkin and made him out to be a prophet of a great cause, nobody could take it seriously as an account of Pushkin, who was nothing of the sort, but the account was appreciated as illuminating D. himself – for that really was D’s primary concern.

It’s a fairly interesting classification in general, and the essay is quite good. Someone should probably make this into a personality test – perhaps for Facebook or an ice-breaker for youth events. I’m not certain if it’s primarily a philosophical outlook or a temperament – in the case of Tolstoy it’s portrayed as both, since he was temperamentally a fox and philosophically a hedgehog (to which Berlin attributes no small part of T’s philosophical angst). I get a distinct impression that both Evangelicalism and Orthodoxy like hedgehogs; Fr. John certainly is one – everything is about the Incarnation. Really, everything. Chaos theory? Yeah, that’s about the Incarnation too (he just gave a homily on that very possibility; he hears “strange attractor” and thinks “the Holy Spirit!”).I’m not sure what an Orthodox fox would be like. Probably I wouldn’t label him specifically “Orthodox” simply because he didn’t relate pretty much everything to theology – even if he was sincerely orthodox in belief. I say that Evangelicalism tends to be hedgehog-centric because most preachers say outright that everything should be about salvation all the time if at all possible.

On the other hand, perhaps the school system is fox-centric. An intractable grasp of some Big Idea organizing all of one’s thoughts isn’t necessarily helpful; sometimes it can be a hinderance. I remember as a junior in college trying to organize all my thoughts for all my classes into one cohesive whole, failing, and as I was complaining that my teachers didn’t especially care if everything could be integrated into one beautiful whole – even in a single class, a friend pointed out that not everyone cares that much about the coherent whole. Public schooling, especially in America, tends to resist hedgehog-thinking because, first, the organizing principle would have to be non-religious and as neutral as possible in order to be acceptable – and most principles that are large enough to organize must be religious or philosophic in a way that may as well be religious – and because of the way subjects are split up. For all the attempts at imposing some possibility of coherence upon schooling, if a person doesn’t have an invincible desire to impose, find, and keep coherence, it’s not going to happen in our succession of “subjects.” 

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