Isaiah Berlin once divided thinkers into two types. Foxes, he wrote, know many things; whereas hedgehogs know one big thing. The foxes used to roam free across the hills. Today the hedgehogs ruleI was reminded of the 1980 NYRB letter by John Bowman examining Berlin's use of a fragment from Archilochus for his 'The Hedgehog and the Fox' and acceptance of Berlin's metaphor.
As quoted by Berlin, Archilochus is saying: "The fox knows many little things. The hedgehog knows one big thing." Berlin then proceeds to compare Tolstoy, the "fox," to Dostoevsky, the "hedgehog," and before he is through the Archilochus epigram seems to be saying that there are two different ways of approaching or knowing reality—put quite simplistically, the way of the far-ranging generalist and the way of the concentrated specialist.William Harris' commentary on Archilochus [PDF] includes the epigram
As I admit, that is oversimplifying Berlin's subtle arguments, but it is not my intention to accuse Berlin of anything. I do not even know who is responsible for the translation of the Archilochus that he uses. My point is that it is this reading of the Archilochus epigram that has held sway since Berlin used it many years ago: when people refer to "the hedgehog and the fox" these days, they are usually referring to this contrasting approach to the world. Furthermore, there is a general disposition to favor the way of the fox—although this may be entirely my own bias. For instance, the reviewers of Berlin refer to his "pluralism" and other aspects of our Western-liberal tradition that Berlin so epitomizes in a way that suggests we all are better for knowing a lot of things.
Again, that may be my own prejudice. At the very least we may allow that Berlin's translation — and his thesis — award equal status to these two animals. Yet when we look closer at the original Archilochus, or rather at some other translations, the issue is not so clear. To begin with, "thing" tends to become "trick," and the "one big thing" that Berlin's hedgehog knows is how to curl itself into a ball to escape its enemies—including, presumably, the fox. There is thus the implied, if not explicit, suggestion that although the fox knows many tricks, it is the hedgehog with one "big trick" that ends up defeating the fox. In this reading, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky would not just be taking different routes to reality: they would be in conflict — and Dostoevsky would outfox Tolstoy!
This version of the Archilochus is given its most committed translation by Guy Davenport (Carmina Archilochi: The Fragments of Archilochus: University of California Press, 1964) when he first translates the original with what he states are the literal seven words: "Fox knows many / Hedgehog one / Solid trick." Davenport then provides an alternate translation that he claims expresses the true thrust of the original: "Fox knows / Eleventythree / Tricks and still / Gets caught: / Hedgehog knows / One but it / Always works." Not all translators go this far, but others do imply that (1) the hedgehog's trick is superior to the fox's many tricks, and (2) the hedgehog's trick may actually defeat the fox.
Nor is that the end of the problem. It has been suggested by at least one (hedgehoggy? foxy?) student of this matter that although the hedgehog may roll itself into a ball to elude the fox, it has been observed in nature that a fox may roll said hedgehog down a slope into water, where the hedgehog will either drown or be forced ashore to be killed by the fox. Your reviewers of Berlin may be hinting at this when they write that "an ironist would remark" that the one big thing that the hedgehogs of this world know is "that there is not, or should not be, any hedgehog's thesis about human affairs to expound." (Note that it is the fox's way, again, that is being favored.)
No man is praised by his citizens or greatly honored when dead.Harris states that
We rather follow the favor of the living while we are alive,
and the dead always get the worst part.
This telling line has been so often quoted and perhaps misquoted, that no comment should be necessary, other than to note a personal preference for the staying qualities of the hedgehog who is still peering out of his burrow while the farmer hangs the body of the fox on the barbed wire fence as a reminder of the fate of being a smart aleck.Poor foxling sharp-ears.
Vanessa Friedman in the Financial Times meanwhile quotes the characterisation of Goldman Sachs as a "great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity". Mixed metaphor (Nosferatu meets Alien?, but I get the picture.