With this weekend’s wide release of Baz Luhrmann’s new and much ballyhooed adaptation of that quintessential Jazz Age novel The Great Gatsby, it looks like 1920s fashion and style may be in the spotlight for at least a fleeting moment. And deservedly so, for the decade was bursting at the seams with creativity and artistic achievement in all areas of culture. And while the America of F. Scott Fitzgerald may have differed somewhat from that of Calvin Coolidge, I like to imagine that the Coolidges may have moved in social circles were fashions similar to the ones depicted in the new movie were worn, and may have looked at some of the stylish magazines of the era, such as the selection of Life Magazine covers from the 1920s pictured below… and I’m looking forward to seeing the film, even if it does take some liberties, musical and otherwise.
One of the earliest posts on this blog, since trashed, was one on the famous distinction made by Sir Isaiah Berlin that divided great minds into the “camps” of foxes and hedgehogs. This was in turn based on a fragment by the Greek philosopher Archilochos, “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin applied this nugget of wisdom to the world of writing and thinking, dividing famous poets and philosophers into two categories:
Foxes, who divide their interests among a wide variety of experiences and thoughts and who can’t be associated with a single big idea, and Hedgehogs, whose view of the world and reputation is founded on such a single big idea.
In Berlin’s view, examples of hedgehogs include Dante, Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, and Proust, whereas Shakespeare, Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, and Joyce are represented as foxes.
In the field of politics, an exemplar of a fox might be Jimmy Carter – a typical micro-manager, who famously even involved himself in the scheduling of the White House tennis court, as opposed to Ronald Reagan, who focused his Presidency on a few major goals (“lower taxes”, “defeat communism”), set the agenda and then leaned back and let his staff do the work, who might be classified as a more or less typical hedgehog. As for Barack Obama, we may have to wait and see, although at the time of this writing, I fail to see the one overarching theme or goal of his Presidency, so he would seem to fall into the “fox” category. I’m certainly inviting comment and discussion when I venture that in presidents, it may be one of the signs of lasting greatness to focus on one big thing – independence, say, or the Union, or peace, or victory. Or, perhaps, normalcy and prosperity.
If we examine the life and career of Calvin Coolidge, I think we will come to the conclusion that he was of the hedgehog persuasion. While he certainly did “know many things,” the lodestar of his work as president undoubtedly was the theme of economy in government. This was his “one big thing” which occupied most of his time and was preeminent on his mind at all times. Nowhere did he wax more lyrical than when addressing the seminannual meetings of the Business Organization of the Government: he reports that he “rejoiced in keeping down the annual budget”, he avers that the real purpose of economy in government is nothing less than “the true and scientific progress of humanity”, he exults that “peace hath its victories no less than war.” The one cabinet member most influential and closest to him was Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, and the one individual with whom he conferred longest and most often was the Budget Director General Lord, these two men being his closest allies in the fight against fiscal excesses.
Now, my literary and philosophical knowledge is not sufficient to analyse how fitting Berlin’s categorizations are. The point I want to make is that all of us human beings have to deal with getting through life successfully, given a limited set of resources. And those who single-mindedly invest those resources into a single goal or interest (the specialists or “hedgehogs”) will likely go farther in that field than those who spread their resources and interests far and wide (the generalists or “foxes”). Conversely, while they may end up more successful in their (narrower) chosen field, the hedgehogs miss out on many of the joys of dabbling in various hobbies, interests and domains.
Maybe the idea of hedgehogs being “better” or “wiser” than foxes (or vice versa) is not correct. Maybe, as is true in many things, there has to be a “goodness of fit” among the individual’s thinking style and his environment. There will be situations where the ability to juggle many things simultaneously is adaptive, whereas other situations may demand that one focuses on one or two big issues. From a lifespan perspective, it would seem foolish to focus on too few things too early in life, before you have had a chance to sample a wider selection of options and interests. Then, as life goes on, it may indeed be wise to focus on a few ideas and concepts that have turned out to make sense to you. Another possibility is that we need to be focused and goal-driven in our professional pursuits, while it will enhance our personal growth to have many interests in the private domain. Coolidge was a widely read man, with interest in philosophy, law, and the ancient languages. Detractors may say that his “one big thing” was to remain in whatever office he held, but it is true that in his case, the nation was lucky to have a “hedgehog” at the helm who was single-mindedly focused on the key goals of prosperity, solvency and peace.
Y’all can (and should!) listen to Amity Shlaes talk about Coolidge the Budget Hawk in a recent (April 18) Cato Institute Podcast
It’s a pleasure to listen to her, she speaks with such clarity. Among other points, she states as the central take away message re Coolidge and the budget that he actually left office with the federal budget lower than it was when he came in – no small feat, and, I would wager, one that hasn’t been repeated by any of his successors.
This was created as a personal project to push myself creatively while also having the determination to keep up with a series of designs. I wanted to do something different and came up with branding the Presidents of the United States. With each one being unique, I thought that this might yield some interesting results.
I kind of like the one for Calvin Coolidge:
Niced work, Ms. Jannott!
For the history-minded, news that president Obama appears to be mulling a possible privatization of the TVA is at least a little bit ironic – and definitively ironic is the opposition that Tennessee’s two Republican Senators are already voicing against any such proposal.
During the 1920s, the virtues of public vs. private ownership of dams and plants to harness the Tennessee River’s giant hydroelectric potential were hotly debated. Originally, the U.S. government had begun construction on two dams and two nitrate plants near Muscle Shoals in northern Alabama during WW I. When the war ended before the project was completed, the Harding administration at first sought to transfer the installation into private ownership.
Greed is good, as the famous Gordon Gecko quote goes. And for while, back in the roaring 80s, it was. But today, you’re certain of applause if you decry greed among bankers, financiers, the so-called 1%, maybe even politicians. Greed is suspected as the root of all evil, certainly as the root cause of the recent and to some extent ongoing financial crisis or crises. In popular opinion, and consequently in politics, such swings of the pendulum happen all the time. It was that way when the Roaring 1920s gave way to the 1930s, and similarly to today, greed was easily named as the main culprit by many observers.
Calvin Coolidge, having removed himself by choice from the helm of the ship of state, was out of office by then. He mused about the causes of the Great Depression:
“We may say that it was the result of greed and selfishness. But what body is to be specifically charged with that? Were the wage earners too greedy in getting all they could for their work? Were the managers of enterprise, big or little, too greedy in trying to operate at a profit? Were the farmers too greedy in their efforts to make more money by tilling more land and enlarging their production? The most we can say is that there has been a general lack of judgment so widespread as to involve practically the whole country.”
I think Coolidge has a point here. The central question seems to be that those who decry greed disregard the acquisitive side of human nature. Worse, by pointing the finger at “the greedy,” they assume the role of arbiter of what is right and proper for human beings to aspire to. And here is the root cause of the progressive impetus – telling other people what is right, how things ought to be done, what is fair and equitable, how wealth ought to be distributed, how much money constitutes a fair income. By instinct and by experience, Coolidge recoiled from such social engineering.
It’s comforting to know that you can still make a Man of the Year cover some 80 years posthumously – thank you, The American Spectator !