On hedgehogs and foxes

In Common Skip Lawrence

Dividing people into groups by "type" is always a dangerous business.

Katie Couric famously tried it a couple of years ago, separating "those who wash or rinse their dishes before putting them into the dishwasher and those who don't."

Couric, of course, was discounting the 99.87 percentof the world without dishwashers. So she succeeded only in turning a small joke (which she thought it was) into the first red flag of a large ratings disaster (which it became).

Philosopher Isaiah Berlin also famously tried it some decades ago, playing on a fragment of an ancient Greek poem: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."

He admitted that the fragment "may mean no more than that the fox, for all his cunning, is defeated by the hedgehog's one defense." Foxes find lunch by, well, being foxy; hedgehogs will roll themselves up in tidy balls so as not to be lunch.

But Berlin thought he saw a metaphor therein. A metaphor to define "the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general."

There are those, Berlin said, who approach the world with "a single central vision in terms of which they understand, think and feel -- a single organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance." Hedgehogs, knowing one great thing.

Others "pursue many ends, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, related by no [single] moral or aesthetic principle; their thought is moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences." Foxes, knowing many things.

Berlin proceeded to catalog and separate, like the sheep from the goats, dozens of the bigwigs of Western thought. Plato: hedgehog. Aristotle: fox. Ibsen: hedgehog. Shakespeare: fox. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Now, I ask you, why should such a promising project be limited to sorting the heavy-hitters? If Berlin's distinction is applicable to "human beings in general," then we very general human beings could be subject to it, too, right?

You can play with the distinction among friends and family members, where it can make an interesting game over the kitchen table. That old, single-minded, cantankerous Uncle Al is a born hedgehog, don't you think?

You can pick them out from the front pages, too, with some ease. Bush: hedgehog. Obama: fox.

You can pick them out locally, too, our own very public hedgehogs and foxes. You can even pick out species of the genus. I've seen several species, right here in Phoenixville, just in the last two weeks.

The Single Issue Citizen Hedgehog: Nothing else matters in politics except for one great issue. Unless public officials address that issue, they're not doing their jobs.

The Single Issue Public Official Hedgehog: Nothing else matters in politics except for one great issue. I ran for office on that issue. All other issues should been seen in its light, seen as secondary to it.

Both of those species come with slightly different stripes. The most common is the "don't increase taxes under any circumstances" sort. The other is the "don't even spend my taxes if you can help it" sort.

I've spied the NIMBY Hedgehog: Don't dare put that rabbit hutch next to that tree. I live at that tree. Put it in somebody else's woods.

There's a highly principled species, the Single Ruling Great Idea Hedgehog. Its claims take on a number of related forms: from "Government is best that governs least" to "Government has no business being in business. Government economic policy is an oxymoron; the economy is best left entirely to the market to resolve."

There's a fifth species I've seen over the years, the "NO"-speaking Hedgehog: whatever you suggest, the answer is "no." These hedgehogs make really good mid-level administrators. Along with NIMBY hedgehogs, they also make for great drama when they show up at public meetings.

Notice something? In politics, you can speciate hedgehogs, but the same cannot be said for foxes. When you get to politics, you can't play Berlin's game with Berlin's own academic equanimity about the categories.

The reason's not too hard to discern. Pluralism is, after all, a condition of any politics at all. A pluralism of persons, of course, but more to the point a pluralism of perspectives, attitudes, understanding, interests. Politics is possible because the world looks different to each citizen, if only -- but rarely only -- because the world just looks different from the corner of Main and Bridge than it does from the corner of Schuylkill and Davis, or of Dayton and Emmett.

In politics, rule by a single idea is, by definition, a tyranny. And we know what we think of tyrannies. Even little ones. Hedgehoggery in politics can be just plain dangerous.

Politics requires foxes, or at the very least, a foxy approach to the plurality of perspectives on the plurality of issues before us. It requires carefully-weighed judgments about many things, not firm judgment about one sole thing. Foxes can account for hedgehogs; hedgehogs cannot return the compliment. Public officials must be foxes; there are just too many parameters to consider in determining the common good, and in finding the sometimes fragile agreements and prudent means to pursue it.

Classicist Guy Davenport always thought that Berlin got the poem fragment's translation wrong. He said that its true meaning was something like this, a translation that my five-year-old linguist granddaughter will love: "Fox knows/Eleventythree/Tricks and still/Gets caught:/Hedgehog knows/One but it/Always works."

Or so political hedgehogs believe, safe, taut, defensive and victorious. But, then again, foxes have been known to slyly nudge balled-up hedgehogs downhill toward the river...

G.E. "Skip" Lawrence can be contacted at glawrence@PhoenixvilleNews.com.

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